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Venue installations: Point source vs line array

Phil Ward patrols the borderline between point source and line array with some of the biggest names in the business...

Robin Thicke got into trouble for ‘Blurred Lines’, but they’re here to stay. In the more innocent world of venue installation, the balance of loudspeaker types to fit the brief is delicate indeed and needs well calibrated scales. Point source, the oldest solution, is not merely an enduring alternative to the more modern line array: it’s rapidly becoming a key bit of seasoning in the sound reinforcement ragout.

There has, of course, been something of a revival. In Glasgow, rental company A-Live founder Iain Mackie has been showcasing copious amounts of Danley Sound Labs’ point source loudspeakers since a deal he struck in 2018 with the US-based manufacturer to distribute them in the UK – creating Danley Distribution Ltd as a significant diversification from the A-Live operation.

“The first meetings I have with prospective customers usually reveals their assumption that we’ll only use Danley boxes for DJ applications,” says Mackie. “They don’t expect us to deploy them for live bands, but I assure them that we do it all the time and show them footage of our Danley kit out with Chic and other leading live acts. Thankfully they’re often very open-minded.”

The numbers speak for themselves. “The J7 LF is horn-loaded, making the box more compact but with higher output,” Mackie explains. “It was designed to fit into scoreboards at American sports arenas, but with 18 drivers in the horn – six 10-inch woofers, four 6.5-inch mids and eight one-inch highs – it’s perfect for sizeable live music venues as it outputs an incredible 147dbSPL.”

There is scepticism, predictably. “People still think they must have a line array of some form even where a well-designed point source system would work better,” admits Robin Dibble, product support engineer at Martin Audio. “Some of this is to do with rider-friendliness, some is visual expectation… others just have a notion that it’s what they must have.”

“I would think that line array is still clearly the dominant choice for live music, certainly large shows,” says Mike Wheeler, operations director at EM Acoustics. “However, in theatre we’re definitely seeing a move away from two-to-four boxes of small line array elements on a proscenium arch back to a sleeker, more discreet solution in the form of a dedicated point source loudspeaker.”

Pablo Espinosa, Meyer Sound’s vice president and chief loudspeaker designer agrees with the scaling issue. “For large scale sound reinforcement, line arrays win over point sources as they scale up more easily and effectively,” he says. “Point sources have limitations for large scale reinforcement. In general, the industry then wanted to scale down in the same fashion and take the new model of large-scale reinforcement to smaller applications – ignoring the fact that line arrays do not scale down as easily. On the other hand, point sources excel at single box uses or when just a few loudspeakers are needed.”

“Point sources are not dead at all,” echoes Werner Bayer, d&b audiotechnik’s product manager. “For example, our specifically medium-directivity E and xS-Series both underwent steady growth over the last decade. This was driven by our global install segment-specific initiatives; requests for better audio even for small venues; immersive concepts; and the availability of install-specific amplifiers and routing.”

Over at L-Acoustics, there has been similar counterbalancing. “Our philosophy at L-Acoustics is to base our designs not on trends, but on the best match for the application and budget at hand,” comments David Dohrmann, director of application, Install. “Sometimes that will be a surprise for a venue team who may assume that line array is the panacea for everything, but this is where a tool like Soundvision comes in handy, because you can really help them visualize the design and its performance in their space. 

“Naturally, point source products like our X Series are great for rooms with low ceilings or narrow side walls, and this type of solution can cover more space with fewer cabinets while also offering consistent coverage in an easy package. A variable curvature line source requires more equipment than point source but is usually more appropriate for larger and longer-throw configurations.

“Our medium-throw A Series is bridging the gap between the two technologies, based on constant curvature geometry pioneered by L-Acoustics decades ago with the legacy ARCS series. We’re seeing a significant increase in demand for A Series because it offers point-and-shoot ease of deployment but with the added versatility of Panflex, allowing for variable directivity and an ability to morph to any audience geography.”

