Of Wizards and Wires
by Jay Rose
...how to watch a tradeshow demo
from the NAB '95 issue of Videography
Imagine a marketplace in a surreal desert land.Around you are exotic entertainments, heady food and drink, and cabalists who would change the future with the spin of a wheel. You have come to buy, but the sellers don't merely display their wares. They use wizardry and artifice to dress them up -- and sometimes, to deceive. A new Virtual Reality game? Just the same old one, if you consider the slot machines, floor shows, and endless taxi lines at the Las Vegas Convention Center. There'll be more people attending this year's NAB Convention than live in some of the cities the attendee's stations serve. Even medium-sized exhibitors will spend upwards of half a million dollars to make their products stand out in this crowd. Given this pressure -- and the general smoke-and-mirrors nature of our industry -- a few may exhibit less than total candor. This doesn't mean they'll actually lie to you (at least, not in writing), but... In five years of showing products at the NAB, I've learned some of the tricks that make boxes look better. Of course, this is just from arms-length observation. I've never tried these scams myself.
THE DOROTHY PLOY"Ignore that man behind the curtain," the Great Oz said. Some vendors would have you do the same thing: while their slick presenter describes the wonderful digital effect, the little man behind the curtain is really making it go. Sometimes they even hide the operator in a back room, but more often he's just out of spotlight range, pulling the levers to a pre-written script. Think about it: if this gadget is so easy to use, how come you can't talk and push its buttons at the same time? Any machine that needs a lot of keypresses for an "easy" operation is going to be a bad investment, unless your clients prefer you to be tongue-tied while you're working.
BRAZZLEThis trick comes to us from the Carny operators, who explain their games of "chance" so quickly and with so many qualifiers you can't help but be confused. The production-equipment variation is to show off incredibly complicated edits or moves. You're supposed to be so impressed you don't notice it can't cope with the easy ones. One audio workstation, a few years ago, had this down to a science. The demonstrator would start to edit a track and say "Oh, listen: there's a tiny mouth noise. We'll just zoom in, move a few pointers, preview, move the pointers again, and poof -- the noise is gone!" Very impressive... except they neglected to mention you had to do the same zoom, move, preview, and move again just to splice two raw takes together.
THIRD-PARTY ANIMALSYou see a beautiful suite with fancy monitors, custom controllers, and three-dimensional digitizers -- all billed as "The Acme Solution". Of course, Acme just makes the software. The digitizers, controllers, and even the computer come from other companies. This may be perfectly legitimate (after all, Acme can't just hold up a floppy disk for their demo), but only if they also sell and guarantee the other components. And when you price the system, you have to assume everything ships from the Acme factory. Otherwise you can get lost in a quagmire of "unqualified" hard drives and "non-standard" controllers. When the system doesn't work, all the vendors will point fingers at each other... and you'll be left holding a bag of computer parts and a floppy disk.
PRESENTS UNDER GLASSDon't assume something is real just because you see it in front of you. A lot of times, that fancy new box on the marble pedestal is filled with vapor: the panel prototypes came back from the industrial designer, but the engineers are still working on the circuit cards. (A favorite trick is to block the ventilation slots from inside with black electrical tape. That way, you can't look in and see it's empty.) Some "new" products have been displayed this way two or three years in a row. It's a mistake to base your purchasing plans on this WonderBox. Even if the product does get to market in a reasonable time, there's no guarantee it will do what you want. And the salesmen aren't really lying about its features: until a product is fully functional, who knows what the specifications will be?
READY FOR PRIME TIME?"They use these on the hit series SmashEmUp. That's why you should get one for your studio." The success of a series can be due to the writing, the broadcast schedule, the sexiness of its stars -- but very rarely to the presence of an EditOMatic in the production house. If SmashEm's producers actually paid for one of these things (testimonial studios may get special loaners or consideration as a test site), they probably based their decision on something other than what makes Your Hometown Studio profitable. Besides, you never know what the hit series actually did on that box. Some years ago, production magazines carried a news release about how I used a big-name audio editor for dialog replacement on the Max Headroom show. There was even a composite photo of me with the animated star in our control room. What really happened is a minor character on the show was visiting Boston and had to record a script change. Our studio was the first one in the Yellow Pages, and we were testing the big-name editor at the time. I ended up using it as an expensive remote control. But try telling that to the publicists.
OUT TO LUNCHYou ask the demonstrator to show you a fairly common operation, and are told "Oh, our programmers know how to do that. But they're not here right now. I'm just a sales rep." It's hard to keep track of booth personnel at a convention, and product developers are notorious for wandering off to check the competition. So this excuse might be legitimate, if you're asking for intense technical details. But the sales rep or whoever else is left with the product should at least know how the basics of working the thing. If not, the system can't be as easy to learn as they promise. Or worse, the folks who sell it to you don't know what goes on in a real studio -- and they won't be able to support you after you buy it.
ENJOY THE SHOWSometimes, demonstrators can't answer your questions because they're not programmed to. An actor with an 'ear' -- an IFB-like earpiece connected to a pocket tape player -- mimics the entire technical speil while listening to a recording. A good performer can be absolutely convincing this way, even if they don't know their ES-bus from their elbow. Behind the technical speil is a technical Speilberg, who's carefully scripted everything they say. Demos this sophisticated may also have fancy lighting, multi-screen backgrounds, and even original music and dancers. If you find yourself at one of these demo extravaganzas, think of it like Jurassic Park. Enjoy the production values... but don't let them convince you to buy a dinosaur. The message behind all these tricks is simple. Las Vegas glitter extends far beyond the chorus line. When you go to NAB bring comfortable shoes, a good shoulder bag... and quite a few grains of salt.
JAY ROSE is an Emmy- and Clio-winning sound designer, columnist for Digital Video magazine, and an officer of the AES. When he's not in his Boston studio, he's consulting on product design for audio manufacturers Orban and Eventide. Of course, neither of those fine companies would ever use the tricks in this article.