Delivering studio quality sound on the road has its pressures, not only from the vast choice of equipment available – which means a wider range of technical knowledge and skills are needed by sound engineers.
To add to that, audiences are turning to social media in real-time to give their opinions on sound quality … usually when they think it’s not up to standard.
“For many people at concerts the audio is a given; they expect it to be good and only notice when it is bad,” says Bryan Grant, MD of Britannia Row Productions, generally known as Brit Row.
“Audio is very subjective, one person’s Nirvana is another’s hell. People turn to social media to talk about everything, so concert experiences will also feature.”
London-based Brit Row, acquired by Clair Global in May 2017, has been operating for over 40 years as one of the leading audio rental houses, and stocks all the main console brands, as well as L-Acoustics and Clair Global speakers. It works with clients including Foo Fighters, Hans Zimmer and Depeche Mode.
Training is important to the company, and it has links to the further and higher education institutions to ensure those entering the sector have the right skills and knowledge.
“Both the equipment and the talent of people operating it have improved immensely, especially over the last 15 years,” continues Grant.
“We are associated with South Thames College and the University of Northampton, who offer a degree course in live sound technology, and we offer our own part-time fundamentals and intermediate courses at our warehouse in Twickenham, which are well attended.
“We also run our own apprenticeship programme and this has given us a solid pool of graduates who we know have the expertise needed,” he says.
Brit Row can also provide services worldwide through its associate companies, such as Clair Global in the US and Japan, and JPJ in Australia.
Set up in 1976, SSE Audio Group is one of the UK’s largest rental and sales companies, reporting 25 per cent growth in 2017.
With a wide variety of stock available, it works with artistes such as the Stone Roses, Alice Cooper, Bastille and Blink 182, as well as outdoor events including festivals Reading (cap. 90,000) and Leeds (80,000).
Its headquarters is in Redditch, with offices in West London and Heywood, Greater Manchester, as well as a transatlantic joint venture – United Audio Companies – with Sound Image in the US.
“Last year was an exceptional one for us and year-on-year we surpass our targets,” says hire project manager Dan Bennett. “It’s a mix of touring clients back out, summer shows and new clients arriving.”
Acquiring industry known names such as Canegreen and Wigwam Acoustics means SSE can offer a vast choice of equipment across the live audio spectrum, whether it’s DiGiCo, Avid, Midas, Allen & Heath, Soundcraft, Yamaha, d&b, Meyer, L-Acoustics or JBL.
“We can give clients what they want, we never drive the spec,” says Bennett.
A trend Bennett has noticed is that SSE is getting a lot more requests for dry hires, this is where the equipment is rented out without a member of staff in attendance.
“Out of 30 recent packages, 20 have been dry hires,” says Bennett. “Clients are either bringing people over with them to do this job or expecting engineers to cover it. We’ve seen the level of preparation needed before we rent the equipment increase significantly – it may have been a day-and-a-half before, and now three-and-a-half days are needed.”
Also in London, Capital Sound Hire has been providing audio solutions for concerts, tours, festivals and events for more than 30 years, with clients including Sam Smith, The Killers, Take That, Stereophonics and Katie Melua.
It also provides the sound for British Summer Time (cap. 65,000) in London’s Hyde Park, which represents 75 per cent of its business in live music.
“Our latest development is that, rather than being a company that offers a limited amount of speaker brands, we’ve adapted to offer clients more choice and now have a range of brands including Martin Audio, d&b, Meyer Sound and Outline,” explains operations and development director Paul Timmins.
“If someone wants to work with us, we hopefully have their first or second choice in stock. We listen to what our clients want and everything is designed bespoke for that particular job. Service support is essential and we assign a dedicated project manager and project assistant to each job, both technically aware – so someone is always available to respond immediately.”
With the maintenance of live show audio equipment needing specialist attention, scheduling when this happens is an important consideration.
“We have an annual maintenance and service programme and an expert warehouse team who do the work by job cleaning,” says Timmins. “Consoles will go back to the manufacturer if they’re a little older, or before they go out on a long tour.
“It’s important to recognise though that all equipment has a life span and we try and move it on before it drops off a cliff. We keep equipment as new as possible.”
Founded in 1968, Middlesex-based Entec Sound & Light has had a busy 12 months investing in new stock, including d&b audiotechnik loudspeakers, DiGiCo consoles and Shure wireless microphone systems, and is celebrating its 50th anniversary in the industry.
Clients include Gorillaz, Marilyn Manson and the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts at the Royal Albert Hall (5,200).
“These investments are in reaction to client demand,” says head of sound Jonny Clark. “It’s about what the client wants. We have spent a lot of money on these new products to future proof the company to meet demand as well as support new business.”
Entec has recently entered into an agreement with Brown Note Productions in the US to give d&b audiotechnik’s next generation loudspeaker series its touring debut. GSL – part of the new SL-series – made its first appearance on the European leg of Gorillaz’ world tour in 2017.
“This speaker system is applicable to all parts of the market, from festivals to indoor,” adds Clark. “Behind the speaker hangs you can hardly hear it working which is one of the holy grails for live sound.”
In the East Midlands, ESS (Entertainment Sound Specialists) work with clients such as Latitude Festival (35,000), Russell Watson, UB40, Astro & Mickey, and the ABC and Tony Hadley orchestral tours.
