Unlike other scientific fields that are related to physics, the products that result from audio engineering can often be said to have an almost magical component that makes the fusion of acoustic principles and electronics art as well as science. The Audio Engineering Society (AES) has been a driving force in professional audio and its members offer a panoply of experiences and knowledge. As a result, AES has had to serve in many capacities, and continues to evolve.
The AES Show Fall 2020 will, like so many trade shows, take place virtually this year, from October 4 – 31. John Seetoo took the opportunity to talk with Gary Gottlieb, AES Eastern Region Vice President, and Co-Chair, AES Historical Committee and Conference Policy Committee. Gottlieb was also was one of the judges in the Student Recording Competition at the 132nd AES Convention in Budapest.
John Seetoo: From a historical perspective, in what ways has AES had to be a referee in settling disputes between factions? The disputes may have been over technical standards, practices, legal requirements or anything else.
Gary Gottlieb: Audio engineering bridges the gulf between the aesthetic and the technical, and while many observers suppose these two are in conflict, I actually believe they move in harmony. AES serves those whose leanings are technical as well as those of us who lean towards the aesthetic aspects of audio. We started as a science-based organization and expanded over the years to embrace our artistic side. While we remain dedicated to the science underlying our art, we acknowledge that technology drives art as well as art driving technology. These philosophies work together to help all of us, and substantial conflict is rare. Where there is conflict, AES provides a forum for resolution.
JS: In a related question, in what ways has AES had to act as a watchdog?
GG: One of AES’s core functions is the development of standards. In that context we are always the industry watchdog as we set workflow-enhancing standards for equipment interconnection and best practices that benefit practitioners throughout our industry. Beyond establishing standards it is not AES’s responsibility to act as a watchdog, the one exception being that we are a civil, convivial group, and when hate speech of any type erupts, we deal with it effectively and efficiently. In conjunction with our Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and on social media, AES has had a strong voice in addressing human rights issues and supporting equality throughout all communities.
JS: In what ways has AES needed to adapt to new technological breakthroughs? Please cite the instances when AES was a leader and when it was a laggard, and how AES rectified its slow reaction in these instances.
GG: Since so many of these breakthroughs have involved AES members, we are typically ahead of the curve. We are usually aware of new technological developments and we frequently have the chance to preview and influence early prototypes of upcoming technologies at our conventions and conferences. When it comes to the tech side of our industry I cannot think of a time when we lagged behind.
JS: In the early days of AES, were engineers who specialized in music recording viewed as rivals to engineers who specialized in film sound recording and to those in broadcasting and in live event sound reinforcement? From my experience during the 1980s, music engineers, film sound engineers and live venue engineers all had a tendency to stay in their respective fields with little crossover.
GG: Today’s AES has successfully brought audio professionals with diverse specialties together under a big tent.
JS: Given the unique skill sets involved in each different sector, what were the opinions that each held towards the others in the past?
GG: There were some groups of audio professionals who were included into the organization more slowly than others, although I do not believe this was intentional or based on any preconceived differences between groups. When I joined AES in the 1980s I had friends who ran sound in the theatre district. They had never heard of AES, and now they are members. It was because of isolation, not animosity. Over the years, many groups beyond music recording and production, including those involved in sound reinforcement, remote recording, broadcast, home studios, forensics, archiving, preservation, and education have all come together to share our skills and celebrate both our commonalities and our differences.
JS: Was there a perceived pecking order that may have stemmed from industry pay scales, the difficulty of working in one field versus another, or other factors?
GG: I have never been aware of a pecking order based on pay scale. Certainly, within any given discipline there are the stars and there are the grinders. I defer to my friend with 22 Grammys. I do not sense any jealousy or other hierarchical issues within groups, although I am certainly sympathetic to how tired my boom operator friend’s arms must get.
JS: At what point did the skill sets merge and producers expected engineers to provide an overlap of different job sector requirements that still met professional standards?
GG: This is an interesting question. I have given talks on the evolving and merging roles of producers and engineers. In the 1980s the two were more distinct, with the producer responsible for money and artistic control and the engineer responsible for all technical elements, typically with artistic influence. Due to the democratization of technology in the 1990s when every producer bought software and learned how to be an engineer, engineers also stretched to absorb more of the producer’s roles. As far as meeting professional standards, AES strives to educate all parties to ensure that we can all work on any aspect of the production. Over the past few decades, audio pros have also needed to develop video and internet media distribution skills to better serve their clients.
JS: With the resurgence in vinyl, the popularity of streaming, and the entrenchment and continued support for compact discs, SACD, analog tape, downloads and other formats, what are the current challenges faced by AES in terms of the fact that listeners are enjoying a wide variety of media?
