NAB 2002: On the Vegas Beat

April 11, 2002 at 5:15 pm

I woke up in a seedy Vegas hotel. It smelled of cheap perfume, cigars, and wasted fortunes. I came out to Vegas looking for what everyone comes to Vegas for. A shot at the big money. There wasn’t much call for detective work in Nashville this time of year and my bills were beginning to stack up. I had checked into the Sahara the night before. I’d heard ole blue eyes had once laid his head on a pillow there. Anything good enough for Frankie was good enough for me. After a quick baptism of cold water on my stubbled face, I threw on my embroidered Trew Audio shirt and was ready to face the crowd. This was the standard dress code for Vegas. I blended into the flow of humanity with no effort. Swallowed like a grain of sand in the desert outside.

After maneuvering through the crowd in the casino, I decided to meet up with Lady Luck. But she ain’t a friendly woman. She’s fickle and mean. After she’d taken what I had to offer, I decided I’d better get a cup of Joe before I had to go begging for it. There was a coffee shop on the way to the lobby. That’s the thing about this town. Once you’re inside a casino, they don’t want you to leave. No clocks on the wall. Restaurants every ten feet. Even a 24 hour convenience store.

I put myself at the end of a long line that was going nowhere fast. My head throbbed to the rhythm of the slot machines. I realized I would need a distraction to make it to my caffeine fix. That was when I noticed her. She was a classy dame. Dressed to the nines. Black business jacket, sprayed hair, a light fresh smell slowly seducing my nostrils. Checking her name badge, I realized she was heading for NAB. I figured if there were more like her at this convention, it might not be such a bad day after all.

Once I had my burning hot cup of coffee, I walked out into the burning sun and made a bee line for the Convention Center. As the caffeine soaked my brain, I remembered the other reason I’d come to Las Vegas. There was a lot of new equipment coming out. It was all very hush hush, though. I set out to collect as much information as I could.

When I hit the convention floor, it was teeming with people from all over the world. My coffee was gone, so I got in line at the Starbucks. While waiting, I saw sales reps from across the U.S., India, Europe, Canada, China, Japan, and most of the known populated world. I listened to the music of multiple languages blending as everyone waited for the universal drug . . . caffeine.

After high tailing it to the Trew Audio booth, I got busy with John, Glen, and Steve Abbott setting up for the day. We rolled out the sound cart provided by Ron Meyers of PSC. We had decked it out with a Cameo mixer feeding a Deva that was attached to a Direct Drive. There was a PD-4 wired in as a back up machine as well. The Cameo was set up to remote roll either of the recorders. The Zaxcom Digital Wireless System was set up on one channel of the Cameo for auditioning. The entire cart was running on a Z-Tap.

One of the highlights for me was putting names with faces. I took the more suave approach of subtly glancing at a name badge as someone approached. More than once, faces would light up as I recognized a customer I’d never met personally and a customer recognized me. Of course, we had to throw some of the more rowdy sound guys out of the booth when they made fun of us for not bringing any beer, but most of them were well-behaved. Sometimes we’d see someone who’d been by the booth the previous year. You’d be amazed how well you remember a mug you’ve only seen once. That might seem like small potatoes to you, but I was making mental notes. I never forget a face . . . just the name that goes with the face.

The Deva/Cameo combo caught a lot of folks attention. Besides the usual eye-popping of newbies to the Zaxcom side of the force, there were a lot of guys who said they’d been hitting the websites, but had never actually checked out the Cameo in person. We all spent some time in the orange glow of the Cameo’s screen showing off the EQ curves, delays, and so on. After that, they were hooked. I just let them play with it uninterrupted as I quietly disappeared for my second latte.

The addition of the long-awaited wireless interface software caused a few haggard, disillusioned audio guys to perk up. This software upgrade gives you the ability to scan the wireless frequency spectrum while watching it on the Cameo’s screen, not to mention transmitter and receiver status such as battery life, frequency, signal strength, and audio level. The new Cameo II will also have a delay output function for lining audio up with the down-converted HD video being fed to the video assist. Other perks are the input limiters and much quieter mic preamps.

A lot of folks hadn’t had a chance to check out the Zaxcom digital wireless system. We had a Sanken COS-11 wired to the transmitter and let folks take a listen. There is nothing cooler than people asking a stream of technical questions and being able to answer simply, “Do you want to listen to it?” That seems to stop a lot of people in their tracks. How often can you do that any other time of the year?

