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Q&A: Roy Clair

In this Mix magazine interview, Clair Bros co-founder Roy Clair talks about the past, present and future of live sound reinforcement industry

Semi-retired audio fanatic Roy Clair started out experimenting with sound in his garage and went on to co-found one of the world’s largest sound reinforcement companies, Clair Bros. (now Clair Global).

What was it like for you starting Clair back in the ’60s?

Back in those days, there wasn’t a [sound reinforcement] industry. People didn’t do tours; they just did buildings. So if you had five or six colleges, etc., close to you, you did sound for those facilities. And then in 1966, the Four Seasons took my brother [Gene Clair] and me on the road with them, and that was the beginning of our business as a touring sound company. [That experience] was surreal — we kept pinching ourselves because we didn’t think anyone could have this good of a time working. As the slogan goes, it certainly didn’t seem like work. If one could turn their hobby into their occupation, it really helps because you’re doing something you really want to do. And then working for entertainers is exciting, gratifying!

After more than four decades in the biz, you’ve seen some incredible changes. What has been the most striking?

In the financial area, where it got very businesslike about 15, 20 years ago. The groups more or less gave control to the accountants and that changed business somewhat. Instead of selecting companies because they may be better, perhaps it could have been about the price. Production managers are usually making the decisions and they have a lot of experience in the business so it doesn’t all translate into a per-week price, because in some instances some companies take less time to get in, get up, get out. Production managers know who they can rely on as far as saving money while touring. So what comes in as a per-weekly isn’t always the overall consideration. Sometimes it translates into production managers’ knowledge of who can save them the most money by taking less space and going up faster and getting out quicker.

We’re extremely lucky because we’re positioned globally — there were times when groups didn’t like the fact that they had to ship their gear from one country to another. Now, most companies have satellites and offices abroad, so we’re saving money by virtue of having equipment on all continents. Everyone takes that for granted, but it happened rather quickly and went unnoticed. Smaller, more powerful amplifiers increased sound system wattage, and speaker manufacturers increased the power handling capability of the transducers, allowing greater power in a smaller area.

The line array was a big change, going from large hanging arrays to line arrays. I think it helped and was a good change. “Smaller, more powerful” seems to work better because it doesn’t take as much trucking. The industry is very sophisticated with its trucking, its busing, catering, lighting, sound and video. Obviously, the industry has gotten better because of technology.

Lately, the biggest issue in live sound concerns wireless technology and the use of white spaces. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, it’s going to affect everyone so it’s not like one of us is in the wrong boat. As always, there is a Plan B. In some cases, wireless is very popular, but if a problem arises, I’m sure cable can come back into play without creating a catastrophe. For Broadway, it’s a bit more critical, but for rock ‘n’ roll, entertainers used to use cables, so there’s no reason why they can’t go back to cables in the event that wireless is out. Obviously, everyone’s going to have to adjust. There’s always Plan B — whatever that is.

Now that you’re semi-retired from Clair, how do you keep your love of audio alive?

Years ago, Clair Bros. started another company — Clair Bros Install division — to allow employees who’d come off the road after “X” amount of years and started families to stay in the sound business by installing sound equipment in facilities. I’m at the age where I don’t want to travel either, so this lends itself to being able to stay at home and engineer for an install. What we’ve been doing over the last 42 years [at Clair, touring] is translatable to the install business, with the capability of getting the system in quickly. The expectation we’ve had over the years in setting up equipment quickly translates into an install business where those people don’t want to spend a lot of money or time installing equipment, so we’re developing equipment that cuts down on time to get it in. I’ve been having fun helping that division. Am I not lucky?!

After all these years in the business, what piece of advice would you give to up-and-coming engineers?

I’ll make it simple: Don’t think about money, just do the job. I know that sounds trite, but nevertheless it works. The money will come, just do the job.

Sarah Benzuly is the group managing editor at Mix, EM and Remix magazines.