Many gear manufacturers offer courses in using their equipment, but what should you expect to gain from them, and what do they offer the seasoned live-sound veteran?
It was a casual invitation from a colleague that prompted my journey down to Millennium Studios in Bedfordshire. This interesting selection of structures is part of the former RAF Thurleigh, until recently home of the Royal Aircraft Establishment. So what was I doing in a place previously used for testing harrier jump jets? Well, not flying aeroplanes, but rather speaker systems. The former flight-simulator hangar is now a rehearsal facility, and my next three days were to be spent in a nearby office-cum-classroom, and then in the large 10-metre-high rehearsal space, learning about loudspeaker line arrays.
You may ask why somebody like myself would feel the need to go on a speaker course. I use loudspeaker systems all the time, so what is there left to know? The answer is, of course, plenty! I was interested to take the opportunity not just to learn of new developments, but also to refresh my knowledge. I was also keen to see what a short course like this can offer not just to me, but also to my fellow trainees.
The course was being provided by a manufacturer, the UK-based speaker builders Martin Audio, founded by Dave Martin in 1971. He was in many ways the father of British touring speaker systems and designed the 115 ‘W’ bass bin, and the commonly nicknamed ‘Phillishave’ MH212 mid-range cabinet. Martin speakers soon became associated with some of the greatest tours of the time, including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. Fast forward to 2014 and Dave Martin is sadly no longer with us, but his company’s latest cabinet design is winning plaudits for its work in Hyde park over the Summer, and at Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage. It was this new speaker design that we were to learn about: the MLA or Multi-cellular Line Array.
Like many companies, Martin audio provide these courses to the public, in this case, primarily to train people who have bought their systems, as well as engineers like myself, in their operation. The courses also offer a way of making contact and building bonds with engineers, hopefully leading to brand recognition and loyalty.
Martin Audio are not alone in this — Britannia Row also offer an extensive range of educational courses, as do QSC, JBL... in fact most of the major touring-level speaker manufacturers I looked at have some kind of training available, as do mixing-desk companies, notably Soundcraft, SSL, Avid and Digico. Now, you may see this as just an attempt by these companies to get you to buy their products, but that is rarely the primary objective. Most provide training as part of the purchase price of any large system; other courses are provided to the general public, sometimes for free or, like this one, on a fee basis — but companies do not expect attendees to then rush out and buy their products. They do, however, expect attendees to have learnt how to use those products, and feel confident enough to ask for them. This in turn builds up pressure on hire companies to stock them. It is also important for manufacturers to have as many people out there who have been trained on, and understand how to get the best out of, their products as possible.
In the world of pro audio the level of knowledge required these days is much greater than at any other time. When I started working as a live-sound engineer, the technical requirements didn’t really go beyond the ability to follow simple instructions and to lift things above head height without dropping them. If you could do this, as well as remain enthusiastic after working 14 hours a day and sleeping in the cab of the truck, your future was pretty much guaranteed. In these days of line arrays, digital desks and networked audio, the knowledge required is, I believe, much more complex. Getting up to speed to enter this world is now a degree-level concern. Most young engineers I know joining the industry have been on some kind of related course, studying music technology or production, but even a three-year course may not cover all the fields you are required to understand. Courses such as these are an important add-on to your education if you are looking at some of the more specialist roles in the music industry.
As an older engineer I try and stay abreast of current trends by reading magazines, such as SOS, but there is nothing like experience, and going on a course and immersing yourself in education. This is how I found myself sitting alongside six other trainees in an office on an airfield in Bedfordshire. My colleagues were a mixed bunch, not just in experience but also in backgrounds and age. I was among the oldest, with the youngest being 24 — several years out of uni but still keen to learn. The furthest travelled was Marci, with whom I had worked recently and who had travelled from his home in Budapest, Hungary. I travelled down with my colleague, Tom Maddocks, also an experienced sound engineer, but who wanted to discover more about the system side of this particular brand of speaker. So we sat quietly on our first session waiting to see how the next three days would shape up.
Being privately run, Martin Audio, like some others, charge for their course. The cost of this three-day event was £250. This covered the cost of the training as well as tea and coffee and a hot cooked meal in the canteen at lunchtime. The numbers they expect are usually small — it is not a money-making exercise. The fee goes some way to helping cover something of the costs of putting the course on. Knowing how much the rental on Millennium Studios is, our combined fees would only make a minor dent in the overall costs. So what do you get for your money?
Our course was being taught by Andy Davies. Like many of the people who teach these courses he really is an expert in his field. Before his current role as product support engineer at Martin Audio, Andy was general manager at Concert Sound, which, as part of global sound company Clair Brothers, put him in charge of the day-to-day running of some of the biggest shows and tours in Europe. This is a man who knows an awful lot about gigs and also a lot about loudspeakers!
Andy wisely takes the path that most courses I have attended do, and breaks us in gently with a recap of some basic audio theory. We quickly cover conventional speaker designs before moving on to line arrays and their pros and cons. It all ramps up quite gently before we are introduced to the MLA. The pace is reasonable and I think everybody was keeping up.
A break for lunch offered me a chance to chat to my fellow students, and the afternoon was filled with more theory and an overview of the speaker and software system we were trying to learn. The first day ended with my brain fairly tired. I had been presented with a lot of information — some I knew, most I was glad to have refreshed, and some was exciting and new!
The second day began with a practical application in software form of what we had been doing the day before. Obviously, being me, my day started with a struggle with Microsoft, and a computer that decided that being locked in a seemingly constant system upgrade would be more beneficial. I did, however, eventually catch up and by lunchtime we had all produced rough drawings of venues, and inputted data correctly to a point where we were now able to produce a plan of what to do with our speaker systems.
