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16 January 2020

With immersive sound technology leading the way, innovations in audio are enhancing the concert experience for artistes and audiences alike, which is fortunate, as audiences these days have the ability to quickly take to social media if things don’t sound right. Claire Bicknell reports

With audio quality from the stage under ever-more scrutiny from today’s social media-linked concert and festival-goers, the importance of ensuring an artiste sounds their best at all times is even greater.

While manufacturers compete to constantly introduce transformative innovations, the country’s leading PA hire companies are keen to stock the latest gear and keep their clients – and the latter’s audiences – satisfied.

“Immersive sound solutions have really changed the game,” says SSE Audio’s hire manager Dan Bennett. “Manufacturers need to keep selling boxes, and immersive sound – such as L-Acoustics L-ISA system – is one of the biggest leaps forward in the industry.”

The company recently supplied Mark Knopfler’s world tour with L-ISA technology, featuring Immersive Hyperreal Sound. L-ISA allows audio to be presented to every listener in the same 3d image. The Knopfler tour utilised a total of seven PA hangs to form the primary L-ISA configuration, with a further two hangs added to provide outfill beyond the footprint of the L-ISA system.

“This was a massive project, and it received some of the best audio reviews for shows I’ve seen,” adds SSE Audio strategic advisor John Penn.

In November 2019, SSE and parent company Solotech announced a new unified UK organisational structure. SSE Audio, Wigwam, Capital Sound and new acquisition BCS Audio are now collectively known as the Solotech UK group, under the new joint leadership of MDs Alex Penn and Spencer Beard.  After 43 years of leading SSE Audio, John Penn remains within the new structure under the new role.

Operating as one of the UK’s largest audio equipment rental, sales and installation companies, its clients include Rammstein, Coldplay, Don Broco, Hugh Jackman and Fatboy Slim.

Control packages are also leading the way in the quantities of hires going out.

“In terms of the biggest quantities of hire and changes, control touring has caused a real arms race amongst suppliers,” continues Bennett. “Clients want to take control packages around the world, and it all has to be slicker, more compact, with a higher channel count and able to get through baggage handlers and work [with the local PA] at the other end. We are driving innovations in packaging and panel work.”

Capital Sound, also a Solotech company, has serviced the live industry for over 30 years, with clients including The Killers, Sam Smith, Stereophonics and The Australian Pink Floyd Show.

“We specialise in bespoke loudspeaker system designs for tours and festivals, especially in urban areas where off-site noise is perceived to be a problem,” says senior account manager Martin Connolly. “It’s been a fantastic year for us and business was up; we’re seeing more RF equipment going out on tours, and interest in L-ISA and Soundscape loudspeaker designs.

“We have a full tech team to support all the products that we run. Clients want to work closely with them to get everything they need to achieve the results they expect and want.”

With show production designed to impress in line with audience expectations, the aesthetics of equipment on-stage are a substantial consideration.

“It’s very important to maintain a clean stage image but if the artiste needs 20 [monitor] wedges on stage it can be tough,” says Connolly. “What’s important is that on-stage equipment needs to be modern, as opposed to 10-year-old wedges that have been through the mill.

“It’s always good to upgrade wedge stocks every few years as all manufacturers like to give their new products a new, sexy look – such as curved lines, rather than straight.”

  

Sustainable planning

Britannia Row Productions, commonly know as Brit Row, is another leading audio rental houses, operating for over 40 years. Clients include Pink, Foo Fighters, The Cure, and the 40,000-capacity WOMAD festival.

“Clients are looking for the best presentation of their art, with the best quality they can get,” says director Bryan Grant. “There have been some absolutely stunning leaps in sound over the last 20 years, with line arrays, digital consoles, and increased sophistication of the equipment. We will continue to see increases in quality and efficiency in the future.

“Immersive sound equipment such as L-Acoustics L-ISA system is gaining traction, but this is not for everyone; it depends very much on how the artiste want to presents themselves and their music.”

Brit Row offers a variety of extensive training and continuing professional development opportunities for its staff and external contacts, as well as for new talent entering the sector.

“We run a Live Sound Production degree course with South Thames College, as well as picking half a dozen apprentices to run through our own apprenticeship programme,” adds Grant. “We also offer an intensive 12-week course, with both live sound theory and practical, as well as weekend courses.

“It’s vital technicians really know what they are doing. The stakes are too high.”

Through its parent company Clair Global, Brit Row also supplies internationally across the US East and West coasts, South America, Australia and Japan.

“From a sustainability point of view, and logistics and financial, clients are looking for ways to take less stuff around the planet,” adds Grant. “With our international links, we can help with supplying equipment in-country.”

Feedback issues

With clients including Van Morrison, Editors and The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Entec Sound & Light has a 52-year history in supplying sound and lighting systems to the industry.

“With many of the small to medium venues now having high spec PA systems installed, the touring requirements at the moment are much more about tidy desk packages, in-ear monitoring and wireless systems,” says head of sound Dan Scantlebury.

“We have been putting a lot of thought into how to deliver these systems, so that they are quick to rig and are efficient with truck space.”

“We are regularly increasing and updating our mixing console stock, with emphasis on DiGiCo products and our most recent major investment has been in d&b’s KSL system which we – and many clients – believe is a real game changer,” adds Scantlebury.

More than ever audiences are turning to social media to give live reactions to shows, including the perceived quality of sound and Entec.

“As with all businesses, social media plays a key role,” says Scantlebury. “We now receive real-time feedback from audience members during a show and this is always valuable in helping to inform actions and solutions.”

Nature of work

Entertainment Sound Specialists (ESS) counts UB40, 10cc, Mahalia, CMP Entertainment and Festival Republic – promoter of the Reading (cap. 90,000) and Leeds (80,000) festivals – amongst its clients.

