I've been the editor of this magazine for (oh, mercy, can it really be true?) nine years now, and we've been picking our annual Products of the Year even longer than that. During that time, the process of selecting each year's crop of winning sound, lighting, and staging and projection gear has essentially remained the same: we invite a range of designers and technicians from around the country (and occasionally around the world) to debate, via email (and occasionally in person) the pros and cons of equipment unveiled during the course of the year. All I do is group them all together and then let them go. It's one of the easier jobs I have around here, but it's also one of the most fun.
The process almost always starts out the same: once I find a suitable mix of victims, I mean “volunteers,” I send an email detailing their assignment, then ask someone to get the ball rolling with their initial list of top products. Then the flurry of comments, points, counterpoints, and freewheeling discussions begin. It never gets nasty, thank goodness, but it is spirited. There's nothing better than watching the back and forth of a group of people with strong opinions as they debate the merits of a particular product. And I get a front row seat.
But of all the various groups who participate, I have to say that the sound designers are probably the most enjoyable to follow. They really get into the process. I can't say for sure, but I think I know why they're so passionate: with a few notable, commendable exceptions — Meyer, d&b, DiGiCo, LCS, Audio Technica, Countryman — theatre sound designers rarely get the attention from manufacturers compared to other audio professionals. Despite the influence theatre sound can have on other aspects of audio, this market simply doesn't seem to be terribly important to some audio manufacturers.
So each year, this group of theatre sound professionals gets a chance to express themselves by highlighting the work of manufacturers who are creating gear suited to their needs. Every year, at least one judge makes the case for honoring a particular product in part because of the manufacturer's interest in the needs of the theatre, and on occasion, products have been eliminated from contention because the manufacturer couldn't be bothered with theatre. It's a small gesture, in the end, but perhaps it creates a certain sense of empowerment. Maybe that's why every year at least one judge always feels compelled to exclaim, “Hey, this is fun!” You can find the results of this year's fun on page 8. And look for more fun in March, when lighting products are honored, and in April for the Staging and Projection Products of the Year.