So, while watching people walk around and listen to a bunch of different systems the other day at the HAS PA shootout rodeo it dawned on me that over the years not only has technology changed, but the reasons for why and what we buy, or are given the option to buy have also changed. People have asked me whom I thought sounded best and thus who “won” the shootout. I don’t think sounding the best really wins anything anymore, sadly. It’s a start but a smaller and smaller part of the whole equation of why I think most people should pick “Big PA.”
When I first started being interested in big PA it was pretty DIY. Companies like Clair, ShowCo, Jason Sound, db Sound, Sound Image, etc. etc. bought raw drivers from speaker manufactures and built PA boxes generally powered by racks of Crest, Crown, or QSC amps. Control was often analog, custom, and then followed by early digital units like the first Omnidrive.
Speaker manufactures, generally having deeper pockets then PA rental companies, starting hiring smart people and building finished boxes to sell. Some of these attempts (HLA) did not really catch on, others (KF850) did and smaller providers became much more likely to have a finished factory box in inventory then some kind of garage built S4 knock off. The industry grew and regional providers flourished as a credit line and shipping address meant you could be a PA rental company, no woodworking skills required.
Line array arrives and we all kind of move to that but, for much of the industry, it is still buy X boxes, Y amps, Z DSP and then try to make it all work together. Some companies make it work better then others but as long as you have the money to buy the boxes, amps and DSP, you too can be a PA rental company. For better or for worse.
Manufactures grow. Companies like Harman, Mark IV (and then Bosch), Loud, Music Group, etc. became umbrella corporations housing multiplye speaker, amp and processing brands but for the most part how and what we were able to buy does not really change. Not many companies are willing to give up the big speaker box sale because you won’t also buy their amps or DSP. A sale is a sale and they are more then willing to take the money.
Having worked for the Harman brand dbx for years, I remember chasing non-Harman speaker manufactures down trying to get DriveRack presets out of them. JBL at one time was supporting five different DSP platforms for VerTec presets. It was a lot of work for the manufactures and as everyone was still mixing and matching speakers/amps/DSP there was not a lot of consistency in deployments. X DSP works different then Y DSP and just porting a preset from one brand to another does not mean it will sound the same. Some people are tweaking factory presets or writing their own. Do a festival run and just because the same brand of box is in the air each day does not mean the systems will sound even similar, much less the same. Anyone can buy all the bits to Big PA. Everyone buys different bits. Some make it work better then others. I’m sure great products fell from grace because they were not used correctly, I’m sure average products became popular because they were.
Enter present day and the world of turnkey PA. Manufactures, more and more, seem willing to say no to “just a box sale” in favor of a full speaker/amp/DSP package. In fact most speaker manufactures at the very least are partnered with an amp/DSP manufacture if not part of the same company. It is certainly not a new concept and some manufactures have been offering powered or full packages for longer then others but as a trend it now finally seems to be the direction most manufactures are going. The days of “if you have money left after you buy speakers please also by amps/DSP” are moving to “you can’t buy the speakers unless you also buy the amps/DSP”.
I’m not sure if the market is pulling manufactures this direction, or the manufactures are in fact driving the market this way, but either way I think it is a good thing. Much like my Apple stuff seems to be happiest when all my stuff is from Apple, Big PA generally is happiest when the whole thing is designed as a turnkey package from a single source. Picking the best speaker/amp/DSP you can and sorting it out yourself just does not seem like the best option anymore.
Lots of boxes now sound “good enough” so choice is not just all about “Does box A sound better then B” as much as the audio purist in all of us might wish it was.
Price, size, weight and coverage all, of course, come into play still but I also find myself looking at systems wondering if I will be at war with lighting over stage space as I try to get a huge caterpillar of single boxes pinned or does it come in on carts? How much math or spreadsheet mixing am I going to have to do before it goes in the air? Do I have to sit and assign IP addresses or build custom control panels before I can do something as simple as pull 160 Hz out? How well does it mix and match or am I in programming hell each time we add or subtract boxes? Etc, etc, etc.
Maybe I’m old and lazy. Maybe the Production Manager in me is has overcome the Sound Engineer in me. Maybe the Product Manager part of me still can’t deal with people trying to sell me only part of a solution. Maybe all of it.
The end result however still seems to be that I like Big PA, but reasons why I would pick box A over box B seems to be weighted less and less by which one actually sounds better and more and more about how good the whole package is.
Freelance mix/system engineer and production manager Geoff Lissaman is at home navigating the politics of both “the show” and corporate audio giants. In addition to gig ranging from rock to country to lucha libre he was a “the dbx guy” at Harman for the touring industry for more than a decade.