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Pro Sound News: A 40th Anniversary Oral History

By Steve Harvey. November 3, 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of Pro Sound News. Its founder and editors warmly look back at the brand that changed—and changed with—the pro audio industry.

New York, NY (November 3, 2018)—Pro Sound News launched at the perfect time, just ahead of the recession in the early eighties. The record labels were reining-in the bloated recording budgets of the seventies, but music studios were still big business and would remain so through the eighties as the US economy rebounded—until the next recession, anyway. Meanwhile, the digital transformation that would change everything about the pro audio industry—indeed, every aspect of our lives—was already on the horizon. Then came September 11, 2001, and the Great Recession of 2008. Through it all, Pro Sound News was ideally positioned to keep its readers apprised as the audio industry responded to the changes.

In this oral history, as Pro Sound News celebrates its fortieth anniversary, Paul Gallo (PSN co-founder and publisher through March 2002); Martin Porter (PSN’s first news writer and subsequently editor, then group SVP and publishing director, through 2004); Debra Pagan (PSN editor 1989-1995); and Frank Wells (PSN editor 2000-2015) recall some of the significant events of the past four decades.

(Randy Savicky and Tim Wetmore also served as editors, immediately before and after Pagan, respectively. Content director Clive Young took over from Wells in 2015.)

Some of the following comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Paul Gallo: Vinny Testa [owner, Testa Communications] and I started Modern Recording magazine in 1974. He and I did that for a couple of years then I went off to my own business. In 1978, he and I met in his living room and decided the industry was taking off. He co-founded Pro Sound News with me. He was never on the masthead, but he remained a collaborator.

Our first issue was dated November 3, 1978. It was published to coincide with the 61st AES Convention in New York. I started the magazine in my dining room, in October. The kids and my wife proofed it on the dining room table. Founding editor Judi Bernstein Cohen [who passed away in June 2015] had been working for Hanley Sound out of Boston; they did the sound at Woodstock. She used to stay at my house, in the attic, for a week each month.

To my great fortune, after we published the first issue, this young guy, Marty Porter, walked into my office at the recommendation of a mutual friend. By the second issue I had hired Marty to do the general writing.

Marty Porter: Paul’s office was in the Gulf+Western building at Columbus Circle, which has since become Trump International Hotel & Tower New York. I was a wordsmith for hire. He asked, “Do you think there are enough words to fill a magazine?” He paid me $300 a month to fill the magazine with interviews and profiles. To put this into perspective, my first business trip, I roomed at the Disneyland Hotel with Paul and Vinny. They let me sleep on the floor. Those were lean times.

Gallo: Our first issue was 32 pages. The back-cover advertiser was MCI, the front cover was always Sound Workshop, and Audiotechniques, a pro audio dealership run by Ham Brosious, was our main advertiser. In our first issue, Ham ran an ad: “32-tracks are here.” That 3-inch MCI machine was introduced at the 1978 AES show.

From 1979, ’80, the industry was growing, and the magazine grew. We picked a perfect time.

Porter: By the time Pro Sound News started, Hotel California, Rumours, Songs in the Key of Life were done. The glory days were coming to an end at the record labels. Endless budgets were pretty much over.

There was no cheap gear at that time, that’s for sure. But a couple of things were happening. MCI came in with a 24-track tape recorder that was half the price of Ampex. You could get a console and a tape machine for about $100,000. And they had a leasing program. Then Jeep Harned [founder, MCI] had the idea for a 32-track [machine].

In the first issue of Pro Sound News, on page 3, there was an article that the first SSL console was going to be at AES that year—but they never delivered. Electric Lady installed a Neve in ’79. So MCI, SSL and Neve were about to happen.

Gallo: The goal of the magazine was to communicate to an industry the changing business profile. The business was the studios, so the business was music creation. In those days, people could make a lot of money helping to create music. Remember, in 1980, ’81, you had 18 to 20 percent interest rates. It didn’t stop anybody.

Porter: Paul gave me a copy of Billboard’s studio directory and said, “Call these guys and interview them.” And my sources kept growing because of those MCI packages.

Gallo: In the magazine, Glenn Phoenix [owner, Westlake Audio] said, “We have to be a little concerned about the introduction of new digital products.” That was 1978. The studio scene changed 20 years later and started to become artist-owned, etc., but in those days, these studios were making tremendous investments—and in the face of digital.

Porter: Tom Stockham had Soundstream, the first digital recording system, doing a lot of classical recordings. It became apparent that digital recording was going to be the way forward.

But probably more significant, in 1978 or ’79, was that Bob Liftin, who owned Regent Sound, figured out a way to sync an audio recorder with video through SMPTE timecode. Audio-for-video post was becoming a reality. That helped explode the business. I remember Chris Stone at Record Plant had a slogan: “Diversify or die.” MCI found an edge because not only was it much more affordable, but it brought in video business.

And 1978 was also important because that’s when personal computers were starting to come forward.

Gallo: The industry was changing. As a studio owner, it was becoming more and more critical that you found out what others in your community were doing. They had to keep reading about the changes. That’s why Pro Sound News became so successful. We were a news communicator. And Marty was a tremendous news writer.

