Preview: Martin Audio MLA Compact
A new medium-format PA with the sort of control system designers crave. Checkmate?
I very occasionally play chess. Mostly against the computer, and, given my lack of chops, it’s normally on the Easy mode. Quite often I’ll win, which isn’t as satisfying as you might think. In Easy mode, it’s obvious the computer is only thinking one move ahead. If, for example, you offer up a bishop as bait, with the next move being checkmate, the computer falls for the obvious sacrifice every time. There’s no consideration for the next move.
Witnessing really experienced system designers in action is a little like watching chess grandmasters going at it. They know all the opening gambits — there’s nothing in the first 10 moves or so they’ve not seen before — and it’s not really ‘game on’ until quite deep into the match. Good system designers will get you 90% there with experience and their ears. The system’s modelling software and processing can then take over. But most software relies on you punching in some ‘what ifs’ and it’ll show you the predicted results — put another box in the array, splay the array a little more etc. Not exactly what you were hoping for? Then throw some alternative what-ifs into the mix.
But to continue the chess metaphor some more, what if half way into a match — with the remaining pieces poised on the board — you could ask the computer to show you the best, most elegant means to checkmate your opposition in 10 moves. The software would need to consider every permutation, not just a couple of ‘what ifs’. After all, every move impacts the options available on every other piece on the board. The complexity is mind boggling.
This is where Martin Audio is heading with MLA. Once it has the details of the room and your aims for the sound, it can marshall its chess pieces with an unprecedented level of sophistication.
FROM BIG CHEESE TO FINE GRAINS
When L-Acoustics revolutionised the PA world with V-DOSC it encouraged us to understand its technology by considering the array as one large line source — a giant speaker, essentially. Thanks to speaker coupling, a V-DOSC array was (and is) chucking out a single ‘iso-phasic’ wavefront… like a big wedge of cheese. It was an utter revelation, without the destructive interference of the overlapping patterns of multiple speakers, music lovers were enjoying ‘nearfield’ sound in a concert environment for the first time.
Over the years, line array sound has been tidied up even further with the advent of more sophisticated DSP processing. The likes of the Lake DSP (now owned by lab.Gruppen) made the most of the best in DSP processing to largely eliminate crossover distortion, and to apply EQ without phase incoherencies. By being able to address each speaker box individually, or better still, to address the highs, mids and lows within the box, the system engineer/designer has considerable control at their fingertips.
The logical end point to all this fine-tune-ability is having the luxury of individually addressing every single driver in the array, with its own DSP processing and amp channel. In so doing, you would have enormous scope to tweak the coverage and frequency response of the array to best fit the venue and the demands of the audience.
Essentially, this is what Martin Audio is promising with its ‘multi-cellular loudspeaker array’.
NEED TO KNOW
MLA SHOE HORN
Before you start thinking MLA is a triumph of algorithms over acoustics, it’s worth noting that the MLA Compact is a primo piece of engineering. Martin has shoe-horned a seemingly impossible complement of drivers, processing and amp modules into a very tidy package. The three-way enclosure houses 2 x horn-loaded 10-inch drivers, 2 x five-inch horn-loaded mids, and 4 x 0.7-inch HF devices. This firepower is driven by five Class D amps (delivering a total of 2.1kW continuous) boasting 135dB @ 1m for one enclosure, along with 65Hz–18kHz ±3dB frequency response and 100° horizontal dispersion (6dB down). At less than 800mm across and 280mm high, it’s an impressive piece of design.
Squeezing eight highly efficient drivers into a compact enclosure is one thing but to achieve the party tricks Martin Audio are justifiably proud of takes some sophisticated software and a decent amount of processing grunt.
Martin’s Display2.1 software does things a little differently to your average modelling program. Don’t panic, I won’t start talking about chess again. Once you punch in a 2D model of the room geometry (see top right), you then help Display2.1 to distinguish between the stage, the ceiling, the audience and other no-go areas (like a balcony front). Display2.1 will give you the hang height and splay for the number of elements you have in the truck. All fairly normal thus far. Except in the way the software does its coverage plots. Called IndexPlot it shows a 2D slice through the venue, allowing you to see how loud the array is at all measuring positions and at all frequencies. It takes a little getting used to but once you’re accustomed, it’s a potent visualisation of the vertical domain.
From this point you can get your array in the air, whereby Martin’s VU-Net communication protocol (over Cat5) will send the onboard DSP processors the optimised EQ settings (along with the other DSP parameters). The approach is arguably more deliberate than what most system engineers have at their disposal — ie. tweak, tinker, measure, repeat — and takes advantage of the fact Display2.1 is addressing the system on a cellular level.
In fact, let’s not kid ourselves, that cellular level control is the game changer. You can have the most sophisticated software in the world but it’s not until you’re able to address every single driver individually does the ‘resolution’ of that tonal and SPL control increase exponentially. It’s like comparing a game of chequers to chess… after all, the biggest CPU in the world won’t make a game of chequers any more sophisticated.
EYEING OFF COMPACT
The large-format MLA has made a creditable international splash since its launch a few years ago. But without technical rider pressure from touring bands it wasn’t going to find much of a home in the crowded Australian rental market. The MLA Compact is a different kettle of fish. It’s a far more versatile beast with much broader appeal. A 12-box array will happily fill a 5000-seat venue, while a larger rig (up to 24) will take care of just about any festival gig Australia has to offer. Having heard the MLA Compact in action on a couple of occasions, there’s no doubting it’s a great-sounding, punchy system with great clarity and vocal reproduction — much like other high-quality competing medium-format systems from the likes of d&b, Adamson, EAW and others — but where Martin has stolen a march on its opposition is in control. The MLA Compact offers a superbly consistent performance across the entire audience area.
So who’s the MLA Compact for? Aspirational rental companies, willing to buy into MLA philosophy, will be rewarded with arguably the most technically advanced PA on the market today. The rental kit has everything you’ll need, including a road-ready tablet PC, rigging, dollies etc. Yes, there are companion subs as well. As for the price? Expect to pay much the same as the other ‘AAA’ rated mid-sized PA systems.
Installers will have access to the most ‘finess-able’ system on the market. The system can be remotely controlled and with the tools that are on offer, and the level of modelling sophistication, system designers will be in hog’s heaven.
MLA Compact couldn’t have existed not that long ago. Fortunately with highly efficient/low weight amplification, lightweight switched mode PSUs, ever more sophisticated DSP talking to today’s grunty portable PCs, a ‘multi-cellular array’ like this is possible. Undeniably it is a step forward and there is no question that in coming years we’ll see other manufacturers doing something similar under a variety of other three-letter acronyms. But for the moment, when it comes to being ‘the thinking man’s PA’, Martin Audio is the only game in town.