Steve O photo

Speech Delivered at the

Berklee College of Music

 September 16, 1996

Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I want to especially thank Don Puluse and Dave Mash, who made this visit possible.

As Don noted, I am the senior editor of Electronic Musician magazine and a Berklee alumnus. I was a professional musician even before I came to Berklee, and I have spent the greater part of my adult life since then as a full-time road and session musician and band leader, plus a good dose of sound-reinforcement engineering, before I got into the magazine business. In other words, I've been where you are or will soon be. I had a lot of strange detours along the way, and sometimes I wonder how I survived all those years on the road.

But I know I got through the musical and technical challenges thanks in part to my experience here at Berklee. I owe a lot to teachers like Michael Rendish, Joe Hostetter, Tony Germain, Ken Pullig, Bill Pierce, Greg Hopkins, and the list goes on. I never told these guys how much the education I got here meant to me, so I'm telling you: these guys are giving you the tools you need to survive in this business.

At Berklee, you learn over and over again that you get nowhere in the music business if you haven't mastered the tools of your trade. For most of us, that starts with learning to be a truly professional player, and Berklee can teach you that. In addition, you need to learn how to work with others toward a common goal, which comes from experience.

And for many of us, mastering our tools also means having a solid foundation in the technology we use. The magazines, including Electronic Musician, are a major source of this information.

EM, as most of you know, is a monthly technical magazine for musicians. We emphasize practical, plain talk mostly about how to choose and how to use electronics and computers for writing, performing, and recording music. We also discuss the business aspects of music and we preview emerging technologies.

Even our interviews tend to focus on the practical aspects, as I intend to do today. Four of our five principle editors are or have been professional musicians and producers, and we are all still active in it to the extent our editorial jobs permit. So we emphasize practical hands-on experience. Specs tests are well and nice, but most modern equipment has good specs. So we want to focus on what really happens when you use this stuff.

As senior editor of EM, I'm the hardcore old-timer who helps the rest of the staff to get it right. I'm in charge of all the product coverage, including the reviews and the new-product announcements. I also direct our articles on digital audio, software, sound design, all the high-tech topics. But I also write about mundane things such as AC power systems, studio and stage wiring, you know, all those little things that kill you if you ignore them.

But I'm especially dedicated to producing EM's product reviews. We publish from six to ten reviews a month, and most of them go into great detail. What I want to do today is explain what goes into these reviews behind the scenes so that when you read them, you can really understand what we are trying to say to you, whether up front or between the lines. Because if you understand what you read and you do your homework, you'll gain a better understanding of the tools of our trade in the 1990s, and you'll be better able to survive in our rapidly changing industry.

We have a lot to discuss today. For instance, I'm often asked about the influence advertisers exert over reviews. Can an advertiser force the magazine to change or kill an article? Why are certain products written about and others are ignored? If one magazine reports a problem with a product and an competing magazine states an opposite opinion, how can you know who's right? Who are the people who write these reviews, anyway? And which is better, having a magazine editor write every review, having freelance authors do reviews, or some of each?

By the time we're done here today, I hope to answer all of these questions and more. And then I'm going to open it up to your questions. Now, I'm going to cover a lot of territory, and I'd prefer to hold your questions until the end because I hope to answer a lot of them along the way. We can also talk about where the technology is going and how to be sure you are prepared for the future. But if the only thing you get from me is a clear understanding of what reviews really are about, my visit will have been well worthwhile.

First of all, in the music-technology world, as in many industries, there are two fundamentally different types of magazines: consumer magazines and trade magazines. A lot of people don't understand just how big these differences can be. EM, like Keyboard and Recording magazines, is a consumer magazine. That means, among other things, that the vast majority of our circulation consists of paid subscriptions and newsstand sales.

We rely on advertising dollars to survive, but we have to serve our readers first and foremost because for us to be successful, you have to buy a subscription or a newsstand copy. If you read the magazine, you'll probably also read the ads, so the manufacturers would be foolish not to advertise in a magazine with lots of readers. Nevertheless, some manufacturers think they can control the press with their ad dollars, and others only advertise when we review their products. We'll talk about that in a few minutes. But in general, with a consumer magazine, circulation figures carry a lot of weight with advertisers. If you don't buy the magazine, they don't advertise.

