Alright on the night

When it comes to music and entertainment sound quality is a number one concern. Anna Mitchell hears from integrators who have faced and overcome numerous challenges to providing systems capable of handling the most demanding criteria.

Sound quality and management is a huge part of the entertainment industry. In particular music events are often one-off affairs meaning reliable sound quality is key. Furthermore, whilst visuals and light shows add to the performance, essentially people have paid to hear the act.

For outdoor events, particularly music festivals, the considerations multiply. “A festival is quite a unique situation,” begins Emma Barwell, operations director of the London division of UK installation company SSE Audio Group. “You have to take into account how big your site is and what sort of coverage you’re going to be providing, for example at Glastonbury the main stage has to cater for up to 300,000 people, whereas the main stage at Reading festival might be 80,000 people. The shape and size also varies dramatically from site to site.”

“Coverage is always one of the most important things in an outdoor event, especially as you have to allow for noise considerations. For example, Glastonbury over the past few years has had a lot of issues with off-site noise that resulted in some extremely low levels imposed on them. And, of course people complained. Obviously if you’re going to a festival you pay a lot of money and if you can’t hear the bands you want to you’re going to be really angry.

“Because you’re outdoors noise problems are affected by many factors you wouldn’t have in a venue, one of which is wind. Wind has a major effect on how well sound transmits both on and off-site. On a windy day, particularly if you’re using a line-array, the engineer is going to get moments when he doesn’t hear the PA because literally the sound is being blown away. Suddenly you’ve got an enormous problem.”

A man who knows all about the issues with using line-array on windy sites is Ben Hyman, sales and marketing manager of VME, a UK based integrator with a particular focus on the entertainment, touring, broadcast and performing arts industries. His experience comes, in part, from handling sound requirements for Welsh music festival, Wakestock, which is held close to the coast on a very open site. His suggestion for a windy site is ditch the line-array.

“One of the fundamental flaws of line-array is that the top end will be moved around by the wind – it will freely move in the air. So if there is a high wind the top end isn’t going to get to the back of the site. And if you stand at the back of the site and hear the wind going you’ll actually hear the treble moving from left to right, almost as if it’s being steered – it will sound horrific.” For events like Wakestock Hyman relies on a point source system. “We still achieve the same SPL that we want to achieve but without needing to put a line array in.”

Moving indoors and considerations vary. Constadinos Charalampous, system engineer at Kraftwerk Living Technologies says it is important to carry out as much of the work as possible off-site and an important part of this is the use of sound modelling software. “We would use Meyer Sound’s MAPP online tool to do initial predictions so the customer can get an idea of how it will sound in 2D. When predictions are needed in 3D then we would use EASE.

“We do detailed predictions, detailed documentation, detailed schematics and electronic schematics for the installation teams in our workshops. Everything possible, including the racks, is prepared in-ooohouse and then we go to the site. Modelling software allows us to achieve high quality audio with as little time on site as possible, which is good for us and good for the customer. Also, when using a system like Meyer Sound means we can prepare the Galileo loudspeaker management system off-site, programming in all the delay time and equalisation that is needed. On-site all we would do is face alignment and the detailed work but, again, we get the audio quality with minimal time on-site.”

Preparation for Hyman is all about finding out as much information as possible. “Is there going to be live music in here? Does the orientation of the room change at all? This is where a brand like Kling & Freitag comes in. You don’t have to fiddle around with different settings for different genres of music. There’s hardly ever any tweaking you need to do when you’ve done an install to make a system sound right. It’s very flat on response and it’s nice to work with.”

In terms of preparation Barwell explains that for entertainment venues there’s a lot more to think about than what the customer says they want! “It’s about understanding the brief from the client and being able to anticipate what they’re going to want from the system in the future. For example, we’ve come across venues that have a very nice Nexo PS8 system put in, but what the client actually wants further down the line is a club sound system. Now, the PS8 is a really nice sounding speaker, but it's not designed for a thumping DJ set.

“What you often find with brand new venues is people tell you one thing but then the venue evolves very quickly into another and it’s about trying to find something that fits the design brief as well as fit the application.”

The Jeffrey Beers designed Sanctuary nightclub at the sprawling Atlantis hotel in Dubai demonstrates Barwell’s point. Ryan Marginson, who manages the upmarket venue, says the club was designed as more of a chill out lounge, a situation he wants to change as he strives to put it firmly on the map as a respected super-club.

