State of the Sound Reinforcement Industry

Jan 1, 1999 12:00 PM, Mark Frink

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This will be a year to remember. Heading into the Y2K election year, there will be a lot of special events, and everyone who's not on tour (or on the guest list) will be buying concert tickets "like it's 1999." At the same time, changes in both the business climate and technology are transforming the craft of live sound. A sample of opinions from a few leading North American sound companies reveals the outlook for sound reinforcement in the last months of the 20th century.

CHANGES IN THE BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT Everyone we spoke to predicted tighter competition for touring services. "I see the standard kind of tours that have gone out for the past 20 years on a downward cycle," notes Ken Porter of Spectrum Sound, Nashville. Increased competition for entertainment dollars and leisure time has created a "spectacle mentality" that favors large-scale productions, which in turn seem to get larger just to show a profit for everyone concerned. And, whereas an act's touring sound company could once operate fairly auto-nomously-separate from lighting, video projection and concessions-today's production extravaganzas require a great deal more co-operation and multitasking. "The sole focus of a touring sound company used to be doing the best possible job, right down to the J-box on stage," notes Dave Shadoan of Sound Image, San Marcos, Calif. "Today everybody is doing an exceptional job, but when you have to diversify into other areas, you lose some of your focus."

Another trend that many noted is that the length of tours has shortened. With shorter tour legs, trucking expenses make up a pro- portionally larger chunk of the budget. Michael Jackson of Pro-Media (www.promediausa.com) points out that more acts are picking up quality regional sound instead of carrying one company across the country. John "Klondike" Koehler agrees. "An artist can head for a particular region and pick up a company with state-of-the-art speakers for less than it would cost to bring it across country," says Koehler, who sees regional touring as the greatest growth area for mid-sized companies. In fact, Klondike Sound (www.klondikesound.com) has built a solid reputation in New England as a regional vendor, but is also touring for the third year with folk phenom Ani DiFranco.

"There's an increasing impetus to look at the bottom line in tour service bidding," says Tom Source of A-1 Audio, Los Angeles (www. a1audio.com). "The market is very competitive, not only for top-quality audio, but also good value." Source points out that larger pro audio companies are making increased efforts to diversify, so that no single market segment controls cash flow.

CONSOLIDATION "The most interesting change that's not over yet in sound is the consolidation trend, not just from content providers, like SFX, but also on the service provider end," continues Source. "By buying Bash, Cinema Services, LSD, Vanco, Production Arts and Roth, Production Resource Group [PRG] has already become the world's largest lighting company, and I think a similar consolidation will happen in audio." The recent merger of UltraSound and ProMedia, Clair's purchase of MD Systems, and PRG's acquisition of ProMix underline this consolidation trend and illustrate efforts to provide packaged production services to large users who prefer to deal with a single vendor.

Source points to the economy of scale that can result when duplicated resources are eliminated. "Let's say you have three audio companies in a metropolitan area," he explains. "If they consolidate, they can increase the market base while decreasing overhead." Front office and transportation costs could be lower, while inventory can be expanded from the larger pool of resources being applied to a wider market. "I do believe the margins are there if the administration is properly thought through and there are savings in the consolidation, but you still have to maintain a high level of customer service and support," Source adds. "The fourth leg of the table is the better utilization of assets." He notes that the success of such consolidations will be determined by the new companies' ability to maintain service and profits while at the same time merging a variety of cultures.

"In the corporate realm, there has also been a roll-up of small companies into large firms like Carabiner, AVHQ and PGI," adds ProMedia's Jackson. "Some are handling this transition better than others, but they no longer need to subcontract entertainment packages from traditional vendors because of the inventories they've accumulated through consolidation. On the other hand, many individual corporate producers who used to work for the smaller companies are now working independently and appreciate the personal touch we bring."

TRENDS IN TECHNOLOGY The old adage that "a good engineer can make any P.A. sound good" has always been true, but the number of quality concert systems on the road from a variety of vendors has never been greater, largely due to past and current investments in better technology. However, many of those interviewed predicted that a generational change in technology will soon begin. "Pro audio is going to become more digital, eventually migrating all the way to the power amps," suggests Scott Harmala, director of engineering at AudioTek (www.atkcorp.com). "Some day the quality of digital sound will come close enough that you'd be hard-pressed to tell it from analog, but the potential for signal integrity throughout a large, complex system, plus its recallability and resettability, are the real keys to [digital's] future success." Harmala points out that the biggest challenge facing manufacturers is connectivity and interoperability of digital control and signals. "Maybe the AES spec is the way to go," he comments. "It's difficult to get everybody to agree on a particular format or protocol, but it's simply got to happen for digital technology to break loose." The AES standard will be published later this year.

