A thorough look at the many factors to take into account...
August 28, 2014, by Jeffrey Cox
It’s a good time to invest in a new loudspeaker system. The economy is stabilizing and clients who had pulled back on events are showing signs of life.
Your inventory is tired and may be outdated. The new technologies are genuinely impressive. Better yet, manufacturers are chomping at the bit to get you into a new system.
You’re in the catbird seat (thank you, Red Barber), but there’s a lot to consider this time around. So get a cup of coffee, and walk through this with me.
If you’re in the middle of a deal, or even if your new system was just delivered, it’s not too late to consider much of this as well.
Patience is perhaps the single most important factor. There’s much to do and it will be time well spent as you consider your investment.
Start with a budget and a checklist. Understanding just how much you have to spend and where the limit is will be essential when the last “add-ons” are thrown at you. Beyond the loudspeakers you must remember amps, cases, racks, covers, cabling, motors, steel, and even a new laptop or tablet.
Then there’s the marketing you should do as a company owner. Don’t just leave it to the manufacturer to market your system. You’ll be disappointed.
You have to have a plan and a budget to do your own regional or national work. Get out there and let people know you’re in the game. This costs money too. So define this part of your budget and remember that it could be another 20 percent. Most importantly, proceed with patience and diligence.
Here’s an interesting conundrum. Should you purchase everything from the same manufacturer? Let’s break it down. When it comes to “mains and subs,” I’m a strong advocate of those being from the same guys.
If it’s a well designed “system” there are performance considerations that are intrinsic to the products, most notably, crossover designs that optimize the combined behavior under a variety of applications.
Certainly size, truck pack, “look,” cabling compatibility and rigging (does the sub array require a different bumper?) are additional reasons to match mains to subs.
What I’m referring to is the larger view: front fill, off-stage fill and delay. Here’s where a pro and con discussion can ensue. Best case is a manufacturer has a “sonic signature” that’s inherent across their product line, so working with products that come from another camp can be problematic. But, it’s not uncommon for companies to not define a sonic footprint. Big mistake.
What if your coverage requirements for off-stage fill aren’t inherent in what you are being offered as a solution? Ninety degrees horizontal is often too narrow for shed out fill, so is there a 100- or 110-degree solution? What about vertical coverage requirements? Is there a dedicated down fill for the mains, or is it just a supplemental set of enclosures from the catalog?
Pro and con discussions may lie here if the ancillary products aren’t what you’d hoped or what you need; or if they even have them at all. Remember, you’re investing in more than this set of boxes; you’re investing in the potential of broad-scope growth and the consistent integration of other products through that growth.
These guys are your lifeline, or so you think.
How experienced is the guy you’re talking to? Frequently they know how to craft a deal and the numbers associated, but they’re challenged when it comes to SPL, rigging, truck pack, or how many processors will be needed (if any).
They rely on their contacts and resources inside of the manufacturer for this information and experience. I’ll get to that.
Manufacturers are highly dependent on their sales force and channels. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to “go direct” in an effort to establish solid control over sales and the required communications. This also necessitates the obligatory costs of employing and maintaining the staff and the associated overhead.
Some manufacturers establish this structure in foreign countries to clearly present themselves in full force and presence. There is a lot of common sense associated with this structure.
The more prevalent organizational structure has sales reps and distributors, in order to both reduce costs and to have a regional presence that understands local business dynamics. There are some exceptional ones out there who are committed to your best interests, and who provide staffing that can clearly address your needs. They will be your day and night resource.
Also find out the key people at the manufacturer. Have your rep or distributor introduce you to them. Communicate with the company’s product manager and head of engineering. These pathways allow you to get what you need if your sales contact is unable to help or if you’re in an “I can’t get an answer” moment.
This is a broad, multi-definitional topic. Everyone needs support at one time or another, but it’s a subjective term. In a perfect world there would be a team of people on duty “24/7” via phone and internet to answer questions and help solve issues.
Providing this resource to end users is a Herculean task and not practically viable. Several years of downsizing and restructuring has also reduced these resources in many cases.
Given that, what you need to evaluate is “What does your potential provider offer you in real time?” The heart of the issue is the connection between your company liaison and their engineering department.
The internal structure of the company will dictate your immediate access to answers and support. If your contact is knowledgeable in the company’s technical properties, then you’re going to be well serviced. This is not uncommon, but also not the norm.
