by Paul D. Lehrman
Does anybody remember life before sound systems? Once upon a time, when music was played by unamplified instruments, the instruments' construction determined what the music sounded like, and what the musicians heard was just what the audience heard. Even after the era of electric music began -- like during the period from when I started playing rock 'n' roll in the mid-'60s until I sequestered myself in my home studio in the early '80s -- what was being produced onstage was still what went out to the listeners.
We had no huge mixers, stacked cabinets or directional horns. We played our instruments through our amps and balanced the music with our own volume controls. When I started, at a typical gig (like a high school dance), we'd run vocals through a Fender Twin Reverb, and if we were lucky, we had a second cabinet to spread the sound out. If we were really lucky, somebody brought a little Princeton amp that we could use as a vocal monitor. Later, when I graduated to clubs and theaters, I sang through Peavey, Tapco or Shure "Vocalsmasher" (as we fondly called them) systems. With that much horsepower added to our stage amps, we could play to 300 or so people with no problems at all, and we still didn't need an engineer, because we knew that the audience was hearing the same thing we were.
But around 1965, everything changed for the big acts. When The Beatles played Shea Stadium that year, nobody could hear any of the music. The band's stage amps (although they were a lot bigger than ours) couldn't possibly compete against tens of thousands of screaming fans, and the Fab Four might as well have not bothered to plug anything in. A few more concerts like that and they stopped touring altogether. (After their final concert in San Francisco, George Harrison said, "Well, that's it. I'm not a Beatle anymore.")
Bose Corporation also remembers life before sound systems, and for the past 10 years, the company has been working on trying to recapture how music was presented to audiences before the age of megawatt amps, 18-inch subs and flying tweeter arrays. Recently, the company announced a product that just might be the answer for a lot of people at concerts -- both players and listeners -- who find themselves asking, "Why does the sound suck?"
It's a question upon which entire companies and careers have been built, and it's also one of the questions I posited when I first started writing "Insider Audio" for Mix. (Check out my May 1996 column here.)
Now when you think about live sound reinforcement systems, Bose is not always the first name that comes to mind. Dr. Amar Bose and his eponymous company are much better known for their unusual and often innovative products in consumer and industrial audio. Once upon a time, a set of Bose 901s on their stylish little pedestals in someone's living room was a sure sign that they had taste and/or money. Today, the Bose name on an automobile sound system tells the buyer that the carmaker thinks seriously about audio. Bose noise-canceling headphones have become a common sight on airplanes, and if you glance up at the walls and ceilings of restaurants and snooty clothing stores the world over, you'll see the name printed on speakers of many shapes and sizes.
But you won't find many Bose speakers in recording studios, music clubs or concert halls. The company doesn't put on a big show at AES, NAB or NAMM. In fact, they don't show up at all. Their products aren't reviewed in Mix or Electronic Musician. What forays the company has made into the live sound world have been in the form of installed systems in places like churches and small, portable auditorium-sized systems more suited for high school pep rallies than heavy metal festivals. But that's about to change.
Two days after this fall's AES convention, the Bose corporation invited a couple of dozen audio journalists to its Boston-area headquarters to introduce a new product line aimed expressly at professional musicians and the venues where they play. "Research outcomes," said Dr. Bose to the group, in a rare public appearance, "are usually small steps. Very seldom do you get a big step. But they do occur occasionally, and this announcement, in my opinion, is such a big step."
Bose, both man and company, have long prided themselves on putting a premium on research. "Research lowers the balance sheet: You've got outflow without income for a long time," said Dr. Bose. "Many of the things you do in research will turn out to be impossible, but there's often fallout that's useful in other directions." When Kenneth Jacob, chief engineer of the company's professional systems division, told Bose that his group wanted to work on concert sound, and of the new approach they wanted to take, "I told him, ‘Go ahead,’ even though it meant that we'd have to find budget resources outside that division," Bose said.
No stranger to the AES organization, Jacob served as either chair or co-chair of the society's Technical Committee on Acoustics and Sound Reinforcement for 10 years. His presentation to the group went quickly through the history of live sound and stopped at some key points.
Jacob also pointed to The Beatles' Shea Stadium debacle as a watershed event. The concert showed that radical changes had to be made if really large rock 'n' roll venues were ever going to be practical. By the end of the 1960s, those changes had been made and a new paradigm had taken over, which the Bose engineers today call the "triple system" approach: guitar/bass/keyboard amps on the back of the stage; monitor speakers with their own mix and power amps pointed at the band; and big cabinets pointed at the audience.
But this approach, as all of us know, can lead to big problems. The primary dilemma is that none of the three systems necessarily sound the same. So while the band may think that they sound okay, the house sounds terrible, or vice versa. Rarely is everyone in the band happy with their mix, so they turn themselves up, which results in everyone else turning themselves up, too. "It gets to the point where musicians and members of the audience are compelled to wear earplugs," said Jacob, "which means that something is terribly wrong."
There are plenty more disadvantages, which Jacob elaborated on, and which any of us who have dealt with concert sound are familiar with. Artists are forced to either travel with a huge amount of equipment -- which must be set up, connected and tested at each site -- or rely on an unfamiliar rented or house P.A. Live sound systems are so complex that small failures, like a bad cable or a shorted switch, can cause gigantic problems that take hours to track down and fix. High SPLs create lots of reverb, particularly in clubs and halls that often have poor acoustics to begin with, which can overwhelm the direct sound. Loud stage monitors can make the situation worse, because there's a constant slap delay when their sound bounces off of the back wall and heads back into the house.
