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Dave Rat Transmission: Smart Amplifiers =  Huge Changes In Professional Audio

With manufacturer-specific smart amps (and also increasingly, powered/processed loudspeaker systems), there's an opportunity for a fundamental shift in exactly who really has control of the starting-point sound of a PA system.

By Dave Rat June 25, 2010

Reminiscent of how large-scale line arrays caused a monumental change in professional audio, I believe we’re in the midst of another massive shift.

The days of “conventional power amplifiers” in upper-level sound reinforcement are dwindling, replaced by the newer, rapidly emerging breed of “intelligent amplifiers” outfitted with sophisticated digital processing and sometimes, a whole lot more.

After this new generation of amplifiers of intelligent amplifiers (“smart amps”) was introduced, it took me a while to get my head around the concept.

Incorporating digital processing in every single amplifier seemed like a financial waste when one processor is capable of controlling so many identical amps.

But as I continued to ponder the idea, the more sense it made for several powerful reasons.

JUST A BAND-AID?
First, there’s the flawed concept that a bank of amps with the same model number are always identical.

The fact is that the output power of each amp is affected by its loudspeaker load, and rarely in the real world are all amps driven at identical loads.

Then there are issues like blown loudspeaker drivers and/or miswiring.

Smart amps are capable of analyzing loudspeaker loads, monitoring drivers and flagging improper wiring, and letting the operator know about these factors immediately.

This additional smart capability, in turn, allows loudspeaker manufacturers to further increase the quality and capabilities (i.e., sound better and get louder while blowing fewer drivers).

The plot recently thickened further with the (somewhat shocking) announcement by Dolby that they’re leaving the processor manufacturing business with the almost immediate discontinuance of the Dolby Lake Processor.

Yes, Dolby seems to prefer licensing versus making hardware. but for one of the top manufacturers of digital processors to pull the plug is saying something.


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About David

Dave Rat
Dave Rat

President, Rat Sound Systems
 
Dave Rat heads up Rat Sound Systems (www.ratsound.com), a leading sound reinforcement company based in Southern California, and has also been a mix engineer for more than 30 years.

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Curtis List (Too Tall) says

June 27, 2010

It seems to me that we went through a thread on this subject on the LAB some time ago.
What makes it interesting is I do not remember my opinion at the time.

I believe my opinion was focused on if it was a good idea to ask for a LCD (Least Common Denominator) for PA sound rather then “the best it could be”. A similar situation when asking for vocal mics in the tech rider where most ask for SM58.

On that situation I was against it, though in the end I suspect I would do the same thing as Dave (just not for vocal mics LOL).
NOTE: This does not address the room and where the speakers can be placed, which can make a huge difference. Where you may go from a basketball arena where the low steel is at 50 feet to an old auditorium with no place to fly.

This article came at it more from the hardware end, not the philosophy.
Dose it make sense money wise and for duplication of hardware?

Looking at the power amp the most expensive parts are the power supply and box.
So if you make a power amp you might as well stick a processor in there since you have paid for the box and power supply already.

What has to happen in the future is we need this processor to be as powerful as a Lake and cost less then a Crown PIP.
I have no doubt this will happen and that soon.

Too Tall
[email protected]

Rick Turner says

And why not go the next step and build power amps into the speaker drivers?  This would allow phased arrays for aiming sound easily from line arrays for precise control of dispersion into any environment.

Gadget says

I think another important benefit is the integration of new audio over ethernet protocols. Some of these protocols, over 1GB networks, can house an I/O of over 500/500 with less than 1ms. There are obviously specifics to this, but some of the systems have become as intuitive as: ‘plug’-‘assign’- and ‘play’. This creates not just amplifier control but MASS system integration… the entire system then become intelligent.
      It also pushes us into rethinking system architecture. Gone are the days of having specific amp racks and processing for different speaker systems. All you need now is just racks of “intelligent” amps… which are networked together… and you just tell each rack what it will be powering. DONE! This can be done to an even finer degree since some of these intelligent amps allow you to NOT just limit the output voltage… but to actually change the output rail voltage. A 2500W per channel amp can be easily changed to a 500W per channel amp… or have one channel be 2500W and another 250W… complete flexibility.
      The next five years will be very exciting!