Svetly Alexandrov, founder of Coda Audio, is keen to point out the advantages of producing original drivers, as Coda does, rather than sourcing off-the-shelf supplies. This is more important, as far as he is concerned, than any preference for either point source or line array. “Two very different things are being compared here,” he says. “Sure, electricity goes in the back of both of them and sound comes out of the front but imagine asking if wellington boots are being favoured over running shoes; both are equally necessary and fulfil their intended purpose. Are cars being favoured over trucks?”

Pioneer Pro Audio is a brand on the cusp of significant diversification. Highly regarded across the club and dance festival scene, its point source solutions are branching out. 

“There is a trend moving back towards point source speakers because of improved cabinet design, driver technology and DSP,” believes pro audio product planning manager Alex Barrand. “A lot of people are beginning to realise the quality they can gain by reverting to a point source solution. We’re seeing that point source is being used more often on small and medium size festival stages where the brief is to create a true audio experience. Creating a point source wall of sound is an unforgettable feeling.”

Just ask audiences at Pukkelpop, the festival near Hasselt in Belgium whose organizers knew Pioneer DJ kit very well and welcomed the opportunity to deploy Pioneer Pro Audio loudspeakers on several immersive stages around the site. “There was an Aperol Spritz sponsored experience, for example,” reports marketing executive Jamie Gomez, “with two point-sources either side of the DJ booth and a dome with four of our XY-2 mid-high boxes that are engineered for all PA applications – not just DJ. It created an amazing atmosphere and it was rammed every night.”

Source material
Any swing between product types is subject to complex market forces, but one keeps popping up. “Budget is always going to drive fixed installs, regardless of the type of venue,” says ike Wheeler. “Certainly, in the wake of coronavirus, I think we’ll see venues being much more frugal with their funds due to lost revenue during the shutdown period.

“From our perspective, we are reacting to customer demand – we created the Reference Series because customers were asking for it! It’s always difficult with new products. You want your customers to be able to use the latest technology, particularly when it has major advances like the R10 does, but you don’t want to torpedo your existing products or make your customers feel like they haven’t got value out of their investment. Realistically, everything seems to follow a natural progression and we haven’t found this to be a major issue.”

“When we recently introduced Kara II,” comments Dohrmann, “we did so knowing that the Kara enclosure had been on the market for a decade, and the best-selling years were the three most recent years. Our drive at L-Acoustics is ensure that our partners and clients are investing in a solution that will stay relevant and performing for years, even decades – more than 20 years after launch, we still regularly see V-DOSC reinforcing festivals – and it’s this drive that leads us to make decisions like offering an upgrade kit so that users can upgrade their Kara to Kara II at minimal cost.

“In the end, I think that tech cycles are driven by the real and evolving needs of the market. For example, flagship stadiums in Europe, like Allianz Arena in Munich or Stade Velodrome in Marseilles, are opting for concert-grade line array solutions with Kara or, even larger, K2 in order to drive the fan experience on match day but also allow the venue to diversify into live shows.”

“I think it’s a combination of education and tools,” adds Espinosa, “as users and sound designers have better access to accurate prediction programs to make the best decisions. Point sources become better with more and cleaner power, less distortion, better phase and frequency responses and better behaved and controlled coverage patterns.”

How long a venue sticks with a particular system is a variable in the equation whose coefficients include budget and fashion and whose constant is performance. “There is a bit of all three in the mix,” agrees Dibble. “Trends have some influence, but if budgets are tight other things will take priority – if the existing sound system is still performing acceptably.”

“It’s a combination,” adds Espinosa. “In our experience, if a venue has a well-designed system which has been reliable for many years, the venue may not be looking to renew. However, if the venue’s system does not meet requirements and there are much better solutions, the venue may renew even if the system is not very old.