Porter: The digital transformation really changed the business for a couple of reasons, besides all the outboard gear and console automation. Sony and Mitsubishi came into the business; it was no longer just Ampex, 3M and MCI. That brought a different dimension to the business.

Gallo: Pro Sound News was bought by a British company, United News and Media, in January 1986. From that time, we grew tremendously.

Porter: One of the reasons that United bought Pro Sound News was that it owned Studio Sound in the UK, so it had a successful position in that marketplace. That gave them a position in the US.

Gallo: The company acquired other products: Television Broadcast, Videography. We spun off other products from Pro Sound News. We started Pro Sound News Europe.

Donald Plunkett, the executive director of AES, and I agreed to start publishing the AES Daily in 1989, which Pro Sound News is still doing today. It gave us the ability to reach everybody in the industry. To this day I work with AES; I’m chairman of the conventions in New York.

Debra Pagan: Paul Gallo offered me the position of editor of Pro Sound News in September of 1989, shortly before the AES Convention of that year. I had previously been the managing editor of Television Broadcast and features editor of Pro Sound News. I started my PR agency, D. Pagan Communications, in September of 1995.

It was a great time to be in the pro audio industry. High-end studios were flourishing all around the world, new audio technologies, standards and formats were emerging, and a booming touring industry with packed venues was common. Attendance at trade shows, such as AES, NAMM, NSCA and NAB, was usually strong, with attendees wanting to check out the latest gear.

It was also a fantastic time to be in publishing…Mix magazine was [PSN’s] rival—they were very competitive.

Porter: There was Mix envy…it started at about the same time as Pro Sound News.

Gallo: Mix was doing unbelievably well. We worked together well; they were the editorial product and we were the news magazine. [Both Pro Sound News and Mix are now owned by Future—Ed.].

Pagan: There were so many milestones during my time as editor. The ADAT recorder was introduced at the NAMM Show in 1991 for $3,995. That was huge; its capability to record more audio tracks at a comparatively low cost contributed to the rise of the project studio.

Porter: ADAT and Greg Mackie—that’s when the promise of home recording transformed the business.

Pagan: With the rapid change to more affordable, high-quality audio products, project studios became more ubiquitous. And mixing consoles began to get smaller as more project studios emerged. The personal production facility changed the face of the studio industry. However, a controversy surrounding these studios, specifically those located in residential areas, led to the question of what is and what is not a professional facility.

Porter: Then I stole Frank Wells from Audio Media US magazine.

Frank Wells: I started at Pro Sound News in May 2000 and was editor for 15 years. From the publishing point of view, the huge trend was the internet. It was gaining traction, and over the course of that 15 years, starting early in that cycle, you began to get information downloadable from manufacturer websites the day a product was released.

For our readers, it meant that we had to help them find their way in this new world where there was more competition than ever, and they had to figure out how to stand out from the crowd and how to spend their money wisely.

In 2000, it still took considerable investment to compete at the top levels of audio production—live, post or recording. Except for the physical space involved for recording, that became less and less true over time. People could make a $50,000 investment instead of $1.2 million and compete at the highest level of audio production.

Pagan: Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) was a big topic for post houses. A cost-effective workstation was seen as a line that separated a company from its competition. Many post houses believed that video had reached a plateau and it was time for audio to be in the spotlight.  

The sound reinforcement industry held a predominant position in the US and abroad, with a wide array of innovative products. The controversy at that time was lip-synching. The spread of pre-recorded vocals and music performance by performers was considered a very serious threat to the live concert business.

We saw the decline of vinyl and the growth of the cassette, the CD and R-DAT, and the introduction of other formats that didn’t fare as well, DCC (Digital Compact Cassette) and the Mini-Disc. Analog versus digital was a debated topic of discussion at that time, and there was an increasing switch to digital.

Gallo: The industry is about the talent. All we were doing was trying to give the talent the best tools. As the economy changed, you could no longer sit in a studio for six months, or even six weeks. But the tools—like Pro Tools—enabled them to do so much recording outside of the studio that studios sometimes became finishing rooms.

Wells: I was the first editor of Pro Sound News to have previously worked full-time in the industry that we were writing about [in radio broadcast engineering, then as chief of technical services for Glenn Meadows’ Masterfonics Studios]. I think that helped make a difference. We were able to maintain an authoritative voice that was tempered with a real knowledge of what it was like to be in the trenches.

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Gallo: Pro Sound News became successful because the people in the business—the recording and live sound communities—were, and still are, just the finest people in the world. They wanted to communicate, and they use Pro Sound News as a medium of communication.

Wells: Our task was to rise above the signal-to-noise ratio on the internet and provide people with an authoritative voice. That became even more important as we moved to more internet delivery of content.

The thing that Pro Sound News has always done better than any other title is address the business side as well as the production side. We not only wanted to know what cool new tool somebody bought and what it would do, we also wanted to know how it could make them work smarter and more efficiently, attract and keep more clients, and get more business into the day so that they could stay competitive. Pro Sound News carries that forward to this day.