When it comes to live event production, the trend is never to be less spectacular. More lights, sharper video, clearer sound – the artist demands it, the crowd expects it. But in the pro audio space, in some ways, less is more.
“Efficiency really is the trend,” says Derek Featherstone, CEO of Ultrasound, which provides audio for major concert tours and who also doubles as Dead & Co.’s front-of-house engineer.
Groundbreaking speaker and audio engineering in recent decades has led to high-quality sound at touring productions and venues. The innovation continues today, largely designed to continue sonic excellence, but in a more portable, flexible and adaptable manner.
“There has been an emphasis on weight, lighter-weight boxes so you can put more of them up, so you can play buildings that don’t have the greatest infrastructure for rigging,” adds Featherstone, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It’s more about making a universal product that can fit anywhere” and fit into any venue’s size and configuration constraints.
Easier rigging and load-in likewise carries over to touring, with packaging and portability potentially meaning fewer trucks on the road. “There’s been a large emphasis on packaging and transport for sure,” says Featherstone, mentioning game-changing loudspeaker innovation in the early ‘80s that led to great quality audio but the equipment was heavy and difficult to transport.
“It became more important to make it functional in a real-world environment. How they fit in trucks, how they fly in the air, how they get pushed around – there’s more emphasis on that,” he adds. “Or, business managers will say we have 14 trucks, but only want 12. How do we lose the other two? There’s efficiency in that you can maybe fit a speaker box five across in a truck instead of four.”
Like many tech and production aspects of the live entertainment business, audio at live events has been somewhat perfected in recent decades to the point that excellent sound quality is already expected. Providing effective sound is simply not enough.
“We didn’t have our customers asking us to make it sound better,” says Andy Davies, senior product manager at Meyer Sound, which recently launched its new Panther line array loudspeaker system. “They loved the sound of what we did, but they wanted something that was more flexible and would fit into modern productions, and that means being as compact as possible.”
The Panther line, which the company is calling its most extensive speaker introduction in more than a decade, is on the road with Ed Sheeran’s “Mathematics” stadium tour that kicked off in Ireland April 23, taking in stadiums in an in-the-round configuration. UK-based rental company Major Tom Ltd., a longtime Meyer Sound collaborator, is supplying speakers for the tour.
Weighing in at 150 pounds for each box, the Panther is more able to be hung alongside other gear including lighting and video equipment, while improved amplification efficiency in the self-powered speakers means fewer line arrays (and less weight) for the same sound coverage.
Adding to the efficiency is that Meyer’s speakers are self-powered, meaning they include their own built-in amplification as opposed to traditional loudspeakers that require separate power.
“Everything we make from a loudspeaker perspective is self-powered, all the way down to the smallest line,” Davies adds, with Meyer Sound pioneering a self-powered model going back to the 1990s. “When you get a chance to see the (Ed Sheeran) production and it becomes public, a lot of people in the industry will understand how only a self-powered solution could have made this possible. The freedom it’s given them in terms of production design, to not have large amplifier racks, has made a huge difference in how they’ve been able to approach the design. Moving into the production side and moving away from having huge amplifier racks makes a huge difference to the number of trucks and amount of infrastructure while touring.” The Panther line is also being deployed at the upcoming Roskilde festival in Denmark.
The less-is-more concept can be applied to providers as well. Industry giant JBL / Harman provides top-line loudspeaker line arrays for touring production and venues, but also produces the Crown by Harman amplifiers and BSS Audio signal processing, mixing and equalization.
“The beauty of it is that we have the complete package,” says Daniella Peters, national sales at Harman, and who also spent 18 years at touring audio provider Rat Sound.
JBL’s flagship VTX line is a fixture at major touring productions, including the recent Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias tour, which used the VTX A12. Recent major venue installs for JBL include SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle and more, while major festivals using exclusive JBL speakers include Milwaukee’s massive Summerfest.
In the pro audio space, much like other production sectors, the somewhat sudden return to the road has created a mad scramble for gear, staff and dates on the calendar.
“Last year, people were a little hesitant and there was a lot of uncertainty still but, now, oh my goodness the product is flying off the shelf,” Peters adds. “I don’t think anybody realized how fast it would come back now that it has.” She says the sudden revamp has meant some rental companies not being able to supply tours with the needed equipment. “At the beginning of the year when things started coming back, a lot of people were waiting and still on the fence, leaving it to the last minute. You can’t leave things to the last minute now.”
Featherstone notes that choosing a provider for speakers, mixing consoles, amplifiers and other gear comes down to personal preference, relationships and what the client wants. Rental companies are often associated with a particular brand – although he says he and everyone else is largely willing to accommodate an artist or tour as needed. The major players in the touring loudspeaker market and considered able to handle full large-scale productions include JBL, Meyer, Clair, D&B and L-Acoustics.
Being efficient also means being adaptable, with the word “tour” having a somewhat different meaning than it might have in previous decades.
“You see more tours that aren’t what you’d normally call ‘tours,’” adds Meyer Sound’s Davies. “There’s headliners at festivals, a support date here, more headliners and then festivals. It’s great for the artists and the audience, but it can be tough on the rental companies.”
Featherstone has first-hand experience in that regard, with the upcoming Dead & Company tour taking in half stadiums and half amphitheaters, requiring different setups from the same touring gear.
“You can’t carry two separate systems, so it has to be adaptable to work on both,” adds Featherstone. “Diversity in the playing space, the booking and venues, requires the production to be adaptable. If you stick with a modular product, one day you might have 20 speaker cabinets, and then the next day you are doing eight. You’re basically building an A, B and C system out of what you’ve got. You have to expand and subtract.” He adds that having flexible audio setups is good for business, allowing agents and promoters to find more dates to get from point A to point B.
Another realm where excellence in quality has been established for decades is microphones, where efficiency means going high tech. The trend for many right now is to go not only wireless but fully digital at venues and even touring.
“It’s been interesting because suddenly audio people are IT people, because you need to know how to do networking now to do audio,” says Jenn Liang-Chaboud, who handles artist relations at Shure, an industry-standard microphone manufacturer. With Shure mics being pervasive and widespread at everything from school recitals to the largest concert stages, the trend has long been toward wireless microphones on stage, and that has gotten more complicated with full digital solutions.
“When you’re talking about going to wireless, it’s always been, ‘How close does this sound compared to a wire?’’ says Liang-Chaboud. She adds that with touring productions continuing to get more elaborate and requiring added flexibility, “No one is asking for less wireless.” Digital wireless has allowed a best-of-both-worlds scenario for many, with tech that sounds more like a true wired microphone and being more spectrally efficient when competing for frequency space.
“There’s a lot of motion right now to move over to the digital domain,” she adds, with a software element coming to life in recent years for monitoring and coordinating the digital network. “And the same goes for touring. (Being able to keep) it all in the digital domain has been kind of a big deal.” Liang-Chaboud adds the increased number of in-ear monitors for performers sometimes means fewer monitors and PAs on stage, leading to “a pretty quiet stage experience” at many shows.
As with all things business, it usually comes down to what the customer wants, and all sectors of the pro audio space are eager to provide solutions and tackle whatever challenges may exist.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect loudspeaker, and it’s not attainable because each application has a quote-unquote ‘perfect solution,’” says Meyer Sound global marketing director Tim Boot. “We’re going to go to work every single day and keep increasing the performance, the flexibility and the usability. The performance is really excellent, but how people use it – I think there’s a lot of opportunities to make that better.”