Several years ago I was managing a touring sound company, and we decided to take a stab at contracting. Because our expertise was in large systems, we focused on big installations like stadiums.
In those days, most sports facilities were being designed with 12-channel boards, wimpy amplification and loudspeaker clusters kindly called “flying junkyards.”
We perceived a huge gap between what was being offered to the average sports fan and what we were consistently providing to other entertainment patrons at musical events. Thus we designed a stadium system that brought technology to bear from the concert and recording worlds.
The console had mute groups and VCA subgroups. The front end was the first DSP-based system in major league sports. The clusters were large touring boxes with big horn mouths for pattern control, and plenty of horsepower driving them. We even put in one of the early SoundTools rigs instead of a cart machine. That system created a template for how certain aspects of stadium sound systems have been done ever since.
Sometimes it pays to step back from what you do every day to rethink your habits and approaches. We applied our way of doing things to a different genre. And, conversely, bringing in techniques from other disciplines is just as valid.
There has always been cross-pollination between equipment uses. MIDI is a prime example, originally conceived with musicians in mind, offering a way for synthesizers to send keyboard commands to each other. But when they started putting those little round jacks on the backs of effects boxes, the genie was out of the bottle.
I remember when we spent the time between songs on our knees in front of the effects rack setting up for the next song. If the band didn’t follow the set list we spent the first minute of the song there too. Then I discovered that I could take my TC 2290 and use it to step all my effects boxes through song presets via MIDI commands. I could relax between songs!
Later we actually saw consoles with built-in MIDI command faders for things like controlling effects and muting groups. Even the “squints” got in on the act, commandeering MIDI as a lighting control language.
Broadcast has chipped in with some useful technology as well. Most of the production intercom systems we use every night were originally developed for directors to bark at camera operators. Fiber optic snakes were in much wider use in broadcast than in live sound reinforcement, and we’re now well along in “poaching” this technology.
The motherlode of available gear to borrow comes from the recording realm. Quite a while ago, I was mixing the opening act on an Alice Cooper tour, and Cubby Colby let me use everything except the Lexicon 224.
The studio retro craze has had some serious spin-off into our world, with many processing racks sporting sporting tube mic preamps. And long gone are the days when the only condenser mics onstage were Shure SM81s on hi-hat and overhead. The project studio craze has made large-diaphragm side-address condensers affordable enough to be frequent tools for live use.
We even owe the project guys for something as invisible (yet vital) as the 24-bit analog-to-digital converter chip. We needed the dynamic range, but only their buying power could drive its development. Digital consoles were a fixture in high-end studios for years, until we started to understand the benefits of the development of useable console topologies ergonomic enough for the fast-paced concert world.
All of this to say: the more we share technology, the more there is to share.
Bruce Main has been a systems engineer and FOH mixer on and off for more than 30 years. He has also built, owned and operated recording studios and designed and installed sound systems.