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AES 2010: Opening salvos

November 4, 2010

Hi, gang. Here I am in San Francisco, one of my favorite cities in the world, and I won't get to see much of it because I'll be busy working at AES. The Convention starts tomorrow morning, and I'll try to blog once a day with the items I found really cool. But there were two big product announcements that took place before the show, and I thought I'd start off by bringing you up to date on them.

Avid has announced Pro Tools 9. As Avid's Paul Foeckler put it, "Sometime around 2008 we discovered that we were being referred to by our customers as The Evil Empire", a wry observation that drew a chuckle from the assembled listeners. Avid's new corporate strategy for Pro Tools is centered around customer support, high-quality components, and a new strategy of openness and interoperability. In that spirit, the folks at Avid went to the list of items on their user forum that were voted Most In Need Of Fixing, and fixed the top five. The result is a program that will have PT users around the world saying either, "Well, it's about TIME", or "Wow!!", or both.

Big news first: Pro Tools 9, the native version, no longer needs Digidesign hardware to run... just an iLok key. You can buy it for $599 (upgrades and crossgrades are available for users of Pro Tools LE, which is now defunct, and Pro Tools M-Powered, which remains in the lineup as a starter product that requires M-Audio interfaces), and it just works right out of the box, with any audio hardware that's Core Audio compliant (Mac OS X) or ASIO compliant (Windows 7), or with the native audio on your laptop if all you want to do is listen on headphones. Also, the newest Avid Mbox interfaces come with Core Audio and ASIO drivers, so they happily work with other DAWs if desired.

All the old upgrades like the DV ToolKit and DigiTranslator have been folded into Pro Tools 9 (so you don't have to pay extra to make MP3s or export OMF), the track count has been upped, there are some cool new features, and there's finally, finally automatic delay compensation.

Pro Tools HD 9 has 192 track support, new surround features, and other cool upgrades... and will also run natively and without Avid hardware, although you give up the abilities that require such hardware to work, e.g. the HEAT analog-emulation processing and other TDM plug-ins. Even cooler, there's an add-on product called the Complete Production Toolkit 2, which for $1999 adds on exactly what Pro Tools HD has that Pro Tools doesn't. So there's a direct single step process to convert the software on your computer from native Pro Tools to Pro Tools HD... then just add the appropriate hardware, and you're playing with the big kids.

In an era where Avid was watching other packages compete with them by being hardware-agnostic and uncomplicated to buy and upgrade, this was a huge step forward. Oh, and it's shipping now... the online store went live during the press conference.

On a side note, I chatted with Avid's Derk Hagedorn, formerly of Euphonix (now a part of Avid). He told me that EUCON, the standard communications protocol that was one of Euphonix's most important contributions to the audio world, is now being supported fully in Pro Tools, with lots of new control surface integration features to come... and that EUCON will continue to be a developed world standard for DAWs beyond Pro Tools, in the spirit of openness and interoperability that Avid is espousing. Good news for all the Cubase 5.5 users out there that work on Euphonix hardware, and many others as well...

A walk down Mission Street brought me to Toast Studios, where Focal Professional announced and demoed its newest active studio monitor, the SM9. This beautiful beast weighs 80 pounds, and features a beryllium inverted-dome tweeter, a 6.5" mid driver, an 8.5" woofer, and an 11" passive radiator on the top of the cabinet. It has an all-analog Class AB amplifier that generates enough heat to warm your house in the winter, and with a 30 Hz to 40 kHz frequency response, it sounds simply magical... the mercilessly accurate beauty of Focal taken to the next level. Oh holy crap.

The demo was run by Fabrice Dupont of Flux Studios in New York, who kept the audience entertained with playback of his mix of Shakira's World Cup theme (demoed on Pro Tools 9, interestingly enough), showing how the SM9 let him hear how tiny changes in compression produced drastic effects that might be missed on other monitors. The demo also featured classical and jazz pieces from The Tape Project, played back on 1" 2-track analog tape masters, and a Simon Phillips drum part at 24-bit/96 kHz. The speakers sounded as amazing as you'd hope from roughly $3600 a channel, and Fabrice amused the audience with pithy comments on other monitors: "People who buy low-end speakers are getting a real bargain: in one box, they get speakers, AND eq, AND compression!"

One very cool feature of the SM9 is its patented Focus mode, which when engaged (a button press) removes the woofer from the output and sets the frequency response of the remaining two drivers to 90 Hz to 20 kHz, allowing a single speaker to emulate the frequency-limited ("focused") output that users of portable audio devices will hear. Rather than have a pair of horrible old check speakers around, Fabrice noted, "Now you have something which sounds like a not-broken NS10 with a really good power amp, before it goes south"... a speaker that will give an honest accounting of real-world sound, without making you want to gouge your ears out with a poker.

I enjoyed both demos, as they represented probably the only two times all weekend where I was actually going to be able to sit down, relax, and really concentrate and listen. Tomorrow morning at 10 AM, the starting gun fires... and I'll do my best to bring you the highlights at the end of each day, assuming I can stay awake. Thanks for reading and we'll see you tomorrow.

(perhaps literally... a variety of manufacturers offer free VIP passes to the Convention, so if you're in town, come on in and see the show yourself... and be sure to stop by Booth 1030 and say hello to the staff of RECORDING!)

Okay, time to hit the In-N-Out Burger off the Embarcadero for a late snack. Did I mention I loved San Francisco?

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