Sound designers get little enough notice as it is--blamed for bad sound, yet rarely praised for good work. Now that Clair Brothers Audio has introduced the i4 system, even the audio rigs themselves have become less visible.
Veteran FOH audio engineer Joe O'Herlihy, who has a long relationship with Clair Brothers, helped the company with research and development on the new system, and then tried it out on REM's Up tour last year. "The basis for creating it was a knee-jerk reaction to the industry as a whole for a smaller, more economical system," says O'Herlihy. "It had nothing to do with audio, really, but it's more pleasing to the ears of accountants, production managers, truck drivers, riggers, and everyone else."
This extremely compact system basically hangs in a spine curvature. "There are three different types of cabinets," O'Herlihy explains. "The 0" cabinets are tilted 2.5" high, and there is an uptilt on it so that it throws right down to the very back of a particular venue. Its directivity is superb. You point the speaker where you want the sound to go, and it basically goes there. The next speaker along is a 2.5" cabinet, which has a mid to long throw. Then the 5" cabinet has a straight-ahead, full on, short-to-medium throw. The 10" cabinet looks very extreme, because it's shooting down into the audience and is covering that immediate area directly in front of the stage."
The different speaker boxes all look the same physically. "They're trapezoidal boxes, and the shape of the tops and bottoms vary in the degrees that I mentioned, so that when all the boxes are hung up and you have 12 or 16 boxes hung in a row, they look like they're welded together," O'Herlihy says. "There cannot be any gaps between the speakers for the coefficiency to work at its best."
Rigging the system is then a breeze. "It's delightful, because two 1-ton motors can pick the system up and then you hang it wherever you like," O'Herlihy says. "You can use a minimum of six cabinets, which has its own integrated, internal pullback, like a pulley hoist."
While its small size has indeed made the system popular with accountants and production managers, it also earns high marks from O'Herlihy for doing the job. "I participated in the infancy stage of development on this system," O'Herlihy says. "My big yearning for a smaller, sophisticated system was that they would maintain the sonic credibility. I wanted to make sure they maintained the musical quality of the system, which is a very smooth, non-rigid, unprocessed sound. You get to a sound a lot more quickly because frequencies are not removed from the packaging. It's an engineer's discretion as to whether he wants X, Y, and Z, sonically speaking, but it should be determined by him whether to remove it or not, rather than have the company say, 'We've taken all of this out and it sounds great, and here's the processor'--and you're left with something that might not have the significant frequencies you need to make that guitar sound really great. Then you end up using an awful lot of coloration just to get an EQ that should already be there."
Clair Brothers has spent the last few years specifically working on this new system, but the technology itself is not new. "There is a full-range box and super-high tweeters in there that give you the full range of sound," O'Herlihy says. "There isn't anything removed in the very intelligent way that the box is both designed and used. It is something that harkens back to when they first invented audio for talking movies. This is a line array speaker system, but the efficiency of the components in everything from the speakers to the amplifiers to the crossover points is maintained at a very high, super-efficient standard to deliver quite substantial SPL.
"The difference is that vox systems, for example, work by taking out all the different offending frequencies, so you're left with a processed package to make whatever the particular system work at its sufficient best--which it generally does," he continues. "Whereas in the context of the i4 system, they've gone the opposite route; they've developed a system that incorporates the entire frequency system bandwidth. There is nothing chopped out frequency-wise to make the thing work more efficiently in any way, shape, or form."
Having the system out on REM's tour, the engineer noticed that the system's vocal intelligibility is especially clear. "People will be quite shocked by the quality of the vocals in particular," O'Herlihy says. "It also works incredibly well for acoustic instruments--there is a really natural sound rather than a processed or electronic type of sound some systems tend to deliver."
O'Herlihy's Clair Brothers crew for REM's tour included systems engineer Jo Ravitch, monitor engineer Don Garber, and stage technicians Chad Shreiner and Jacques Von Lunen. "They specifically designed this system to be the future from an audio point of view," O'Herlihy says of the system that is also being used on the Backstreet Boys tour. "From Clair's perspective, they're taking on the year 2000 and saying, 'This is what we've got to offer and this is what we'll be celebrating come the start of the new millennium.' I've used their equipment since 1981, and they have responded always accordingly. At the end of the day, their S4 box is an outstanding piece of technology that still sounds bloody good. This i4 box is their answer to the industry's needs at this particular stage--it's been a long time coming and I am excited by it."