The quest to improve our work through improving our rig is a universal and never-ending quest for the audio engineer. Often, each improvement unfolds in this manner: Curiosity is stimulated by an ad, a mention in an article, or by espying mysterious gear in another engineer’s rack; we then seek out specs, charts and graphs to define the field; we find bench tests for even more detailed data, interpreting hard numbers into performance expectations, requiring verbiage to go beyond the factual; we consult peers, blogs and shootouts for inside details; and we further narrow the field and drill down, seeking out reviews and users who can get anecdotal and give us real-world insight of the product in action.
In an attempt to enhance this process, approximately two years ago, PAR editors devised the idea of the Session Trial (ST): an in-depth review of four to six closely related pieces of gear, tested by an engineer in the midst of his normal session(s), run through a gamut of “real world” tests to find excellence in performance and value. Further, the shared opinions of talent involved in these ST sessions introduce the proper “dialog of compromise” — an integral part of choosing sounds and products during normal gear selection processes.
Flexibility for Relevancy
Early on, it became clear that the implementation of the ST concept had to remain flexible for it to remain relevant. For example, sometimes the bench test portion of an ST is of prime importance, especially if the product category has very finite, refined performance issues surrounding it (as with our A/D Converters ST in PAR December 2009). Sometimes the shootout aspect proves to be most insightful, especially when a full band of musicians juggle opinions and make final decisions for their own keeper tracks during the ST (Eight-Channel Mic Preamps, in PAR April 2009; and Workhorse Dynamic Microphones in January 2010). The Dynamic Microphones ST had an additional blind shootout component by the PAR editorial staff, where such a variety of opinions is designed to help uncover common truth amongst subjective differences.
Sometimes the product category of an ST raises the bar to very difficult heights. Case in point: for the A/D Converters ST alone, we recorded both solo piano and full orchestra on location in proper, prograde environments (a large tracking room and a lovely performance hall, respectively) with reference grade gear and an overall scientific thoroughness to fully capture the finite audible differences in different analog to digital conversion processes. From the onset, we knew the results could (and would) be highly debatable, so we finally turned to a respected mastering engineer in his world-class room to second guess our findings, add his own judgment to the mix, as a fitting epilogue.
Session Trial’s #1 FAQ
Having recently wrapped our 10th Session Trial (Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones in PAR September 2010) after receiving an encouraging amount of (almost entirely positive) feedback from readers throughout the publication of the series, some “frequently asked questions” have emerged. Number one is certainly, “Why didn’t you include Brand X?”
There is no simple answer, except that the products chosen for inclusion are often selected with widely varying criteria to spotlight specific differences within each category, the range of features and quality offered in each category, and to reveal overall categorical relevance of features and quality for end-users. Sometimes the careful dissection of a minute market segment brings the most interest to the table, like with our World Class Channel Strip (PAR March 2010). There, all five test subjects were already recognized “winners,” and the journey through their various features was more important than the destination of which was subjectively preferential.
Then sometimes we radically skew the field — as in the aforementioned Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones ST or Trusty DI Boxes (PAR May 2010) — delving into the notable width of a product category and pursuing comparisons of value and performance over those of pure performance only. It may not be entirely fair to compare a $25 Samson DI and a $199 Radial DI, but the investigative process sure was informative, as in “What can I expect within this rarely tested, widely priced product range?” While we won’t go so far as to make a direct recommendation on value judgments, we do hope to provide you with the tools to better decide for yourself based on your needs and budget.
All things considered, there is still no replacement for test-driving gear in your own studio, if you can. A visit to a pro audio showroom and a demo there is also helpful. If you don’t have access to those opportunities, a web-based audio clip — like one of our new PAR Files (here’s Rich Tozzoli’s with the Grace M103 channel strip) — and even YouTube videos may provide further insight. But maybe you’d rather lurk at a real session: being a fly on the wall, taking it all in, watching as sometimes unexpected choices get the nod. If so, I hope you’ll keep looking to PAR during your continued gear quests; we’re more than happy to get our hands dirty, lay down some tracks, closely compare gear, and then share it all with you.