A Live Revolution

User-friendly live sound technology is putting more power in musicians' hands
  • Photo: National Association of Music Merchants
    NAMM's H.O.T. Zone
  • Photo: National Association of Music Merchants
    Marcus Ryle speaks with NAMM President/CEO Joe Lamond at the 2012 NAMM Show
March 01, 2012 -- 3:39 pm PST
By Dan Daley / GRAMMY.com

The same technological renaissance that transformed how music is recorded is now reinventing how it's performed onstage, which is where an increasing number of music artists are finding their revenue stream.

The 2012 NAMM Show, which took place in January in Anaheim, Calif., is the American musical instrument industry's largest gathering, an often cacophonous din of drums and guitar amps competing for the attention of thousands of musical instrument retailers and musicians from around the world.

Professional audio recording products, including digital audio workstations such as Avid's Pro Tools and Cakewalk's Sonar have been a growing part of that mix of gear on the show floor, but in recent years the most notable expansion has been in the area of live sound technology, particularly new and surprisingly sophisticated (and affordable) performance systems targeted directly at musicians.

"It's about removing the friction for musicians between performing and having to deal with the [technical] realities of sound systems," says Marcus Ryle, co-founder and senior vice president of new business development for Line 6, a company at the leading edge of guitar amplifier modeling, a technology simulating the sonic characteristics of Marshall, Fender and other vintage guitar amplifiers. Line 6 introduced StageScape M20d, the company's first live digital mixing system, at this year's NAMM Show. StageScape M20d is designed to provide musicians with a smarter, quicker methodology to obtain optimal live sound. The unit's mixer uses Apple-like graphical icons instead of typical pro audio glyphs and metrics to represent functions such as equalization and level control. An iPad connection allows touch-screen interfacing capability.

StageScape M20d and other new live sound products such as Posse Audio's Posse personal onstage monitoring system that mounts on a vocalist's microphone stand, are so simplified in terms of operation that live sound systems may be headed down the same road that personal recording rigs have taken over the last 20 years, to a point where music artists who choose to are able to access sophisticated technology critical to propelling their careers without the help of professional engineers.

Offering studio-quality vocals on-the-go, TC-Helicon's VoiceLive Play provides vocalists with a live tool bag of harmonies, pitch correction and genre-appropriate effects and EQs.

"[These kinds of products] can revolutionize live music just as home recording equipment revolutionized music recording, by making the technology accessible and affordable to musicians," says Ryle.

These musician-friendly products arrive on the scene as live performances and concert touring are replacing some of the revenue lost to slumping recorded music sales over the last decade. According to Pollstar, concert ticket sales in the United States tripled in value between 1999–2009, from $1.5 billion to $4.6 billion.

These stratospheric numbers are in another universe from the night-to-night grind of touring at the indie level, but this burgeoning sector is driving the building of dozens of new club spaces around the country and the upgrading of many others with new sound, lighting and video systems.

For instance, in 2007 Live Nation took over the venerable rock club Irving Plaza in New York, in the process revitalizing the equally venerable Fillmore franchise that it attached to it. A year earlier, Live Nation acquired the House of Blues chain of music clubs. Not to be outdone, in 2007 AEG Live purchased two high-profile Seattle clubs, the Showbox at the Market and Showbox SoDo. Also in 2007, AEG Live welcomed Club Nokia and Nokia Theatre L.A. Live to the burgeoning downtown Los Angeles music scene.

This activity is helping to drive the development of more compact and sub-compact PA systems that will bring the level of sound quality that concertgoers have become accustomed to into these mid-sized music spaces.

The 2012 NAMM Show had a 4.4 percent increase in the number of pro audio exhibitors, with a substantial amount of the increase coming from live sound products, according to Scott Robertson, NAMM's director of publicity and communications.

"Prices of hardware and processing are coming down and that's being directed into new and affordable products for musicians to use onstage," says Robertson.

NAMM's H.O.T. Zone, an initiative that offers training in recording technology and business matters for musicians during the show, included a live mixing panel for the first time, featuring front-of-house mixers Monty Lee Wilkes and Kenneth H. Williams, who mix live sound for Britney Spears and Erykah Badu, respectively.

The pro audio training that took place in the H.O.T. Zone sessions reflected the increasingly blurred line between the artistic and the technical in the era of digital music, according to David Schwartz, producer of the H.O.T. Zone.

"There's a natural progression taking place," Schwartz says. "Musicians today are so influenced by technology. You're not on one side of the glass [in the studio control room] or the other anymore. It's all in one place now — in the hands of musicians. And now that paradigm shift is taking place onstage, too."

(Dan Daley is a freelance journalist covering the entertainment business industry. He lives in New York and Nashville.)

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