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The end of the Next Big Thing?

Now that everything is pin 2 hot, the time of the true innovators is past – or is it?

The 1990s gave the real world some weird and wonderful stuff – mad cow disease, Cool Britannia, Dolly the sheep and, perhaps most memorably, Iron Maiden atop the pop charts – but in pro-audio land they were a period of unprecedented technical advances. Will we ever see their like again?

Obviously there had been numerous developments and technological advances in audio system technology in the 30-odd years preceding the decade (many of which have been highlighted in PSNEurope’s very own Genius! publication). But step-changes in audio abounded in the ‘90s, the first of which was the arrival of the digital crossover. The TOA Saori hove into view first, a mighty and baffling device which pre-empted an ‘arms race’ among the signal processing manufacturers as they scrapped it out for a chunk of this new market. In many cases PA rental companies could (and did) coax several more years’ operational life out of loudspeaker systems which suddenly featured accurate component time-alignment, per-frequency-band EQ, limiting and other digital delights. All was well!

About the same time, from Europe came whispers of a bizarre new loudspeaker system. This apparently eschewed the concept of multiple different boxes pointed hither and yon on huge PA wings in favour of something called ‘line source’ technology. This relied on wide, narrow enclosures flown in a single vertical column with almost no gap between them, and which apparently enabled the individual drivers to couple in some magical way, thus producing more output for the same amplifier power, much more predictable coverage and requiring half the truck space. Supposedly a Hammersmith Odeon-sized system could be flown from a single motor per side. Merde alors! What could this strange device be?

And then, like something from another planet, the first digital consoles started to appear, all promising (and some delivering) the sound engineer’s Holy Grail: full recall of all functions. Several analogue console designs had attempted to provide varying levels of recall but this was new – this wasn’t a mixing console, it was a computer with a dedicated user interface, and the functionality grew exponentially as users were presented with the possibilities of an entirely new level of control and integration.

So – what’s next? Is there a next? Or have we reached the point where the limits of physics and product development budgets coincide to prevent any more Next Big Things? Or have we just run out of ideas? It would be sad if this were true. The pro-audio business is justly proud of its rugged pragmatism and original thought, but perhaps now that everything is “pin 2 hot”, the time of the true innovators is past – or is it?

Networked audio isn’t really a candidate because, useful and game-changing as it undoubtedly is, in truth it is a by-product of the computerised systems that now control PA systems. Let’s blue sky it people! Here’s a couple to consider…

  • A new method of delivering frequencies below 160Hz at concert volume that doesn’t use lots of enormous cabinets and vast power consumption
  • A genuinely weatherproof audio mixing console

Bonkers? Maybe – but that’s what I thought the first time I tried to use a Saori…

Dave Wiggins is a freelance marketeer and pro-audio pundit.