Making WavesSharing time and a couple of bottles of Asahi with another former pro audio magazine editor in the bar of London’s Metropolis Studios recently, the hoary subject of equipment reviews raised its head once again. The observation this time was a new one, however…

It was the attention given to dedicated plug-ins as compared to the onboard effects suites found on live mixing desks.

To give this some perspective, I looked up a handful of reviews online. Among them I found a 1,750-word (page-and-a-half) review of the Waves Tune Real-Time vocal pitch correction plug-in – a fairly typical length for a print magazine review of a piece of kit. I also found a review of Yamaha’s CL5 mixing console from another magazine that lent just 197 words of its 1,445 to the onboard effects.

SSL Live flanger plug-in

A third magazine’s 930-word review of the SSL L300 live console devoted 250 words to its processing and effects facilities – described by the manufacturer as ‘a suite of more than 45 effects and tools’ (that includes the famous SSL Stereo Bus Compressor), and which is the result of considerable R&D effort.

Even in interviews, the press struggles. Reference to onboard plug-ins is usually brief, acknowledging convenience over performance. More attention is often paid to outboard hardware that the engineer ‘simply can’t imagine living without’ or is essential to an artist’s on-stage sound.

There is no doubting the value of mixer plug-ins, either in terms of their performance or their ability to reduce the footprint of the FOH mix position in a venue or theatre – their value shows through in the accounts spreadsheet for any tour or production.

The magazine titles that I looked up would be familiar to you, but this is about the perception of value, not individual editors or publishers’ decisions. The perception is, however, legitimised by the practicalities of publishing.

With a finite number of pages to work with, pre-defined ground to cover, and both time and money budgets to manage, publishing useful reviews has never been easy. And if the practicalities aren’t onerous enough, there are publishig politics to consider too.

The larger picture shows the rest of the world to be following the early lead set by China, whose consumers across the board are favouring online peer reviews to those offered by the press establishment. These are generally regarded as more trustworthy and allow a number of different perspectives and opinions to be aggregated.

This is difficult to apply to niche markets where products are costly and the user base is small and elite, however. But it may give magazines a good opportunity to revitalise their work – it might be time to replace the established ‘review model’ for certain products with properly researched and aggregated peer commentaries, using their ‘insider access’ to canvass first-hand experience and opinion.

Some magazines would claim to be doing this – at least in part. But wide acceptance of a new model would relieve publishers of a responsibility that it is impossible to honour, and provide them with a new one that genuinely meets readers’ needs.

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