STAND AND DELIVER - BY SIMON HONYWILL
PLASA is, as most will know, the self-appointed most important exhibition for the professional lighting and sound industry in the UK, although you'd be hard pushed to believe it this year, judging by the lack of premier league audio on show. If lights, screens and rigging turn you on, you would have had a ball. I'm starting a campaign to rename it PLAVA – Professional Lights And Video Association.
The only major loudspeaker manufacturer in evidence was Martin Audio, and I was privileged to spend time on the stand in my role as MLA advocate. I take these occasions as an opportunity to spread the word, to batter anybody who will listen with what I believe to be a really important message – that loudspeaker technology is, as it must, moving on. Rental companies, promoters, artists, venues, production managers, acousticians, sound designers, environmental noise consultants – all need to understand the significance of this radical leap forward in the control of sound. I consider it my calling to utilize my reputation, such as it may be, to spread this message in the hope that the world will become a better sounding place as a result.
In the past, I have been asked to do a presentation in the Audio Lab Theatre on behalf of R G Jones Sound Engineering as part of PLASA's admirable efforts to educate and inform, and this time round the opportunity came up again. My previous effort was essentially a lesson in how Glastonbury Pyramid Stage goes together, but this time I saw the chance to hit more people with my thoughts on the importance of MLA. In my view, it was my chance to tell the world that 'Line array is dead, the future is MLA!' ...Now this didn't go down well at first, being deemed too inflammatory by the seminar organisers and they do have a point – line arrays are still selling well around the world, but I want people to know that things have moved on, we have crossed over into another dimension, one of multi-cellular array technology. In my opinion, anyone who cares about sound should know and understand what's going on and here was my chance.
With the help of Martin Audio's Tour Support guru and MLA-meister Andy Davies, we put together a presentation that, albeit very briefly, took a trip through loudspeaker design history to arrive at the modern inception of line array. Having got there, Andy took over and delivered the message about how MLA is the next giant step, and it seemed that the 35 or so interested attendees both understood and enjoyed it. Jokes were cracked, smiles were smiled and slides were shown. Some of the old images of original R G Jones jobs and designs went down very well.
But here's the thing that I came away with afterwards. There is no doubt that technological development in an industry such as ours is vital, and manufacturers work hard to develop new products that constantly strive to push the boundaries back. Artists, promoters and most crucially audiences all seek the ultimate live music experience, although you'd be hard pushed to define that nowadays, such is the plethora of live entertainment out there. Sound in particular is possibly the most subjective, contentious and at the same time important element of that experience. However, one person's sound heaven is another's sonic hell, depending on seat position, hearing sensitivity, expectations, taste, the artist's performance on the night, any number of reasons. For those charged with the responsibility of delivering sound to the expectant masses, were they to actually consider all the variables that come together to mess things up, I think many would curl up in a darkened room and emerge weeks later with a desire to do lights or video.
So why is it that sound so often comes so far down the list of priorities, particularly in the world of touring, which is seen by many as the ultimate arena for live audio? Why is it that sound requires levels of expertise and technology that in any other industry would be considered at the top of the list? Why is sound often seen as the sacrificial goat of touring? Why is it that when the sound system is specified for a tour, and the latest technology (like MLA) means a dramatically improved audience experience for less physical equipment and truck space, that the rental income comes under such close scrutiny? Why is it taken for granted that the sound will be 'even better than last time, but we're not paying for it because the set's bigger and there are more screens and lights'? Why? Nobody goes home whistling the lights!
So what's the answer? How is it possible to get those who assemble tours and book the venues to take sound seriously? When I say seriously I mean really seriously, because that's what makes a show really work, that's what moves the audience to the core, and that's what makes them come back for more. Surely that's worth paying for. Like good food, good sound satisfies. Raise the bar and by default the world will become a better sounding place. There is a yawning gap between those that demand and those that deliver, something that is evident when one considers just how many shows are staged in venues that have unsuitable acoustics. That gap can be bridged by education and engagement, but that has to come in part from the manufacturers. As things stand, events such as PLASA are tech-centric. There needs to be outreach, a sonic mind-meld with people who may have never even thought about sound because it's something that 'just happens'. This applies to promoters, venues, architects – in seven years of study to become an architect, there is one day allocated to sound. This kind of ignorance has to change, and ignorance is only dispelled through education. People have to start taking responsibility for their sonic environment.
I believe the pro-audio industry is growing up, albeit slowly, and the profusion of courses now available at learning establishments worldwide is testament to that. The message is beginning to get out. For as long as I can remember, industry marketing has been almost entirely inward-looking, essentially advertising to the competition. In a way, PLASA are still doing that and so if the show is to be sustainable it needs to pay for or incentivise those FOH engineers, promoters, production managers and key decision makers to be in attendance, and then maybe, just maybe, more audio manufacturers will return.
That way, maybe we can put the S back into PLAVA.
Simon Honywill is Front of House Engineer for Jose Carreras, Katherine Jenkins and Chris Rea, and is a long term user and advocate of Martin Audio's MLA.