Venue Sound: PA-Systems Manufacturers Chime In
After two decades of vast buildout and with at least that much ahead in updates in an uncertain economic climate, sound-systems manufacturers are closely watching the huge sports-venue sector. The experience of the past 20 years has also created templates for a future in which second-tier venues will have sound rivaling that of the major-league facilities.
In recent years, the technology infrastructure of many sports venues has become more standardized, according to Paul Chavez, director of systems applications for Harman Professional, whose brands include JBL and Soundcraft. “Networked audio is the norm to distribute audio throughout the multiple amp locations within a facility, and CobraNet is the most common digital transport,” he says. “Within rack rooms, it has become more common to use a point-to-point digital audio protocol such as BSS BLU-LINK to make the signal distribution simpler while relieving the [venue’s] Ethernet network of internal rack-room audio traffic.”
Modern audio-system technology is vastly superior to the decades-old, tar-covered sheet-metal horns that came before highly focusable point-source or line-array systems. However, the protean nature of contemporary sports venues, which increasingly have been designed as multi-use venues to accelerate their ROI, means that even the newest stadiums evolve quickly.
Some of the audio upgrades at venues are being propelled by architectural changes at arenas and stadiums, such as the addition of seats, as happened at the University of Michigan this year, or video displays, which can displace existing loudspeaker locations.
John Wiggins, VP/director of business development at manufacturer Community, notes, for instance, that ribbon boards push the envelope of sound-system design, since they can pay for themselves in as little as six months thanks to extended marketing opportunities at the venue. “[Ribbon boards] often get mounted on the same fascia that the speakers were originally attached to, necessitating moving [the speakers] elsewhere,” he says. “It often also results in a narrower [dispersion pattern] through which we need to aim these speakers when they get repositioned.”
High School With Money
Even high school sports can look forward to more-sophisticated sound capabilities in their facilities. “Many minor-league and university systems look more like professional systems did several years ago, often utilizing the same tools as professional facilities, such as line arrays, networked audio and digital consoles, only on a somewhat smaller scale,” says Harman’s Chavez. “A wider variety of product in all categories, like digital consoles, has allowed this to take place. The high school systems are not quite as well outfitted as minor league and universities, but all systems have increased the bandwidth, dynamic range, and overall levels of their systems in order to mimic the kind of impact that professional sports events have been delivering recently.”
Community’s Wiggins also sees more demand coming from the high school and regional-college circuits. “They all want to have systems with entertainment capabilities like major-league venues, so they want to move up the ladder,” he says, noting that a wider variety of products and price points helps that trend along, as does the fact that ubiquitous and integrated digital and networking technologies enable more-sophisticated systems overall.
In the Classroom
However, that also means that those more complex systems need more-knowledgeable operators. Manufacturers do training as part of their marketing initiatives, but the general trend shows increasing demand for capable systems operators, many of whom at the high school level will also have to run video and other systems in addition to the sound. That need for more-capable operators is offset to some degree by the fact that many more high schools and colleges now offer technology-systems classes as a regular part of their curricula, with the schools’ sports venue increasingly integrated into those courses.
Other league sports are ramping up their venue game. In the MLS, the New York Red Bulls’ new facility in New Jersey, the Los Angeles Galaxy’s at the Staples Center, and Sporting KC at the new Livestrong Stadium in Kansas City have relatively new EAW sound systems using the same components as larger MLB, NFL, and NBA venues.
Nathan Butler, head of engineering for EAW, points out that MLS stadiums are the size of indoor arenas and offer similarly improved sound for fans: “The systems are able to scale to the size of the venue pretty readily these days from a larger range of product lines. There’s no reason any sports venue of any size can’t have great sound.”