“Most of the time it’s not just about how long these systems have been up: it’s related to the performance of the system. We’ve experienced both situations, replacing fairly new systems if they didn’t pick the right vendor or system design and replacing systems in venues that have had Meyer Sound loudspeakers for 20 years – when they realise they need an upgrade and have the budget.”

“Much like other professional audio manufacturers, at Coda we manufacture both line array and point source loudspeakers and have done for many years,” says Alexandrov. “We understand the benefits and disadvantages of both types of system and would make recommendations on their usage in a given scenario. We would not attest that one or another is being specified more at this time. Point sources are important where point sources are needed, line arrays are important where line arrays are needed. Furthermore at Coda we’ve developed a range of ‘arrayable’ point sources which are very useful tools in applications where certain point sources are too small, but line arrays may be too big.”

Change of mind
Another lively matrix is the push and pull between R&D and market research. “New technology or new products drive interest, and products are refined from feedback from the customer base. But the original innovations come from the manufacturers,” suggests Dibble. But the gravy is thickened by individual application requirements. To take one sector with as many variables as are possible: Asher Dowson is d&b’s house of worship segment manager…

“For the HOW market you can take a demographic view or an application view: yes, there’s a billion worshippers in one kind of congregation or another; but how many of them need sound reinforcement? You won’t sell many large subwoofers to a monastery… Our systems approach suits the large-scale installations, and there is an assumption that on that scale there should be a Y-Series or V-Series line array involved. But there are millions of smaller-scale HOWs, and contextualizing the worship and the scale is something I’ve really developed at d&b: yes, we want intelligibility; but how is that applied to specific styles of worship? A good example is the need for low-end reinforcement for the many contemporary worship spaces. So, these criteria come into play in decisions between point source and line array, as well as many other technical options.”

So does architecture: few applications could have more variety in the size, shape and age of venues as well as the various heritage constrictions that all installers know and love. However, greater pattern control is not a unique claim to either format. In fact, many will argue the dispersion benefits of their point source over rival line array, and who can argue till the echo dies down?

Furthermore, it’s usually HOW that blurs the lines between array and point. Quite apart from the equivocations of the versatile column array, beam-steering its way somewhere between multiple single points and a single multipoint, there is the Third Way proposed by d&B’s A-Series of ‘augmented’ arrays mentioned by Werner Beyer – and described by Dowson as “a hybrid that’s really opening up a new way of looking at the market. You don’t want a 4-box Y-Series line array that acts like a big point source because you don’t get the low-mid pattern control in the vertical. On the other hand, if you put two high-power point sources and splay them open to shoot in the right direction, you’ll get the interference between them caused by the spread. That’s why the A-Series offers flexible curvature combined with constant coherence – a point source with the ability to tuck in another 10° if your corner’s a bit sharp, using array processing”.

If the venue can support it, a hybrid of line array and point source is the logical solution for complex auditoriums and is increasingly common in theatres willing to add array hangs to their legacy in-fills. Or, if you have a National Treasure on your hands, a completely new suite of both is ideal: in general, says Borneo Brown at the Royal Albert Hall, the new system of d&b audiotechnik solutions treats the venerated venue more like a theatre than it has ever been treated before, with a series of detailed point source in-fills that work in tandem with the main line array hangs. It has taken effort and money, but the intelligibility now achievable has been well worth all of it – in corners and cornices that hitherto could never have expected such treatment.

“The sheer variety of events here now is staggering and many of them demand a lot of speech combined with music and video,” Brown explains, “for which d&b’s ArrayProcessing really comes into its own because we’re not bouncing around the roof and the colouration of the room is greatly reduced. It’s also Soundscape-ready and bolting that on for any occasion that demands it is a relatively simple step.”

“As manufacturers offer better solutions, the market reacts,” adds Espinosa. “For example, last year we introduced the ULTRA-X40 and it had exceptional response and great reviews. In the beginning we considered a new point source because we detected that the market needed a better point source solution. Given the exceptional performance of the ULTRA-X40 we are now driving the changes and more and more people are using a point source for specific applications where line arrays were not the ideal solution.”