Modern large speaker systems rely on computers to decide where they are placed. Prediction software has taken a lot of the guess work out of where we position speakers, and with the MLA the computer takes even greater control. You still need to input data correctly, however, and understand the capabilities of the system and match your expectations to that. By now we had a reasonable grasp of what the system did, a vague notion of how it did it, and an eagerness to try out our new-found knowledge. So far we had spent two days in the classroom — day three would be the practical!
The main space at Millennium is a 27 x 18 metre studio space, over 10 metres high and reasonably well sound-treated. More normally used for tour show rehearsals and filming, it also makes an ideal space to practise hanging large sound systems. Modern speakers, as anybody who has been to a reasonably large show will know, are no longer placed primarily on the stage. In theatre and especially arena shows they will be hung (flown) over the stage using motorised chain hoists. This has many advantages over ground stacks. They can be placed higher to cover a wider area, which also provides better sight-lines for the audience, who no longer have a big pile of black boxes between them and the performer. Flying large numbers of speaker cabinets, potentially over members of the public, has become a specialist job, requiring training. Although little exists in formal requirements, most companies would expect engineers to have attended a course like this.
Our first job was to measure the room we were in and decide on the area we wanted to cover. Andy had already placed the two pairs of chain-hoist motors in the room, either side of the place we had agreed was nominally the front of the ‘stage’. We calculated the dimensions and inputted data into the software. Specifying the area we wanted to cover was only half of it, though: with MLA you can also specify areas you don’t need to cover, and even those you want to actively avoid. Once these are mapped out in software and the height of the array decided, the computer is told to optimise! The laptop screen then scrolls through the various configurations as it bends the array back and forth, looking for an optimum setting. Having reached a conclusion, we then viewed a 2D representation of what we should be able to achieve. My first attempt I was unhappy with, so I decided to fly the array slightly higher, thus adding angles and more of a curve, trying not to fire through the audience quite so much. Each of us having gone through the process, we agreed on an optimum design and set about building it.
We had 17 MLA cabinets to play with — enough fire power to cover several thousand people, but although overkill for this room it is important on these kinds of courses to work with the real thing and with realistic numbers of cabinets. This equated to eight cabinets per side, plus one that Andy was keeping back so that he could refer to it without having to lower the array just to point out a feature. The actual mechanics of flying speakers can be quite daunting, but we were talked through each step in a logical and safety-conscious way. The system was incredibly straightforward to put together. It is well thought out and has several very nice features that Andy was delighted to point out. Something as simple as printing a white circle around a connection plate so you can find it more easily in the dark can be a godsend when you are at a festival in the rain! The process of inter-connecting cabinets using the proprietary network system that guides the processors in each cabinet was explained in detail. The difference between ‘static’ and the brilliantly misnamed (in this software version) ‘dymanic’ (unfortunately, this is to be corrected in the next version) was covered in enough detail that we knew how to use it, even if talk of ‘network systems’ left some of us bemused. The important lesson was that we now had all the information we needed to get the system up in the air and working. We also understood enough to troubleshoot most potential problems, another vital skill.
As the motors raised the cabinets, and the array grew as more were connected underneath, there was a real sense of excitement to hear if our predictions were right. Would we achieve the coverage and the system actually sound as good as it looked in software? Once in the air we flashed through the system using the clever LEDs built into the badge on each cabinet. They lit up in order and everything matched the plot, on both the computer and the controllers that act as the interface between the laptop and the speaker arrays.
The MLA cabinet’s frequency response goes down to 50Hz, but there is a separate sub cabinet available to extend the low end to around 20Hz. We had six of these to play with, which we arranged in line in front of the nominal stage area. Once again we plugged the subs in, connecting them methodically and running the LED test procedure, and then had a working full-range system. It was time to play a few tunes!
Andy had obviously done this a few times, having demonstrated MLA all over the world, and he had a few tracks that did show MLA to its full potential. However, this is a top-of-the-range speaker system, so to a certain extent you expect it to sound good. What sets it apart is the software control we had all been learning over the past few days. Had we managed to come up with a design that fulfilled our design criteria: even coverage in the room, whilst keeping spill on the stage and the rear wall to an absolute minimum? To our surprise, yes we had! The rig sounded pretty good, and the spill in the areas we had designated was impressively low. It all seemed too good to be true!
As we had set the system up to miss the rear wall we were all interested to hear how successful it was. This involved some comical climbing on top of flightcases to get higher than the area we had designated. As expected, the sound dropped off remarkably well.
After rejigging the figures we pushed the parameters further and, to no great surprise, we managed to move the coverage tighter, but as Andy explained you can’t break the rules of physics and the sound ended up being less even over the audience area. Andy was very frank about what he felt the system could achieve, and also what it couldn’t. We had learnt some of the limitations, but also hopefully how to get the most of out it.
So what did we all make of the course? Everybody, when questioned afterwards, felt they had not only got value for money, but more importantly learnt what they had set out to learn, and enjoyed the experience. Being quite a small group, the fact that we could get ‘one on one’ attention meant nobody got left behind. I watched as Andy stepped back and let us solve problems together, the more seasoned among us helping the less experienced. We had all found it worthwhile, and most were looking forward to doing more courses, Tom already having booked himself on one in Germany the following month.
We were a group of mixed ages and abilities, and were mostly, but not all, professionals. I would recommend anybody with an interest to go on a course like this. They are inclusive and fun; it was great to be among people with a shared interest, studying a subject we all enjoy. Get out there and find a course today!