Why Live Sound Systems Proliferate

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Audio; Live Events

Date: February 2012

More installed and PA sound products coming to market underscore the growing diversity of audio systems for live events.

By Dan Daley, Special to InfoComm International®

If the world seems like it’s gotten a lot louder, it’s because it has. Or at least there are a lot more sound systems out there making noise. Not what you might expect, but a great situation for live events professionals.

In many technology-related industries, maturity usually means consolidation. Take personal computers, for example. There are far few brands today than there were 20 years ago. That doesn’t appear to be the case in pro audio. A proliferation of new sound systems, released recently by brands such as JBL, Crown Audio, Community Pro, Behringer, QSC, Mackie, Midas, Yamaha and others, underscore a sector of pro audio that’s been thriving and expanding rapidly for the last several of years. What’s propelling this expansion is an ongoing proliferation of event spaces — from new music clubs to more houses of worship — that are opting for much better sound to enhance marketing, intelligibility and more.

Installed sound systems have been getting better — improved intelligibility and clarity, but also improved gain before feedback and other critical performance parameters — because of demand from clients for these characteristics. But many of the technological improvements, particularly smaller component sizes, increased portability and simpler user interfaces, are driven by music. And in a music-business landscape where artists are making more of their revenue from live performances and touring (as recorded music sales continue to decline), musicians themselves are selecting more than just their guitar amps; they’re choosing their entire sound systems. In the process, they’re drawing on R&D developments initially applied to high-end line-array systems, such as steerable directionality and self-calibration, into lower and broader sound-system market tiers.

Several factors are driving demand for more new sound systems. First, there has been an increase in the number of live music events and festivals. Researchers from the universities of Bath, Birmingham and Southampton in the U.K. released a study in 2011 indicating a 71-percent increase in the number of British music festivals since 2003. And large multistage festivals in the U.S., such as Bonaroo and Coachella, have been selling more tickets year over year, nearly doubling live-music revenues over the past decade to $4.6 billion last year. This growth comes at a time when, according to trade group IFPI, global sales of recorded music have plummeted more than 40 percent in the past 10 years, to $16 billion in 2010.

This fresh emphasis on live-music events increases demand for both PA and installed sound systems. It also raises requirements for better sound quality. (To say nothing about increasingly stringent life-safety regulations that place more emphasis on intelligible audio throughout live-event venues.) As festivals increasingly become branding platforms for major lifestyle companies, those sponsors are demanding that the quality of the sound meet the raised expectations of a consumer base that’s become used to good sound everywhere from their cars to their churches.

Market Drivers

Which brings us to the house-of-worship market in the U.S., which continues to grow and employ both types of sound systems for its live worship, music and theatrical events. Rick Plushner, vice president of dealer and systems integrator GC Pro, says that the HOW market has been the main driver behind his company’s growth in the last several years. “That market is still experiencing significant growth and it uses a lot of live-sound and installed-sound products,” he says.

Moreover, the mushrooming number of sports facilities in recent years — at both the professional and scholastic levels — has helped drive the sound-system market. In fact, it was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of One Systems, a three-year-old PA components maker whose all-weatherproof product lines are targeted at sports stadiums and arenas. Company president Doug MacCallum says that sound has become a differentiator for clients, especially at schools, as they vie for alumni and state funding. “Along with video, good sound systems have become must-haves for any serious sports facility, and that’s been driving demand and sales,” he says.

Plushner and others see manufacturers using this growing demand to expand their own product families in order to gain market share and mindshare in the live-event sound sector. “The barriers to entry to this market have become much lower,” suggests Jack Kelly, president of Group One, which distributes brands such as Digico, which makes mixing consoles for the live-sound market. Kelly says that in a digital environment, many pro audio manufacturers are able to leverage their existing products, such as consoles and amplifiers, into a broader array of products and systems for the live-sound market. “So companies can move into this sector easily and inexpensively, particularly in the entry levels,” he explains

Trade Show Venues

Of course, industry strength may have a lot to do with the proliferation of sound systems. That and the fact that manufacturers these days have better opportunities to demonstrate their wares to more professionals.

A look around a recent trade show reflects this trend and underscores the fact that much of the expansion of the sound-system sector has been into entry-level and mid-level markets. The annual Winter NAMM Show, held at the Anaheim Convention Center every January, is putatively about musical instruments. It’s a noisy cacophony of guitars and drums patrolled by noise monitors who are supposed to keep the din to 85 dB (but whose meters regularly record readings of 93 dB and higher). But it has also become an increasingly important venue to show off new PA and installed sound products in a crowded marketplace.

Since the folding of the NSCA Expo into the InfoComm Show in 2008, the number of venues that can demonstrate large-system performance may have dwindled, but it hasn’t hurt manufacturers’ ability to demo new technology. “NSCA was a major show for live sound,” says Brad Lunde, president of Las Vegas-based pro audio distributor TransAudio and a former executive in JBL’s commercial audio division. “Since the NSCA show has gone, manufacturers have looked for other venues. The Infocomm Show has been very good for that segment, and the NAMM Show is also getting more traction as a live-sound venue.”

Rod Falconer, director of technical training and education for Community Professional, says that sound-system manufacturers want trade shows that allow them to showcase the performance capabilities of large sound systems rather than just show them in a static booth exhibit. This ability to demo large working systems at shows attracts sound-system buyers internationally. It’s also drawing an increasing number of installed sound products. As in years past, the InfoComm 2012 show in Las Vegas will feature audio demo rooms that are off the exhibit floor, plus an Audio Pavilion and a Technologies for Worship Pavilion, each of which will feature new live-sound systems.

“It’s become a very good way to expose potential buyers to the performance of the live-sound and installed-sound products,” Falconer explains.

A More Crowded Market

That kind of exposure is becoming more important as the market defies conventional wisdom and actual grows more crowded. Manufacturers already in the sector are expanding their range of products (JBL this year introduced both a new flagship line array, the VTX, and the PRX400 Series portable series of products), even as new vendors are entering the market, such as amplifier and DSP maker Line 6, which introduced its new StageScape M20D “smart” mixer, with onboard multichannel recording and remote iPad control, in January.

Expect to see the live- and installed-sound systems market continue to expand in response to the growth of the live-music, live-event and HOW markets. An increasingly dense product landscape might make decision-making more complex, and the volume of marketing noise will certainly increase as more vendors seek to differentiate themselves. But in the end, AV and live events professionals should be rewarded with a broader range of choices that better fit their specific projects, plus lower prices across the board. And that’s going to sound very good.