ANDY MAY: MY JOURNEY TO MLA
So there I was, the summer of 1993, just 30 years old and I'd just been offered my first proper 'FOH' tour with a 'current' pop artiste. Sure, I'd had years on the road with the theatre, cabaret & comedy artistes of the time, but getting a crack at mixing a modern artist that my young colleagues and parents had actually heard of was something of a coup. I loved my music, I listened to it all the time, Rock, Pop, Soul, Blues, I couldn't get enough of it and all I wanted to do was be involved in mixing sound at live concerts.
So I embarked on my first headline tour across the UK with a young girl singer called Dina Carroll. Hugely talented in the vocal department, history might suggest that she proved stubborn to her management and record company, but in my view not enough was made of this young lady's career, because she was a great singer whose flame faded away far too soon. This success gave me the opportunity to work with more established acts, and during the 90's, I found myself on larger across the world tours with Brian May, The Pretenders, Lionel Richie, Gary Moore, Jeff Beck, and many others. I've never taken any of this granted and I feel blessed to have made a decent living out of something that I would do as a hobby.
Anyway, onto audio stuff. For this first tour I armed myself with a Yamaha PM4000 (still missed), and a bunch de'riguer outboard of the day,- Drawmer 201's, BSS 402's, some dBx 160's, SPX 900, Lexicon 480L, Eventide H3000 etc, etc,. all attached by a bunch of EDAC looms, XLR & jack cables to the trusty Yamaha. This kit never, ever failed me, sure, there were days when spurious noises, buzzes and hisses seemed to arrive from nowhere,- we fiddled and pushed and pulled connectors and somehow we just got on with it,- the show always happened, and as we all know, the show always has to happen, some times not as we'd like, but it always happens.
This control system inevitably had to be attached to a speaker system- and Oh my Lord, there were some oddments of PA design. We did shows with Court Black Box, Nexo SI 2000's, EAW 850's, Meyer MSL3's, TMS 3's, Martin RS1200's F1/F2- you name it if was invented after 1975 I've probably mixed on it.
In late 1993, the new thing from Martin Audio was to be the 'Wave Front 8'. At the time it seemed to me it was another evolution of the F2, except it was trapezoidal and you couldn't re-arrange the cabinet format - but it was expected to be flown, and regularly. It came coupled with a master class of horn loaded sub bass design called the WSX, a large box loaded with just one 18" driver, that had a sound to die for. Perhaps not that efficient, you needed loads of them, but I loved it, proper deep bass that actually had some tone and a sound. And the system had a 'Digital' programmable x-over' in the form of a BSS Omnidrive - all powered by Crown Macrotech 1200's, Bliss, I was in heaven...
Alongside these 'new' speaker systems that seemed to crop up frequently from Martin, Turbo Sound, Nexo, EAW etc was a little known thing called L Acoustics v-Dosc...
I looked at this v-Dosc 'line array thing', I read some reviews and completely discounted the vertical system, and it looked rubbish so it must sound shit, right? Well clearly time and experience has proved us all wrong, we have all had to accept that the vertical alignment brings us much more coherence and intelligibility,- no question.
There have now been many manufacturers over the last 20 years (Yes 20 Years!) attempting to improve and move forward with the original idea of Christian Heils v-Dosc line array. Most companies have just chosen to copy the idea, or modify the dimensions to avoid lawsuit copyright issues. Some others have tried their own re interpretation of the idea, without much success. I have probably mixed on all these systems at one time or another, and if any one of them had been 'that good' I would have taken notes to request it again, frankly the L Acoustics v-Dosc stood the test of time very well.
Move to 2012, and Martin Audio decide to showcase another new vertical looking system, (I yawned a bit, Longbow & LC was perfect for what I was doing with Status Quo). I went to the 'techie' launch at Wembley Arena- not the best empty venue in the world to test a new PA system - so I thought it was a brave challenge and I was intrigued too be told that it isn't a line array.?.... It looks like a line array, rigs like a line array...
So I'm thinking, 'What's going on here?'
Clearly the R&D team, and in particular the quietly spoken Ambrose, had spent many very long nights conceptualising and number crunching - and I'd like to think he was accompanied by a large glass of single malt whilst listening to Genesis!
But looks, rigging and jokes aside, Martin Audio wanted to redefine the concept of loudspeaker design with a clear focus on what the audience hears, wherever they are in the room. MLA's combination of individually driven cells and automated optimisation delivers much more consistent sound across the audience, puts an end to trial-and-error tuning sessions (yes!) and reduces sound spill – both on stage and for sensitive noise pollution areas.
My first tour with MLA was with the full size box in autumn of 2012, we were playing mid/large Arena's in Europe and Scandinavia, it worked well, particularly in the large venues, with predictive, great results each night. It was slightly trickier in mid size venues, especially with balconies and 'blind' areas, but at the end of the night we were still winning, thanks to the MLA magic.
However, the Jewell in the Crown for me is the introduction of the MLA Compact - what a fantastic piece of kit- all the joys of MLA, but so much more adaptable. I recently completed an extensive European tour and a UK Arena tour (including the O2 in London) only using Compact. The act I work for is quite loud and expect it to be powerful and detailed- and no one was disappointed.
Obviously lots of trickery is going on inside this system that I'll never understand, but as a sound engineer, do I need to know the amount of algorithms that are being calculated every millisecond? Surely my job is to mix as well as I can, and I can now do that without being distracted. This system performs flawlessly, I can't exactly tell how it does it, I've mixed loads of shows on it, looked at it diagnostics during the gig and I'm baffled, but I've just had to let go, which isn't easy for a guy that is used to setting up his own crossover points and hanging angles etc...
Without wanting to sound poetic or melancholy, it means I can actually enjoy mixing 'music' instead of it becoming a technical endurance test every night.
I started in this career because I love music, and being able to mix it without sound reinforcement compromise has hugely improved the job that I love doing.
Of course technology moves on and if I'm still mixing in 10 years time I'm sure Martin Audio will have another product to take its place, but they'll have to work very hard to improve on the MLA concept.
In the meantime, I'll enjoy mixing music.
Photo credit: Diana Johnson/Jotolio.com