MLA &NDASH; YOUR FLEXIBLE FRIEND
By Simon Honywill
Time flies. We are all getting older by the minute (well I certainly am) – everything seems to happen so fast these days that breathing sometimes feels like time wasting. The rapidly evolving technological environment is such a cliché now that typing it feels crass but the fact is that failing to keep up can cost you dearly. In the techno-centric audio industry, ongoing investment is critical, occasionally risky and driven by all manner of factors, but I would proffer that one of the most prevalent is brand loyalty, and brand loyalty can in turn be motivated by an underlying trend towards conservatism. Not in the political sense, but in the 'I can't be bothered to try anything new' sense.
Supermarkets – mundane to a man. Where do you shop? I was a bona-fide Waitrose man (occasionally having to accept Sainsbury's when needs must and the devil drives), even stumping up an extra £1.50 for every shop just to get back out of Cornwall (nearest one across the Tamar Bridge) and I could never imagine anything better for the acquisition of the every-day. And then one day my wife summoned up the courage to try Lidl. Now I am a proper food snob, as all touring engineers of a certain grade tend to be having been fed to within a hair of diabetes by all manner of amazing catering crews. In my down time on tour I would entertain myself by watching the chefs and chatting about what was on the menu that evening and where it had come from. Black pudding from Clonakilty sticks in both my mind and my arteries. Good food is absolutely fundamental to my quality of life – I despise crap food. But Lidl, where did that come from? How amazing is their stuff? How great is their fruit and veg? Not everything, but most of it, is equally as good if not better than just about every UK supermarket, and CHEAPER. And you can get ARC welders in there too. Go there. Now. Schofferhoffer weissbier, 65p a bottle. 65p!
I digress (as usual). My point is that there is always another way, and when it comes to choosing loudspeaker systems I feel that many are blinkered, just as they are with shopping for groceries. Yes, I know, it's on the rider but that is largely down to the complacency that I have just finished ranting about. That band use it so it must be good (saves me having to convince the PM) – I want one, I like the colour – Big Mick rates it, must be awesome (he is often right). What about the audio quality that we all blather on about all the time but then ignore when the quote arrives? I am SO glad I don't sell digital desks for a living. We all talk the talk, but fail to be true to the one thing that we all want from this industry - great, amazing, moving, accurate, involving sound. Every time. If that is not what drives you then what are you doing in this business?
To consistently achieve that grail, you need the right tools. And in this crazy, superfast world when every other day somebody has a better idea, when it comes to great sound, you need the tools that are going to deliver, whatever the situation. You need FLEXIBILITY. You need desks that will do everything from a gig to a gathering, mics that you can use for djembe or dobro, and loudspeaker systems that will fly, stack, fit on a truck, go through an ancient archway without trashing it, not make the floor (or the ceiling) collapse, not rattle the porcelain on an Edwardian mantelpiece 2 miles away, not sound 'rattly', 'hurty', 'boomy', 'tinny', do metal, classical, folk, industrial, electronica, hip-hop, even KANYE WEST!
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why, if you have not already done so, you need to experience MLA. I have never in my entire career encountered a loudspeaker system so forgiving, so transparent, so dynamic, and just plain clever. If flexibility is what you want, look no further. This bonkers industry has a terrible penchant for pigeonholing – this system is only good for this, that one for that. If the manufacturers actually set out to achieve that, they would all go bust in months. All top-end systems are good for just about anything within reason. It's about how you approach a situation, about how you apply your experience and skills to get the result. Let me tell you a story.
Some time ago I was in Japan (where quality food is number one priority by order of government – I love Japan) doing a few shows with one of my regular artists. MLA was still relatively new to me but I knew that MSI had seen the light and invested, and tentatively asked if I could have a system from MSI Japan, and I was pleasantly surprised when the reply from the promoter came back – YES! We were doing theatres and opera houses, all of which were large and relatively modern, and I assumed that we would naturally be flying. Er, no. We were going to have to ground-stack. Not only was I concerned about the physical presence of the system, but I also doubted its ability to deliver to the top of a theatre from the stage. Needless to say I had nothing to worry about. In the hands of MSI's brilliant team, every venue was covered seamlessly, right up to back of the highest balcony, and the system shrank into the shadows of the proscenium arch, unnoticed by anyone, and the shows sounded glorious of course. Technology played a big part – from the top of the furthest seats in just about every venue you were looking down on the top of the array. A standard ground-stacked standard line array would have really struggled to get full frequency coverage to the back but there it was in all its glory, like you were sat in the stalls. You may well be able to get a standard system to point up a lot, but you can be absolutely sure that the frequency response up there is shot to bits.
One of the trickiest venues I have ever encountered in the UK is Buxton Opera House. They have a festival there every year where some very well known acts are invited to perform. If you don't know it, Buxton is a classic Victorian theatre, narrow and very high. There may even be four levels if I remember correctly. To get there you have to undertake what seems like, in the rain, snow and darkness at least, some kind of endurance challenge. I had forgotten just how far some places are from the motorway, and I live in Devon! For all that, a system of MLA Compact was installed courtesy of W.E. Audio as a left/right ground stack – no flying again – and having already conquered the Yorkshire moors I set off to scale the many levels of the Buxton Opera House, armed with a modicum of some very fine local spring water to help me on my way. At least it wasn't snowing, although in the upper circle it wouldn't have seemed entirely out of place such was the extreme elevation. Get there, having navigated the incomprehensible staircase arrangement, sit down in the nastiest seat in the house, and there it was, way down there onstage, smashing me in the face with full-force fabulousness, certainly not normal and definitely proving that here was a sound system that redefined flexibility.
My point is this. Before you make a very expensive commitment to a loudspeaker system that is going to have to serve you in every way you can and can't imagine, think about what it is you are really investing in. Is it just another truck load of wood and paper that everybody else uses because everybody else uses it, and is subject to all the compromises that line arrays are stuck with or is it something that is going to redefine the way we think about what we can do with sound? Something that is going to surprise you every time you turn it on. Something that is going to make you smile each time you throw up some faders. A system that is going to make your gigs sound incredible AND keep the neighbours happy. A system that in a very short space of time can go from a load of speakers on the floor to a fully networked, fully flexible, amazing sounding rig that you can realistically manipulate to change the venue coverage, even during a show if necessary. A system that will keep your clients coming back time and time again. MLA systems are all of these things. Why aren't you using them?