Upward Mobility in the Club WorldA NEW GENERATION OF MID-SIZE P.A. SYSTEMS 3/01/2008 7:00 AM Eastern
Maybe it's because high-end audio technology is finally reaching lower price points or simply because generations of outdated, ratty P.A. systems are falling apart, but the result is the same: The overall quality of installed club and theater systems is improving. As line arrays replace conventional boxes and digital consoles become the norm, more acts are content to leave their systems in the truck and run the house rig. We took a sampling of rooms across the country and found some pretty serious audio systems that have become a permanent part of the club tour circuit.
First stop is Biloxi, Miss., where after surviving the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, the Hard Rock Live Biloxi built a new room and hired Orlando, Fla.-based Technomedia to install the new L-Acoustics P.A. According to production manager Maxie Williams, who has toured with Marilyn Manson, Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains, “When they hired me, they came to me with the equipment list and asked if I thought it would work for this room. It was awesome, huge overkill for the room! I told them not only will it work, but it will be phenomenal because I won't have engineers coming in here starved for headroom.”
The new system comprises 13 V-DOSC line array cabinets per side, but the room's size and capacity (1,500) requires only eight boxes per side. “We have seven V-DOSC front-fills on the downstage edge, plus fills that underhang the balcony, time-aligned to the main P.A.,” he says. “Everything is powered with the L-Acoustics 48A amps made by Lab. Gruppen, so there's plenty of power. Stage wedges are Clair 12AM with the proprietary QSC/Clair power amps. Sidefills are Clair R4s and the subs are Clair, and we have a complete set of Shure Beta Series mics.
“I have a rack built into the amp room for the 16 monitor mixes,” Williams continues, “and it's set up so that you can do soft patches at the monitor desk. Most of the system is on fiber. The only place we use copper is from the stage to the mic preamps. We have two 48×16 snakes made by Optocore, which include the mic preamps and A/D converters. Once the signal has been converted to digital, it goes directly to the cards in the back of two Yamaha PM5Ds — one for house and one for monitors. Optocore makes its own expansion card for the 5D, so we load the software, pop the cards in and the 5Ds remotely control the Optocore pre's.”
Williams admits that the system did need a few adjustments. “Originally, the floor was painted concrete. It was flooded by Katrina, so I thought if we ever come back after Katrina, we ought to put a light carpet in here. They ordered a shallow grade of indoor/outdoor carpet for the room. A lot of the room was treated with 4×8-foot sections of 2.5-inch insulated acoustic panels, but the front of the balcony was Sheetrock: hard and reflective, and you'd get slap from the balcony back to the deck. I suggested we cover the entire front of the balcony — the surface that faces the stage — to get rid of the reflections. It's those little things that really help the engineer. When the room is empty during soundcheck, it sounds pretty good, and with 1,500 people in here it sounds even better.
“The coolest thing is in the morning at load-in to watch the house and monitor engineers walk in the door. Every engineer says the same thing. They look left and then look right on the deck and invariably say, ‘Dude, you think you got enough P.A. in here?!’”
Meanwhile, in a green space 30 feet above the streets of New York City in an area known as High Line Park, a new venue called the HighLine Ballroom has hosted acts such as Paul McCartney, Carlos Santana, Amy Winehouse, Mos Def and James Blunt since opening in April 2007. Outfitted with a Yamaha PM5D-RH at FOH and a Yamaha M7CL desk at monitors, the venue's P.A. was intended to accommodate a wide range of artists. Amit Peleg is the president of Peltrix (Purdys, N.Y.), and was responsible for the new system's design and install.
“We chose JBL VerTec speakers, dbx DriveRack processing, Crown i-Tech amps and Yamaha PM5D-RH [FOH] and M7CL [monitor} consoles because, based on artist riders from all genres of music, those are the most frequently requested brands and models,” Peleg says. “You can never please everybody. But with these models, we hit the majority. And if those brands are not their first choice, most can live with it. It is virtually impossible to hang or stack ‘guest’ P.A. here because of either weight-load limitation or stage sightline, so we had to install a system everybody could work with.”
“We installed a very flexible wiring system that allows guest engineers to insert their own consoles, both for FOH and monitors, without affecting the house configuration,” he adds. “In addition, a recording truck can be parked outside and be up and running with a single snake run in a few minutes.”
The house array is all JBL VerTec, including six VT4888DPs, four ASB6128Vs and two ASB6128 subs, as well as VP7212/95DPAN fills; delayed balcony arrays comprise two VT4888DPs and two VT4882DP subs. Outboard gear at the house position includes a Tascam DV-RA1000 and two dbx DriveRack 4800s; an additional DriveRack 4800 located in monitorland provides processing for the sidefills and drum mix. Processing for the monitor wedges is via DSPs built into the Crown iTech amps.
Halfway across the United States, the Memorial Auditorium (Pittsburgh, Kans.) recently received a system overhaul, which had not been updated since 1984. The new system was designed and installed by MSM Systems Inc. in nearby Lawrence, Kans. According to MSM president Kent Clasen, “The community is very active in theater, and now they can increase the level of their music productions. We're very pleased with the Nexo loudspeakers, and the Yamaha M7CL-48 [board] with the digital CobraNet transport works extremely well and has the lowest noise floor of any system I have heard.”
