Marcus Ryle of Line 6 talks to SOS about a radical new approach to live sound.
One of the most interesting announcements at January's Winter NAMM show was that Line 6 — who are best known to most of us as the guitar- and amp-modelling pioneers behind the ubiquitous POD range of processors — have made a move into the live-sound business, launching an innovative modular range of powered speakers and a digital mixer. (For an overview of the system, read our news story at /news?NewsID=14722). The foray into live sound might not seem that exciting on its own, but whenever Line 6 develop a product, they seem to be looking to innovate, and the people involved have done so for even longer — Fast Forward Designs, the development company led by Line 6 founders Marcus Ryle and Michel Doidic, was involved in a number of acclaimed pro-audio designs, including Oberheim synthesizers and the Alesis ADAT.
With the prospect of a full, in-depth review still several months away, we took the opportunity to interview Marcus Ryle to find out more about the new system, which comprises the StageScape digital mixer and StageSource speakers.
I started by asking him about their approach to the new products. Marcus: "A common thread running through all the products we've been involved in is trying to remove friction for the performer and recording artist, letting them focus on making music. Live performance brings with it some real challenges that are very different from those faced in the studio, where you can more easily switch between left- and right-brain activities.
"If you get something wrong in the studio, you can do it again, but there's no pause button with a live performance — so engineering mistakes can have greater consequences. There are also many musicians who don't have the luxury of a great sound engineer to look after their live sound. We're not trying to replace the sound engineer with the new products — a dedicated engineer is the ideal solution — but many people playing small clubs and bars are responsible for their own sound, and we felt that a product for these users required a different approach.”
Having already seen the NAMM demo of the system, I knew there were two main components: the speakers (a sub, an active speaker and a passive speaker) and the mixer. These all differ significantly from what I'd seen before, particularly at this level of the market, not least because of how they can interact. Marcus drew an analogy with some of their other products: "We like making products that will do a great job on their own, but also provide you with extra capabilities when used in combination. Examples would be the Variax digital-modelling guitar, which will work with any amp; the Pod HD modeller, which will work with any guitar; and the DT50 valve amp, which will work with any guitar or modelling pedal. Connect them all together and you can use features you wouldn't have otherwise — such as linking patches on the guitar and the amplifier, or the guitar and Pod. Push one switch and your guitar can change models and tuning, while your amp model and effects can change too: your tube amp can change from Class A to Class AB, for example.”
When building an advanced PA system, there's no point including digital bells and whistles if you're going to cut corners on the speakers themselves. Marcus agreed: "Of course, the first job of any live sound system is to sound great, and I'm thrilled with how these speakers sound. We didn't skimp at all on the StageSource speakers: we have great transducers, properly designed and ported wooden boxes, plus we have DSP inside to control everything. With speaker design, you're not just restricted to drivers and whatever components you've chosen for the crossovers, you can also use the DSP to critically align phase.”
"In a lot of two-way systems, the crossover is set lower than is ideal for the treble horn, which produces a harsh sound character that I dislike. The two 10-inch speakers in the StageSource are not fed the same signal. That's an important part of the design: as a result, we're able to move the crossover point higher and properly distribute the mid-range and lows between the two drivers. It also enables us to offer features such as a virtual tilt-back for electric-guitar use. Mike Paganini, the senior system designer on StageSource, has had a lot of experience designing speaker systems for other companies in the past, and he's done a fantastic job. It's beautifully voiced, pleasant to listen to and really powerful.
"The speakers are the foundation for a really flexible system. In order to reach our goal of it being the most versatile sound-reinforcement speaker on the market, it needed to be versatile in a few different dimensions. Simple connectivity is important: we've built a two-channel digital mixer into the speaker, so you can plug your mic and acoustic guitar's piezo DI output directly into the speaker. There's three-band EQ, modulation effects for vocal doubling, a great digital reverb and our Variax acoustic modelling too, which lets you add the sound of an acoustic guitar body to the sound of a piezo pickup.