Dean says

Less wires,fewer connections… better sound. Look no futher, convert your system today with drop in amp modules complete with software and built-int DSP. Check-out http://www.digmoda.com for more info.

Stephen says

Although this is a very cool idea if you are doing an install where you are able to buy racks of identical power amps and be able to network them all together and utilize processors built into power amps is great, There will still be lots of situations where you will still need another audio controller.

Unlike the inclusion of comps and effects in digital consoles where you won’t really need an external unit unless you prefer a brand or style thats unavailable as a plugin, not all your audio outputs that would normally be coming from your Lake or Galileo are necessarily heading toward speakers, hence, you will still be buying something and then instead of using one software interface for a bank of processors. You are going to be using one application for the speakers and a different for the rest of your outputs… ending up buying more computers and actually taking up more rack and desktop space.

Then what if today you are using a Meyer self powered PA and tomorrow you are using a LA array. Then its like the struggle people go through that use PC’s at work and Mac’s at home. You are constantly going through the struggle of “now where is that button in this software interface.” Also what if your mains are using these smart power amps because it is the rig you brought in, but you’re patching into the venue’s delay system… again, using two softwares but even worse because if you are using a tablet walking around doing EQ tweaks, it’s even more annoying to switch between VNC viewers or however you view your control software.

I guess in conclusion, I think these smart amps will only take off if and only if the processors are designed and have the same software and interfaces as the existing processor designers. If I owned a rack full of soundweb’s and I was buying new amps and they offered a “smart” model with a soundweb built in that would be fully integrateable with my current setup, thats great, otherwise, I’d pass.

Rick Soukup says

I’ll try to keep this short.  I don’t believe that the needs for audio distribution will ever go away at FOH.  The need for a FOH processor is about consistence and comfort.  Now I do believe the FOH crossover is almost a thing of the past for new systems but not distribution.  Even now a days with digital consoles being able to do almost what our Lakes and such do you come into the problem of consistency.  As a Sound Co employee I am on a different console every time I blink it seems.  So being able to have my Lake next to me with the same capability’s every time is important to me as a system engineer.  In a festival situation even with one console every time an engineer loads a scene I don’t want to have to set up my VIP, Video, Delays, and feeds for this that and the other, that I can’t do through a self processed amp.  We always try to get console files ahead of time to set to routing and such but engineers don’t always want to use a file that is a few days old and still want to load their latest version.  By having a FOH processor I have less to do during the already short change over.  Who comes up with these ridicules change over times!  But that’s a whole different thing.  When we have multiple consoles I prefer to have 3 at a time going right in to my Lake In order to not use a slave console allowing me to strike all opening consoles with out effecting the acts to come.  I don’t know about the rest of you but nothing bugs me worse that while I’m mixing to be budged about some misc. send that someone didn’t see the need to set up ahead of time.  So without interrupting the bands engineer for a matrix I will just come out of the lake and the engineer doesn’t know the difference.

Dave I don’t know if you read these comments or not but if all we have better than the next or last Sound Co is to hope to have a better sounding PA were doomed!  Like you said the manufactures are trying there hardest to make that a thing of the past.  Where we must really shine is in quality of service.  Not just attitude but willingness, attentiveness and anticipation.  If the engineer has to tell me about a problem I’ve already failed as a system engineer.  If today it’s my rig it’s my problem and it’s my reputation so if I catch any possible or potential problem before anyone else I’m just doing my job.  So through quality of service I will shine above the rest and if all you have is a “better” sounding PA GOOD LUCK and have your clients call us if there unhappy.

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