In contrast, a trade publication such as EQ or Pro Sound News is designed to support the industry from the inside. It is here to serve the recording industry, which in practical terms means the advertisers. For the most part, these magazines are sent free to professionals, so a trade magazine doesn't depend on paid subscribers and newsstand sales to get circulation, though it may have some paid subscribers.

You rarely get impartial product reviews from a trade magazine because its primary function is to support its advertisers. On the other hand, you can still get very good practical information from these magazines. And if you want industry news--who is recording where, using what gear, with which engineer, who is hiring for what studio--a trade magazine is what you want. EM won't give you this.

Mix magazine is in a unique position because it's a trade magazine with consumer sympathies. Of the trade magazines, Mix is by far the biggest kid on the block, and unlike the other music-technology trade magazines, it has significant newsstand distribution and a lot of paid subscribers. That gives Mix a greater degree of editorial independence than the other trade magazines. Mostly that's thanks to its editor, George Petersen, who I consider the finest technical editor in the U.S. music industry.

Okay, let's talk about reviews. All of our reviews at EM are field tests. We only do bench tests if we think something strange is going on and we need to really nail it down. If something doesn't sound as good as its specs indicate, I use an expert to test it on an Audio Precision system. If the gear is behaving oddly, I put it through a series of tests in my studio, which is set up to double as a test lab. But mostly we are concerned with field tests on real projects because that is how you will use the gear.

No one product is right for everybody, and any three musicians probably use the same product in three different ways, depending on how they like to work and what kind of music they make. It all comes down to how you're going to use the product. So the editors try to look at the big picture, and we try to consider all the different ways you are going to make music with electronics. But ultimately it's up to you, as a music professional, to decide which features you need, what limitations you can accept’Äîbecause every product has them’Äîand how much you can afford to spend.

A review is a set of opinions. It's not just an account of the specs and features. So at EM, we tell you what we think is cool and what stinks, even though we might be polite about how we word that. Some equipment manufacturers have a hard time accepting this. They think that if we can't say something nice, we shouldn't say anything. They can't tell a consumer magazine from a trade magazine. To be honest, that's their problem, not ours.

Why are certain products written about and others ignored? The first way I learn about products is from press releases issued by manufacturers or public relations firms. I usually get this information at trade shows or by snail mail or e-mail. And of course, I read the same ads you read. I attend several annual and regional trade shows, such as the Audio Engineering Society convention and the two National Association of Music Merchants shows, where the music-store owners decide which products they want to stock. I also monitor the World Wide Web.

And often, I hear about products by word of mouth. I have a huge network of musicians, engineers, and producers--which obviously includes all our freelance authors--and these folks are eager to turn me on to their opinions. If you want to enlighten us with your opinions or you just want to give us feedback about the magazine, the best way is by e-mail. My address is You can also contact Editor-in-Chief Mike Molenda at, or you can write us by regular U.S. mail. Our editorial address is in the magazine's staff box next to the Front Page editorial column.

The point is, most of these methods of informing the press are very democratic. You don't need a lot of money to send a press release, especially with e-mail. It costs almost nothing. We also need graphics, and a photo does cost a few bucks, but software developers can e-mail me screen shots for free. So marketing money is not necessarily the issue in getting coverage in EM.

And if a manufacturer follows up with a friendly, low-key phone call to explain the fine points of the product and introduce the company, they've done as much as many a high-priced PR firm can do. Of course, many small companies consist of a great product designer with no marketing savvy, and that makes it harder to get coverage. Gee, that's familiar: the musician can play great but doesn't want to deal with the business. I think we know this person. He or she needs an agent or a manager. The same is true with some manufacturers.

We only have so many pages in the magazine, so I reject many times more products than I accept for coverage. If I think a product is cool and serves a useful purpose to the EM reader, I cover it whether the company advertises in EM or not. And it doesn't matter whether it is a large corporation or a small startup except that I get a kick out of covering small, new companies with cool products. Because we cover companies regardless of ads, I have more independence when it comes to saying what we want to say. Hey, pull your ads, see if I care. Often I don't even know who advertises in a given issue.