“We have a close working relationship with our dealer and distributor network,” agrees Svetly Alexandrov, “and constantly consult with them to improve everything we do. They have the constant, valuable communication with our diverse customer base. Of course, our research and development labs are constantly evolving, but it takes effective management to direct and steer these resources to solve specific issues.”

“Feedback from customers is essential to our manufacturing process and product line development,” says Barrand. “We have a very strong relationship with our network of installers, rental companies and distributors. It’s our job to take the needs of our customers and surpass expectations with our products. A manufacturer always wants to bring out new solutions. We spend a lot of time and money developing our products and for us reliability is the most important aspect of our manufacturing process. Our strategy is to make great products that will stand the test of time.”

Cycle paths
Manufacturers need to achieve another balance: one between the need to promote new solutions and the risk of impeding the lifecycle of legacy products. How do they do it?

“Line arrays tend to be replaced within eight to ten years, point source ranges from five to seven years,” says Dibble. “Outside of a specific lifecycle, there may be gaps in a portfolio that still need addressing, or there may be an opportunity to introduce self-powered models of a passive solution – or we may need different price tiers. There are significant opportunities to bring new product onto the market that doesn’t cannibalise existing sales. No one product can do everything, so as long as you have clear market opportunity and positioning there is plenty of scope.”

“We totally understand that in this highly professional market it’s an investment and it’s part of the company’s assets that help our customers do their job and make money,” states Espinosa. “It is indeed hard to balance: if you continuously make models obsolete you make customers’ cycles too short; but you cannot keep your products for a very long time. There are a few unique examples, like the iconic UPA-1P that was on the market for more than 20 years. We’re constantly monitoring demands to try to anticipate these cycles.” 

“There is absolutely no substitute for foresight, communication and meticulous planning,” adds Svetly Alexandrov.

Right now, venues are facing the question of what to install permanently while still regularly having to accommodate visiting shows. This, too, will influence the choice of line array or point source. 

“More live venues are changing to a model where a house system is provided and charging for removal if a show wants to deploy its own system,” confirms Robin Dibble. “Obviously, this is only viable where the venue system is of a suitable standard – therefore it needs to be rider friendly. Tour sound is still very much informing the decisions on installed systems, and tour sound is all about line arrays – so the venues are installing line arrays.”

“It changes with the size and profile of the venue,” adds Espinosa. “For smaller venues, most will be willing to perform on the house system as the artist may not be travelling with full production. Smaller venues should aim to have a system that can be used 100 per cent of the time and is reliable and versatile to accommodate all genres. It’s also important for the venue to build a good sonic reputation – to attract both the artists and the audiences.

“For larger venues it’s a bit more complicated as they may be hiring acts that bring their own production. They should invest in a best-in-class sound system that everyone accepts; the cost may be higher, but the ROI and the cost of ownership will be lower if the system is used constantly.”

“We at Coda manufacture systems suitable for both fixed-installation and touring markets,” says Alexandrov, “but often there is a huge overlap. All products are tested to equally high standards, and there is no difference in audio quality between the two markets. Coda loudspeakers that could otherwise be classified as touring systems often find themselves in installations – all loudspeakers and rigging accessories are available in any colour, and to multiple weatherproofing grades.

“Customers purchase systems to fulfil a job description. For permanent installation, it’s crucial to speak to one of our very knowledgeable and experienced dealers or distributors to ensure the optimum system components are selected and return on investment is assured.”

For Harel Tabibi, an independent venue audio consultant based in Tel Aviv, this mean one thing: “The same line array can do a theatre show or a rock show,” he says. “Before line array you needed big, heavy point sources to do rock. Now we have systems that are so much more versatile. So, although today’s point sources can sound amazing they won’t work for everyone – and that’s what venues need.”