A Visit to an Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention

A Visit to an Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention

Written by Harris Fogel

The AES (Audio Engineering Society) conventions are among the most important shows in professional audio, which means that what you hear there today will have an impact on home listeners tomorrow. John Seetoo covered the last New York show in Issue 176 and Issue 177, and I wanted to add my own thoughts – and photos, naturally. (Although the show happened a while ago, I don’t think anything in this article is dated.)

One of the most important aspects of AES is the organization’s focus on education, not only for professionals but for students as well, and their passion for recording music was evident. My interest tends to lay in restoration and archival techniques, and there was plenty to chew on. One of the sessions I attended, “Storage Nightmares,” was held by Kelly Pribble of IMES (Iron Mountain Entertainment Services) and John Krivit of Hey Audio Student. What Pribble described was shocking to fans of taped music.

During a recent transfer of vintage Rush tapes from their 1981 Moving Pictures album, he noticed that after a few seconds of playing the sound essentially turned to flat mush, and searching for an answer, discovered that the tape heads were covered with a white frosting-like dripping goop.


Kelly Pribble of IMES (Iron Mountain Entertainment Services) and John Krivit of Hey Audio Student, discussing “Storage Nightmares,” shown here with tapes in various states of deterioration.


Never having seen this before, he reached out to a number of tape manufacturers, who explained that what he was seeing was lubricant, and during the time the tapes were made, the major tape manufacturers decided to share a common lubricant. This was a practical decision because the companies often cooperated with each other, helping to fill orders when they ran out of product or capacity. And because governments were cracking down on the use of certain chemicals, by choosing a common lubricant, all the manufacturers could share one set of tests, certifications, and approvals, making it far easier to cross international borders with their tape products. Thus, the good news was that he was able to identify the problem and the material that was causing it, but the bad news meant that all the tapes manufactured at that time were subject to the same problem. The leaking lubricant was also corrosive and gritty, causing wear on the valuable tape heads.

Armed with this information, Pribble set about cleaning the tapes and the heads and was able to transfer over the music in smaller chunks, which could later be seamlessly edited together. A repeated, laborious process was necessary – clean, run the tape, clean the heads, clean the tape, run the tape, clean the heads, and so on. So, this was bad enough, Pribble thought. And then the following happened. The band wasn’t happy with one of the transfers, so a few months later Pribble took the now cleaned and transferred tapes out again, loaded them up, and to his dismay, discovered that his tape heads were once again dripping with lubricant. He was able to duplicate his process and complete a new transfer, but the real concern was that the tapes weren’t ultimately cured of the problem.  He termed it loss of lubricant syndrome and confirmed that even though a tape had already been cleaned, it was still shedding lubricant all over again, a fact that didn’t bode well for future transfers or restorations.

You might ask: why did the tape have lubricant to begin with? The answer is that it helps to quiet the tape passing over a tape machine’s rollers, and being wound and unwound onto the reels. So, it’s a critical part of the tape emulsion, coating, and design, yet here was an example of it having an unintended degradation all these years later.

He also discussed adhesion syndrome, where the edges of the tape get stuck together and the tape rips as it goes through the machine. This was a fascinating – and frightening – session that emphatically presented the case for the urgency of transferring music while it was still possible. Krivit had a crush of eager students paying close attention to the presentation. IMES has held archiving workshops in the past to discuss and demonstrate the importance of archiving, dealing with metadata and aging media formats, and other topics, in the hopes of inspiring others to start a career in the vital field of audio archiving and restoration.


A group of eager audio students after Kelly Pribble’s talk.


AES’ educational mission is constant and devoted, with many workshops, classes, and lectures and encouraging its student members. It’s also a home for discussions about audio engineering during meetings, parties, panels, and in the hallways. Manufacturers exhibit their wares, answer questions, and hand out swag. The mix of participants isn’t unlike the giant NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show held in Anaheim, California. That is to say, a mix of musicians, engineers, producers, software developers, sound reinforcement people, digital asset management professionals, archivists, restoration experts, librarians, educators, students, and others, all enjoying the technical, creative, historical, and workshop sessions and the gear on display. From the Library of Congress to immersive audio, if it’s audio, it’s represented. It’s also a marvelously good time.

One interesting aspect of the show is that musicians are paying strict attention, as they are interested in capturing the best sound on their recordings, so at the end of the day, it’s really an educational gathering. From tips and tricks from award-winning engineers and producers to sessions on calibrating live sound systems, everyone seems hungry to learn. With the rise of affordable and professional home recording setups, the days of musicians entering into a studio without a clue while others set up the gear and twist the knobs are long over. Nowadays musicians have honed their skills and knowledge of Pro Tools, plug-ins, and more, so they enter into the studio with a more collaborative spirit and know-how.

One of the show’s many highlights was the gathering of family, friends, and colleagues of the late legendary Al Schmitt, one of the most esteemed engineers in the industry. An extraordinary panel, “Celebrating Al Schmitt,” paid tribute to the former boxer, a tie-wearing, no-nonsense, master of the studio, all the while telling hilarious and touching stories about him. It was clear that he was loved, as much for his perfectionism as for his ears and influence. His work lives on in his protégés. The panel was an audio dream team, with Gary Gottlieb, George Massenburg, Chuck Ainlay, Paula Salvatore, Niko Bolas, Frank Filipetti, Dana Down, and Elliot Scheiner, and the audience was full of admirers. I felt honored to be there, especially since I’d been fortunate to meet and talk with Schmitt several times through the Producers Wing of the Directors Guild of America. Recalling his discography, all one can do is marvel.