Glenn Sanders, the man behind Zaxcom, dropped by with a pair of lavalieres on his shirt. I knew no one liked to hear themselves talk that much, so I asked him what they were. “This is all part of our new clothing noise reduction software for the digital wireless system. Take a listen.” I put on some headphones and listened as he tapped his shirt. The mic inputs on the transmitter were switching to pickup the best audio from the mic with the least amount of clothing noise. It seemed like black magic to me. Glen assured me no cats had to be buried at midnight under a full moon. The trick was this stereo transmitter. You plug in a couple of mics and let it do its job. The new transmitter can be used with the regular Zaxcom receivers. It was pretty amazing.

Next, he pulled out a little plug-on transmitter for the digital wireless system. It supplies phantom power to a shotgun mic and has about 110dB of dynamic range. According to him, this little baby will run for 5.5 hours off of 3 AA’s while powering a mic. The shoemaker’s elves had been busy at the Zaxcom shop it seems. The most obvious application of this plug-on, as Glen Trew pointed out to me, would be on wireless boompoles. With the quality of a digital signal, the wireless link between the plug-on and receiver would be pretty darn close to wired quality if it didn’t match it. At that point, Glenn Sanders excused himself while muttering something about how there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I didn’t press him.

The designer of the Wendt line of field mixers, Bob Wendt, dropped by the booth with his wife as he does every year. He’s a fatherly, Mr. Wizard type of guy with a well manicured ring of gray hair around his head. He always shows up in a sport coat and knit shirt with his lovely wife. For a guy with such a solid engineering mindset and piercing gaze, he was kind and approachable. He fielded enough questions to make me tired just listening. He never missed a beat. All class this guy.

Manfred Klemme, another distinguished looking fella with a hip goatee and sport coat, dropped by with some K-Tek poles for us to display as well as a great little spinner rack to put them on. Glancing around nervously, he said, “Psst. I want to let you in on a little secret”. Of course, this being my usual line of work, I leaned in. He pulled out a new rubber mic mount that was going into production at K-Tek. I gave him a nod and touched the side of my nose to indicate that his secret was safe with me. Then he went and put it on a boompole for display. Well, I guess it wasn’t that much of a secret. Then, it was Splitsville for Manfred. He was smooth. He slid in and out of our booth like a well made graphite pole.

Just as my caffeine high was about to give out, I heard a laugh that rejuvenated me once again. It could only be one person, Pam Medley from Lectrosonics. She was a real burst of sunlight in the dim fluorescents of the convention floor. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her without a smile on her face. She invited us to the traditional Lectro “breakfast” for the unveiling of some new equipment. Apparently some big-wigs at NAB didn’t want anyone in the building before 8:00 a.m. for security reasons. So, the traditional Lectro breakfast became the Lectro supper, or afternoon snack later that week.

Once the day day rolled around for the Lectro supper, it was good to sit down in Lectro’s booth with a Coke and hours d’oeuvres. Man were my dogs tired. After a fanfare of trumpet music the charismatic Bruce Jones did two back flips and a handspring off a nearby desk, landing neatly in front of the group. After a slight adjustment of his suit and tie, he began the presentation. This is what it was all about, the information so private that no one but a handful of the chosen were told. The word on the street was that a new digital system was coming out. As the PowerPoint presentation rolled past, it became apparent we were in store for something completely different. I took a swig of my Coke and listened hard.

The new digital hybrid systems, christened the 411, were not only not using a purely digital transmission, they weren’t even using standard technology. Bruce told us he would like to explain the trick to the digital hybrid system, but it was so unique that they were in the process of patenting it. When pressed, he said he’d have to kill us if he told us. At least, that’s what I remember. I could have been delusional from the amount of caffeine in my system. Come to think of it, I don’t know if he really did the back flips and handsprings. Standing for eight hours has a way of wearing out the mind. My razor sharp wit was whittled down to a butter knife by this point in the day. But, enquiring minds want to know, and I was reading the headlines.

Later, I took Bruce aside and grilled him about the hybrid system. All I got out of him was that the transmitter is digital, but it is transmitting an analog signal. This allows a longer distance with less power. The processor in the receiver is also digital.

“That’s clever,” I said.

“No shttt!” Bruce replied.

“I beg your pardon?!?”

“No shttt! There isn’t a compander, so you don’t get that ‘shttt’ sound. You can set the system up totally wrong and still get good audio. You don’t get the compander problems you would run into if you set up, let’s say, a 210 system incorrectly.”

“No shttt!” I said.

“Exactly.”

He also spoke about the updated 210 system, referred to as the 211. It basically adds the LCD and functions of the 201 to the chassis of the 210. I didn’t ask about the pong game.