But there is no arguing the fact that some advertisers do lay on the pressure. Enough pressure might even get a product covered, because sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But no amount of pressure will change a negative review to a positive review. And at EM, it has to be polite pressure because part of my personality is that I get really ornery when people try to push me around. That's just a personal thing, it's not limited to the magazine. At any rate, there is no doubt that we walk a political tightrope with the advertisers. I'm going to get back to this when we talk about the content of our reviews.

I spent much of my life in the music industry, and I usually can tell when a product is significant and when it is isn't. I try to balance different types of products, different manufacturers, and the many types of EM readers.

So I go through all the information and pick a few dozen products each month for the new-products column. Then I decide which ones we really ought to test out for review.

So I have gone through this whole process, I know what new gear is out there, and I have decided what to cover. I call the manufacturer to request the gear, or sometimes they call me to ask for a review.

Few manufacturers resist the idea of getting their product reviewed. But if they do resist, and I think it's important enough, I have other options, and I have used them in the past. I may get a friendly dealer to slip me a unit, or one of my authors may already have access to one. If it's important enough, I'll go to great lengths to put together a review, but I rarely have to go to extremes.

Okay, so now I have the product, and I assign the article to an author. That brings us to two of the questions I posed earlier: Who are the people who write these reviews, and which is better, having a magazine editor write every review, or having freelance authors do the job, or some of each?

In general, editors see a heck of a lot of products, so we usually have a broader perspective than most people, who just know the products they use themselves. Therefore, some magazines have the editors write every review’ÄîKeyboard does that, for example’Äîand you do get thorough bench tests and a good big-picture perspective that way.

The problem is that most editors aren't full-time producers and performers anymore. They're full-time editors, right? So they might have time to thoroughly field-test one product per month at the most. You simply can't know how a product performs until you use it on real projects. That's how you find out that it's too hard to access a critical feature’Äîbecause in the lab you have all day to access it, but in the studio or onstage, time's a-wasting, and you need to get the job done right now.

And a lab-test review might slam the product because the company omitted a feature that the editor really wants, but in the real world, that feature doesn't matter to 90 percent of the people. That's why we do real-world reviews.

At EM. some reviews are written by the four staff editors who are veteran musicians, but the majority are written by technically savvy freelancers and then edited by the same four editors.

I prefer to have staff editors do a few key reviews where their expertise is especially critical. For instance, EM Editor-in-Chief Mike Molenda owns a professional project studio and until recently owned a commercial studio. He spends a lot of time making records, and he really knows his mics and mixers, so I give him a lot of those to review. I review a lot of MIDI gear, including all the piano-action MIDI keyboards because I do a lot of projects that call for elaborate MIDI control, and I was a piano major here, so a piano action is important to me. And I've reviewed them all, so I know what to look for.

But as I said, the editors don't have the time to properly field-test more than one product a month, if that. So I use a lot of freelance authors.

Who are these freelancers, anyway? EM's reviewers are serious musicians who have impressed me with their technical knowledge, insight, and sound judgment. Their writing skills count, too, but that's secondary. Good editing can help there. All are extremely active in music production.

I'm very picky about freelancers. In fact, two EM reviewers, Jan Paul Moorhead and Steve Wilkes, are members of your Berklee faculty. Two others, Paul Lehrman and Dennis Miller, are also respected Boston-area musicians on the faculties of Lowell Institute and Northeastern University, respectively.

I often hire Peter Freeman, a hot producer in New York with a ton of credits who also sometimes plays bass with Seal. My brother and fellow Berklee alumnus, Larry the O is a top sound designer for computer games at LucasArts Entertainment and has a bunch of album, TV, and film credits. Geary Yelton is a top sampling and music-software guru in Atlanta. These are the types of authors I hire.

I don't just assign an article, forget about it until it's written, and edit the results. I stay in touch with the authors during their research, and we discuss the product in depth. The authors tell me what they like and don't like, report problems, share their excitement about the good stuff, and so on. We go back and forth quite a bit.

Okay, so now the author has written the article and submitted it to me for editing. I assign an editor to read and evaluate the reviews, call the authors with challenging questions, and edit as necessary.

Most of the introductions and parts of the conclusions you read are penned by an editor who has been in close touch with the author. A lot of the historical info and big-picture perspective comes from the editor, too. And if we think the author's opinions are off-base, they have to convince us.

