In many ways, loudspeaker technology is the primary limiting factor in sound reinforcement system design and performance.
Transducers are always problematic, having to comply with the laws of thermodynamics and all. Not only are they inefficient at turning electric energy into acoustic energy, they also add a significant amount of distortion to the signal during the process.
Some years ago I was in Washington, D.C., doing research for a potential patent for a vibration reducing device, and I came across some of the early patents for dynamic loudspeaker drivers from about 100 years ago. Guess what? They looked basically the same as what we have now, and were certainly based on the same principles.
It made me realize that, like the internal combustion engine, loudspeakers as we know them have been around for a long time, and are in a constant state of refinement because we simply haven’t developed anything better yet.
But what about all of that refinement? Indeed, as stable as the technology is in many ways, loudspeakers have been radically transformed, particularly over the past two decades.
Inside the Box
In my mind, the first big evolution came several decades ago in the form of cabinet design. Once designers had a handle on the acoustic properties of the transducers themselves, we began to see very good loudspeaker designs that took advantage of the strengths and minimized the weaknesses of the various drivers. Crossovers followed suit, becoming ever more sophisticated.
Next came the move to active designs, led by Meyer Sound and others during the late 1970s and early ‘80s. This was the first real step towards developing a complete system between amplifiers, crossovers, cabinets and drivers. I was fortunate enough to tour in the 1990s with Meyer Sound MSL3s, UPA1s, USWs and USMs—great loudspeakers (particularly for the day) that made my job much easier.
Next was the line array revolution, led by L-Acoustics, further changing the game. Certainly, line arrays aren’t the ideal solution for all applications, but they’ve lightened the load of countless tours while delivering quality sound to millions around the world since their introduction.
By the late 1990s, I noticed two things that were primed to have an effect on stage microphones. First, the introduction of in-ear monitoring systems dramatically lowered stage volume levels, improving signal-to-noise ratio while also accommodating the deployment of better microphones—even condensers—on live stages. Second, improved loudspeaker designs meant that those better microphones, no longer confined to the studio, could now be clearly heard by a live audience.
As a result, I worked with the team at Neumann (my employer at the time) to come up with the KMS105 vocal microphone. There were similar models developed by Shure, Audix, and others, and we were all responding to the newfound fidelity of the loudspeaker systems. Artists like Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and many others were able to deliver a “studio-quality” experience to their audiences. I know—I was there! At the time, it really seemed like a breakthrough, probably because, well, it was.