Gearfest 2014

Dan and I have this down to a science, I think.  As a result, Gearfest is a lot more relaxed each year compared to previous; we have a groove of knowing when to go demo gear and collect vendor swag, knowing which presentations and panels are going to be useful, knowing who’s got the deals.

This year went smooooth.  The parking lot was bigger, so that meant they had more room for more tents, and that was a huge benefit.  Splitting Pro Audio into 4 tents instead of two meant more space, less crowding, and better ventilation.

There’s apparently a “Sweet Family of Companies” now, a seemingly random collection of opticians, car dealers and aviation companies, which was odd but meant I got to sit in a Lamborghini Gallardo for some reason.  There was also a power outage that knocked out electricity to the Electronic Music tent…that was probably not great for them but I found it hilarious.

The drum tent once again surpassed the guitar tent as the one with the highest level of cacophony.

Also they had 5 pretty great food trucks.

(Dan and I ate like kings over the weekend; cheap eats at the hotel restaurant, and all we had to do was tolerate the white guy in the bar doing his take on soft-rock hits of the 60’s and 70’s.  Burmese food on the south side again, which was a pretty intense spicy noodle salad with fried lentils for me.  And then the food trucks.  Just great tacos and roast pork.)

(Also I relinquish my title as champion of TargetTossPro “Bags” in the hotel lobby.  Dan cleaned my clock this year at what is quite possibly the oddest concept for an arcade game ever – competitive beanbag toss!)

Of course I rolled out with a laundry list of things I want but can’t afford.  I do this every year, but this year in particular the list is a bit longer and significantly more expensive.  I managed to restrict myself to only buying some mic stand attachments and accessories (deeply discounted!) and arranged a contact at NSDesigns to get a custom stand for my electric violin.  But my list went from “oh, maybe some software” to (in descending order of acquisition likelihood)

  • Slate VMR (because of course)
  • UAD Apollo Twin Duo (I tried out the Unison preamp emulations and they’re gorgeous – DAT NEVE.  UAD really knocked it out of the park.  Unfortunately, even with the $100 discount they’re still outside my budget for now, especially considering I’d also need a thunderbolt hub and a small army of new plugins to do what I want with them)
  • Royer R101 (because holy-mother-of-ribbons those are nice mics and if I start recording more strings they could be majorly useful)
  • Focal Spirit Pro headphones (I don’t normally monitor through headphones but…damn)
  • Soundtoys Juice (this might actually be a real product soon!)
  • Mojave MA301fet (A good multipattern FET condenser is something I lack)
  • Keith McMillan QuNeo controller (stupidly powerful and fun)
  • Moog Theremini (I was skeptical, but…it’s surprisingly fun AND works as a gestural MIDI controller)
  • basically everything at the NSDesigns booth

So there’s that.

I also got some great tips from various vendors in ways I didn’t fully expect.  For example I’d never really thought about using Decapitator as a broad “tilt EQ” without using the saturation.  I tried it when I got home and sure enough, it’s super-useful. The guy from NSDesigns clued me in on some hardware for mounting my violin, which is oddly-shaped and not conducive to standard instrument stands.  I’ve been looking for an answer to that since about 2002.

Linda from Moog remembered me from last year.  Whoa.

One of the Akai reps seemed really bored and just wanted to chat with me about, like, whatever.  I don’t think he actually mentioned his products during our conversation.    I got some very enthusiastic product demos from NI , Elektron, and Keith McMillan, sort of apropos of nothing.  But cool.

Once again, Bricasti was there with a ultra-cool reverb system, with no way to hear it.  Poor guys.

It was pretty great to get some hands-on with a lot of stuff, and many of the presentations were really fascinating.