Operating since 1990, it supplies DiGiCo, Yamaha, Avid, Midas, Allen & Heath and Cadac consoles as well as d&b front of house and monitor systems and L’acoustics front of house systems.
“The beauty of the live sound business is that it’s ever changing,” says partner and sound engineer Carl Lewis. “With so much competition between the manufacturers and the emphasis on live performance, we are witnessing a constant race to the next big advancement in the technology we use.
“The use of improved prediction software has changed the way we do things from a system deployment point of view. We now have the ability to reliably map the room and tailor the system to the space, giving us a more standardised approach, and generating more predictable results across a tour or run of shows.
“These tools, combined with a good ear, make it possible for systems to sound great even in the most challenging of rooms.”
The availability of space on the radio frequency (RF) spectrum for wireless microphones and in-ear monitors (IEMs) is still challenging for the sector, and administration heavy. Radio-transmitting equipment can only be used if it is either licensed or exempt by Ofcom, and there is competition for the available channels.
“The good news is that generally RF awareness has increased, and the need for effective RF co-ordination is becoming clear,” adds Lewis. “The general level of co-ordination skills and awareness amongst audio monitor engineers is vastly better now than it was two years ago. This is why we run day-long RF specific workshops at ESS.
“Digital RF equipment is key to future live shows having stable RF performance.”
Midland Sound & Lighting, operating since the ‘80s, provides audio solutions to clients including Jools Holland and His Rhtym & Blues Orchestra and Fairport Convention. The Leicester-based company has been working with both for many years.
“In-ear monitors have really helped us on stage for Jool’s set up,” says MD Andy Salmon. “The focus is on Jools piano, and we also have a 12-piece brass section going hell for leather and a rhythm section. With IEMs, the on-stage levels have gone down quite remarkably.
Salmon has noticed that more and more venues have in-house speaker systems installed.
“We’re taking in the control gear, backline and monitors, but the speakers aren’t needed. We’re also playing a lot more smaller shows now as we’re finding that the picnic style outdoor concerts aren’t as popular. Tastes are changing and the audience demographic is getting older, so they prefer a comfortable indoor seat rather than taking umbrellas, waterproofs and having a wet seat.”
Offering full audio production, Dartford’s ML Executives has L-Acoustics loudspeakers, desks from Yamaha, Avid, Soundcraft and DiGiCo and wireless systems from Shure & Sennheiser amongst its product range. Established in 1991, Iron Maiden and Squeeze are amongst clients.
“We build bespoke packages,” says operations manager Martin Hale. “The necessity of ease to set-up and dismantle is becoming even more apparent, as is the need to conserve floor and truck space wherever possible, so building custom systems to suit each engineer has taken a greater importance than just being able to supply the necessary equipment.”
In a sector where new models are updated frequently, it’s important also to know when is the best time to invest in a new piece of kit.
“While we keep up with new technology being brought to market and we welcome manufacturers bringing new product to demonstrate to us, we generally avoid purchasing until we begin to see requests from clients and can see a viable revenue stream to support a purchase,” adds Hale.
“There’s lots of technical innovations in products too, such as Waves offering additional signal processing, and digital RF transmission systems reducing the bandwidth taken up by individual wireless microphone channels. The reduction of available RF spectrum and the continued increase in the number of wireless channels used by production poses a significant challenge however.”
Operating since the ‘70s, Berkshire-based Skan PA Hire covers all aspects of live audio for clients such as Muse, Take That, Elbow, Liam Gallagher, Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Biffy Clyro and Pete Tong & The Heritage Orchestra.
“From small flypack control systems right through to large format, worldwide full production touring, we’re able to offer consoles from all of the major manufacturers including all of the optional extras that we’re regularly asked for,” explains account manager Mark Ellis-Cope.
“Our speaker brand is d&b which we’ve been a major investor in now for a number of years; that means we have access to new stock and the pleasure of being invited to new product launches and demos, and beta testing prior to general release.
“The growth in recordings of shows, both as extra media for the artiste to take away with them and also for the sound engineer to make use of, to do a virtual sound check, has meant we’ve also expanded our offerings in this area and taken on a diverse range of software and hardware platforms.”
For product maintenance, Skan schedule it around the shows, and updates and upgrades as required. A dedicated service manager and technology specialist manage this process.
“We have the benefit of space to ensure that we can set-up a production line to perform these tasks and get the process completed as soon as possible,” says Ellis-Cope. “With the number of shows we currently provide support for ever increasing, we keep very accurate records of the exact specifications with firmware and software versions.”
For those who prefer the older sound of analogue, Warwick-based Ace Vintage Systems has spent the past 25 years putting together the totally analogue Martin Audio modular system.
Owner Alex Czechowski explains why analogue is still appealing to many clients, including its work with venues across the West Midlands up to larger one-off music events.
“The resurgence of vinyl record sales clearly shows the return of the passion for analogue”
“Our system is perfect for clients who want to make a sonic statement with their event. It’s all about the warm and clear sound, together with a unique retro, but actually rather contemporary look.
“It’s a surprisingly compact truck pack, and scalable to suit concerts of all sizes.”
With digital equipment advancements leading the way in the industry, the products may be ever changing, but one thing is for sure – you can rely on the live audio experts in the sector to keep you updated with what’s possible and what will give the best sound on stage.