Smarter PA Systems Will Offer MI Retailers a New Opportunity

by Dan Daley • in
  • Last Word
• Created: August 8, 2017

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Historically, one of the hardest things for performing musicians has been getting the PA sound right.

Two things have been happening to make that less of a problem, and they may combine to make more musicians more interested in buying their own sound systems.

First, as it’s become clear that performing live is the primary way to make money in music, as opposed to selling recorded music, there are far more resources available now to the average musician now that can help him or her recreate on stage what they did – or would have done – in a studio. (It’s surprising how many songs now exist first as live recordings.) These range from entire curricula at media-technology schools like SAE, Full Sail, Blackbird Academy, and others based on live sound, to online courses that cover everything from the basics of live sound to advanced mixing and system design. As with recording, which went through this same academic arc over the last two decades or so, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but overall the median live-sound IQ of the average musician has been headed in an upward direction.

Live And User Friendly

At the same time, pro audio product developers have been working on making new live-sound systems that are ever simpler and more foolproof to use. Earlier this year, Harman introduced the Connected PA, marketed as “a complete, integrated system of live sound products that allows musicians and performers at any skill level to quickly and easily get professional results.” Using app-based control and Harman’s ioSYS software, musicians can determine speaker and mixer placement, use the app’s presets to quickly get vocal and instrumental EQ and dynamics settings in place, and connect external devices effectively. The key phrase here is “any skill level,” and the use of an iOS or Android app as the control hub that act as dog whistles for Millennial-generation customers. 

We’ve seen other PA solutions with simplified operation; most notably, Bose’s original L1 and its various successor models made plug-and-play live music a reality when the line first appeared in 2003. The L1 solved perhaps the most common issue in DIY live sound: feedback. In doing so, it also largely negated the need for monitors, since the L1’s speakers could be placed behind the vocalists, further reducing the workload on musicians who mixed their own live sound. 

There are others of varying levels of automation, but if the imminent era of the self-driving car has taught us anything, it’s that we’ll soon be seeing on the horizon some remarkably capable automixing features, with automation taking over that most fundamental functions of live sound. In other words, portable PA systems are only going to get smarter (and if Moore’s Law continues to maintain validity, they’ll get cheaper, too). Automixing devices are reaching new levels of sophistication in the installed-sound and event-AV sector, allowing a single FOH mixer to run multiple stages and systems for relatively simple productions. These will find their way into the portable MI PA sector in short order. We already have studio monitors and home-theatre speakers that can automatically calibrate themselves for the particular environment they’re being used in; that same technology is imminent in the portable PA category. And networked  audio is fast filtering downward in product cycles; Harman has already announced future plans for its Connected PA ecosystem to be able to automatically recognize new devices on its network, which augurs for plug-and-play sound-system design sooner than later. These are collateral to the kind of practical AI research and implementation that’s already changing how we do other things in life, from driving to shopping.

MI retailers can insert themselves into this evolving proposition. Pro audio departments already show and sell portable PA systems – JBL’s own EON system, which used injection-molded plastic to make the speakers as bump-proof as they were easy to hump when they were introduced in 1995, were an early entry into MI-channels for live sound. The number of products in the category keeps growing with new ones in evidence at the recent InfoComm and Summer NAMM expos. The inflection to note is the integration of smart DSP with portable PAs. Retailers are urged to stay out in front of this one, because it’s rare that a trend makes itself this apparent and potentially far-reaching this quickly. (Sold many auto-tuning guitars lately?) Pointing out the benefits of smarter PA systems to customers can help position a store as a technology resource as well as a product supplier. 

Pro audio products will keep getting smarter. People? Maybe. Now that’s an equation that’s begging to be solved. 


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