“Equipment isn’t the sole focus these days,” says partner Bill Keown. “Products are released at such a rate that it makes it very difficult for companies to be able to offer everything all the time. At ESS, the real stand-out factor is our crew – prompt, calm and helpful, with vast experience. People like to see a team on the ground that work well together.

“The type of work hasn’t varied enormously, but the nature of the work is changing. Preps continue to become increasingly granular and super detail-focussed. The other recent shift in our work is that there are no quiet months.”

Its in-house team looks after the maintenance, defect management and compliance of the equipment, and Keown agrees aesthetics are important.

“The kit should look as neat and as slick as practically possible,” says Keown, who confirms that ongoing staff training is also a priority area.

“We also regularly send our crew on courses to keep them up to speed with new developments, and let them develop their own preferred area of expertise through both research and real world experience. We then get everyone in the ESS family together for a few days each year to share this expertise, and to learn from each other.”

Named engineers

Offering full audio production, ML Executives works with clients including Iron Maiden, Squeeze, The Raven Age and British Lion.

“There’s a continued push from touring clients for packages of equipment to be smaller, lighter and more efficient, which manufacturers have responded well to,” says operations manager Martin Hale.

“Our rental inventory is still heavily driven by artiste rider demands and remaining competitive with other rental clients,” he says. “There are several items we’ve either had repeated requests for, or requests for from a particular client that have resulted in us investing in specific products.

“Both Iron Maiden and The Raven Age asked for specific consoles and resulted in us now carrying DiGiCo SD12s’ and Yamaha CL5s’ in our rental inventory.”

It has also invested in loudspeakers and amplifiers including L-Acoustics KARA and LA12X – with SB18s coming soon – RF equipment including Sennheiser D6000, and full facilities for rechargeable batteries for its Shure PSM 1000 systems over the last 15 months.

“We’ve continued to see a drive from clients of all shapes and sizes to be the cheapest option, regardless of the extras we offer,” says Hale. “That said, we still custom build all our touring racks in collaboration with the engineer’s preference. This year we’ve also seen an increase in requests from tours for us to supply specific-named engineers and technicians.”

Staying focused

Skan PA Hire works with clients including Muse, Take That, Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Liam Gallagher, The Chemical Brothers, Robyn and The National.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry as a whole,” comments account manager Mark Ellis-Cope. “There’s the uncertainty of Brexit, plus acquisitions. It always begs the question of  ‘who’s next?’ and keeps industry gossip lively!

“We are yet to see how this will affect things, but from a Skan perspective we are keeping going with our commitment to our clients along with making sure our stock stays at the cutting edge of the industry.”

The company has invested recently in d&b’s KSL which fits in with the existing GSL and V-Series offer, as well as taking delivery of its first DiGiCo SD7 Quantum which has added to its existing four SD7 consoles and its range of other DiGiCo consoles.

“We always aim to supply exactly what is required,” adds Ellis-Cope. “With the continuing reduction in available RF spectrum, we have also increased our range of Digital Radio Microphone systems. Both offerings from Shure and Sennheiser come with the ability to have increased channel density within given ranges, so are positive additions to our stock.”

Stylus Productions’ clients include George Ezra, La Roux, Grace Carter and Lianne La Havas.

“We are very selective about the inventory we carry, specialising only in top professional equipment that we feel allows us to deliver the quality work we aspire to achieve, whilst ensuring that our stock makes sense from a business perspective as well,” says MD Sam Thomas.

“We stock equipment by manufacturers including d&b audiotechnik, Martin Audio, DiGiCo, Avid, Shure, Sennheiser, Radial and Neutrik, amongst others. Due to the bespoke nature of a lot of our systems, we naturally carry a lot of custom items and infrastructure that we have designed and developed ourselves.

“We view the audio hire sector as a constant process of refinement, always seeking to achieve higher quality output with greater efficiency wherever possible.”

Aiding clients in delivering their vision often means equipment should be heard, and not seen.

“Our role as a service and equipment provider is to help the artiste deliver the experience to the audience, and so we place great importance on finding what is right for each production,” adds Thomas. “As a general rule, we like stages to be neat, tidy and to make our equipment as unobtrusive as possible; the audience is there for the show, not to see us or our gear.”

STS Touring Productions was established in 1997, with clients that included Midge Ure, Mott The Hoople, Gogol Bordello and sporting events.

“We’re seeing a large increase in spot hiring of PA items rather than a complete system, such as in-ear monitors, desks, microphone packages,” says MD and owner Pete Dutton. “We work closely with L-Acoustics and DiGiCo.”

Recent developments for STS include the opening of a satellite office and warehouse in Leipzig, Germany.

“It’s staffed and there’s more and more equipment being transferred over there,” adds Dutton. “It’s a new option for us, but already there is massive interest in this particular service. STS Europe will run alongside STS UK and gives us the advantage of having equipment in Europe ready to use.”

Protec is one of the world’s largest event technical and staging solutions companies. Its European base is in Birmingham, with Middle East operations across fully equipped facilities in United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Clients include Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, The 1975 and 50 Cent.

“We offer an extensive and comprehensive range of L-Acoustics and DiGiCo consoles,” says CEO and founder Stephen Lakin. “When it comes to investing in new products, we keep our finger on the pulse of the industry by keeping up-to-date with the latest technologies, attending the major trade shows and listening to our clients’ needs.

“The technology hasn’t changed so much, but we are seeing a demand for redundancy and back-up radio frequencies which has led us to further investing in specific equipment, larger and more powerful consoles to cater for increased channel demand.”

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