What probably is happening are a stream of exchanges between your contact and the engineering staff. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But what is of practical consideration is the rapidity of those exchanges. Frequently, companies have established an internal group that is tasked with support. Not service, but support.
Well executed, this contact can become the best resource for you, the user. In your research and conversations, ask about the support organization. Does it exist? Who are they? What are their resources and group makeup?
It’s common for companies to have one or more product managers. Typically, these individuals oversee new products from development into production, and know all the issues inside out. They can be responsible for the company’s entire product offerings or just a quadrant of it.
Knowing who the product manager in the company is and having access at critical times is important. Client-focused companies incorporate this aspect of client contact into this person’s job description. They’re commonly at trade shows and product demos. Seek them out. This is a killer way to stitch together your relationship. You won’t regret it.
There isn’t a system out there that shouldn’t be sold with a complete set of spares. Spare diaphragms, transducers, and recone kits are a must.
Demand them in the initial delivery. They should be purchased on generous terms: net 120, at least. You’re depending on the system’s performance and reliability.
Without spare parts it’s impossible to repair something in the field. It’s a known issue that most new products will have some sort of failure or issue.
It can be a rigging part that doesn’t fit just right, or a compression driver that passed QC but the diaphragm fails during its second show, or whatever. There are a myriad of possibilities, and you don’t want to struggle for solutions.
I want to raise a point on behalf of manufacturers. Getting parts from subcontractors (transducers, chips, etc.) can be fraught with problems. It’s not uncommon for the best driver manufacturers to have gaps in production due to shortages, and the same goes for electronics.
We’re seeing shortages today with the huge swell of consumer electronics and the components that populate them. Long-lead components can take 12 weeks to deliver. Something’s gotta’ give, and smaller industries like pro audio lose out to the PCs and iPads.
My point is to investigate and understand how your potential manufacturer schedules production and stock parts, be it for production or as spares. Companies that are timid in this part of the process will forever suffer the repercussions from you, the buyer.
Distributors (as opposed to sales reps) typically hold a unique position in the sales organization. They’re not located in the country of the “mother ship” (manufacturer). They’re almost always provided with the best pricing and consideration.
With that benefit comes the responsibility of full representation and support; everything from in-country marketing, in-country product inventory and perhaps most importantly, in-country parts and support.
There is a smart exception, which is the manufacturers that establish their own offices, staffed by their own people, in key strategic countries. This is a great way to maintain corporate structure and visibility in foreign countries, establishing missions and directives under their control. Having full language and cultural connection in outlying countries is essential to the position and prominence of the brand.
I mentioned responsibility above. It’s my experience that the most successful distributors are those that understand their responsibilities and engage them. One of the most important responsibilities is stocking inventory and parts.
Since they’re often on the other side of the world, there must be a well thought-out stock of critical components, parts and inventory to quickly assist dealers and end users.
If you’re dealing with a distributor, the first issue to clearly understand is what they hold as inventory. How regularly do they restock? Do shipments come in via ocean or air? If you’re told that they can get what you need any time, you might be a bit circumspect.
What you’re looking for here is a robust reflection of the products you are interested in owning. Remember, they’re charged with the initiative to be your provider in your country.
If the company is not based in your country, it’s vital to clearly understand this issue. How deeply invested in that brand is the distributor? How deeply invested in the distributor is the brand? Got parts? How is the company’s marketing executed in your country? What are service and support options? Who (and where) are the key “go-to” people?
This term has varying depths of definition. On the surface, and at its most basic, it can refer to a list of people that own similar systems, posted on the manufacturer’s website.
You’re in the network because you own some gear, and can search out companion owners to communicate and exchange whatever you’d like.
Sharing or cross-renting systems can be done, but frequently there are incompatibilities that disallow fully integrated systems.
Amplifiers may be different in make or model. Processing is sometimes different, and cabling and connectors aren’t necessarily interchangeable.
In the deeper depth of the concept, a network can be a strict union of owners worldwide that is well-defined by the manufacturer as sales are made.
Systems can be strategically placed in countries and cities to minimize potential conflicts of clients and to establish a unique, marketable alliance. Typically, owners are selected for their prowess in the industry and technical competence. Systems sold under this model are most commonly fully-defined systems complete with amplification, cabling, racks, covers and cases.
With this paradigm, everything is interchangeable in the field. What you get in New York is the same thing you’ll see in Singapore or Moscow.
There are costs associated for you, the owner, to be involved in this type of network, but there can be substantial benefit to this approach, and it has been successful across the pro audio industry.