"There's also a 12-band anti-feedback system. This PA can be very loud, so you don't want to be hindered by feedback problems. In addition, there's a stereo input for an MP3 player, plus a traditional +4dBu balanced or unbalanced combo line input, for feeding from an external mixer. That's five analogue inputs that are summed within just one active speaker.
"Perhaps the most special part of the DSP processing is the intelligent speaker modes, which give the user different tones. Examples include a perfectly flat reference mode, and a voicing mode with emphasis on the lows and highs, for DJ applications. Then we have modes for acoustic guitar, and even modes for electric guitar that can emulate the sound of an open-back 2x12 cabinet.”
The system seems to be extremely versatile because it is expandable, via Line 6's proprietary L6 Link system. Marcus explained that this goes beyond reducing the amount of cabling in a system: "L6 Link is a digital communication protocol that's passed in a serial manner through components, and can carry both multi-channel audio and bi-directional control data.
"Here's a simple example. If I connect a pair of the StageSource L3T speakers with an L6 Link XLR cable, the speakers know they should operate in stereo: your MP3 player plays back in stereo, and the effects will all work in stereo. You get a working system automatically, with just one cable and no need for a mixer. Add a second L6 Link cable to connect the second speaker back to the first, and the channels from both on-board mixers become available, giving a total of 10 inputs with all the inputs feeding both speakers. You get stereo and twice the power by adding just two cables.
"Where it gets really exciting is when you want to extend the low end by adding an L3s subwoofer. You can take an L6 Link out from anywhere in that chain, connect it to the subwoofer and the whole system will reconfigure itself. The crossovers are set accordingly: as you only have one subwoofer, the system knows to sum the left and right low end to mono. You can change the default settings if you want, but without doing anything the system will be configured to work wonderfully. Add a second subwoofer and your (now 5200W) system knows you have two subs, so the low end is output in stereo. If you want the subs to run in mono you can set this at your leisure too.”
As I discovered when watching the NAMM demo, the StageSource speakers are even 'smart' enough to know when you've moved them about: put them in certain positions and they'll 'know' what they're being used for. Marcus explained some of the practical implications of this: "Another important application for these speakers is their use as stage monitors. The design enables you to set them at 30- or 60-degree angles. There's an accelerometer built into each speaker, so it 'knows' when it has been placed on its side. Sensing this, it automatically reconfigures as a monitor, with the low end rolled off and so on. Depending on the speakers you use, you can go from a single speaker system in a coffee house to a 10,000W-plus FOH system with minimal fuss. As flexible as all this is,yet more options become available when you add a StageScape mixer.”
The philosophy of creating simple but powerful digital tools doesn't end with the speaker in the new system. The mixer also has its own degree of intelligence. Marcus continued to explain Line 6's design aims: "Another challenge for a live performer who doesn't have the luxury of a dedicated sound person is how to set up the mix. A traditional mixer is entirely appropriate for a sound professional who understands signal flow, gain structure, frequency response and so on. But for the musician, why is it that every mixer channel is identical, regardless of what you plug into it? Why can't you communicate with a console in the same way you would a sound engineer?
"As we explored this idea, we decided that a visual approach would work best, and came up with what we call 'visual-domain mixing'. It provides visual representations of sound sources and ways in which they might be adjusted, but it doesn't use traditional engineering tools and terminology. We do, of course, provide those terms for anyone who wants to work that way. For starters, each input can sense whether you plug a quarter-inch jack or an XLR into it, plus the mixer also knows which outputs are connected: if a channel or output isn't being used, it doesn't exist on the user interface. If you only need a seven-channel mixer, that's all you'll see.
"In addition, when you plug something in, you can tell StageScape what instrument it is. By default, when you plug in an XLR, a mic on a mic stand appears on a virtual representation of the stage. But what if it's a mic for a kick drum rather than a vocal? If I touch on the kick-drum icon at the bottom of the screen, the mic stand is replaced by a kick drum and the signal path is changed to give you the kind of settings a professional engineer might choose. This makes things very easy: if you set up a vocal mic, you're almost certainly going to want to put in some low-cut filtering to get rid of stage rumble, but that's the last thing you'd want on a kick drum mic.”
