The Drop, The Smack: Mondo Low End For The Ultra Music Festival
"Let’s see how good it is – bring it out to Ultra.”

May 03, 2012, by Kevin Young


Since its founding in 1999, the annual Ultra Music Festival in Miami has become one of the largest festivals of its kind in North America – a showcase of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) spread over three days and 14 stages and, this year, boasting a record-breaking crowd of 165,000-plus.

It reflects numerous reports that the EDM genre is a rapidly growing segment of the North American concert industry that in turn could present a valuable revenue source for professional audio providers.

The 2012 iteration of Ultra, staged in late March, presented an assortment of some of the top DJs and live acts from across the spectrum of EDM, including Tiësto, Kraftwerk, Avicii, Justice, David Guetta, Armin Van Buuren, and many others.

Held annually in March, Ultra has inhabited various locations in Miami, but in 2012 returned to its former home at downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park.

Although the venue has changed from time to time, one element that remains constant, says Doug Fowler, principle of St. Louis-based Fowler Audio Service and system engineer/tuner for Ultra, is the influence of Terry McNeil.

As the owner of TMC Audio Systems and co-owner of Nightclub and DJ Gear in Miami, McNeil is Ultra’s long-time audio designer and assistant production manager, very much the architect of the festival’s distinct sound.

Terry McNeil, a.k.a., Dr. Bassenstein. (click to enlarge)

“Terry knows exactly what he wants to hear out of these EDM systems and he and I work together with the vendors to produce that result,” Fowler says. With dramatically different systems deployed, however, that’s easier said than done. Typically, too, the time Fowler and McNeil have to tune the systems at Ultra is in short supply.

“We had an extra day this year, and yet I had less time than ever,” Fowler notes. “This year, on the Carl Cox stage, for example, by the time I got some silence I only had 20 minutes.”

McNeil has earned the nickname Dr. Bassenstein, explaining, “I’m always about the bass, and I’m always putting together Ultra with different systems and products, but still making the stages sound the same. Like Dr. Frankenstein, you use a lot of different parts to put together the monster.”

Both Fowler and McNeil describe their work as an ongoing experiment and Ultra as the lab they come together to work in, particularly to formulate the low-end reinforcement EDM audiences insist on.

“The central challenge for any stage is integrating the subs so the important frequency regions of dance music operate efficiently,” Fowler says. “There’s a lot of content below 50 Hz, and something we’ve learned over the last several years is how to mix and match subs to get them to play together without having alignment issues in critical frequency bands.”

Further, he notes, the festival’s sonic requirements are a different animal than a typical pop/rock show: “You can’t roll up to Ultra with the kind of rig you’d use for a rock gig and expect to be successful. The bass has to sound effortless.

The configuration at the Mid Park Stage, with a long line of BASSMAXX subs running along the front of the stage. (click to enlarge)

“There are actually three different low-end areas in EDM: the drop, which is roughly 30 Hz to 50 Hz; the area between the drop and the smack, which is between 50 Hz and 55 Hz; and then the smack, which is basically 100 Hz to 140 Hz. Understanding that these three areas of bass response are critical to EDM is crucial to understanding how to set up these systems correctly.”

Mid Park Stage

One of the primary challenges this year was the Mid Park Stage, Fowler continues, which features DJ performances exclusively and a different genre of EDM each day. “One side of the Mid Park Stage was built on a little bit of a hill slope, so one side of the tent was lower than the other, relatively, so what happened was there was no trim height on the inside.”

Chicago-based Audio East provided the system, which included five Electro-Voice XLVc compact line array boxes per side driven by EV P3000 amplifiers, joined by 36 stacked BASSMAX subwoofers – a mix of SP218 dual-18 direct-radiating and Z5 single-18 horn-loaded models, driven by Powersoft K20DSP and Powersoft K10DSP amps.

David Lee (owner and chief engineer at BASSMAX) has been working on integrating the two types of subs specifically because of Ultra.

