By Tom Patrick McAuliffe
Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends…” says the song by '70s rock group ELP. This could have been the theme song for opening day at the 2002 National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.
High-resolution audio created in HD studios like Digidesign’s (shown above) is being integrated into an increasing number of industry applications.
The show has grown through the years from a broadcaster-only event to the number one place for nearly everyone to see anything new in audio, video, multimedia and telecommunications products and technology. And, for those seeking the latest in digital audio tools and technology, all roads lead to the annual gear-fest in the desert. The show welcomed multitudes of television- and radio-broadcasting and audio-production professionals to peruse, discuss and watch demos of sound technology — old and new.
With a huge new addition to the Las Vegas Convention Center, there's almost one million square feet of show space with something for everyone, including the radio or television broadcaster looking to upgrade to today's solutions for digital-audio creation, enhancement and distribution. The show featured the latest in DVD audio, 5.1/7.1 surround sound, portable hard-disk audio recorders, Dolby E and sound-enhancement products that promise to ease the broadcaster's transition to digital.
But these are troubled times for the industry, and for the second year, show attendance was down. This year, attendance fell to about 95,000, down about 15 percent from last year's attendance figure of about 112,000 visitors. The travel restrictions since Sept. 11, the soft economy and broadcasters' continuing struggle to come to terms with the federally mandated transition to digital television all contributed to the lower attendance figures. But the bright spot in all this is that the RadioNAB show (which is part of the overall convention) showed healthy traffic. Many audio vendors reported lots of interest from attendees looking not just for standard fare, but for newer technologies as well. The show also attracted international newcomers like Germany's D.A.V.I.D. GmbH with its DigaSystem radio operating system, and JÑnger Audio with its new Orion multichannel digital dynamic-range processor for 5.1 surround-sound mastering.
Don Hannah, a sales engineer with HHB Communications USA, manufacturers of the new PortaDrive eight-channel and PortaDisk hard-disk and MiniDisk location audio recorders, said that attendance did seem to be down in general, but he found that the concentration of highly qualified, enthusiastic attendees was much greater. He said that the company's product highlights and announcements were not falling on deaf ears, so to speak, and he sensed real excitement. He was most impressed with the latest video-capture and streaming applications, transmission tools, and display formats that have accepted and integrated high-resolution audio into their protocols and products. Hannah saw the amalgamation of superior-quality audio with formats like high-definition television and DVD audio as the beginning of more widespread mainstream distribution of higher-quality audio content into homes.
Hard day's night?
Naturally, space does not allow us to cover every audio exhibitor here, but let's follow the audio chain with some representative companies — first from hardware, then software.
Audio-Technica announced its new AT4040 cardioid condenser studio microphone, the company's latest transducer technology with surface-mount electronics and transformerless circuitry for smooth, natural sound capture characteristics with wide dynamic range and the ability to handle high sound-pressure levels (SPL). Product manager Michael Edwards said that the AT4040 incorporates the company's new transducer technology and design. Other microphone makers such as Shure, AKG, Azden, Nady Systems, Sabine and Sennheiser showed solutions for everything from ENG to studio to stage.
Hard-disk audio recorders were in abundance. The Mackie D8B was used at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and the company's booth featured examples and discussions of the D8B's use there. At NAB, Mackie also officially launched its Broadcast Professional family of products with an updated Soundscape product line that includes the new Soundscape 32 embedded hard-disk recorder and the I/O 896 audio interface module. These new products are designed specifically for high-end broadcast and post-production facilities.
One of the most enjoyable things about NAB is the opportunity to see, and, in some cases, demo, large audio mixing consoles you could never afford. With over a dozen such new offerings, this year's show was no disappointment. One of these was the new Max Air, introduced by Euphonix. This digital audio broadcast mixing console is designed for on-air and live-to-tape broadcast-production applications. The system has 96 channels, 32 mix/group busses, 24 matrix output, with a flexible mix-minus architecture with a dedicated bus, talkback buttons on every channel, 12 aux sends and more.
After you make the mix of a lifetime, you need to store it somewhere. Medéa's digital RAID solutions made appearances in several booths. The five-drive Medéa AudioRAID is available in 160-, 240- and 300 GByte capacities. Units feature multiple, multi-gig IBM ATA/IDE Deskstar hard drives running fast enough for video. There is also a sister product family called the RTRX, with 10-drive configurations providing up to 600 GBytes for video productions. The Medéa AudioRaid is available in both desktop and rack-mountable versions.
If you needed hardware, be it old technology or new, NAB2002 had it in spades. Mics, headphones, digital-audio workstations (DAW), digital storage and content-management solutions, traditional sound processors, hard-disk audio recorders, 5.1 surround and monitoring speaker systems, audio connectors and much more were on display. But most exhibitors reported that attendees did more window shopping than buying.
Brand new day
In many ways, the software industry has reinvented the audio tools that video makers and broadcasters use. The players in the audio-software arena had new wares for folks to sample, including new versions of audio editing software like Pro Tools 5.2 from Digidesign, Vegas 3.0 from Sonic Foundry and Cool Edit Pro from Syntrillium. As costs come down and features go up, it's a brand new day for audio-software users.
