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If  you've been to a biggish gig or a festival in recent years, you've had the pleasure of hearing line arrays of loudspeakers in action. But why are line arrays the current 'best practice' in large–scale PA, how did they evolve, and will they ever filter down to more modest gig venues?

Here's a chance to show off what you know about live sound engineering. Simply complete the following sentence: The function of a PA system is to...

That wasn't hard, was it? But in case you're struggling, the function of a PA system is to deliver your sound to the audience, and deliver it well. It's as easy as that. But hang on, it doesn't seem to be all that easy, does it? Whenever have you experienced perfect sound as an audience member? And when have you ever felt that your band's sound has been delivered to the audience as well as it should have been? There must be additional criteria that need to be fulfilled to achieve satisfaction. And yes, there are. Three...

  • Adequate level, in relation to purpose (clearly, heavy rock music needs to be louder than a classical guitarist).
  • Low distortion, low noise and a flat frequency response.
  • Adequate clarity, in relation to purpose (speech requires near–100 percent intelligibility; all the words in a theatre musical must be easily understood; other forms of music may not need to be absolutely crystal clear).

Achieving adequate level is never a problem. It hasn't been a problem since the 1970s, when PA systems as we know them today had fully matured. All you need is a recognition of how many watts you require for a particular venue, usually calculated by rule–of–thumb and reference to past experience, and the budget to hire enough amplifiers speaker supplier and loudspeakers. Achieving low distortion, low noise and a flat frequency response hasn't quite been fully solved, although if the noise level of your PA is audible to the audience there's a fault somewhere in the system: power amplifiers in general have a better signal–to–noise ratio than just about anything else you'll find in the whole of sound engineering. The frequency response of PA loudspeakers, however, leaves a lot to be desired, and it is definitely true to say that the only thing that produces more distortion than a loudspeaker is the lead guitarist's screaming Marshall on overdrive. But even though not all is yet perfect regarding the above points, most people find the sound quality of a decent PA system acceptable. And the typical sound of a PA has almost defined people's expectations of what a PA should sound like. A circular argument, perhaps, but there's a lot of truth in it.

There's still one point left unanswered: that of clarity. It is possible for a PA system to be capable of detailed, analytical clarity within itself. But when deployed in a real–life concert scenario it sounds anything but clear. You must have experienced it yourself many times as an audience member — that fuzzy mush of sound that clogs up your ears, but you can't really resolve it into music. Clarity, therefore, is the last unconquered frontier of PA. It is the last major problem that remains difficult to solve.

At this point I need to return to one of the requirements of PA that I previously said had been solved: that the PA system should be loud enough. There's no difficulty in making it loud enough, providing you have the budget — but it has to be loud enough for all members of the audience, and that's a problem that isn't necessarily solved just by spending a lot of money.

There are two scenarios here: one where the audience are seated, the other where they are standing and free to move. If the audience are free to move, it is acceptable to have different levels in different parts of the venue. Those who like it loud will gravitate towards the loudspeakers. Those who perhaps want to chat during the show will move further away. However, if the audience is entirely seated it suddenly becomes much more difficult. You don't want to deafen the front rows of the audience while leaving those at the back struggling to hear. If only certain members of the audience are delivered a level that is adequate, without being too quiet or too loud, the PA has not fully met its purpose. Let me therefore refine the requirements of PA into this simple statement: all of the audience should enjoy high–quality sound that is loud enough and clear enough.

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