“What we’re looking for is the SP218s to cover the drop and for the horn-loaded subs to handle the smack,” Fowler says. “Integrating those is a challenge, as is trying to integrate those with the other parts of the PA.

“One of the tricky things this time was that David was using a mix of powered and passive subs, so the latency through the various digital processors was different depending on what pair you were working on. He spent quite a bit of time making sure that was all correct before we could proceed, but it sounded great in there.”

There’s a definite learning curve to getting it right. Fowler explains: “Particularly when you’re mixing subs. We’re looking for something that handles the drop and something that handles the smack and they’re so far apart in frequency that it’s unreasonable to expect one sub to do both. The smack actually happens in the lowest portion of what the main PA handles.

“So, say 120 Hz is where the heart of the smack is – we’ve got subs crossed over just below that and we’ve got tops crossed over near there on the high pass, so we can have an alignment problem in various places. That’s what we’re trying to avoid by using a mix of subs and running them a little bit higher than we normally would.”

Two types of subs at the Mid Park Stage to help present the drop, the smack, and everything in between. (click to enlarge)

Ultra Main Stage

While Fowler doesn’t tune every system, he’s eminently familiar with the sonic and physical challenges each presents vendors and their crew. Take the main stage, which sported d&b audiotechnik J Series loudspeakers (J8 and J12 specifically) driven by a d&b power and control package, provided by Beach Sound of Miami.

The main stage is mostly DJs with some exceptions – in the past Crystal Method and Black Eyed Peas have played it. What’s needed is a “no-excuses” concert PA with excessive headroom in the subwoofer region.

This year , the choice was 24 J-SUBS (triple-18, cardioid) and 32 J-INFRA (triple-21, cardioid) subs intermingled on the ground, but in years past, the J-SUBS have been flown, co-located with the mains. “The jury is still out on which way is better,” Fowler notes.

A perspective showing the scale of the Ultra Main Stage. (click to enlarge)

Flying subs is something McNeil first experimented with at Ultra with an L-Acoustics V-DOSC rig. “I told the vendor to fly at least half the SB218s so I could hear what it sounded like,” he says. “V-DOSC is naturally heavy on the high mid, but when we flew the subs, it was a whole different animal – nice and thick and warm.”

This year, with the d&b rig, he adds: “It was even left to right and it fell off right where they said it would, but, in my opinion, when you fly the subs you get a fuller sound.”

In future McNeil is considering flying a quantity of J-SUBs and experimenting with different sized stacks of J-SUBs on the ground. “And after we find out what that combination sounds like, then we start adding in the J-INFRAs.”

Klipsch Amphitheatre

Reopened in 2009 after a comprehensive renovation, the Klipsch serves as the “live stage,” with Beach Sound also tapped here to provide the system, and one capable of wider-than-usual horizontal coverage.

“Now (since the renovation) they have a proper roof and rigging structure there, so that makes things easier, but there’s a ditch in front of the performance area, and if you put subs in there they should on pieces of scaffolding – or anything – to lift them in the air,” McNeil says.

“There’s also a built-in delay arc, but it doesn’t work for the audience, so additional delay has to be applied to the outsides of the array or it loads up in the middle and you have no bass on the sides. What we needed was 140 degrees of coverage out of both the subs and the main PA.”

The main system incorporated 24 d&b J12s, 30 B2 subs (dual-18, horn design), 12 Q1s and 7 Q10s as out fills and front fills, respectively. “It’s a long line of subs, but still, delay compensation is needed on the sides,” Fowler explains. “Also, it’s a little unusual to build an entire array out of J12s – normally that’s the down fill box – but we went with the J12s because we needed such wide coverage.

“The subwoofer alignment ended up taking more work than we expected because we had to experiment with delay times on the subs because of the combination of the physical arc and the electronic arc. We also spent a lot of time on the Q1 out fills and, in fact, lowered them by six feet even though the model predicted the higher position would be fine.”