  • The Ableton Tips panel didnt tell me a ton that I didn’t already know, but I picked up a few hints that could be useful in my admittedly rarified setup.
  • Rich Chycki’s “Anatomy of a Mix” again wasn’t entirely new info, but it was fascinating to hear what a real high-end professional can do to a mix. I’m not a fan of Rush by any means, but I can’t deny that their mixes are great and those dudes can capital-P Play (to quote Dr. Algernop Krieger, “Neal Peart stands alone”), so it was an excellent example to use for mixing – there was never any question that the performance could be improved.  And he did his best to dispell the whole “vintage makes better mixes than modern all the time” myth.
  • 14357033201_3e4d26ae2e_zDave Aude’s “Mixing Electronic Music” was both hilarious and interesting and awful all at once.  The guy knows what he’s doing, and he’s sold enough records to show that what he does is what people want, and he’s an engaging, funny, relaxed speaker.  But – the way he does his thing is fundamentally anathema to my audio engineering philosophy.  Sure, the dude can bang out a top-selling club mix of a pop song in a day, and he’s got his stuff down, but…when he starts with every stem already slammed and squashed into audio sausage and THEN runs his mixbus through a hardware compressor, a de-esser, a maximizer, and then Waves L3 I cringe.  It works for him, and works great, apparently, but the removal of dynamic range from a track is basically everything I stand against in the audio universe. Sigh.

    Despite this, he did have some good tips that flew in the face of convention somewhat (layering kicks, selecting snare drums) and some workflow recommendations (get out of the studio once in a while!) that often get overlooked, particularly by those of us making dance music.
  • Stephen Marsh’s mastering talk was well-put-together, and he’s clearly very skilled and professional, but about 10 minutes of the talk was eaten up by a plug for (the admittedly rather nice) Presonus Sceptre series monitors, which ate through some time and left the remainder of the presentation to focus on the slightly-too-basic “what is mastering?” kind of stuff.  I’ve seen that presentation before, and as a guy who does some mastering semi-professionally its only utility to me is “yep, I guess I’m doing this right.” So that landed on the Massenburg Dissapointment Scale, and about .7 Massenburgs.
  • I missed Erin Barra’s Ableton talk because the rearview mirror fell off my car and I had to drive across Fort Wayne to Safelite to get it fixed before they closed.
  • …And then there was the Producer’s Panel. 14387734223_3049e08645_zI was hoping I could go to both that and the Devin Townsend talk (depsite my not being a guitarist, Tonwsend is a gearhead’s gearhead so it would be fascinating) but they were scheduled at the same time – likely becasue both of them were filled to standing-room capacity.  The guys sitting on the panel were Big Names – Bob Clearmountain (Bowie, Springsteen), Ed Cherney (Clapton, Bob Seger), Bil Vorndick (Dylan, Krauss), Fab Dupont (Bon Jovi, Shakira), Rich Chycki (Rush, Dream Theatre), Mick Guzauski (Daft Punk, Earth Wind and Fire), Ross Hogarth (Van Halen, Crue), and Bruce Swedien (uh…Thriller).  With only an hour to fill and that many people there wasn’t going to be much in the way of anything beyond high-level discussions and war stories but it was still fascinating.  Bruce Swedien, who is now 80, sort of dominated the conversation because he’s a mentor to many of the guys there and of course becasue he’s mixed the best-selling albums of all time.  So he played up his “goofy old jedi master” persona a little bit, leaving me to wonder at first if it was an act or not.  After his digressions into the quality of the cafeteria’s onion rings or the occasional name-drop, he’d drop a bomb of old-school wisdom on us and rather often stunned the crowd into silence.

    Fab Dupont was interesting (as always) as he was a few decades younger than everyone (except maybe Chycki) so his perspective on the industry was different.  Whereas the others lauded the intern system through which they came up, Dupont mentioned that studios are closing all over New York and thus rendering the intern system all-but-dead.  Even a moderately successful studio like his only hires two interns a year, despite getting 20 good applications a week (he mentioned that that number was *after* weeding out those that “can’t read or write”).They all had particualrly harsh words for the private schools pumping out “audio engineering degrees”, asserting that they tended to be sort of meaningless in an actual studio environment, and mentioning that a lot of the graduates show up expecting to start somewhere far above the bottom rung (student loan debt and an inflated sense of ability were listed as motivators). Chycki said he had a kid call him, fresh out of school, and casually suggest he just take a few Rush albums off his hands, akin to a new accounting student walking into a Wall Street bank and saying he’d just take the big corporate accounts.  Well-meaning, sure, but entirely insane.

    Everyone differed on “the most important element of a home studio.” Clearmountain suggested “a good coffee maker.”

Then we drove home.  And no matter how you approach it, Gary IN is a hole.

Yeah, so it was a good time, and a bit less frantic (car repairs aside) than previous years.

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