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The New School is Old School… Well, Sometimes

by George Petersen • in
  • Editor's Note
  • June 2018
• Created: June 6, 2018

I love this industry. Yeah, being involved in the music side of the biz is a real addiction for most of us, especially since the majority of us began as musicians. This month, I spoke to longtime pro audio veteran Larry Italia, the new president/CEO of d&b audiotechnik USA (see “FOH Interview,” page 42). My first question to him was whether he got started in pro audio as the guitar player who owned the P.A. Actually, that wasn’t true in his case — he worked in a music store — but as with Larry, the roots for most of us are firmly grounded in playing some kind of instrument.

Those roots tend to run deep in all of us. Love of audio is a passion we can’t shake. I mean, if we wanted to make real big money, we’d be involved in pharmaceuticals — at least be employed by the pharmaceutical industry, or as a hedge-fund banker, where the cash income seems to flow unabated. And the live sound biz is different from most other technology-based fields. That love of old school analog tools and approaches often carries through into our daily lives. Just this month, two of the successful tours we’re spotlighting in this issue — Jack White (page 34) and Umphrey’s McGee (page 40) are on the road with racks of outboard gear and an old-school analog approach.

‡‡         Something Old, Something New

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — other than perhaps dealing with increased freight bills, potential sore backs and a larger FOH footprint (meaning less prime real estate seats to sell). Yet in either case, the sound’s the thing, and whatever gets you to that goal is perfectly acceptable. Compared with other technology-based industries, the very concept of using tools older than six months (in some cases) equates to heresy.

No one in video production would consider packing a couple three-tube cameras or a U-matic videotape recorder on a shoot, just as few high-end computer users are considering going retro with a PC running Windows 95 driving an amber screen CRT display. But even on a high-end, cutting edge tour, no one bats an eyelash when the mic selection for the singer is a (now half-century-old) Shure SM58. In fact, we even celebrate the past, perhaps with a vintage-looking Shure SH55 “Elvis” mic, a CADLive A77 or Heil Sound’s The Fin.

Even within the digital domain, once we have accepted plug-in emulations of classic signal processing, we somehow feel more comfortable if the on-screen representation looks like the original article. Here, other than appealing to our aesthetic senses, there is no reason for such a GUI; in fact, trying to manipulate rotary controls via a mouse is definitely a less than efficient means of tweaking parameters.

Yet while we celebrate the past, even the most ardent technophobes amongst us will also embrace current and future technologies. Few want to shuck their smart phones for pagers and “candy bar” cell phones. The same applies to wireless mics. We want the latest, channel-sensing design, while the market for people seeking the nostalgic appeal of a 49 MHz rig is, shall we say… nonexistent. On the console side, while some (but certainly not all) analog boards do offer a certain “sound,” the advantages of digital consoles are too numerous to ignore. A compact control surface that can access 64 or more channels can be ideal in crowded settings, as often encountered in live theater. And in fast turnover applications — such as large festivals — a complex show file with intricate routing changes can be loaded into a digital console in less time than a drum riser can be swapped between acts.

‡‡         Welcome to the Future

Back to the great (and seemingly non-ending) analog sound argument, it’s certainly true that many of the older digital console designs were less than sterling in the audio reproduction department, with harsh anti-aliasing filters, questionable ADC/DAC implementations, low bit resolution and reduced sampling rates. But those days are largely behind us, and high channel-count mixers, with state of the art DSP, 96k Hz sampling and 24- /32-bit clarity have been the norm for some time.

Digital consoles also offer perks such as ease of interfacing on your choice of platforms (ADB, Dante, Ravenna, MADI, etc.), which leave analog snaking in the dust; a wealth of “sound” options via different stageboxes and/or optional mic preamp/input cards; and with many — an FPGA-based architecture where the power of the console can be multiplied via a simple firmware update.

‡‡         Welcome to InfoComm!

While our studio-based cousins often long for the past, live users rarely have the luxury of spending a half-day working on a killer hi-hat sound. We need rugged, reliable tools that sound great, operate and set up quickly and give us the sound we need in a hurry, especially when the time between load-in and curtain is measured in hours and not weeks. On the live side, ours is the future; and a great place to glimpse into your destiny is at this month’s InfoComm show in Las Vegas, with hundreds of technology exhibits opening from June 6 to 8, 2018. If you’re in town, drop by Timeless Communications/FOH at booth N1301 and say hello. If not, don’t worry, we will provide full coverage of all the show’s audio action on fohonline.com and in the July issue of FRONT of HOUSE.

See you there!

For George Petersen’s video intro to the June 2018 issue of FRONT of HOUSE Magazine, click below:

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