"There are a few manufacturers that have already developed technology that is close to the proposed standard," says Jeff Barryman of Jason Sound (www.westsun.com), who chairs the AES's SC-10-2 committee. He expects that other manufacturers with proprietary technology will soon produce gateways to translate to and from the standard protocol, including MIDI gateways. "I'll go out on a limb and predict that by this summer we'll have it," Barryman says.

Barryman further comments that touring sound systems are less often configured in the traditional "monolithic" style. "We're seeing a lot of work where the venue size varies radically over the course of a single tour," he explains. "That, plus the trend toward diversification, whereby inventory utilization is maximized, is forcing us all to make our systems more versatile and flexible." Barryman also notes a resurgence of interest in line arrays. "There's a lot of sound companies laughing quietly because they've been doing this for years," Barryman comments, "but I must say that V-DOSC has brought a level of analytical precision to the management of line arrays for which they deserve a lot of credit."

"Lightweight amplifiers have, at long last, been accepted as viable products," adds Koehler. "I think we'll see other manufacturers following suit." Another trend that he and Jackson point out is the acceptance of self-powered loudspeakers, which can provide benefits including fewer racks, less truck and stage space, quicker setups and multiple zones control. "It seems like P.A.s are getting smaller, and I think that's because manufacturers are getting better," Jackson continues. "We've had a couple of situations where the artist's engineer has pre-judged the speakers' ability because of their size, when in fact they were more than enough."

DIGITAL CONTROL AND MEASUREMENT FFT measurement of speaker systems via either SIM or Smaart Pro is becoming the standard rather than the exception. As laptops improve and their costs come down, it becomes more practical to set up and optimize sound systems with the aid of software. "One nice thing about Smaart Pro is that it speaks MIDI, and you're able to have your computer add some speed and convenience to setting EQ filters," notes Jackson. Koehler adds: "I'm interested in solving acoustical problems without more processing."

Source notes the increased use of digital control devices from BSS and XTA. "Even if a [loudspeaker] manufacturer has a processing box, these are getting substituted," he points out. "Also, the communications backbone has become a critical link in large special events, which is why we've made investments in fiber optics and switching technology."

Harmala acknowledges the role fiber plays in large-scale productions, but points out that swapping the passive copper wires in a traditional snake to something that's active can introduce gain structure problems. For example, splitting the digital signal to the various consoles used in live sound poses a knotty gain management problem, since someone has to control the gain stage at the head end of a digital transmission system. "Sooner or later, someone is forced to tweak a channel's trim so that their fader is in the right place, affecting the operators of the other consoles which now all live downstream of the first preamp," Harmala explains.

Not everyone is fully committed to digital control. "We're contemplating leaving the digital domain," reports Shadoan of Sound Image. "After five years of trying digital processors, we've concluded that our P.A. never sounded as good as with our old Phase-Loc analog card-frame crossovers, and we want to take that a step further. Right now we're in the process of researching a system controller for our G-5 speakers using Class A circuitry." Besides an all-analog drive rack, Sound Image is refining the "above-the-box" rigging on the bumper-bar side of their speakers and also completely re-engineering their drive snakes. "We're going to new connectors borrowed from the aerospace industry," says Shadoan.

LOOKING FOR NEW PRODUCTS Digital consoles were last year's buzz in the studio industry, and everyone we spoke to is looking forward to a digital board that will interface with outboard electronics processing at the FOH position. "We're also looking into 24/96 technologies-new digital front end components we buy will meet that standard," says Source, who is also examining alternatives and improvements in AC power and distribution, particularly balanced power.

"We're waiting for a couple of players to come to market with their digital console," notes Harmala. "Our approach to new technology is to embrace it, yet be very cautious until we're confident and it's proven itself. We do a lot of multiple-act shows, so resettability is a big issue for us."

Jackson is also waiting for a satisfactory digital live console. "On current digital live consoles, if I have to make a really fast EQ move on a channel, I've got two or three buttons to push before I can adjust the EQ," he notes. "I have yet to see a nice hybrid-a console that feels comfortable, has the benefits of instant recall and doesn't cost a million bucks."

"We bought a lot of stuff this past year," was a common response. "We'll concentrate on width in inventory that enables us to serve a broader market with more simultaneous deployment," says Koehler. "I'd like to see the [Meyer] PSW-6 on a smaller scale. It's an incredible problem solver, but it's a bear."

"Our inventory includes loudspeakers and amplifiers that we'll eventually replace," notes Jackson. "Immediate efforts have been 'nuts and bolts' oriented, trying to make the gear that we have do more, be more flexible and work in more different situations. We're not looking for any big-ticket items just now."

Perhaps the last word belongs to Sound Image's Shadoan, who points out that the return on investment in the sound rental business has been declining for years. "Sure, shorter tours and tighter budgets [have hurt profitability], but I think ticket sales were off," Shadoan says. "I look at the movies as a parallel industry that was in trouble and kind of reinvented itself, from both a marketing and a technological standpoint; we need to do the same."

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