I was getting thirsty. All the coffee, Coke, and dry air was catching up with me. I was about to pour myself a glass of water when I noticed something in the bottom of the pitcher. Upon inspection, it turned out to be the new mm400 waterproof transmitter. It was smaller than a pack of cigarettes with a slick stainless steel exterior. I remembered Bruce talking about this. It runs on one AA. It has rubber gaskets all through it. Sealed mic connectors, sealed battery compartment, sealed shell. There was also an mm200 version that will work with any 200 system. These guys had been burning the midnight oil. We had to wait to spread the word, though. Apparently the boys in Washington hadn’t put their John Hancock on the dotted line for FCC approval. Lucky for us, it didn’t take long after NAB for the approval to come through.

The next day, I got a cup of coffee. Finished it. Got a double cappuccino. Finished it. Drank 5 gallons of water and had a $10 burger, fries and Coke for lunch. By that point, things had died down a bit. It was time to cruise. I’d wanted to check out the Nagra booth. They didn’t have one last year. Besides, they were neighbors from Tennessee. I was beginning to need a little reminder of home.

Their booth was impressive with its larger than life photos of the Nagra D, Ares-C, and Nagra V. It had a minimal steel pole and glass countertop sleekness that only the Swiss could pull off. And of course, that inimitable hepcat Dan O’Grady, sporting a new goatee and sport coat. I was beginning to see a trend. After we’d laid some jive on each other, while Nancy rolled her eyes, I took a closer look at what was in the booth. The thing that had the flat-footed convention roamer sitting down to take a load off was not only the free mints, but also the new Nagra V. The attention getter was the optional 24-bit/96kHz of two channel recording. Everyone has been waiting on Nagra’s answer to hard disk recording, and this was it. Same sleek metal shell and plastic lid, although somewhat smaller than the Nagra IV-STC. It had the familiar modulometer and actual physical switches for play, record, etc., just like the old Nagras. Having had my fill of breath mints, I decided to see what Sennheiser had to offer. I could also get a better look at the booth babes Dan had pointed out on the way over.

After eating few handfuls of M&M’s chewing the fat with the blondes at some music library’s booth, my pangs of guilt got the better of me and I had to move on to more job related tasks. I sadly waved good-bye, tripped over some retro chic furniture they had in their booth, and headed for Sennheiser. When I got there, I thought they were showing off a new Zippo lighter they were making. It turned out to be the new SK5012 super-ultra-you-can’t-believe-how-small-it-is-mini transmitter. It was a real jaw-dropper. The common reaction was, “Where is the rest of it?”, or repeated phrases like: “Aww, you’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve got to be kidding me!” This little baby runs on a couple AAA batteries for seven hours. You have to give it to Sennheiser for their engineering savvy. Not only was it small, it also had sleek look like a silver German sports car on a moonlit night speeding down the Autobahn. But I digress.

Sennheiser beat everyone to the punch with their phantom-powered plug-on transmitter, the SKP30. It was already available before NAB. The ENG system, composed of an EK3041 diversity receiver with an SK3063 bodypack transmitter, had actually been out for a while as well. But Sennheiser hadn’t been going out of their way to let anyone know about it. Secret conspiracy? You be the judge.

The real proof in the pudding that they were getting serious about a portable field recording system was the ENG Quad Pack QP-3041. This is the first portable, DC-powered quad rack system from Sennheiser for their 3041 receivers. With the quality of audio you get, this system would be excellent on a film cart or ENG shoot.

I made a quick jaunt into the Neumann side of the Sennheiser booth (they shared real estate on the convention floor). There was a nice hardbound book of stereo micing techniques with the author signing copies in the booth. Of course, the obligatory dummy head was there. I made sure to listen on headphones while I yelled at it for that out-of-body experience. They also had a digital microphone. The audio signal turns digital as soon as the sound waves turn electric. You can just send the digital signal down the line. Sadly, their chocolates were gone, so I moved on.

There had been talk about a new box at the HHB booth. I followed the glow of purple emanating from their general direction. I elbowed my way through the crowd at one corner of their booth, and found myself looking at a box of electronics a little bigger than a PD-4 with a rather large English gentleman with a head full of curly hair looking down on me. This was the new PortaDrive 24 bit/96 kHz recorder, or at a least a reasonable mock up. The man looking down on me was Henry Edwards, who was a major player in the development of the PortaDrive. Unfortunately, they were only able to have a mock-up at NAB. No working unit, yet, but it is expected to ship by the end of the year. After hearing what it will do, I’m content to wait.

This 6-channel portable hard disk recorder has options out the ying-yang. Word clock, video sync, AES/EBU, SPDIF, USB and Ethernet ports. Upon further investigation I uncovered a small, but important detail. The 6 inputs go to discrete tracks, while there are two additional “tracks” inside the machine. You can record a stereo mixdown of the 6 tracks simultaneously to these two phantom tracks. Pretty slick. In the 8-track mode, the 20 gig removable hard disc can hold over 2 hours of 24-bit/96kHz uncompressed audio. If you’re only doing a “simple” 4-track recording at 24-bit/48kHz, you can cram 9 hours of recording on this thing. Basically, a very nice 10 hour day with a 1 hour lunch if you just left the thing recording all day long, but don’t give the director any bright ideas.