When multiple sound sources are mixed, our ability to sort out sounds by their arrival times relative to our ears (aka, the "cocktail party" effect) -- something that Jacob said works even when we're blindfolded -- goes away. The result is reduced clarity and intelligibility.
The saddest part of all this, which Jacob didn't state outright but was easy to infer from his speech, is that the concept of tripartite sound systems -- perhaps unavoidable in huge arenas -- has trickled down to small clubs and halls where they may not be at all appropriate or even necessary. His presentation included a video of short interviews with a number of working musicians, all of whom had nothing good to say about most amplified performance situations. As one artist said, "You're playing to the speaker," as opposed to the audience or the other players, "because that's all you can hear." But no one has yet offered an alternative, especially one that can handle relatively loud music.
Bose's approach to solving this problem is pretty radical, and at the same time surprisingly simple. It involves nothing less than, as they put it, "changing the fundamental properties of loudspeakers," and yet the idea, once it's explained, seems obvious.
The company's new product is called the Cylindrical Radiator Loudspeaker. Two dozen or so (we weren't allowed to peek inside the units) small drivers are arranged vertically in a flagpole-like structure about 3.5 inches in diameter and seven feet high, which is set into a floor stand. The arrangement of the drivers is designed to eliminate all vertical dispersion: The sound is projected forward and in a 180° arc horizontally, but there's nothing projecting above the top of the column and nothing bouncing off the floor.
The most obvious effect is that, in theory at least, the sound is transferred to the room much more efficiently than with a standard spherical-front speaker. In fact, we were invited to walk directly toward the speaker from across a large room while a guitarist played, and observed that the difference in sound level as we approached was remarkably small, even when we put our ears right up to the speaker. Therefore, musicians can play at lower levels and still fill a space. Vocals sent through the system can be loud enough to project, but the potential for feedback is greatly reduced.
Extrapolate a little bit, and even more advantages become apparent. Because there's no sound projecting upward, reverb from ceiling reflections is eliminated. The system is compact enough that each performer (or at least each section) can have his or her own speaker nearby, restoring the perceptual correlation between sound and image for the audience. As long as no one goes behind any of the speakers, the mix is relatively uniform at any point on the stage, except that each player gets to hear a little more of his or her own sound -- and that means separate monitor mixes are no longer necessary. In fact, monitors themselves can go away: If the speakers, as they are designed to be, are placed behind the performers, pointing at the audience, then a single set of speakers serves as backline, monitors and house. The musicians and the audience hear exactly the same thing from the same speakers.
Is it loud enough? Bose's demonstration featured a seven-piece funk/blues band in a nightclub-sized room -- at some very respectable levels. Jacob said that the systems were operating nowhere near capacity, and that they have tested them with rock bands in 400-seat theaters with 100-foot throws. Bose anticipates that these systems will be used primarily in smaller venues, although Jacob did say that they would also be appropriate for a larger hall in a hybrid setup. The band and the audience close to the stage could benefit from the Bose system, while another conventional system, pointing away from the stage, would project the sound to the rest of the audience.
Bose priced the system so that working musicians can afford it. A single "pole" and stand, and a remote control with level and tone controls, starts at $1,699. Built into the stand is a simple 4-channel mixer, including mic preamps and effects inserts on two channels, as well as three 275-watt power amps. The stand's control panel lets you select from among 100 equalization presets to complement a wide range of instruments and voices.
The small drivers in the columns mean you're not going to get a lot of low end, but if you want more, you can buy one or more separate bass modules for $300 each. The system automatically re-equalizes itself when you plug the modules in, so that the sound remains tonally consistent but louder. Each of the members of Bose's demo band played with a bass module, except the bass player, who had six of them.
The system is designed for portability: The 7-foot pole breaks down into two sections, and the heaviest parts -- the 2-foot-diameter floor stand and the bass pods -- weigh in at 35 pounds and 28 pounds, respectively. From a strictly personal point of view, I'd love to see the company come up with an even smaller version that could be used by street performers. Although one engineer laughed at my suggestion of a battery-powered version -- "Those puppies use a lot of juice" -- Jacob said that he's interested in "extending the technology in both directions" -- that is, bigger and smaller.
So will Bose's Cylindrical Radiators do what the company claims they will to clean up live music? It's going to take a lot more than an antiseptic demo in front of a bunch of aging audio scribes to convince the musical world that these things can put up with the vagaries of travel: the dank, smoke-filled rooms they'll be asked to perform in, and the unpredictable musical and social behavior of musicians and fans alike. But from this old rocker's point of view, as a way to get back to those days when I was the only one responsible for how the music I played sounded, the concept makes a lot of sense.
Certainly, schlepping a 7-foot column collapsed into something the size of a trombone case, a couple of bass modules and a good effects/amp-simulator pedalboard seems a small price to pay for regaining complete control over my sound, especially when you compare it to the alternative: hauling around a Marshall stack whose sound will only end up getting funneled through a single SM57, into some club's beer-soaked mixer and a pair of grungy cabinets whose best days were before they left the factory, all under the control of an engineer who would much rather be at home watching football.
Whether the company's intriguing idea of using the system as a "room within a room" for larger venues is practical, or if it will pass muster with professional sound companies that, after all, are used to doing things quite differently, is still far from clear. But for smaller venues like clubs, theaters, school auditoriums, function halls and the like -- and let's face it, there are a lot more of those than there are Shea Stadiums -- and the musicians who play in them, Dr. Bose and his crew may have come up with something worth looking at and listening to. Once they get this flagpole up, we'll see if anyone salutes.
Paul Lehrman's measure of a great music club is whether they have two-for-one dinner specials. And the music shouldn't be too loud.
Copyright ©2003 by Paul D. Lehrman