GG: Technology has always been a moving target, and it always will be. Luckily, AES members include those who are creating innovation, whether it is for emerging technologies or in better ways to archive and reproduce older formats. These challenges are embraced by our members. By providing a platform for the incubation of new technologies, by shaping it through work on establishing technical standards and by providing education, AES fuels our membership’s passions.
JS: Are equipment manufacturers cooperating in adhering to such specs or have there been maverick inventors that have gone “off the reservation” in their pursuit of idealized sound quality?
GG: There will always be those among us, especially in the audio community, who strive to create a more perfect piece of equipment or a quieter and more stable medium for recording. I revel in this drive for improvement. I am unaware of anyone I would regard as a renegade. Professional audio manufacturers are fundamentally science-based, with room for accommodating subjective preferences on the creative side.
JS: Has the lower sound quality of compressed audio such as mp3 versus CD, for example, created a resurgence of interest in older technology like tube amps, as well as newer innovations, such as Class D amps (which allow for drastically reduced size and ease of portability) and high-resolution audio?
GG: There has always been a variety of audio formats and a variety of quality levels. When I was younger, we had cassettes as a portable option. They did not sound as good as the albums we listened to at home. To an audiophile, the question runs deeper than mp3 vs. CD, since CDs are only 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution, which is far from their ideal. The battle between convenience and quality is a consumer choice.
AES is a proud proponent of quality audio. Our job is to provide everything in every format with the best possible quality within the parameters of that particular format. A lot of older technology has always been lauded and highly regarded; however, that is only one small and often misleading part of a much larger discussion.
JS: How do you see the resultant domino effect of the ubiquity of digital technology in creating an explosion of recordings made in home studios, and what changes do you find that AES members have made to accommodate this trend?
GG: I mentioned the democratization of the recording process. In other words, home studios are now affordable for many people who were previously frightened off by the million-dollar price tag of a major studio. On the one hand, a talented engineer can create a Grammy winner at home. On the other hand, those of us who have trained for years can be undersold by kids with computers in their bedrooms. I love the sheer amount of art that is being created as a result of this situation, although we do need to continue to work hard to ensure that quality remains a primary consideration. The AES and our members recognized the validity of this community of home recordists years ago, and we have embraced them as audio professionals and offer education tailored to their needs.
JS: What do you see as trends in headphones and speaker design?
GG: I find headphone and speaker design to go in two distinct directions. While I will not mention any particular manufacturers, some have worked hard to continue to improve technology and provide a rewarding experience to the listener, while others have focused on offering bragging rights for the listener rather than quality. Most professionals want flat, transparent reproduction, while consumer gear is often designed for a sonic signature that would mislead a mix engineer. While there is a staggering number of manufacturers and models and competition is fierce, quality is generally up.
JS: Publications and education are important priorities for AES. What are some highlights from AES’s publications and seminars? Also, which AES programs do you think are among the most successful, and why?
GG: There have been so many landmark events at AES conventions that it is daunting to try and isolate a few. Every year there is something groundbreaking: new technologies, new methodologies, or different views of our industry’s history, spanning the introduction of vinyl formats to the compact disc to mp3 to digital audio networking. As far as the most successful endeavors of AES, I am partial to those which connect the past to the future. As such, I hold both the works of the Education Committee and the Historical Committee in the highest regard. The comprehensive technical program at our conventions amazingly just keeps getting better, letting attendees learn from the best minds in the industry, from those driving innovation across all audio specialties. Recent AES events that have addressed topics like audio for augmented and virtual reality, audio applications of machine learning, headphones and automotive audio. The Journal of the Audio Engineering Society is the world’s leading publication for the presentation of the latest audio research. We’re pushing 20,000 articles in our e-library, representing the sum total of audio knowledge. We’ve also just launched the revamped AES Live: Videos archive with a modern user interface and more content. Those publications and AES Live are fully available to all of our members as a benefit of membership.
JS: In the past, there was a time when the separate camps of audiophiles and audio engineers held each other in disdain. The gaps between the two on preferences in sound quality, knowledge of acoustic physics, and other topics have closed in several ways, but the division still seems to exist on some fronts. What is your take on this topic, and what do you think the role of AES has been in its midst?
GG: Audiophiles and audio professionals are two different groups. Audiophiles are discerning listeners who are more adept at dissecting what they hear. Audio professionals are practitioners. I have never experienced disdain from or felt disdain towards audiophiles. I appreciate all consumers, since without them my industry would not exist. If there are gaps beyond the obvious ones, they certainly are closing as information about audio becomes easier to obtain.
Information about Gary Gottlieb can be found here: http://www.aes.org/aes/garygottlieb
Header image: a recent Audio Engineering Society convention. All images courtesy of AES.