While this was all fine and good, I had to wonder what you would do at the end of the day with only a few gigabytes on your 20 gig hard drive. I don’t know what the drives will cost, but I’ve got a hunch they’re more than a 65 minute DAT. And what about backup? HHB got wise to the butt-saving advantages of multiple backup streams. Don’t be using your PD-4 as a doorstop, yet. You can feed a 16-bit/48kHz stereo digital signal as either AES or SPDIF to your PD-4 while recording in 24-bit/96kHz mode for DAT backup. Then, there’s a SCSI port on the PortaDrive that would mate up nicely with the Remote Audio Direct Drive for making DVD-RAM copies at the end of the day. Unfortunately, there is no high-speed “dubbing” on the PortaDrive. So the transfer is in real-time. Or, you could get a portable USB pocket hard drive. Or, you could Ethernet to your laptop, send the audio through a wireless uplink to satellite, and have it record to a hard drive in a buried steel bunker at an undisclosed location in Uruguay.

The more I dwelled on this, and why Uruguay and Paraguay are so similar in spelling, I realized there were new things brewing in my own backyard. Time to head back to the Remote Audio booth. Besides, it was tea time at the HHB booth, and I wasn’t in the mood for buttered scones. Maybe I’d come back later at ale time.

After dodging a few people rushing Starbucks to their booths, narrowly escaping 3rd degree burns, and jumping a few hand trucks with briefcases I was back at the Trew Audio/Remote Audio booth. The ever-mellow Steve Abbott was slowly hypnotizing a couple of folks looking at the BDS and Z-Tap battery. Once they left the booth saying, “Will buy Remote Audio, will buy Remote Audio, etc.” I put on some special sunglasses I got on sale at the Army Navy Surplus store. They had those little spirals on the front and were supposed to block subliminal messages as well as giving me X-ray vision. Only then did I feel safe stepping into the vortex that is Steve Abbott.

“So, what kind of things do we have this year from Remote Audio?” I queried.

“Well, let’s see. There’s the Juicers,” and with this he deftly presented a squarish lime green box with two cables coming out of either side.

“Very nice. What does it do?” I asked, trying not to let the lime green color seduce me.

“You can plug it between a lead acid or Z-tap battery and get a longer life for your 12-volt or 24 volt equipment. These are the two options we have available.”

I could feel my mind slowly giving in to Steve’s mental powers, so I excused myself and continued to look at the booth by myself. There was quite a stock of all the Remote Audio items, such as the BDS, BDS cables, high-noise headphones, Micro-Cats, Fat-Cats, and the new Pole-Cat. Folks were lining up to listen to the Micro-Cats on a Sanken lavaliere in front of a little fan while monitoring through some high-noise headphones. While the Micro-Cat was the focus of attention, everyone who put on the high-noise headphones on the convention floor took them off, rubbed their eyes, and said, “What are these? They’re so quiet!” Then, they’d put them back on and turn the volume up and down on the mixer. Sometimes, you’d catch the same person coming by just to try them on again or showing them to a friend. I guess it was a nice break from the constant noise in the convention hall.

There was a boompole extended to what appeared to be 18 feet vertically with an antenna rig on it. This was the new Antenna Bar. We had four Lectro dipole antennas on it. The pole was supported in what appeared to be a large empty spool of thread. Turns out it was the Ground Adapter, a new table, chair, boompole holder, with cable hooks. It can be dismantled in a few seconds for easier travel. It had a nice wooden finish on the top and bottom that gave it a little extra class.

The day ended very late, just like every other day. There were always a few folks hanging out at the end of the day who were just glad to be able to talk to someone else who knew something about audio. Otherwise, they were old friends who just liked to come hang out at the booth over the course of the show for a break. Once they headed for their hotel rooms, we threw our sheets over the booth and made our journey to the rental car. That night we ate some of the finest food I’ve ever had. This was par for the course at NAB. I had more shrimp and crab legs than Captain Ahab. I’ve never seen so much food in one place, except maybe the S&S Cafeteria with my grandparents, but that food was all designed to be edible with your dentures in or out. There were rows of excellent deserts, Asian cuisine, and so forth. Glen and myself finished off a plate of oysters on the half shell one night, which I guess would be considered a tradition now that we’ve done it twice in a row.

I could go on for pages about the RAMPS mixer at Napoleon’s bar at the Paris Hotel, or the conversation I had with Libby at Sound Devices about theoretical math, or why you shouldn’t leave your hotel room in just your underwear, but I think it’s time to put this one to rest.

— Matt Hamilton

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