Real World of PA Purchasing
What should be the key rationale behind a new PA purchase? Howard Page, Senior Director of Engineering, Clair Global, lifts the lid on touring sound systems rental reality.
A permanently installed sound system greatly benefits from careful design: an entirely bespoke loudspeaker design individually tailored to the geometry of the space, the music being reproduced and the aural preferences of the owner can all be addressed.
Concert touring loudspeaker systems are an entirely different kettle of fish. Do the current generation of concert loudspeaker systems have sonic differences? Of course. Are these sonic differences the principal reason for buying one system over another? Absolutely not.
There’s a growing contingent of very clever audio system designers who point out that there are inherent flaws in the modern line array paradigm. Fair enough; they’re quite correct. There are flaws.
As someone who has been intimately involved with the concept, design and final factory tunings of multiple line array designs over the years there is one huge factor that is missing from those attempting to eliminate the known line array deficiencies and that is the reality for a large sound company of owning, managing and actually deploying a (very) large inventory of speaker systems.
The problems start when you have systems designs, attempting to correct some of these flaws, that comprise a number of models/variants hung together to form a full system large enough to cover the audience area for a particular show.
NON-IDENTICAL VARIANTS. NO THANKS
From many, many years of experience — first owning and currently being an executive of a large sound company — and previous attempts to manage a line array system design that required separate non-identical variants of speakers to form the whole array, I can tell you quite categorically: it becomes totally unmanageable.
For a company operating on one continent it may yet be workable but for a company with worldwide offices and dramatically varying inventory totals required in various parts of the world based on seasonal touring artists requirements, it is hard enough getting the right amount of like model speakers in the right places at the right time, let alone unbalanced quantities of unlike models. Trust me, it is a nightmare and our recent Clair Cohesion Speaker Systems have eliminated this problem with outstanding results, especially as it relates to the most vital considerations both financially and practically for a large sound company: ‘utilisation of equipment’.
Main Photo: College Hill Productions’ L-Acoustics K1 system at Spark Arena, Auckland.
Here’s the thing: accountants and tour production companies have figured out how sound companies and trucking companies work and charge for their services. And efficiency has become the most important factor.
Looking at this from those guys’ perspective, a modern sound system needs to: be lighter (easier to rig with less weight in difficult venues), smaller and truck modular (so it takes less trucks/truck space); go up and down quicker and easier (fewer highly-skilled and expensive crew/riggers required on the tour); and somewhere, as almost an afterthought, it needs to sound good or, at least, sound good enough such that the audience in the bad seats don’t demand their money back due to bad sound! Sound quality has slipped down the list of priorities, and I admit this is certainly a very sad state of affairs but believe me, it is the current reality. The truth is, those same accountants and tour production people rarely, if ever, get to sit out in the audience area at a show and actually hear the show’s sound.
But does this mean that tours and festivals are putting up with sub optimal sound systems? Not in my experience.
ONLY BAD DRIVERS
In my last few years of world touring, using (what seems like) a different brand/model of line array for every show, I agree with most on this topic: there really are no bad new line arrays, just bad users. Certainly I have heard many line array brands sound very good but I have also heard those very same line arrays sound awful (mainly at multi-act festivals where I have had a very immediate, direct comparison).
So, I want to make it very clear: if you call yourself a real live sound engineer and have really honed your craft, understand system tuning and optimisation and can actually mix music correctly you should be able to get a very good-to-excellent result out of any current-design line array system in almost any venue!
As for the production companies? You can’t blame them for choosing equipment the accountants and tour production personnel want; are easy to wrangle and deploy; and stand the greatest chance of delivering a profitable tour for their employer — the artist!