Dedicated to the Business of Contemporary Live Music

The sound of music

23 January 2019

Good sound has always been important, but not always guaranteed in the old days. With the speed of technological advances in recent years and the growing expectations of audiences, not to mention artistes, audio hire companies have to ensure they are always ahead of the game.  Claire Bicknell reports.

With immersive sound technology now available to enhance the audience experience, live show audio is in exciting territory.

Social media allows audience members to post their instant reactions to all aspects of a show, and how audio equipment is incorporated into the production is extremely visible, not to mention audible, as is the quality.

“Audiences want to have the best audio experience possible when they’re listening to their favourite artiste or show,” says Bryan Grant, MD of Britannia Row Productions (commonly known as Brit Row)

“What audio equipment looks like on stage is incredibly important too – if a production has spent a considerable amount of money on creating a look for their tour, the last thing they want is a PA hanging in the air looking like a scruffy bunch of washing, or a mishmash of cables and packing on stage.”

Based in south-west London, Brit Row has been operating for over 40 years as one of the leading audio rental houses in Europe. It stocks a full range of L-Acoustics products, as well as d&b audiotechnik and all of the major console brands.

Brit Row clients include Pink, Foo Fighters, Robbie Williams and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.

“It’s been another record year for us thanks partly to increased activity in the US, South America, Japan and Australia, in association with our parent company Clair Global,” Grant reports. “The market’s pretty buoyant at the moment and this year is looking to be even busier.

“People are our best resource, and we have a rigorous training programme to ensure they are properly trained in all areas before they are allowed to become part of our road crews.

“We also take on apprentices who spend around 18 months working in each department and shadow our crew on local shows, developing their skills.”

Established in 1976, SSE Audio Group is one of the UK’s largest equipment rental, sales and installation companies, with clients including Bastille, Enrique Iglesias, Alice Cooper and Imagine Dragons, as well as festivals including Reading (cap.90,000) and Leeds (80,000).

Last November, Canadian entertainment technology company Solotech announced the acquisition of the group.

“It’s very much business as usual, and we’ll continue to do what we’re doing,” says MD John Penn. “We’ll be looking to grow with new business and opportunities, alongside our friends across the water.”

By acquiring known industry names such as Wigwam Acoustics, Canegreen and, last July, Capital Sound Hire, SSE offers a vast choice of equipment to its clients, whether it’s L-Acoustics, d&b audiotechnik, Meyer Sound, JBL, DiGiCo, Avid, Midas, Allen & Heath, Soundcraft or Yamaha. Its headquarters are in Redditch, with offices also in London and Greater Manchester.

“The latest trend is that the industry is shifting to immersive sound,” adds Penn. “We’re going away from just left and right speakers to bigger audio systems which bring a better immersive quality of sound to the audience.

“We’ve seen sound having to fit around visuals at shows, but it’s starting to change. Increasingly visuals are now having to move out of the way with shows run by the sound department, and that’s the way it should be.”

Now part of SSE, London’s Capital Sound Hire has been providing audio solutions to the live industry for more than 30 years. Its clients include Sam Smith, The Killers, Sigur Ros and Stereophonics, as well as British Summer Time (65,000) in London’s Hyde Park.

“In general, clients are looking for a global approach, so it was the right time to join SSE,” says head of operations and sales Paul Timmins. “Clients will have one contact who can set them up worldwide, and we can now offer our customers six loudspeaker options – whatever they want to use, we have their first choice.”

Timmins agrees with Penn that immersive sound is the way forward.

“It’s really exciting stuff – previously audiences may have been looking at one line of speakers, and all you get is a mono feed. Now you can get up to seven hangs across the front of the stage and a larger percentage of the audience will hear that immersive sound, a 3D feeling. There are manufacturers out there already doing it, and we’re being asked for it.

“Audio will become far more important to the production, as over the last 15 years lighting and video have taken a bigger share,” says Timmins.

Quality control

Founded in 1968, Entec Sound & Light’s clients include Gorillaz, Editors and Echo & The Bunnymen, as well as its 19-year role as audio supplier to the Teenage Cancer Trust’s concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall (5,200).

It celebrated its 50th-anniversary last year and marked the occasion on a high by purchasing the freehold of its warehousing and office buildings in Northolt, Middlesex where the company has been based since 1991.

“In terms of technical trends, analogue control has now almost entirely been phased out in favour of digital. Similarly, we are also supplying less monitor wedges than in-ear monitoring systems [IEMs],” says head of sound Jonny Clark.

Specialising in the rental and dry hire of loudspeaker systems, monitors, mixing consoles, microphones, wireless equipment and amplification, Clark says excellent maintenance values are an Entec standard.

“We operate stringent checks on our equipment before, during and after a tour. As soon as an item comes off the truck, it is thoroughly cleaned and rigorously tested ensuring that if any fault is found, it is immediately remedied.”

“Attention to detail is key to good business discipline, and it’s important to take pride in your stock – we would never send out a rusty mic or loudspeakers that look unsightly,” adds Clark. “There’s no excuse for poor housekeeping.”

Above and beyond

In Mansfield, ESS (Entertainment Sound Specialists) counts 10cc, Russell Watson and multi-festival promoter Festival Republic among its clients.

“We work to stay current and relevant, and at the moment we’re stocking speaker systems for L-Acoustics, d&b audiotechnik and Turbosound, monitors from d&b, Sennheiser 2000 series IEM and consoles from AVID, DiGiCo, Midas and Yamaha – most of which can be integrated with Waves servers if required,” says warehouse and operations manager Bill Keown.

