The Hidden Show: Macworld Conference

Bost on, MA -- For most of the fine Observers that visit TMO, Macworld Boston was just creaking to a start Tuesday, but for a few hundred attendees the show has been in full swing since Monday morning. Recall that the event is called the Macworld CONFERENCE and Expo, and it is to the conference sessions that we refer. The Mac Web tends to forget about those sessions because they nominally get buried by the expo news, but TMO dropped in early to get a taste of this hidden Macworld.

The Macworld conference sessions cover a whole range of topics, from how to navigate Mac OS Xis Finder, to power tips for using Final Cut Pro, and everything in between, including sessions on iMovie, GarageBand, and AppleScript. From this pile of options we selected a two-day survey of Advanced Mac Music production led by David Mash. The session was a sprawling series of seminars by Berklee Music professors on tools, techniques, equipment, and workflows of professional music creation. After 14 hours (10-6 on Monday; 11-5 on Tuesday), we emerge a little dazed, but generally pleased.

For those that donit follow trends in music production, todayis Big Thing is workstation-based audio production. That is, the instruments -- in addition to all the recording, editing, and effects processing -- live on a single computer, a "Digital Audio Workstation." Previously, synthesizers, drum machines, and acoustic instruments were all external hardware which computers now simulate, often with remarkable accuracy. "Weire in a period of great transition" in music production, says Mr. Mash. "Itis been happening for the past two or three years; itis been promised for about 10 years." Appleis Logic 7 is at the front edge of that transition, and therefore was a regular topic of discussion at the session.

The value of any session, naturally varies with the quality of the instructors. The faculty for these lectures were all skilled pros -- and they ought to be, considering that Macworld Boston, located as it is in the Hynes Convention Center, is spitting distance from the Berklee College of Music, one of the worldis premier institutions for musicians and recording engineers. Over the two days of the session we heard lectures on six different topics from four different instructors, each with his own professional specialty. Some worked alone, capturing and mixing their own music, while others worked primarily as hired recording or mastering engineers. All four instructors were professors or administrators at Berklee. More importantly, the faculty made themselves available for questions, and offered to answer emails with additional questions after the conference ended.

Presumably, this kind of special attention is less likely at the shorter sessions, many of which last for only and hour, and have many more students than the one we visited. (Our session had only 10 students).

While the attendees at the session were generally pleased with the quality of the instructors, one did mention that the focus occasionally drifted away from new technologies and techniques toward age-old engineering skills that perhaps were not worthy of a Pro session.

Fourteen hours of class in two days feels a lot like drinking from a firehose, and thereis only so much a mind can absorb under those conditions. For that reason, the resources youire left with after the class can be far more valuable that the content of the lectures themselves. In this regard, our session was a success.

IDG (the owner of the Macworld Conference and Expo) was kind enough to furnish attendees with a conference workbook. The 272-page book contains the lecture slides, articles of interest from BerkleeShares (a site with free lessons in music recording), information on sound treating a mixing room, product information, and a webliography with links to online resources.

More useful were some of the incidental comments made by the instructors. For example, they offered advice on how to make purchasing decisions. Some were obvious (compare the sound produced by competing audio interfaces before you buy), and some were more subtle (compare the mechanical feel of sliders on a mixing board). Mr. Mash also offered recommendations on where to get the best prices. (He likes American Musical Supply, Musicianis Friend, Zzounds, and Sweetwater.) And, like any tech professional, all the professors had no shortage of opinions about gear--both hardware and software--that they recommend.

At the heart of any Macworld conference session is a lecture -- or in our case, a series of lectures -- on the topic at hand. Because of the information overload that invariably results from a crash course in any subject, itis important to selectively screen out a lot of the content. Ideally, that screened material is everything thatis either too basic or too advanced.

Now, had this been a private session, we could have learned in about three hours all the information we ultimately retained. But even at the pro level (or, perhaps, especially at the pro level), there are significant disparities in proficiency with various aspects of music production. A singer-songwriter from Boston, for example, felt comfortable using software instruments, but knew less about the mixing process. A studio owner from Australia was there to learn about workflows but needed no instruction in using a digital mixing environment.

Still, in a session of this magnitude thereis something for everyone. For example, we learned a new trick to put independent effects on different sounds of the same software instrument (such as different equalization on different drums in the same software drum kit). We also learned something new about upward masking -- the phenomenon of a muddy mix of lower frequencies can obscure the clarity of higher frequencies. Indeed, at the end of the day, itis impossible to sit through 14 hours of lectures by skilled professionals and learn nothing.

Cost and Decisions
The kicker, though, is that passes to the Macworld conference arenit cheap. The most affordable pass to the Power Tools conference runs between US$595 and $695, depending how early you purchase it. Sit through too much material you already knew, and that starts to feel like wasted money. The attendees at our session generally felt it was educational, but nearly everyone might have preferred some adjustments to the material. At least one attendee already knew virtually all of the lecture material, and was disappointed that he had not better understood the nature of the curriculum in advance.

So is it worth the cash to get the class? That depends on what you want to learn, how much it costs for the pass comprehensive enough to include it, and how specifically the session youive identified will address your interests. The bottom line with the Macworld conference? Do some homework to make sure the class you pay for is really the class youire going to get, then buy your passes early (more than a month before the show) to get the best price.