Many of our authors are better researchers than writers. We're used to extracting what they mean from what they say, so we reword things as necessary and move entire sections around if we have to. We edit until the article is a good read and makes sense. If we have make massive changes, I make sure to get a copy to the author for approval. I keep in mind that the author's name is on the byline, not mine.

At EM, we also carefully remove curse words, even mild ones. It's not that we're trying to be angels, but our magazine is read by people of all ages, including kids, and it goes out to churches and schools. We want everybody who has an interest in the subject to feel comfortable reading it.

For similar reasons, we generally keep our magazine apolitical, except that we try very hard to avoid anything that could be considered sexist, racist, or otherwise bigoted. We have readers from all walks of life and all parts of the globe. We want to inform them all, not offend them.

If we find a serious flaw in a product, we report it, but we don't have to say, "this product is trash." We don't want to be downright nasty or vicious. We try to find a less inflammatory way of telling you the same thing.

Here's something you should realize when you read these articles. We don't have to say something is garbage as long as we spell out the problems so that you get the picture. The important thing is that you get clearly presented, honest opinions and all the information you need to decide whether a product is right for you. We might say a product is missing this essential feature and that feature doesn't work, and we'll try to explain why that's a serious problem in practical use. We might even say a product does not deliver good value.

We try to make our meaning as clear as possible so you don't have to read between the lines too much. If we say a product lacks feature X, and we tell you why this feature is critical, and we give you the plusses and minuses, you can decide whether or not to buy the product. We give you credit for being able to use your brain.

I have found it important to keep in mind that there is a tendency in our society to believe the worst regardless of the facts of a situation. Accusations are front-page news. Retractions are back-page news.

If one magazine claims there is a problem with a product and the others magazines don't report it, some people assume there must really be a problem and that the other magazines are being dishonest, that there is a coverup going on. I recently read exactly this kind of nonsense in a CompuServe discussion about EM's product reviews.

It ain't necessarily so. Maybe the problem was fixed by the time the other magazine did their tests. Maybe the problem only shows up under unusual circumstances; we do our best, but we can't spend six months testing a product every possible way it could ever be used.

And occasionally a magazine mistakenly reports a problem because they honestly screwed up. These errors happen because people are human, not because there is a conspiracy afoot to cover up for an advertiser. Look, life is too short and I am too old to sacrifice my integrity over an advertiser's distress. I'd quit first, and our other editors would do the same. We're not out to trash anyone's product, but we will not cover up for it, either.

So the editor and the author work in concert. And what we get in the end are real-world reviews that reflect not only the field conditions and expertise of that author, but also the broader experience of the editors. Hopefully this gives us the best of both worlds.

After we have finished the main edit, we come to the most politically sensitive and widely misunderstood part of the process: the manufacturer fact-check. All reviews are submitted to the manufacturer after the main edit is done. The primary purpose is to check for factual accuracy, but if issues of fairness arise, we deal with them, too.

As far as I'm concerned, the manufacturer can comment on anything they want. In the end, I decide what we publish.

Let's say a manufacturer admits that they screwed up the implementation of a particular feature, but they point out that it's a minor feature, and their competitors don't even have it.

Yet we spent two long paragraphs beating them up about it. Maybe they have a point. Maybe we could just beat them up for one paragraph. Or maybe we can point out the problem and explain its significance without saying the designer must have been drunk. So fine, we can accept that type of change. But the editors, under my authority, make that decision, not the manufacturer or even the author.

If I am unsure of who's right, I consult with my fellow editors. Sometimes I'll go back to the author for more tests or I'll get the unit and test it myself. If we find a bug and can repeat our results, but the manufacturer still insists we're wrong, we go with the author's opinion and report the bug. But we might write that the manufacturer was unable to reproduce the problem. We found it, they didn't. You decide who to believe. We give you credit for having brains.

If a manufacturer acknowledges a problem but claims the problem has been fixed, we try to retest the product, but sometimes it's too close to our deadline for that.

In that case, we report our original results with the note that according to the manufacturer this has been fixed. Note that "according to the manufacturer" part. If you read that, it means we didn't get to test the fix. So you should be skeptical. If we retested the product and all was well, we'll report the problem has been fixed, period.