The “Celebrating Al Schmitt” panel, left to right: Chuck Ainlay, Paula Salvatore, Dana Dowd, Frank Filipetti, George Massenburg, Elliot Scheiner, and Niko Bolas (moderator).


The putting-on of the ties, in honor of engineer Al Schmitt, during the “Celebrating Al Schmitt” tribute.


Being asked to be a presenter at the Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture is one of the highest honors bestowed by The Technical Council of the Audio Engineering Society, established as a scholarship fund in 1999. The 2022 honoree was Dr. Gilbert Soulodre, Camden Labs CEO and engineer, who presented his lecture, “A Funny Thing happened on the Way to the Heyser Lecture – The Twists and Turns of a Career in Audio.” The lecture was an overview of his career, which was jumpstarted by a single event: Pope John Paul II’s visit to Canada, which required a sound system designed for a million people. Soulodre met this daunting challenge by the use of multiple speaker towers that required multiple delays. His engineering work has been featured in automotive audio systems found in Ferrari, KIA, Subaru, Volvo, Hyundai, Lexus, Toyota, Maserati, BMW, Lincoln, and others. It was deeply moving to witness Jayant Datta (Vice-Chair of the AES Technical Council) present the Richard C. Heyser Memorial award to Soulodre. It was also a potent reminder that while audiophiles argue over speaker cable lifters, the technological forces that make possible the recordings they argue about are created by people like Soulodre.


Jayant Datta (Vice-Chair of the AES Technical Council) presents the Richard C. Heyser Memorial Award to Dr. Gilbert Soulodre.


Another panel, “50 Years of Parametric EQ,” was a deep dive on how parametric equalizers came into being for use in recording studios, and subsequently trickled down for consumer use. It celebrated engineer George Massenburg, who first wrote a paper about the idea of parametric equalization in 1972. I remember the first time I saw a parametric EQ: it was a Soundcraftsmen sold at FEDCO in Orange County, California. I was convinced I needed one, in fact couldn’t live without one, until I realized that in fact I didn’t need one. But for a while, you weren’t cool if you didn’t have an equalizer, parametric or otherwise, in your rack. And here was a panel about its creation.


Want to understand the birth of the parametric equalizer? “50 Years of Parametric EQ,” explored it, with parametric EQ pioneer George Massenburg, Uldo Zoelzer, Duane Wise and others.


Many of the panels were deep dives into very arcane, but necessary technologies that make our appreciation of music possible. In John Seetoo’s reports, he delved into some of the folks who create the music and mixes you hear. The sessions I attended were mostly about the technology behind the tools of music reproduction, including the computer coding behind say, an EQ filter. It’s another level that barely hints at the complexity of the audio chain.

As I was writing this I was listening to Patricia Barber in high-resolution DSD, played through the new iFi Audio Neo Stream, which is so transparent in terms of the technology that created it that you can forget it’s there. Spending time at AES is a reminder of how vastly complex the tools available for modern audio reproduction are. I for one am glad that such fine minds are hard at work pushing these solutions forward.

Seeing old friends and faces after the pandemic was certainly a warm feeling, and the educational riches were fantastic. The 2023 conference is slated to run from October 25 – 27, 2023. For more information, click here.

Here are more images from the convention.


Copper contributor Larry Jaffee of Making Vinyl enjoys the show with Peter Baker (Audio-Technica) and Lenise Bent (Soundflo Productions).


Rory Geraghty and Gary Boss from Audio-Technica take a break from their busy booth. 


Yiran Chen (volunteer), John Krivit, Lenise Bent, and Sammi Strong gather for a photo op.


Brad McCoy (Library of Congress) and Toby Seay (Drexel University) enjoy a moment after Kelly Pribble’s talk.


David Volpe (JBL) and Paul Kozel (the Sonic Arts Center at CCNY) are waiting for a presentation on spatial audio to begin.


Mastering engineer, journalist and educator Justin Colletti hangs out in front of the Focusrite exhibit.


Dan Hughley of Focusrite demonstrates the new Vocaster Two podcasting system, an easy-to-use tool to improve the audio quality of podcasts.


Frank Filipetti, Chuck Ainlay, Ed Cherney, Elliot Scheiner, Niko Bolas,  George Massenburg, and Bill Gibson on the panel, “Recording and Mixing Drums – Contrasting Techniques from Seven Lifetimes of Recording Experience.”


Engineers George Massenburg, Frank Filipetti, and Chuck Ainlay were hard at work at a book signing.


Al Clark of Danville Signal Processing makes a point.


Just another too-hip New York loft party at AES. They had the strangest liquor selection I’ve ever seen.


It’s the crew from Maxon: Lilli Babb, Joe Smith, Mathias Omotola and Kirk Matsuo.


Jonathan Bauder of Seagate Technology was there to discuss the new Lyve and Exos storage products. Jonathan has been helping the author understand NAS (Network Attached Storage) for years. He's a true storage tech superhero!


Robert Bristow-Johnson of audioimagination raises a question during the "50 Years of Parametric EQ" panel.


Happy AES students from Webster University. Julien Schilly, Rashid Tutu, and Scooter Armstrong are holding up a very cool T-Shirt from the 14th Annual Central Region Audio Student Summit.


Here's Fraser Jones of CEDAR. Ever wonder how you can hear someone talking into on a microphone in the middle of a noisy environment? It might be due to CEDAR Audio noise reduction. Trying their demos in a crowded audio show with music and noise all around you is astonishingly convincing.


We’ve all heard about the cloud and I thought it was in some dark basement or under the ocean, but it turns out the Cloud (from Studio Network Solutions) was in New York the entire time. 


Women in audio: Amy Zimmitti (The Los Angeles Film School), Kerry Pompeo (First Agency), and Lenise Bent.



All images by the author.

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