In the middle ground there is an iteration that’s becoming more prevalent: identical gear in a complete system, but no selective sales model. In this case, the manufacturer is providing a “complete system solution” but conducting sales with whomever is interested.
More manufacturers are moving in this direction, with the benefits of a common system design available to any end user. The manufacturer knows and understands the behavior and therefore its expectation of the performance of the system.
A common problem in the 1990s involved systems made up of the same loudspeakers and rigging that sounded entirely different due to processing and amplifier dissimilarities. This was hugely frustrating to manufacturers and end users alike. One system sounded great while another sounded terrible and cast aspersions on the performance and viability of the brand and equipment.
This also ticked off touring engineers who were picking up systems on a night by night basis, because they’d never know what they were going to get despite the fact it was “the same system.”
Understanding what level of network a potential purchase may involve you in is an important consideration for your expectations and potential growth of your business. There is a lot to explore on this topic, and I highly recommend doing so.
Placement around the world may seem an unnecessary consideration if you’re doing regional work. It’s not. Where identical systems are placed, and with whom, can be an essential resource for you one day. Understand the world-wide strategy and its current status.
People the world over have the same difficulties, whether it’s getting clients, growing business, working with front of house engineers, staging a festival, relationships with manufacturers and making money. You’re all in it for both egalitarian and functional reasons.
Also remember that when it’s winter in North America and Europe, it’s summer in South American and Australia. While you’re shoveling snow, they’re in full festival mode, and vice versa.
To further global relationships, it’s a good idea to attend trade shows like MusikMesse in Frankfurt or PLASA in London, or if you’re from Europe, the InfoComm show held alternately in Las Vegas and Orlando.
These trips can lead to relationships that will last a lifetime. Manufacturer worldwide strategies are essential to your long-term success, but you must participate too.
What is their program? Does it include everyone from your shop?
Beyond your system technicians, you need to be trained too.
Is there a surcharge? Understanding everything about your investment is crucial.
You need to learn the technologies and verbiage of the new system. This will be critical at times of urgency in your communication with your staff in the field and the manufacturer.
Specific training on the product deployment, servicing and any associated expertise are essential. Some top-line manufacturers provide a training course that is robust and thorough, to the point of providing a certification acknowledgement that allows a worldwide prestige for their knowledge base. This has proven to be a marketable anointment for the most dedicated technicians—there’s money in that certificate.
When you’ve stepped through your checklist and gotten the decision down to one or maybe two, it’s time to press for some real-time action.
Ask for the opportunity to use a demo system for one of your key events, one that typifies your usage. If the manufacturer says it can’t be done, for one reason or another, you may have discovered a telling lack of commitment on their part. Chances are they’ll get it done for you.
Is it deployable in the ways and environment you expected? What’s the “out of the box” performance and sonic behavior? At the end of the gig, how was it? This seems simple, but it’s an important litmus test. What you’re also looking for here is “who shows up from the manufacturer?”
The truck just left your shop and you’ve got a pile of equipment. Open it all up in a staged and well laid-out process, checking your invoice with the packing list to make sure everything ordered is there.
Establish a test set of racks for the processing and amplification, and step through evaluating each loudspeaker carefully, inspecting both visually and sonically. Join enclosures together on the floor and make sure everything mates up correctly. If possible, hang a couple of motors and fly each one to test the rigging compatibility and structures. Test everything.
I opened with the subject of patience. Employ extreme patience at delivery. For example, be sure to log the serial numbers of each and every part and unit.
It doesn’t hurt to photograph everything as well. Most insurance companies will require this anyway. Put a set of that data in a safe, off-campus location as well. Do it, and don’t wait.
Do The Homework
As I began writing, my desk was littered with notes and “oh-by-the-way” topics to cover. I’ve tried to hit the key subjects for your consideration. There are still a lot more issues and ideas to be pursued, and I will provide a further discussion soon.
The bottom line is gaining an overall appreciation of some of the crucial aspects of this entire process, as well as an understanding of your power and what to expect from the manufacturer(s) you’re doing business with.
Diligence in research will net rewards every single day. Ask the tough questions. It’s your livelihood and your profession.
Jeffrey Cox has spent the past 45-plus years on the road and in studios, in airplanes and cabs, hotel rooms and at front of house, dumps and dives, clubs, sheds, arenas, and a couple of “very big chairs” - all for the love of audio and music. He currently works with Eighteen Sound, a leading loudspeaker driver designer and manufacturer.