Changes in the Live Sound Industry: ISE Panel Insights

We're focusing on some of the latest developments from the world of pro AV to learn about how new technology innovations shape the workflows and practices of those who spend time behind the faders.  
Changes in the Live Sound Industry: ISE Panel Insights
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As technologies and workflows evolve, AV professionals must progress, too. One such area of growth has been within manufacturers and sound engineers, who have developed into enthusiasts and scientists, resulting in a much more consistent performance across diverse settings.

Speaking at Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) 2024, a diverse panel brought forth decades of experience in the live sound and touring markets, contributing with their wealth of expertise and insights accumulated over the years. Dom Harter, Managing Director of Martin Audio Ltd; Adam Pierce, Director of Karno; and Phil Wright, Managing Director of Phil Wright Sound Limited, spoke with Stew Hume, Editor for Total Production International, to expand on how new technology innovations are shaping the workflows and practices of those that spend time behind the faders. 

Challenges in Live Sound Control 

With these changes come some growing pains. Controlling space in terms of distribution becomes challenging when individuals choose different listening points. Within this challenge, the emphasis on various roles becomes crucial, as the panel believes it can significantly impact the overall experience.

Two key issues have increasingly surfaced. Despite efforts with standard binaries and live sound setups, the discrepancy between what the engineer hears and what the audience perceives in each space is more pronounced than 50 years ago. Another aspect relates to live gigs, particularly in cities like London. A notable example is Clapham Common, where 25,000 people gather, and there's a designated measurement point at 56 decibels. Exceeding this threshold requires adjustments. Vast distances experience a similar drop-off in sound levels. However, by focusing on ensuring consistency within the audience area, both in the back and front, and maintaining uniformity throughout, it is possible to achieve an overall level increase of three to six decibels. In the realm of a concert, such a difference, like going from nine to three over five minutes, can determine whether the audience stays or decides to leave.

The panel agreed that this focus on consistency has been an ongoing priority for most players in live sound.

Analogue to Digital Journey 

In the early 90s, the only digital component commonly found on a gig was the delays. At that time, analogue was deemed straightforward and practical, while digital posed challenges. But the landscape has undergone a complete transformation. Today, everything, from control surfaces and mixing consoles to processing units and amplifiers, is entirely digital. This comprehensive digitization has led to significantly enhanced audio quality, marking a notable improvement from the live sound experiences of 30 years ago. Tools such as adjusting crossover points were used to shape sound systems. Now, especially in the realm of mathematical optimization and design software, control is facilitated through sophisticated mathematical routines.

Much of this transformation involves IT infrastructure, such as Ethernet, which has become integral. Ethernet wasn't a part of the equation before, but now it's omnipresent. The growing demand has led to earlier involvement of System Engineers, introducing more intricate work that may not have been present during initial system checks. However, the outcome is a remarkable improvement in show consistency and results.

The panel pointed out that among all the roles in the audio team, System Engineers have likely undergone the most fundamental shifts, requiring substantial skill changes over the course of their careers. 

Live sound systems now traverse various scientific disciplines, including engineering, mathematics, and, of course, acoustics. The emergence of roles like network engineers on the crew has become increasingly prevalent in larger shows. This is particularly crucial when dropping into venues with minimal existing infrastructure, necessitating the crew to bring everything they require.

Systems Engineering Perspective

In situations where there's virtually no existing infrastructure, and the crew needs to bring everything they require, there's a more significant context to consider beyond just production elements. People often require access to live information delivered over the web. Modern system devices report real-time data to remote monitors such as delay towers.  

In the role of network engineers, some individuals have come from diverse backgrounds, including live sound experiences. The shift toward network-centric roles has attracted individuals who, while possessing expertise as systems engineers, have also acquired knowledge in IP networking to meet contemporary requirements. In contrast to the past, where a single engineer might handle tasks like placing motors on the roof and managing loudspeaker rigging, the complexity of the modern engineering side has led to a more specialized approach. Nowadays, it's common to see a separation between systems engineers, responsible for the intricate engineering aspects, and PA riggers, handling the physical deployment of loudspeakers. This division recognizes the depth of expertise required for both aspects, acknowledging that overseeing the entire process from front to back is no longer a feasible approach. 

The Demand Side Approach 

In the audio industry, there's a growing audience seeking the next level of immersive show experiences. It's essential not to be misled by budget considerations. Manufacturers understand the need to design products that cater to various budgets, ensuring immersive tools are accessible. 

Interestingly, a panelist cited an example when a company wanted to target sponsorships for concerts and events. They based their decisions solely on the loudspeakers' logos visible during performances. They created a list ranking the loudspeakers they observed, assuming only one type existed. When questioned, they acknowledged that they hadn't considered variations or other options. 

There's a shift in focus from traditional stereo sound to more logical and natural sound distribution, emphasizing the importance of where the sound originates in a live event. Manufacturers are increasingly investing in creating practical solutions for this shift. 

In Summation

Looking forward, changes in the live sound industry should aim for fewer compromises for creatives in production. Manufacturers strive to provide tools that empower creatives to achieve their vision by addressing the limitations of different spaces. 

Advancements in technology, including the potential integration of AI, are continuously shaping the live sound industry. From a manufacturer's perspective, the shift has moved from hardware-focused innovations to significant developments in software. AI is proving valuable in the backend processes, such as control systems and acoustics, contributing to improved performance. 

However, when it comes to replacing skilled professionals like sound engineers, the current state of AI is still far from matching human capabilities, particularly in tasks requiring nuanced decision-making. There's an acknowledgment that AI is not ready to fully replace roles like sound engineers, and their expertise remains crucial. 

On a different note, advancements in consumer technologies are playing a role in influencing this industry. Leveraging these developments allows for cost-effective implementations that enhance the capabilities.  

The industry has made significant progress in education, but there's still work to be done to establish consistent standards globally. Collaboration and a shared commitment to raising overall standards will contribute to the industry's continued growth. Teaching and sharing knowledge are crucial for fostering innovation and overcoming challenges. Encouraging an open mindset, as demonstrated by artists and producers who think creatively about sound system placement, can lead to groundbreaking ideas and better outcomes. 

The future holds exciting possibilities as we continue to witness the intersection of technology and creativity. 

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This comprehensive analysis highlights the evolving landscape of live sound, emphasizing the indispensable role of skilled professionals amidst technological advancements.
it illuminates the profound influence of digital technology on live sound control, underscoring the significance of uniformity, cooperation, and the evolving expertise of industry practitioners.