Now, despite all this discussion, sometimes a manufacturer really flips out. They call the publisher of the magazine and threaten to pull all their ads. That gets them nowhere, because the publishers I have served under at EM have consistently supported our editorial independence. I always let the publisher and the editor-in-chief know in advance when I anticipate a hot reaction, and we have already discussed the issues and worked everything out. So I know I'm going to get their full support.

On a few occasions, one of our editors was thoroughly cursed out over the phone by a major advertiser during a fact-check. Fortunately, that kind of thing is rare.
Of course, we didn't change one word. One of those cases was about six years ago, and we have never reviewed another product from that company.

But sometimes the breach with the manufacturer lasts years. I wish it weren't that way, but I don't lose sleep over it. As long as we think we are delivering the right information in a fair and accurate way, we'll publish and take the heat. As long as I have been in charge of EM reviews, which has been the last seven years, no amount of pressure has turned a negative review into a positive one.

I've also been threatened with lawsuits several times, which also gets nowhere. I understand there's an old Mafia saying that goes, "never sue if they might prove it." And I wouldn't publish something if I couldn't prove it. So the manufacturers never sue, and only a few ignorant ones have threatened.

There was only one exception where I killed a review altogether rather than delete a controversial comment.

That was a review of a sample CD where we could prove the samples were recorded without copyright clearance from classic albums by the Pointer Sisters, James Brown, and Earth, Wind & Fire. We could prove it, but this was several years ago, the company had been pretty slick about it, and the law on this type of copyright infringement was not yet clearly established.

The distributor threatened us with a lawsuit, and they contacted our parent company. Our corporate attorneys decided the law was too uncertain, and they didn't want to risk the lawsuit. I refused to run the review without the part about copyright infringement because any reader who used those samples would also be infringing the copyrights. So we killed the review.

The distributor won by pure pressure, but we haven't reviewed a product by that distributor since. I'm still unhappy about that mess. But that's the only time a manufacturer has forced me to kill a review.

When the fact-check is finished, two things happen. First, we get the product back from the author. The author cannot keep it, because that would be a conflict of interest. Hardware goes back to the manufacturer right away. Most software companies don't want the review copies back, so they go into a library I maintain in the EM office for future reference. If the author wants to buy a product, I act as go-between. I don't allow authors to approach the manufacturer about buying before the article is done, again to avoid conflict of interest.

Most manufacturers have special prices for industry insiders, which usually is close to dealer cost. That's not much less than you pay at Guitar Center blowouts, but it is better than paying list. We will not allow an author or editor to purchase any new product for less than the company's standard industry accommodation price, again to avoid conflict of interest.

Conflict of interest is a very important issue, and we won't put up even the smell of it. We allow no give-aways, no sweetheart deals. We're not as strict as the Washington Post, for example, which forbids reporters from even accepting a business dinner. We're a technical magazine in a tiny industry, not a world-class investigative newspaper. If a manufacturer wants to buy dinner or give away a t-shirt, fine; we're not worried that an editor could be bought that cheap. But that's as far as we'll let it go.

So that's how reviews are produced at Electronic Musician magazine. As a consumer magazine, we're writing for you, our readers. Our mission is to help you learn to use technology to make better music. We view technology as an aid to creativity. You have to supply the musical talent and dedication. That's why we don't write about buying MIDI files of popular songs, for instance. We want you to make your own music in your own way. We'll help you to do it better.

We write for you, the individual musicians, engineers, and producers, from the serious hobbyists and semipros you used to be to the solid professionals you are now, or will be when you graduate Berklee. We want to help you master the tools of your trade. We want our reviews to be accurate, thorough, fair-minded, and a good read.

And yes, sometimes we goof up, because we're human. Sometimes our views are quite different from our competitor's views. But we don't really care what other magazines do or say. When I was a band leader, I never based our shows on what other bands did, either. Let others imitate us if they want; we will not imitate them. We're not writing for them.

We write for you. We have entered an era where one musician or a small band can create major world-class productions at home, on a relatively small budget. No longer are we musicians at the mercy of large record labels and mega-studios that cost hundreds of dollars an hour.

Sure, we can still go that route if we want to, but now we have choices. And if you choose to educate yourself, to take control of your career, to stay on top of the technology that has freed us from dependence on the big-money institutions that kept musicians underpaid and underappreciated for most of this century, we at Electronic Musician stand ready to help you.

My friends, thank you very much for listening; I'll take your questions and comments now.