The 129th Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention returned to San Francisco last weekend. These are the professionals that transform music into the stuff we listen to at home, work and on the go. The convention is chock full of educational seminars, classes and research papers on topics like Progress in Computer-Based Playback of High Resolution Audio, Exploring the Ultra-Directional Acoustic Response of an Electret Cell Array Loudspeaker, and a personal favorite: Keep Turning it Down! Developing an Exit Strategy for the Loudness Wars.

The convention also has a trade floor, although much smaller than CEDIA. This is a show by and for the people who produce music in studios. While there is some overlap between the professional and consumer market (I saw familiar names like JBL, Harman, Manley, Auralex and Focal), the show is dominated by gear found in professional studios: microphones, digital and analog pre-amps, compressors, mixing and recording desks, and active studio monitors.

Adam Audio makes a full range of active studio monitors. I saw quite a few booths using Adam monitors, which gives you a pretty good idea of their reputation in the industry.

Adam Audio’s newest speaker, the A3X, is a small, active two-way monitor designed for computer workstation systems. Adam is coming out with a consumer version of the A3X, sporting a less utilitarian finish and additional inputs suitable for computer and home-audio systems.

Professional studio microphones, many of which are tube-based and use external pre-amps, can cost many thousands of dollars. These BeesNeez microphones (from Australia) sounded great, and are relatively inexpensive, starting at $1,300.

Earthworks makes microphones for recording instruments, as well as test/measurement microphones. SECRETS uses Earthworks mic’s for our speaker testing.

The professional market is a strange brew of digital and analog. Although most recordings are done on digital workstations, many recordings are mixed “outside of the box” on analog mixing desks, using analog effects. Avalon Designs is one of the better-known names in the industry. Shown above are Avalon’s vacuum tube pre-amps and analog optical compressors. (Note the Adam Audio monitor).

Mixing “outside of the box” involves additional digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversions. JCF Audio, which makes high-end A/D converters, succinctly sums up its motto.

Manley Labs, known in the home audio world for its fish-named amplifiers and pre-amps, also makes a full line of analog tube-based products for the recording industry.

Unlike home audio, most recording studios use active speakers, containing internal amplifiers and active crossovers. Most of these speakers are bi or tri-amped.

Here are MK Professional’s 2510P reference monitors, found in movie production studios. I’ve heard these speakers many times; if I could afford them, I’d own them.

Genelec, perhaps best known in the home audio world for its massive subwoofers, makes a full line of studio monitors. Genelec active monitors are another favorite often found in recording studios.

Focal, another well known audiophile brand, has a professional division with active monitor speakers.

Focal was demo’ing the first production pair of its newest powered studio monitors, the SM9. These are actually two speakers, serving both as a three-way full range system with frequency response down to 35Hz, and a two-way system. Why, you ask? Recording studios usually mix and master songs on several different sets of speakers, to get an idea how a recording will sound on a variety of systems from full-range audiophile speakers down to car audio, computer speakers and portable audio systems with limited frequency response. The SM9 in its three-way configuration uses a one-inch tweeter, 6.5 inch midrange driver, eight-inch bass driver and a top-mounted 11 inch passive radiator (which was throbbing like crazy during the demo). Flipping a side-mounted switch turns the speaker into a frequency limited two-way, using the same one-inch tweeter and 6.5 inch driver with different crossover electronics than the three-way configuration. The speakers are tri-amped, with 600 watts of class AB power on three different channels: 400 watts for the woofer, 100 watts for the midrange, and 100 watts for the tweeter. The speakers are oriented horizontally because many studio monitors are placed on the metering bridge of the mixing board. I really liked the sound of the SM9’s, and at suggested retail price of $3,995 (without needing to budget for amplifiers), I was smitten.

AES was a great opportunity to peek behind the curtain at how music is professionally recorded and produced by people who combine great technical expertise with a passion common to many of us in the audio-video hobby.