I can see that appealing to a lot of musicians. But what if it still doesn't sound quite right — will the band have to use traditional effects controls to set it right, or is there an easy way to alter settings? I put that question to Marcus.
"It might not sound exactly as you'd like it to, but you'll have a great starting point. Maybe you'd like the drum to sound more punchy or have a bit more snap: that's what you'd say to an engineer, so we created X-Y axis control panels with each corner labelled with terms that musicians will recognise. The user can simply slide their fingers over the touch pad while listening, to get the sound they want. Under the hood, this single controller may actually be altering dozens of parameters in the signal-processing chain. But if you're a sound engineer who knows their stuff and wants 3dB more at 2.4kHz, you can touch the Expert mode button and see a parametric EQ display with a spectrum analyser, and can edit each and every aspect of the on-board dynamic EQs, multi-band compressors, noise gates and so on.
"Another challenge for musicians mixing their own sound is to hear how it sounds out front, rather than on stage. StageScape has a built-in feature we call Quick Capture, which saves 20 seconds of a performance to internal memory as a multitrack recording. All the inputs are recorded right after conversion, before any EQ or effects, so you can have the band play a chorus, then play that back and loop it while you go out front, see how it sounds, and adjust the mixer until the mix sounds just the way you want it to.
"Also, if you want to record the whole gig, you can capture your multitrack performance directly to an SD card or external USB hard drive. You can also use the USB port to stream all your channels into a PC or Mac if you prefer to record that way. To your computer, StageScape appears as a regular audio interface.”
In my experience, one of the most common problems you face when playing in a small bar is finding somewhere to set up. Another is running a multicore cable without contravening Health and Safety regulations! So I asked if there was any provision for remote control, so the user can mix from one place and leave the mixer elsewhere? Marcus responded: "Yes, whether you have a sound person or want to make adjustments using Quick Capture, you can plug a simple adaptor into StageScape and control the mixer directly from an iPad. The user interface and all the functions I've described can be accessed, and you could even have another iPad on stage for an individual to adjust their monitor mix.”
That sounded great to me, but I wondered if you could lock out some controls, so that the guys on stage could only adjust their own monitor mixes and nothing else. Marcus replied: "That's a good idea! StageScape is a really powerful platform, so we're really looking forward to people getting their hands on it. That way we can get feedback and see what it can evolve into.” Perhaps this feature can be added in the future, then...
I also asked about the possibility of hardware expansion options for the mixer, and whether bands would need to create submixes on an analogue mixer. "That's the simplest form of expansion,” he responded, "if you have, for example, a keyboard player with several keyboards that they usually submix for themselves. As of now, we have no digital expansion option, so this isn't going to be for everyone — but 18 inputs plus a stereo input for backing tracks, plus the means to send four separate monitor mixes is going to meet the needs of a lot of performing musicians. There's also a headphone output if you need to solo something, and all the analogue outputs are duplicated digitally on the L6 Link.”
If you regularly play a particular venue, it'd be useful to be able to save the setting and speaker setup for that venue, ready for next time you play there. Clearly Marcus and his team have already given this some thought: "You can save every setup, including how the speakers are configured, how the images appear on screen and much more. You can also save multiple scenes per setup, so you have the right effects for each song.”
I then thought of a very low-tech question: if I'm playing and doing my own sound, can I use a footswitch to bypass the vocal effects between songs? Again Marcus has this covered: "Yes, we have two assignable footswitch jacks, designed to do exactly those kinds of things. You don't even have to use our speakers with the mixer: it has analogue mains outs and four monitor feeds. The analogue outs can feed any powered speaker system, just as you can use the analogue inputs of StageSource speakers with any mixer. But you get the extra value when both are used.”
As this is a software-based system, I'd presumed that with some measure of DSP capacity and network bandwidth in hand, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect additional components to be available at some time in the future. I could envisage smaller main speakers attracting some users, perhaps a 1x10 or 2x8 design?
Marcus: "We pride ourselves on first trying to innovate, bringing new products to musicians. But we also listen to those musicians to see what's helped them and what they feel is missing. Just as our amp modelling has evolved, you can expect that now we've started, we'll continue to solve problems in the area of live sound for many years to come”.