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AES 2011 Recap

The Audio Engineering Society met in NYC in October. We revisit some of the convention highlights.

Monday, December 05, 2011 - 12:36 PM

The Javits Center (Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons)

Preservation is moving toward center stage in the audio world, and nowhere is this more patent than at the AES Convention. Marquee names (Chuck Ainlay, Bob Ludwig) are expressing concern over the legacy of their work, and their talks are increasingly well attended by the rank-and-file membership, who increasingly face challenges that require coordinated solutions.

Formats have continued to multiply since the 1970s, and the digital world has brought a whole new set of issues that we are only beginning to grapple with: how do we preserve Pro Tools sessions? Will the FLAC format be around in 10 years? What is happening to my CD-Rs? The flexibility of digital files, one of their great advantages, also increases the difficulty of fixing them permanently.

Along with the challenges described, there were also more upbeat presentations dealing with the history of audio recording: a historical survey of classical recording techniques; conductor Leopold Stokowski's legacy as a proponent of audio innovation; the issues behind Motown and Verve reissues; and the effort to publish the almost complete recordings of the 1972 Grateful Dead tour.

Here are some sessions we liked:

In the "Got Metadata?" workshop anthropologist Thomas Miller used the classic example of how the intelligibility of a recording can be vastly increased if we see the text being read or sung, while presenting the extraordinarily convoluted story of the Boas ethnographic wax cylinder recordings and their layers upon layers of annotations. Chris Lacinak strongly advocated for the idea of embedding metadata in digital files, showing as an example a heartbreakingly namelsee list of files recovered after a crash.

The "Pound of Cure or Ounce of Prevention?" workshop had Chuck Ainlay reminding everyone that metadata preservation goes beyond preserving cultural legacy: creators count on metadata to receive royalties for derivative digital formats, and the photographic community provides a good example of agreed-upon, persistent metadata schemas such as Exif. Mr. Ainlay also mentioned NARAS' always-useful "Recommendation for Delivery of Recorded Music Projects." Meanwhile Rob Jaczko and Patrick Kraus explained their often disparate work-flow choices for their massive reformatting projects at Berklee and Warner Music Group respectively, inadvertently highlighting just how far we are from having a truly agreed-upon approach to audio preservation. During the question and answer section, Dave Ackerman reminded the somewhat startled panelists that the AES-57 and AES-60 metadata standards had recently been published. Sigh...

Away from the hubbub of the star-studded sessions and the glitzy showroom floor, standards committees and technical committees met in somber, underground rooms at the Javits Center. The Archiving, Restoration and Digital Libraries Technical Committee discussed some emerging trends in audio archiving. Among the trends mentioned were metadata time-stamping, shared storage solutions among institutions, as well as projects to test A/D converters, to map MXF wrapper elements to other schema, and to update the AES-31 standard. The terrific Indiana University report was also mentioned as a recent milestone, and questions were asked about the future of the axml chunk (apparently, North European broadcasters use axml to store EBUCore). Sound too exciting? Just try to listen to this stuff in a soulless, frigid room. Meanwhile, the Standards Committee's Working Group on Preservation and Restoration, happy to have published AES-57 and AES-60, wasted no time to start tackling the next step: a process history schema for administrative metadata for audio objects. Godspeed, AES-X098C!

As usual some of the best parts of the convention were hooking up with old friends from out of town and in town. It is always fun to be immersed completely in all things audio, and the exchange of ideas occurring over dinner or lunch is often the most useful. Still, one wishes to having been able to attend many missed sessions: mastering for vinyl, 50 years of FM Stereo (hopefully WQXR was mentioned), playback of discs with a flatbed scanner... It used to be easy to keep up with all things archival at AES, but the offerings grow yearly. We had better get used to it.

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