Touring Pro's POV
Ideas for helping audio rental houses stay competitive in a challenging economy.
Current economic conditions have had a host of repercussions on the technology, business, and techniques of the live-sound industry. Rental houses, in particular, have been hard hit, and top industry players are learning to innovate and expand their technology and service offerings.
Many audio rental industry pros have strong opinions about the best ways to service clients and succeed in this atmosphere. Among them is Dave Shadoan of Sound Image, Escondido, Calif. Sound Image has been around for 31 years and is now one of the largest sound and rental houses in the country. At any given time this past summer, the company was servicing up to 20 rock tours, including Bob Dylan, Toby Keith, Jimmy Buffett, and Brooks & Dunn, among others.
A JBL VerTec 4889 line array for the 2003 Springsteen tour.
Shadoan is co-owner of Sound Image and a veteran front-of-house sound mixer on the concert circuit. He recently sat down and spoke with SRO audio columnist, Alex Artaud, to offer his take on the current state of the live-sound industry.
SRO: One of things you've stressed in other interviews is that technology can be purchased, but people and service cannot. What do you mean by that?
Shadoan: I've always emphasized that mixing consoles don't mix shows. Yet, there are many people who see a well-known engineer behind console ‘X’ and they decide that's what they need. I can't tell you how many times I send things out on tours, and the guy calls back during rehearsals, asking for the manuals. And they'll bank a show on a piece of technology that they don't know how to run. Now, I just ask people if they've ever used the console before I send it out, especially now with digital desks.
SRO: We've had a very challenging economic climate recently. Do you think the demand for technological innovation has softened or gotten stronger?
Shadoan: On our level, there's more demand. But I don't think they're demanding this on the regional level, since they can't support it. In terms of cost, the demands are there for us and for digital consoles, and — knock on wood — customers are willing to pay the cost. I like to say that equipment should rent per week for between 3.5 to 4 percent of their purchased price. If you break that down and look at it, it's still a year to recover the investment. And you don't get a year's utilization in rental inventory. Our experience is that most things work 30 weeks on average, under heavy use.
SRO: And you have to offset the cost of whatever maintenance you need to do during the rental cycle, right?
Lenny Kravitz at a recent show.
Maintenance is the key priority. Everything has to go through quality control, and a support staff has to be in place for that. But if you check out a couple of the well-known entities in the touring industry, some still aren't charging rates that are going to return the investment on both the purchase and service of their equipment. That's not entirely surprising. Virtually none of the people behind today's big sound companies had a business background when they got started, myself included.
By contrast, go back to the early 1970s and you'll see that people were making gigantic sums for big PA systems. They were getting $8,000 to $10,000 per show since there wasn't a weekly rate. I was recently speaking with a pioneer in the live-sound business and discussing old contracts from the mid-70s, and we were laughing at the money. We recalled the cost of a particular, old, one-off system was in the range of $800,000! It was certainly one of the grandest systems ever built for a band [at the time]. Basically, that rig was paying for itself two or three times on one tour.
No one knew what to pay, because there was no gauge or concept. No one knew it was a business. As things evolved, business managers of record labels that supported the tours put an end to that. In those days, we ran proprietary houses. That meant that you didn't have a lot of off-the-shelf equipment from major manufacturers. You may have used all JBL components, but no turnkey systems. Amplifiers were generally hot-rodded since they weren't built for what we were doing with them.
SRO: What do you feel the priorities for rental houses should be these days?
Shadoan: Number one is to buy what the people want, not what you think they need. It's common sense, but one of the hardest things to learn because almost everyone in this business started out as a sound guy, not as someone who wanted to rent audio equipment. They accumulated a certain amount of gear, and then start renting it out. And 90 percent of the time, rental houses started with one client, so their acquisitions were made with their heart and their ears. However, if you want to be a rental house, you need to have what people want to rent. So make sure what you purchase is rider-friendly. In other words, don't buy a noise gate just because you think it sounds better than a Drawmer DS201. That's not what they want. At that point, you immediately become a salesman when you should be an order-taker. At the end of the day, that's what will keep you busier than the guy down the street.
SRO: Where do you think the next wave in development will happen? I'm thinking in particular of Lake Technologies Contour [the 24-bit, 96KHz, PC-controllable digital processor loaded with filter synthesis algorithms], which has been generating a lot of buzz.
A Meyer Sound MILO line array used at a Norah Jones concert.
Well, first off, I believe the digital audio path will reside in the amplifier. Basically, you'll see a Contour available in each channel of an amplifier. And you'll simply run it in blocks, groups, or individually. It will be what everybody's always dreamed of — the ability to control a transducer with amplitude and control processing, including equalization, crossover, delay, and filtering — all within the amplifier channel.