Software giant Microsoft introduced new versions of its Windows Media audio and video technology geared toward production professionals, code-named Corona. The company also announced that support for the new format was forthcoming from a number of companies, including Adobe, which will include support for Corona in its Premiere and After Effects video software. Avid, Creative Labs, Discreet and Thomson multimedia Broadcast Solutions will also integrate the new software drivers into their audio and video products.
Digidesign's booth experienced high traffic every day. It showed off a new, all-digital interface for Pro Tools HD: the 192 Digital I/O — a high-definition, 24-bit/192 kHz, multichannel audio interface specifically designed to facilitate digital input from a variety of sources into the ProTools software environment. The ProTools software, especially on the Mac with OS X Aqua interface support, now has a wide variety of third-party support. Ed Gray, director of partnering programs for Digidesign, said that Digidesign's development partners have been working overtime to optimize their plug-ins for the new hardware and higher sample rate support. He said that this is a challenging task, especially for developers who both develop and market a large variety of plug-ins.
Over at the Sonic Foundry booth, the company highlighted its new Sound Forge professional digital audio editing and mastering software for the PC. The new 6.0 version of the software includes new features and enhancements, including nondestructive audio editing, multitasking, user-interface enhancements and new rendering options.
In addition to all the software-solution exhibitors, pre-produced music creators Killer Tracks, 615 Music and The Hollywood Edge displayed their wares in large booths. Sonic Desktop Software of southern California also had a large booth and was demonstrating software for generating background and royalty-free music: SonicFire Pro. The system features music created by professional orchestras. This software also allows users to use a PC or Mac computer to make custom soundtracks of any length, on the fly and in real time, all following various theme suggestions like sports, news or narrations. The NAB show had lots of audio software products on display at both the LVCC and, for a swan song, at the Sands.
Having covered audio for Broadcast Engineering last year (and for 10 years in a row), there are a few observations this reporter can make. This year, attendance was down on both sides of the aisle: visitors and vendors. The economy has thrown many out of work. And with Sept. 11 fresh in the public's memory, travel has still not returned to normal, and may never do so. Perhaps the drop in exhibitor numbers was due more to consolidation of companies in the broadcast industry, resulting from mergers and corporate purchasing.
One of the most impressive things at this year's show was the new, expansive Las Vegas Convention Center South Hall itself. To draw folks in, the new venue featured important stops: booths by Apple, Avid, Microsoft, Digidesign, Dolby and Sony, to name a few. This impressive addition, which opened just recently and makes the LVCC the largest convention center in the country, will allow all the manufacturers to be in one huge hall, making the show easier for attendee and exhibitor alike. NAB will no longer be using the Sands Convention Center (about a mile away), which has traditionally been home for computer audio and Internet-related products and technology. Next year, it will all be under one roof — much to the chagrin of the local transportation industry.
What's the number one challenge for today's broadcaster regarding audio? According to Hannah of HHB, television and radio are becoming more critical of the quality of prerecorded and transmitted audio. He said that the challenge will be to consistently provide high-quality audio content that meets this new consumer demand. As he says, equipment manufacturers will have to create mainstream and professional products that can satisfy the desire for higher fidelity at a reasonable cost. Will 7.1 surround sound, DVD audio, Dolby E and other technologies continue to be adopted? Only time will tell. But, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, DVD is the fastest growing media format ever, and “good audio quality” is the number two feature requested by consumers. Considering these facts, it's probably a good bet that such technologies have enough of a foothold to survive and thrive.
The other strong impression one walks away with is that the annual NAB convention is not just for broadcasters anymore. This year's tag, “Convergence is Tomorrow's Change Agent,” is apropos. It's easy to see the frustration American broadcasters are experiencing as they travel the rocky road towards the digital broadcasting deadline. As broadcasters look to stem the tide of falling ad revenues due to cable, the importance of streaming, datacasting and using computers for tasks once handled by expensive black boxes is becoming clear. But there's no rush, because broadband net access (at a cost of around $50 or more per month), and DTV receivers are still beyond the reach of most of the American public.
The hesitation towards digital television results from both the costs involved and the continual squabbling over newly established formats, protocols and standards. And the audio part of the industry — radio, audio for video production and, to a lesser extent, the audio part of television — seems to be the furthest ahead in the all-digital race. There are those in the broadcasting community, both in radio and television, who feel that American viewers (not to mention the broadcasters themselves) are not ready for digital television or high-definition broadcasting.
Perhaps NAB attendee Bruce August, owner of AugustStar Enterprises, a video and audio production and training company outside Chicago, best summed up the growing importance of audio in video: “Gone are the days when audio is an afterthought or a non-budgeted item.” He added that high-quality audio, from DVD audio to regular TV broadcasts in 5:1 surround sound, is easily within reach of every video producer or broadcaster and is more in demand from today's viewer. Stay tuned!
A former U.S. Navy photojournalist, Tom Patrick McAuliffe also writes about video, entertainment and politics. He's a contributing editor to Broadcast Engineering's sister publication Video Systems.
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