Tech Focus: Venue Sound Systems — A Boost to ROI Between Game Days

Demand for tour-sound quality drives networking and other advances

Every few years, sound-system design for sports venues hits a new inflection point. A decade ago, it was the addition of many more subwoofers, to accommodate pop music’s deeper integration of hip-hop elements (especially in NBA arenas). Before that, speech intelligibility had become a prime focus, as much for life-safety reasons as for esthetic ones.

Most recently, though, venue sound systems are undergoing almost seismic shifts. There is a significant and surprisingly rapid uptake of networked-signal transport throughout venues, putting the audio on fiber across one of a number of networked-audio standards, including Dante, AVB, RAVENNA, and Q-SYS. And, with increased pressure on venues to generate more revenue between game days, owners are looking at sound systems that meet the “rider-friendly” criteria of high-end music-touring shows. That’s pulling more brands than ever before into the sports-venue market, increasing competition.

Networked
“Everything we’ve done that’s opened over the summer was heavily reliant on some kind of network protocol,” observes Ryan Knox, senior consultant at systems designer and specifier Idibri. “We’ve used AVB, Dante, and Q-SYS, and just about every project has had either analog or AES3 as a backup.”

The sound system at St. Louis’s Scottrade Center was implemented by L-Acoustics.

The Dante protocol has driven the rapid uptake of networked audio in sports-venue sound systems, according to Seth Morth, engineering manager at integrator Clair Solutions — so rapid, in fact, that, as ubiquitous as it has become, not every equipment manufacturer that has a Dante license has standardized its offerings. “Sometimes,” he explains, “a piece of equipment may have only one Dante port on it, which makes creating redundancy in the system design more complicated.”

In fact, even defining redundancy in the still fluid environment can be tricky. “A fully redundant design will have two networks, each with its own switches over its own fiber, which gets expensive, and budget is everything for most clients,” says Jim Devenney, senior audio engineer, Clair Solutions. “And sometimes it’s good to have a copper backup. In other words, a ‘typical’ network is not really typical at all, at least not yet.”

For now, system choices are still based largely on the endpoints: which speaker brands and FOH consoles the client’s A/V managers want. Network types descend from those, according to which ones each brand supports. (The AES67 intercompatibility protocol was intended to address that issue, although its uptake has been steady but slow.) That’s also a function of venue IT managers’ preferring to keep A/V off their data networks. But, as the industry moves closer to a converged environment, the network choice may at some point become at least tantamount to that of speakers and amplifiers.

On Tour
For decades, installed sound systems were pretty much unplugged when touring bands came in. That’s changing, however. Increasingly, house sound systems are being asked to provide delay and fill speakers, or more, for the touring system. That’s due in part to cost pressures on the tours themselves, with production values, from pyro to giant video to animatronics, eating up budget once used for transporting more speakers. As tour productions rely more heavily on house systems, the venues with the most hi-fi speakers have the best chances to get the most-lucrative tours. And, as venues are asked to cover more of their own overhead between games and seasons, they’re more carefully vetting equipment choices. That has sparked an influx of new brands into the sports market, many having made their names on the music-touring side.

Orlando City Stadium features networked audio and copper “last mile.”

L-Acoustics is one of a very small handful of brands found on virtually all tour contract riders. The France-based company has also stepped up its focus on the sports market, with recent installations in such venues as the Arizona Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium and the St. Louis Blues’ Scottrade Center.

“We’re one of the newer players in that market,” notes Dan Palmer, national manager, installation projects, L-Acoustics. He says that he and the consultants who recommend systems emphasize that, while rider readiness may command higher initial costs in some cases, the venues are more aware of how those sound systems will produce ROI, in the form of more tour bookings. “They’re looking at what a sound system can do for them. It’s become more competitive in that market, and they know they need a higher level of sound to compete.”

As touring intensifies, reducing logistical costs becomes imperative, and sports venues are trying to help. “Even five years ago, the idea of using the house PA system was repulsive to tour sound people,” says Morth. That’s changing quickly as venues move toward more tour-rider–friendly sound-system brands. “Twenty years ago, it was all about [hearing] the voice. Now the system has to be musical and full range.” As a result, stadium- and arena-installed loudspeaker elements are increasingly used as infill and delay speakers, saving tours from having to carry those additional speakers.

And that’s where the two trends increasingly meet: as more sound systems ride on data networks, intercompatibility among components becomes more of an issue. As a result, networked audio will often run between input sources to the control room and to the amplifier rooms but go from there to the speakers as analog signals over copper or a secondary network. That’s the case at Orlando City SC’s new home, whose A/V systems Clair Solutions integrated, based on designs by WJHW, and which opened this year. There, Dante runs to Orlando City Stadium’s six amp rooms, and signal is distributed within the amp racks using BSS Blu Link, which is compatible with the other Harman Professional brands in the venue, including JBL speakers and a Soundcraft audio console, before going to copper for the “last mile” to the speaker cabinets.

The trend toward networked sound will likely accelerate in the next few years, which, coincidentally, will also act as an advantage for more high-end brands, which have embraced networking, heading into the installed-venue-sound market.

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