System techs Matt Holden (left) and Neil Rosenstock atop two of the location’s 24 d&b J-SUBS. (click to enlarge)

Prediction software can only do so much, McNeil adds. “I was down in the first 15 rows at the outer edge of the amphitheatre and it was like, ‘Man, I don’t hear anything – what’s going on?’ Then I went up top and there’s all this sound where they’re selling the hot dogs. I went back and was standing in the 10th row at extreme stage left when they lowered them, and that whole section opened up. There are times when people rely on predictions and leave it. We’ll start out with the prediction software, but after that, it’s trial and error. We’re going to walk it and see if we like it.”

Carl Cox Mega Structure

In this 10,000-capacity venue, which featured DJ performances exclusively, Advanced Audio of Orlando supplied mains that were comprised of 24 D.A.S. Audio Aero 50 line array boxes (a dozen per side) and driven by 12 Lab.gruppen FP 10000Q 4-channel amplifiers, as well as 39 LX218C dual-18 subs powered by 10 D.A.S. Audio D-100 4-channel amps, six Aero 8a compact, self-powered line array modules for front fill, and Aero 12a self-powered arrays on delay to extend coverage.

Physical changes to the venue, in addition to the new D-100 amps driving the LX218 subs, helped improve the sound in this venue substantially. “Last year it was good, but when the people got in there it just needed more bass,” McNeil explains. “The structure this year was the same size, but the roof was higher, so we were able to fly the line array a little higher, and the new amps also made a huge difference.”

D.A.S. LX218C subs at the Carl Cox Stage. (click to enlarge)

Like the character his nickname is based on, McNeil’s not afraid to take risks to get the result he wants at times. “My plan, from the start, was to bring in new equipment. One year, D.A.S. loudspeakers handled the Bayfront Stage. It was the first year we used the LX218 subs, and they came straight from the port of Miami to the show. A lot of people say, ‘You’re crazy for doing that’, but my thing is, if you’re a manufacturer, and you’re boasting about your product, let’s see how good it is – bring it out to Ultra.”

Measurement Rig

As the festival has evolved, so has Doug Fowler’s measurement rig. It starts with a Lenovo T500 notebook computer and a Linksys WRT54G wireless router. As a long-time user of EASERA SysTune, he deployed a beta version of SysTune v1.2 at Ultra, which includes a new Delay Analysis module, in addition to offering delay suggestions for alignment purposes. (SysTune v1.2 is now available—find out more about it here.)

“It’s also configurable regarding frequency range for the alignment and frequency center, and virtually eliminates using phase interpretation to perform alignments, although the phase response of the two components being aligned may be displayed, if desired,” Fowler adds.

SysTune’s web interface allows it to be controlled remotely via Ethernet/TCP using any mobile device running a supported browser – no interface application required. “I used an iPad 3 with great success. You just put SysTune in web server mode, enter the IP address of the SysTune computer into the mobile browser, and that’s it.” (The full release of v1.2 was expected to be available May 1.)

His Aubion x.8 audio interface uses Ethernet for both audio and control. With the Windows Bonjour service, it’s a zero-configuration process to connect it. Four microphone preamps are included, as well as line inputs. A DB25 cable expands the unit to 8-channel operation. Additionally, internal loopback to SysTune for the reference signal is supported, which frees up an input channel since no external loopback reference is required.

Mics include a Josephson C550H and three RTA 420s, with two Line 6 XD-V70L lavalier beltpacks and receivers, and a pair of Countryman phantom power supplies letting him go wireless. “The range with the included antennas is sufficient for most events, but I also carry two microphone cables – one that’s 50 feet, the other 100 feet,”  he says.

Based in Toronto, Kevin Young is a freelance music and tech writer, professional musician and composer.

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The Drop, The Smack: Mondo Low End For The Ultra Music Festival