“The lounge room has an ample amount of speakers all the way round it but not enough bass because there are only two small subwoofers,” Marginson explains. “On the terrace we don’t have any subs. There are little monitors, which are enough for BGM, but to get the super-club experience we need to upgrade the speakers and use the existing speakers to fill in other areas.”

So what’s the biggest challenge to creating high-quality sound in entertainment? “Architects,” laughs Charalampous. The quip represents a serious point as he explains it’s quite a task to convince the architect where the right position for a speaker is. “It’s ugly, it’s black, it’s white – it can be any colour you want; for an architect speakers are unsightly. We have to talk them into placing them correctly and we have to convince the customer of the importance of quality. We have to get rid of all this plastic cheap stuff. It’s a problem we face all the time. The customer sees the price of a unit and says for this price I could get two speakers from the market.”

Barwell echoes the sentiment explaining part of the battle is teaching the customer the importance of loudspeaker positioning and brand; quality of speaker equals quality of sound. However, she says it’s partly about compromise. “If you’re doing a really high spec bar, for example, nobody likes to see the speakers or bass cabinets. You’ve got to find a way of incorporating your system without it looking ugly and it’s got to sound good. The speakers have got to be in the right place, you’ve got to compromise in certain ways.

“When I look at an installation I look at products that I know are going to be reliable. You could buy a really cheap, what seems to be amazing, system from a company that’s been around for about half a year. It’s not very reliable and then the company goes bust because they don’t make a very good product and even though the venue has saved money on expenditure, in six months time they’ve got a product that no one can support. They’ve got problems.”

And of course, regardless of the customer or architect, some spaces are just a pain to work with. “We’ve just done an install in Shrewsbury [UK] which consists of loads of cellars,” offers Hyman by way of example. “The ceiling must be seven foot high and it’s full of arches. Each arch is about two metres high and it’s arch after arch left and right. So, wherever you look you’ve always got an arch in front of you. Distributing sound in there was very difficult because wherever you put a speaker you’re immediately facing a pillar. It’s about having the groundwork of the system, so lots and little. You distribute the audio as much as possible so don’t get dead spots or phase cancellation points. We solved the problem with a big system up front and then lots of little fill in speakers around the rest of the venue, all delayed correctly, so it sounds really good.”

Software and analysis can be great tools for rental companies and installers alike. “These days because people spend a lot of money speaker systems you do a lot of planning in advance,” says Barwell. “Most manufacturers, especially line-array manufacturers, make their own software. These days they’re pretty good. EASE is very important for us and we use Meyer’s Mapp software, L-Acoustics’ Soundvision product and Nexo’s Geosoft.

Following installation Charalampous says to align the system Kraftwerk will generally use Meyer Sound’s SIM 3 audio analysis system. For simple installations he uses an NTI tool to make sure everything is fine and tuned correctly.

Hyman argues that testing in rental is largely about using your ears. “There’s a whole thing with engineers wandering around with a laptop and a microphone. They’ll say ‘well it looks fine on the laptop, therefore it sounds fine’. You get engineers that are more bothered about what the numbers say on the screen than what they’re actually listening to. But, at the end of the day, whatever system it is you’re working with, as a hire company, you should know how it goes together. You’ve invested in the system therefore you should know the performance characteristics of the box and what the audience figures are going to be. Then you just scale the system to the requirements.

“You follow the general requirements of whatever system you’ve got, whether it’s point source or line-array. You can use software to model the sound for line-array systems and, depending on the manufacturer, in some case point source systems too. It’s all about knowing how many you need to hang, what sort of angles you need. When you’re done stand in the middle, wander round and listen.

“There’s often a discrepancy between what engineers looking at numbers say looks good and what actually sounds good. At the end of the day a microphone isn’t the same as a human ear.”

From hearing the installers’ methods of working and their experiences it becomes apparent that there isn’t one formula you can follow to achieve quality sound. It’s more about fitting together all the pieces and creating a solution that handles possible eventualities and works for all parties concerned. Good quality equipment, unsurprisingly, is key and there are all sorts of technologies, tools (including ears) and equipment, to support engineers.

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