“We’re seeing more package dry hire – anything from a small IEM rack to full control and monitor packages for UK and European tours.”

Going above and beyond is also part of the package for leading audio companies.

“One client lost all of the IEM systems in an airport baggage disaster,” adds Keown. “We delivered – there were 16 channels of Sennheiser 2000 series leaving the warehouse within an hour of the initial call coming in.

“Given that this was in the peak of festival season, this was stressful but manageable.”

Bespoke systems

Dartford’s ML Executives offers full audio production, with clients including Iron Maiden, Squeeze and Ms Lauryn Hill.

Recent equipment investments include Midas PRO consoles, Yamaha PM7, and DiGiCo Stadius cards, as well as Sennheiser 2000 series in-ear monitors, D6000 microphones and additional Shure PSM1000 stock.

“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,” says operations manager Martin Hale. “Building custom systems to suit each engineer has taken greater importance than just being able to supply the necessary equipment.

“We prioritise having a senior member of the company at the first few shows of every tour. We believe this goes a long way to keeping clients happy.”

Radio frequency (RF) spectrum space availability for IEMs and wireless microphones is still challenging for the sector and heavy on administration. There is competition for the available channels, and radio-transmitting equipment can only be used if it’s either licensed or exempt by Ofcom.

“RF coordination is becoming increasingly challenging, especially in certain locations, due to both the reduced availability of the spectrum and the increased number of channels required by shows,” says Hale.

“The importance of RF knowledge and understanding for engineers and technicians is becoming more important.”

Investing in experts

Based in Newbury, Skan PA Hire counts Take That, Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Muse, The National, Liam Gallagher, and Biffy Clyro among its clients and holds a large stock of d&b audiotechnik, with control systems incorporating consoles from DiGiCo, AVID, SSL, Midas and Yamaha.

“We’re seeing more and more bands and artistes taking their control systems around the world,” says account manager Mark Ellis-Cope. “It makes such a difference for the engineers to have consistent workflows wherever they are. Being able to deliver quality is what we always aim to achieve.

“With all of our systems built to exact specifications, we are very proud of our ability to tailor the equipment and make sure the tour can happen no matter where it is in the world and no matter how we have to integrate into local conditions.”

With such equipment choice available and new models coming to market, a decision on when to purchase stock is carefully made.

“It’s a collaboration between everyone here at Skan and the engineers wish list, on when to purchase new equipment,” adds Ellis-Cope. “We’re able to draw on a wealth of knowledge and experience and will do everything we can to get the final result the engineer is looking for. If that means purchasing new equipment, then we’re happy to do it.”

Working together

Established in 1997, Manchester-based STS Touring Productions’ clients include Mott The Hoople, Frankie Valli, Gogol Bordello and Download (105,000).

“Ours is a fairly basic set-up of up to four large systems alongside top specification consoles and other equipment,” says MD and owner Pete Dutton. “There’s a newish prevalence for bands taking a desk and IEM systems on tour with them, and we’ve invested in this side of things.

“As a sector, I feel there’s enough work for all of us and we work closely with big local companies like Wigwam and Adlib.”

As well as PA and audio hire, STS also hold large stocks of backline, staging and lighting equipment.

“It means the production manager has access to the whole of the show’s equipment,” adds Dutton.

Stylus Productions, based in south-west London, counts George Ezra, Birdy, Good Charlotte and Dean Lewis amongst its clients. It stocks d&b audiotechnik, Martin Audio, DiGiCo, AVID, Shure, Sennheiser, Radial and Neutrik amongst other manufacturers.

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

He says close collaboration with the client and all of the Stylus team having experience of being on the road are key selling points for the company.

“We recently collaborated with the front-of-house engineer for George Ezra to design and build him the ideal rod case for our newest DiGiCo SD12 console, spec’d to suit his individual preferences,” says Thomas.

“When you’re working on long-term projects like that, you can afford to drill down on the fine details and we’ve developed an awesome case design as a result that we know other engineers are going to get on with when that board goes back into circulation.”

It provides engineer and technician support to the projects that require it, sending staff on the road as part of the package.

“We have international clients arriving in the country with no time for production rehearsal. They can always rely on us to send guys down with gear deliveries to get them set-up and on their way with minimum fuss,” says Thomas.

Brand champions

London Speaker Hire has two branches in London, with Cardiff Speaker Hire serving Wales and further afield, serving clients such as Rudimental, Tom Odell and Catfish and the Bottlemen.

Equipment includes the Martin Audio MLA (Multi-cellular Loudspeaker Array) system and its CDD-LIVE! range.

“We have a close relationship with the manufacturers and have regular updates on their new products,” says owner Grant Turner. “Our customers are usually introduced to new technology, rather than being self-aware from industry news.

“This is why it’s key for hire companies to act as champions of brands, whilst being trained regularly to help filter new technology into the market.”

Recent developments include the expansion of Cardiff Speaker Hire, with the launch of its on-site recording studios.

With all things vintage apparently becoming ever-more popular, Warwickshire-based Ace Vintage Systems has seen interest in analogue concert engineering increasing.

Over the past 26 years, it has put together the totally analogue Martin Audio modular system, working with clients including venues across the West Midlands to one-off music events.

“Audiences have become accustomed to the line array sound. When they hear a genuine vintage sound system, the difference is quite astounding to them especially in the area of the upper bass punch,” says owner Alex Czechowski.

“Our clients like to incorporate the aesthetics of our equipment into the set and venue design – our speakers make an imposing statement. Clients want the look that complements their branding.”

From immersive sound to vintage revival, whatever sound requirements clients are looking for will be expertly managed by these leading live audio companies.

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