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The Democratization of Audio

by George Petersen • in
  • Editor's Note
  • November 2018
• Created: November 13, 2018

If you read the title to this missive and are looking for political undertones, you will probably be disappointed. Instead, I’d like to muse about the notion of providing a quality audio experience for everyone that attends an event. It is a goal that can (and should) be achievable, yet it flies in the face of the offerings of just about every promoter since the days of the ancient Greek amphitheater of Epidaurus, where the acoustics of the venue were said to allow the sound of an onstage whisper to be heard in the back rows, some 200 feet away.

‡‡         The Not-So-Good Old Days

In the non-sound system era — essentially prior to the mid-1920s — there was an attention to acoustical design in classical venues and opera houses that were designed to reinforce an orchestra or unassisted human voice. In most cases, while the goal might have been lofty, the realization of this often merely resulted in creating what were large reverberation chambers that added depth and resonance to the source, but at the expense of intelligibility and detail. The situation is similar to the supposed “amazing” acoustics of large European cathedrals, with their long, deep layouts, and hard, reflective marble floors. At least in cases of sanctuaries with boomy acoustics, where even if the masses couldn’t discern the syllables, parishioners typically had most of the words of the service memorized.

In terms of paid live performance venues, the closer you sat, the greater the intelligibility, so patrons in the pricey orchestra and grand circle seats could hear (and see!) better than the rear balcony/nosebleed seats. The same applies to sports, although one could easily make the argument that the audio side of the game experience — however much that adds to the “fan experience” — is less of a factor than, say that in a play or musical performance. I’m not trying to compare the value of watching a golf or bowling game on TV versus, say a televised concert, but in the case of the latter, nearly all of the impact disappears when the audio drops out, while I can certainly enjoy watching an NBA playoff game at a sports bar without the commentary — and sometimes more so!

‡‡         Back to the Present

In a modern (meaning present day) music show, it must be our goal as an industry to support the “democratization of audio,” meaning that the sound experience — whether at a performance venue or house of worship — should be essentially identical, to anyone no matter where they are seated. The concept is not new — in fact early on, the “Democracy of Listening” was adopted as part of the mission of Jürgen Daubert and Rolf Belz (the “d” and “b” of d&b audiotechnik) when they founded their company in 1981.

Over the years, event promoters have employed technologies such as video projection to improve and add a measure of equality to live events. But even so, no Jumbotron can equal the visual impact of sitting eighth row center, even if it makes concert-going more palatable to someone in row ZZZ. Yet the audio industry can — and should — be able to provide great audio to every attendee in every seat. That’s the goal of the “democratization of audio” — the audio portion of the fan experience should provide the same quality (hopefully, good quality audio) throughout the venue.

It is possible. The goal is well within your grasp and can be achieved. Today, the tools are there, ranging from prediction programs to system controllers; room analysis programs and onboard DSP with advanced EQ and delay to matrix sends for under-balcony feeds, front fills, delay stacks, subwoofer alignment, to cardioid loudspeakers, wireless tablet access for system tweaks from anywhere in a venue — and more.

Unfortunately, in many situations — both in portable P.A. and installations, some of these final touches that could take the project to the next step are ignored. In some ways, it’s analogous to skipping the mastering process on an album release. After weeks (or months) of efforts in tracking, mixing and editing, leaving the icing off the cake just doesn’t make sense.

It’s the same in live sound, where a little extra effort, a little extra attention to detail, a little common sense application of basic principles and a little extra cash in the budget can make a huge difference in quality. The goal of excellence in audio is always worthwhile and worth that extra step.

‡‡         It’s Parnelli Time!

Speaking of excellence, the finalists in every category have been selected and it’s time for FRONT of HOUSE and PLSN readers to cast their ballots for the Parnelli Awards. The Parnelli Awards ballot information is on page 34, but before you vote, you might also want to check out the profiles of this year’s finalists in the Hometown Heroes section on page 30 — all vying for bragging rights to be named the best regional sound company in North America. And for more about the Parnelli Awards ceremony (held January 25, 2019, at the Anaheim Hilton Hotel, during NAMM), including ticket information, visit parnelliawards.com. Hope to see you there!

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