Drawing Conclusions

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Design Decisions For Performance Space Sound Systems

Designing and installing live music sound systems that meet concert audience expectations is always a challenge. Through the design process we regularly review data and make decisions. The data floods in from loads of sources: manufacturer specifications, computer modeling, system optimization results, end-user input, and finally (we hope) critical listening. How we choose to interpret, integrate, and ultimately use the data to create the best audience music experience is fundamental to success (read: fun).

I’m of the very strong opinion

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that all available data gathered through the design and build process is worthy of review. Having said that, all data should not be treated equally. And here’s the rub—how different individuals decide to weigh and therefore use the information they gather for creating the best audience experience seems to be very different. Often the information gathered is used outside the context of the musical performance that the sound system will be expected to support.

An example is the practice of computer modeling for advance predictions of loudspeaker coverage over the seating area. This design tool allows for critical aiming of loudspeakers even before a theater is built or refitted. It is an invaluable technique, however computer modeling does not take into account the sound of a live music act on stage. Without accounting for what is often a substantial sound source (artists’ band gear, onstage monitor system, etc.) a design can suffer from lack of low-frequency impact and intelligibility for the audience, especially those high-priced seats closest to the stage.

The designer that overly relies on the computer model, at the exclusion of other information (including common sense), will be only partially successful at best in creating a great audience music experience.

Another example of over-reliance on a single technique is designing for a “flat frequency response.” This concept, especially when associated with the endless listening of

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prerecorded music during a dreaded shoot-out demonstration will seldom serve to create an interesting live music listening experience.

The spectral balance of a sound system must be matched to the style of musical performance that it will serve. Many will argue that artistic equalization is the purview of the operator of the system; nevertheless the designer must be certain the system has the necessary dynamic headroom, frequency bandwidth, and lowfrequency impact the operator will need to create or exceed the expectations of the specific audience.

The designer who relies completely on flat frequency response without understanding the style of the performance is likely to produce a very uninteresting audience experience, despite the good intent. Really good live music performance sound system design is accomplished within the context of the audience experience using all of the means and methods available, including personal experience as an audience member. All the objective and subjective data that can be obtained, however unequal the weighting factors, will be valuable to some degree.

Even when a balanced approach to design is used with an eye to evaluating all the data, there may still be obstacles to obtaining good results due to physical space constraints, structural limitations, aesthetic concerns, and operator expertise. No single design tool should be too heavily or exclusively relied upon. Critical listening of the actual live music theater program should always be the final arbiter, and the audience’s ultimate music-listening experience must be the touchstone throughout the development of both design and installation.

Frank Zappa said it best: “It’s all about the music.”

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