Music Industry Technology and Live Performance

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The Start of the New Era

Before the new era, there existed only the technology that the Beatles were forced to use.

When the Beatles toured Australia in the late 1960s, they were pictured with small Vox amplifiers and several microphones connected to stadium sound reinforcement. This sound reinforcement system (short name Public Address System or PA), was the equivalent to what is found today at a country race track.

1970s

American bands set the pace for intelligible sound, and soon Australia experienced the revolution which redefined live sound and made popular music much more saleable to the general public. Cinema audio technology was fast adapted for large PA use, and the advent of the transistor paved the way – there was now a way to get enough current to a loudspeaker, without using a lot of heavy and hot valve equipment.

Pop and modern music owes a huge debt to the valve, which still features in the design of some guitar amplifiers and boutique studio equipment. Its continued use is irrelevant since the 'warmth' and subtleties of sound that come through a valve amplifier stage are irrefutably reproducible and may be emulated through digital signal processing - DSP.

An early tour by Pink Floyd shows banks of valve operated PA heads' plugged together. Australian manufacturers like Lenard and Strauss made valve PA heads, before switching to transistors.

In the early 1970s larger events like Sunbury Rock Festival and the outdoor tours of the Bee Gees, Led Zeppelin and Elton John paved the way for full reinforcement of all instruments on stage, with individual guitar amplifiers having a microphone placed in front, and drums being 'close' mic'ed.

Soon these systems escalated in form and design, and an early technology race developed.

The Rock Explosion

In the 1970s, incoming concert tours like that of Chicago, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Yes all set new standards for audio. The mixing console as it was then, moved into the audience with the implementation of the balanced microphone line – a simple method allowing any 'balanced' low impedance microphone to be connected to a mixer input via a reasonably long cable – up to 100 metres.

Audio liberation followed with pioneers like Bruce Jackson (the 'J' in Jands) designing equipment and leaving the country to mix Elvis and then Springsteen. Jands, Nova, Cord and Wasp were early manufacturers and innovators of modern PA systems and today Jands is a significant player in the market.

Bands soon took to the road with increasingly complex horn loaded speaker systems, and audiences fast referenced better sounding bands as more attractive – the correlation between good sound and commercial success was formed.

Once bands realised they needed better sound, a growth spurt occurred that saw an outbreak of commercial PA companies across Australia through the 1970s – many of whom (like Revolver Audio, Osmond Electronics, and Audix) survive today.

The Economics of Sound

Once audio became a must have, the ability to pay for it weighed heavy on the shoulders of management. Through the early 1980s bands like Chisel, Angels and Oils all set new benchmarks and lesser acts were compelled by record companies to lift standards.

Touring production became and remains the greatest single cost for a live act and the complexity of the interconnect between the many brands that make up a complete PA system meant money could be misspent then and still is today.

The boom days of Australian Rock ended in 1984 once the synthesizer and the DSP chip liberated music – allowing anyone to form a 'covers' band and make the complex sounds that earlier innovators had formed from complicated combinations of instruments, effects and amplifiers. Suddenly thanks chiefly to Roland and Yamaha, sounds became accessible.

With a wave of covers bands appearing, the allure went out of the rock boom as costs skyrocketed mainly off the back of musicians and crew needing to live. What had been a lifestyle or hobby based boom was now a profession, and families needed to eat.

The 1990s were a wasteland for live music, but audio technology continued to evolve and at an astronomic cost for Australia, where a floated dollar and punitive sales taxes forced the cost of equipment to unsustainable levels.

Something needed to give, and it did, thanks to China and Mexico where low cost manufacturing made audio equipment affordable.

A Shift in Costs and Technology

Where new solutions presented, resistance was high – at first. In 1990 an Elton John tour required a Clair Brothers S4 Mark II speaker system with each composite box weighing in at a modest 180kg or so. 48 of these, with steel flying bars and cables, tipped the scales at around 9 tonnes.

The Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour of the early 1990s returned excellent box office receipts and cost more to stage than almost any international tour today – in 2007. The technology was phenomenally heavy, bulky, and cost a peak amount of capital. Fortunes were lost when entire technologies failed and fickle band riders shifted.

