The changing world of audio and lighting engineering

As World Thinking Day arrives, Jon Burton, Lecturer in Sound, Light and Live Event Technology at the University of Derby, looks back on how audio and lighting has developed over the years and the technological advancements that have helped to drive change in this area.

As a new full-time academic joining the University from a lifetime in industry, it is almost inevitable that one looks back and considers how my experience relates to the students I will be facing in this next stage of my professional life. What has changed since I was in their place? The answer is everything, and nothing. The fundamentals remain, the laws of physics haven’t changed, our understanding may have shifted incrementally, but in reality, in my field, acoustics, most of the major principles were all established by the first half of the last century. What about the experience? How as a young student with an interest in sound and music, has the world changed?

I left school the same year as the words ‘music’ and ‘technology’ were combined for the first time in a degree course. This radical new subject took some time to get established but is now available at school as part of a more ‘media friendly’ curriculum. This contrasts greatly to my experience where I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it wasn’t a proper subject, so did the next best thing and went to art school.

The concert experience

As far as the concert going experience, what has changed? My first gigs were at the local theatre, a seated art deco building that was ‘on the circuit’, visited by a fair range of touring artists. Here I saw most of the bands of the day. Touring was a lengthy national affair lasting many weeks and taking in such delights as Glasgow Barrowlands, Manchester Apollo, Newcastle City Hall and even Derby Assembly Rooms, before ending up at an almost inevitable Hammersmith Apollo.

My first working tour was indeed six weeks and took in all the major cities and towns of the UK. A major part of this touring circuit for the majority of bands, however, was not the theatres but the University and College circuit. The student unions promoted shows from bar gigs to dining rooms, debating halls to the occasional main hall show, formed the backbone of many band’s early careers. The touring year mirrored the academic calendar, starting with the September round of fresher’s balls and continuing until the May balls that would drag into early June, at which point everything went quiet. This circuit is now almost non-existent for whatever reasons – a shift in culture or a shift in financial priorities. Perhaps a subject for another blog!

In recent years, tours have become shorter as the gig going public habits have changed. My first gig was with about fifteen hundred in the audience, a big show on a major tour with a top ten artist. My son’s first gig was a major tour with a top ten artist but in the company of ten thousand others. The difference? Arenas. These behemoth structures have been around since my day. I went to Earl’s Court and Wembley to see shows, but these were very special events in buildings not designed for live music. Earls Court, an exhibition hall, Wembley a repurposed swimming pool!  My son went to one of the new multi-purpose arenas, Sheffield, for a spectacular show that was part of not just a UK, but a world tour, taking in similar venues around the globe. His experience was similar to many of this generation where the ‘arena’ show is a norm. So how did we get here?

Development of technology

Technology has played a major part in this, as has a shift in the way artists make money. When I started a tour it was often seen as a loss leader. You toured to promote the new record, that was the cash cow. You could afford to lose money as long as the investment in time and energy was reflected in record sales.

As free downloads began to impact the industry, and the revenue of sales disappeared, touring became a major financial lifeline for many artists. Tours became shorter and smaller shows less profitable. Larger bands would be able to play six arenas and perform to the equivalent of thirty provincial theatres. The costs? Considerably less in both equipment and labour. So how had technology contributed?

Having been a listener and a viewer at many shows over the last fifty years, I can say hand on heart that the ‘big’ show has never looked, or sounded, so good. Development in lighting and video has seen fixtures that can move, change colour, project images in a bewildering selection of ways. Video walls that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago are now commonplace. Sound has been transformed from what I can best describe as a cacophony at anything over 20 metres from the stage, to what is now considered CD quality in most seats in the house. Audiences now have an expectation for a show that would have been almost unachievable when I entered the industry all those years ago.

In my field we now rely on the ‘line-array’ that huge hang of speakers either side of the stage. This is capable of delivering loud high-quality sound at long distance, thanks to development in speakers, amplifiers and DSP. These advances have helped drive the new style shows, audiences are willing to buy the tickets as shows can now match their heightened expectations. So, what innovations sparked this change? Well many, but mostly incremental changes. The science was already there, written down in the fifties by Harry Olson, a huge innovator in my field to whom we all owe a huge debt. It was his research developed further forty years later by Christian Heil, that gave us the modern speaker systems which, for me, made the arena show a practical event in terms of intelligibility and musicality, you could now hear the words, and the tunes, in every seat in the house!

So, what do I tell my students? Like any subject we are ‘standing on the shoulders of giants.’ There is lots to learn, lots to advance, but also lots to look back on and understand. We can still affect change with our work, even if that change is just the frippery of entertainment.

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