When German hip hop band Fettes Brot stepped out at Pier 2 in Bremen on April 29th to begin their German tour, they may have been unaware that they were about to embark on a historic journey into a new generation of audio. This momentous occasion was certainly not lost on their long-serving FOH engineer Oliver Voges, however, who sensed that the new PA system he was piloting was destined to set a new benchmark in sound reinforcement.
By the time the press arrived - in Dresden eight days later - their sense of astonishment was palpable. "It was like the time when the first line array came out," said Voges. "But this system reinvents line array - we have established a new standard, and one that’s stable."
In actual fact, Martin Audio’s technological breakthrough with the Multicellular Loudspeaker Array (MLA) had been unceremoniously ‘trialled’ a few months earlier in London with the band Enter Shikari - but this was its first true road test.
The experience left Olli Voges reflecting contentedly on his meeting with Complete Audio’s owner André Rauhut, on the stand of Martin Audio distributors, Atlantic Audio, at this year’s Frankfurt Pro Light+Sound Show - which resulted in him giving the system its full world premier.
The two men had first worked together on the Deftones’ tour back in 1997 and this was their first meeting in a long time. "André knew I had the Fettes Brot tour and we were thinking about using the Martin W8LC system," recalls Olli. "But the venue sizes were ranging from 2,000 seats up to 9,000 seat arenas and we wanted something that could really adapt well. That’s when he said there was a chance that we might be able to use this new system ...".
Since the MLA system is scalable (up to stadium level) it was the perfect solution. However, as he was already committed to the Echo Awards, Olli Voges was denied an advanced listening - and took the system purely on Rauhut’s recommendation.
The Complete Audio MD also recommended that Martyn ‘Ferrit’ Rowe, Martin Audio’s North American-based Technical Training Manager take on the duties of system tech, to ensure that the system was fully optimised.
Martin Audio’s use of horn-loaded principles is legendary, but the next stage in their evolution was to provide a more radically efficient method than having each part of the system - low, mid and high - driven by the same signal.
The MLA was designed to minimise the variations in frequency response, sound pressure levels and set-up times from venue to venue - and operate over distances of up to 150 metres. "We wanted all our shows to be as consistent as possible, night after night, and be able to offer a more accurate predictive analysis of each room by removing the guesswork," said Martin Audio’s R&D Director, Jason Baird. "Based on the consistent results we experienced right from ‘switch on‘ during the system‘s recent German tour, we are even more convinced that MLA is a game-changing product."
Trial-and-error array design has been replaced with intelligent numerical optimization of the array’s output based on a highly accurate acoustic model. With the multi-cellular approach, each cell can be individually addressed by its own DSP (and Class D amplification); thus with six cells in each enclosure a 24-box system provides 144 uniquely tuned elements. "The beauty is that all the complexity of the DSP is under the hood, so it doesn’t impact on the user," notes Baird.
How did this translate to an audience? And why does this now render conventional line array technology, in the words of Olli Voges, "old school"?
Largely because numerical optimization of the drive signal to each of the array’s cells, will deliver audio to every seat in the house, to an unprecedented level of consistency.
Said Olli, "We took one measurement from the front row to the rear of the balcony - a distance of some 36 metres - and the difference was little over 1dB, which is nothing. The subs sounded equally impressive, even way up on the balcony and right at the back of the room."
The tributes soon came pouring in. As the viral word-of-mouth effect started to leak out among the cognoscenti so a number of sound engineers rocked up to the shows. "Many said that the Martin Audio line array was one of only two rock and roll systems they would consider - but when they heard the MLA they were astonished," said the sound engineer.
"I remember Olli himself hearing it for the first time," recalls Ferrit, "walking towards the stage and saying ‘It’s not got any louder.’ And I said ‘Exactly, that’s the idea!’"
But probably the best set of audio ears belonged to Fettes Brot’s record producer, André Luth, who had just delivered the double live album which had taken the band high into the charts. He referred to the "liquidity" of the vocals, and the fact that he was hearing detail in the mix that he had only ever heard previously in the studio. "He was at every show and was really freaking out about the sound," said Voges.
"Everything we had talked about at the predictive stage we could now hear with our own ears - including where it would taper off right off before the end of the back wall. It was just so precise."
But for Ferrit, the most memorable show had probably been at Zenith in Munich. "Here we were throwing a distance of 100m - and two days later two companies rang and said ‘We heard you did Munich with no delays and you had no echoes!’
"This system can make a system tech into a hero. With the control this provides from all the parameters absolute consistency can be achieved from show to show. What is heard by the engineer at the console is delivered to every seat in the house - there is no more guesswork."
As for load-ins, at best production had the system in the air, fully optimized and producing sound, within two hours from walking into the venue, while at the load-out it was on the wheels and into the truck within 22 mins of the breakdown. A maximum of 24 enclosures can be suspended via MLA’s two-point lift flybar while the same hardware can be used for single point lifting of up to ten cabinets.
Ferrit also observed that the MLA system was only drawing 11 amps per phase, whilst running at an SPL of 109dB(A) at the mix position... which is remarkable.
FAST FORWARD TO ANTWERP ...
After the first leg of that German tour wound up in Berlin on May 8th, the core system moved to Belgium - ten MLA hangs a side, seven ground-stacked MLX subs (including centre subs), with WT2 outfills for two major events: the 10th Amnesty International Festival at the Groenplaats followed next day by a system demonstration and seminar at the famous Sportpaleis (where Martin Audio already has an OmniLine system installed).
The live event would provide an even more exacting test for the system as one of this historic city’s squares (or plaats) was hosting the Amnesty event throughout the day and up to the midnight curfew. This was a chance to hear the system exposed to the elements, and in a Festival context.
The potential for noise pollution on a busy Wednesday was immense yet it was as if an invisible ring had been drawn around Groenplaats.
Ampco’s Steven Kemland, who has worked with the event organizer, Kristof Lasure, since the very beginning of the Festival, recalls that in the early days they were using a Martin Audio W8C (and later W8LC) system. Until this year the main system had to be run down at around 92-93dB to ensure a 90dB drop off at the perimeter - two metres from the houses and commercial premises enveloping the square. But now the game had changed.
When the local noise police arrived onsite, they patently disbelieved that the 102dB now registering at the mix position on the Groenplaats would not spill out to