If the low manufacturing cost era was a large shift towards affordability at the low end of music and technology, then the moving light and the line array PA was the trip point for larger format touring in the late 1990s.

Suddenly performers could stage a show where the lights looked like a Genesis concert and the PA shrunk from a 40' semi down to an 8 tonne truck. What was saved in trucking was lost in the many follies of lighting – a correction was due and it came later, in the early '00s.

Shows in the Zero Years

Once the music world reasoned that weight was big deal, the technologies that stripped it off won the day. Then the digital live mixing console started to gain late traction and what was until recently a 350kg mixing desk became 80kg – with a resultant saving of sometimes 6 to 12 theatre or venue seats. Extended to cover the cost of a ticket, one show suddenly could be $600 more profitable across one night because the mixing desk was so much smaller.

The moving light follies were contained when performers saw that large format video projection, and then light emitting diode (LED) screen technology was not only becoming mandatory but offered a show designer the chance to reset the set – so to speak – at the press of a button.

When authored in 2007, video budgets now lead all departments on medium to large concerts – and so it should be. The moving light cowboys are out of work and making less fixtures do more.

The bottom line in live performance is the audience. Thanks to the plasma screen, people now expect big images, and big audio. Nothing less is acceptable. Ask a concert promoter!

On Stage: How Things Change

And how things stay the same. Much as Roland would want it, drummers prefer to hit skins not pads with sticks. As a practising sound guy, I have begged in vain for my venue to adopt virtual drums so as to kill the spill of the drum kit. Almost no one in the music food chain is interested – which is a good thing in some ways!

You can run a show with emulated guitars and pods, direct injected into the PA. Some larger shows are so done, and once again as a sound guy and technologist I say bring it on. But musicians are artisans and you like to practice your trade, art or craft (delete to suit).

So my fearless prediction is that the music of 2017 will have instruments, amps, congas and percussion, drums, brass and stuff just like now. Singing and playing counts for a lot!

Low End: Where Music Has Changed Thanks to Technology

The greatest single revolution in music and technology comes at the personal computer and specifically the Apple Mac. iTunes opened the floodgates of acceptability where consumers went backwards from 16 bit CD to compressed MP3 files. The professional audio industry was enraged and dire predictions turned to dust as people like you and I downloaded music from the net.

Now there is a feeling that technology has found the tipping point between what is possible, and what is acceptable. 96kHz sampling audio and high definition video are terrific for high end applications, but consumer uptake of these formats is lethagic at best.

Manufacturers bundle features into audio and video consumer products and vie to compete but often miss the point – people won't exploit a 'high quality' setting on a video camera or digital audio recording product if the setting soaks up all the memory and is painfully slow compared to what is considered acceptable.

How Recording Became Democratised

Digital audio changed the world of music at the synthesizer and also in the recording studio, because where music was recorded on tape until the mid 1990s, it suddenly could be captured and edited with ease. Throwing out linear tape was the start of it, the reality soon dawned that musicians could record at home and bypass the studio.

The first Savage Garden album – the one with the revenue stream – was done at home and mastered in a studio. Mastering remains the one domain of revenue for some studios, but even this, the art of equalising and gain matching tracks, is not rocket science. Despite what the studios say. Example: line up six compilation CDs and listen to the relative gain (volume). The recording industry had its chance – if major labels could not commission mastering to a consistent gain, then why was mastering so important?

The fast summary of recording as at 2007 is that anyone can make an album or track on a Mac using GarageBand – a bundled software product of moderate to low complexity.

The major record labels wallowed and bloated by converting vinyl to CDs in the 1990s and video to DVD in the early '00s, are now history.

I've got evidence for days – the latest AMBC conference in Sydney (August 2007) attracted 606 delegates (down 10% on previous) who spent three days hearing how the recording and music sales industry was down by 10% on the previous year and how music downloads ruled. They also heard how buoyant and profitable the live music market has become!

The downloads are all MP3 compressed, and that is the format the 'serious' audio and studio community sniffingly dismissed as inadequate less than a decade earlier.

For musicians, this is a golden era. Play live, record tracks, and cut the predatory recording label out of the equation. The equipment you use costs radically less in 2007 dollars, and performs way better, thanks to evolutionary advances in technology.

Author

Julius Grafton Last updated: 27 August 2007

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