This approach is coming from [several] manufacturers. In terms of audio quality, Contour is certainly equal to, or better than, anybody else's piece. And it has a unique new feature called the Mesa filter [a filter with a flat top or bottom that can be configured with asymmetrical slopes], which I find amazing. But we've compared everybody's digital pieces in-house, and found them to be all quite comparable in audio quality. In the end, it's the flexibility in features that may determine what people will adopt, and eventually, these features will find their way into less-expensive equipment.
VT 4889 line arrays with VT 4880 subwoofers at Springsteen’s 2002 show at the Los Angeles Forum.
What digital will do is allow systems to continue to be condensed into a small package for large venues. You'll see digital amplifiers packaged for specific projects. A fiber-optic snake the size of your little finger running front-to-back, with six lines of TX/RX on it so you'll have redundant back-up. You'll have a digital console sitting at both ends. No amplifiers anywhere since they'll all be in speaker boxes. People will use in-ear monitors, and wedges will be self-powered, as well.
The AC signal and all control will be handled by the amplifier. There will be a single cable that will have fiber optic in the middle of it and AC on the outside. [The cabling] will be spun that way and will be a single connector. And won't you worry about hums and buzzes, because light doesn't hum.
Sound Image relied on JBL VT 4889 line arrays for the stage for Lenny Kravitz’s tour, shown here in Mexico.
Any other thoughts?
Shadoan: It comes down to your philosophy of how you want to package, signal flow, etc. At our level, signal flow has to become very simplified. Ever notice the amp rack of some regional guy will have tons of switches and XLRs on the back? If I took that amp rack and put it on a tour, I'd be getting a phone call every day. If you look at what the major players do, it's simple. Sure, it's complex, but straightforward to put together for the end user. So I think the future of our rental business is packaging — how you get it condensed down. Technology will be a part of it, but how things are packaged will play the major role. Today, we're witnessing what used to be three trucks of audio down to a truck and a half. And line arrays didn't make it any smaller — they just made it pack better.
Alex Artaud is a writer, musician, and engineer living in Oakland, Calif. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
TOURING PRO'S POV
As part of SRO's examination of the state of the live-sound industry, audio columnist Alex Artaud recently caught up with industry veteran Mark Frink. Readers may be familiar with Frink as a longtime contributor to SRO's sister magazine, Mix. Over the past two decades, Frink has worked as front-of-house and monitor engineer for several tops acts. Artaud recently caught up with Frink traveling with k.d. lang on her summer tour.
SRO: I asked Dave Shadoan earlier if the economic climate has contributed to a softening in technological innovation. What is your take?
Frink: When economic times are hard, whether you're a sound company or manufacturer, additional customers come to you [because of the increased competition]. In good times, additional customers seem to pop up out of nowhere. Right now, our industry is more competitive than it's ever been, and one means of competition is technological innovation. I think we're seeing some of the healthier companies being able to compete through technological innovation, and that's a way for them to get ahead in the game.
At the same time, it's a challenge for a lot of companies to renew their investment in new technology. There continues to be technology in search of an application, or misapplied technologies that are looking to justify themselves. There are many users that don't need the benefits of all the features in some of the technologies.
SRO: We're also seeing more compact line arrays out there, so that appears to be a healthy growth area.
Frink: The proliferation of compact line-array systems indicates that people are able to take a technology originally designed for long-throw venues and apply it to smaller venue structures. Almost every manufacturer is jumping on this bandwagon because there are a limited number of large-format touring line arrays that you can sell into the market. But there are virtually an unlimited number of these compact enclosures that can be sold into all the venues needing to upgrade. I think compact line arrays are going to become the tail that wags the dog. People will use the larger line arrays to gain recognition for themselves, but the smaller systems will be the most profitable, so here we're seeing a lot of competition. Now, even companies that never had line arrays are introducing compact versions.
SRO: The Contour from Lake Technologies has been generating lots of interest. Any thoughts on how this approach will influence interface design?
Frink: Well, as tech geeks, we've grown up in a world appreciating the typical Star Trek interface that we've watched on the various shows. We can appreciate a user interface that's intuitive and tactile, doesn't have moving parts, and is visually rich. That's the impression of an interface that we've grown to expect out of future products. Aside from the fact that it's a great sounding piece of equipment, Contour is one of the first to take advantage of the new, tablet PC form-factor computers. Lots of other manufacturers, if they're not doing it already, will look very closely at how they could implement their products with a similar user interface by just jumping into tablet PCs as a platform to support them.
Interestingly enough, the Contour doesn't have any front-panel user controls at all. You can only control it via a network connection. So we'll be seeing more of that, and it may be the case that we'll see large-format products, like a mixer console, that simply have connections and a network interface that allow them to be controlled from a variety of positions. The problem with hardware development is that, when you create a piece of hardware, that product is frozen in time as that specific version. When it's software-based, you can build a platform and have a user interface that can be upgraded over time. We're seeing this with number of software products that have customizable skin.
— Alex Artaud