The 16 Nexo GEO S8 line array speakers are powered by three QSC PL380 amps. “The small size of the GEO S8 is conducive to the sensitive nature of the aesthetics in many performance spaces,” he explains. “They are only 16 inches wide, so usually the first time people see them, they say, ‘Are those little things the new speaker system?’ Then when they hear them, they are amazed. We still specify a long enough array to get reasonable vertical control of the lower frequencies.”
The main stereo L/R array comprises seven 5-degree vertical cabs with a horizontal pattern of 80 or 120 degrees. One 30×120 cabinet provides downfill, and two high-power QSC PL380s provide amplification for the main arrays. Signal processing for the mains is via the Nexo NX242; a QSC PL380 provides amplification for the existing EAW SB1000 subs. CobraNet was chosen to reduce ground noise between the console and amp room on the second floor, as well as to lower costs of cable runs.
Boasting a digital audio system that can be used with equal success for sound reinforcement, digital recording and digital radio simulcast is the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, Calif. This system was spec'd by Steve Bauer, owner of Audio Video Innovations (also in Redwood City) and is built around a 48-channel Digidesign VENUE augmented by a Pro Tools HD3 Accel recording rig with an extensive set of plug-ins.
Bauer explains that he met with a bit of resistance to installing a digital system in the theater. “I design and install audio distribution systems on a daily basis, so the benefits of digital technology are clear to me,” he says. “But many sound engineers had the attitude of, ‘This will never fly. I learned on analog and that's what I'll continue to use.’ In two years, what a change. Now, 92 percent of the acts coming in here embrace the technology once they see what it can offer them.
“The Pro Tools HD system gives engineers the ability to record a soundcheck and play it back while the musicians are off having dinner,” he continues. “It allows the opportunity to experiment with different plug-ins and compare them for sonic attributes. When Randy Newman came in here, we used two vocal microphones and four piano mics. Once we got his wedges to where he was happy, soundcheck was over. Recording the soundcheck gave us the ability to sit there and try different plugs, like tape saturation or various compressors for his lead vocal mic. It sounded fantastic, and at the end of the night Randy said he felt like he was performing in his living room — a great compliment to us. We had the ability to really fine-tune the sound, but he didn't have to sit around for hours waiting for us. It's a tremendous advantage.”
That's not the only muscle that digital audio is flexing at the Fox Theatre. “The theater has a complete digital infrasructure,” continues Bauer. “By interfacing the VENUE with a wireless Ethernet router, engineers can mix their show via laptop from any seat in the house. Location of the front-of-house mix position is somewhat of a compromise. Do you give up those prime seats for a visiting engineer? Or do you compromise the position of FOH so that the best seats can be sold to patrons. Now, there is no compromise. You can take the laptop to the sweet spot and do anything you need to correct the mix.”
Bauer has also observed that when it comes to providing content, “Digital is king. The Fox has the capability — while doing a show and mixing — to send a 2-track feed through the VPN [Virtual Private Network] so that a truck from a content-delivery company like XM or Sirius Satellite can park nearby the venue and pick up the VPN. They can send a simulcast for a national act performing at the theater without laying down a cable to access the audio stream. In addition, recorded audio can be transferred via DigiDelivery for acts who want to have their tracks instantly delivered digitally to the studio of their choice for remix and mastering.
“Many of the acts from the late '70s and earlier do not have much material in digital format,” he continues. “A house system like ours can create content for them while performing a show. House mix CDs or USB sticks could even be sold after the show to the audience. In the near future, we see this expanding to cell phone delivery, as well as e-mail delivery. Digital technology is here to stay, and to be an early adapter to ‘digital content delivery’ is really great. I feel it gives us an edge as the front-runners as more and more acts embrace the future.
“We also rent the Fox to acts that are rehearsing for upcoming tours. By using the VENUE board, Pro Tools and a USB stick, the engineer can tweak via virtual soundcheck and create snapshots of all the mix settings on a per-song basis, including effect and MIDI triggers, as well as all EQ and gain structure. Once satisfied with the overall mix, the engineer can create a snapshot and save it to a memory stick. With the VENUE applied to the act's rider, they simply take the memory stick to each show and load it in. The amount of pre-show work required is basically reduced to stage setup and room EQ.”
Of course, the Fox also incorporates a first-rate P.A. built around 16 JBL VerTec VT4888 line array boxes and four JBL 4880 subs for the house. The monitor system features a Soundcraft MH4820 console, and EAW SM200s and SM500 monitors. All power is supplied by various vintage Crest amps.
It's clear that the future of live audio lies in the digital realm. It's taken a long time for that technology to trickle into the club and theater market, but now that we're seeing digital consoles in the $10,000 to $15,000 range, we can expect that those old analog workhorses will be replaced with their PCM counterparts, enhancing audio quality and making the lives of traveling engineers easier. We'll also see a “retrofit” of smaller venues with digital infrastructure, facilitating digital networks akin to the one at the Fox Theatre. Technology will not only raise the quality level, but will make the audio datastream more accessible for storage, transfer and delivery to content providers.
In addition to being Mix's sound reinforcement editor, Steve La Cerra mixes front of house for Blue Öyster Cult.