The Frankfurt-Am-Main event: PSNEurope’s Prolight+Sound review

Phil Ward’s feet appreciate the single Hall for pro audio at Prolight+Sound – but questions remain about the show’s next steps…
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There are two ways of interpreting the orientation of the L-Acoustics booth in Hall 3.1, the only remaining Hall in Messe Frankfurt’s traditionally exhausting zip code with enough pro audio to sustain a three-day visit. The booth’s front opening faced the entrance of the Hall, at least at one end, in a clear victory for Strategic Branding: the youngest PL+S ingénues might well have assumed that Christian Heil was running the whole shooting match.

However, it wasn’t one of those walk-through booths. It formed an enclosed suite of meeting rooms and lounges, which means it also had a rear end. This rear end – the rear end of L-Acoustics – bared itself to the rest of the industry and concluded business even before you reached the second row of Hall 3.1’s designer campsite. I don’t know, maybe it was just me. Nobody else seemed to notice.

Exit signs

This would be because L-Acoustics is actually as open-minded, and open-hearted, as anyone in today’s industry with a vested interest and a cool expertise in networked digital audio, and formed a key part of this show’s commitment to multi-brand complicity and the partial retreat of the kind of proprietary chutzpah that would justify the symbolism of turning your back on a room full of competitors. When Digico announced, on Day One, that significant features were being added to the SD console range, L-Acoustics was well to the fore in the list of collaborators behind several joint initiatives: L-ISA Source Control headed a list that also included SD support for d&b audiotechnik’s Soundscape platform, more Waves Multirack integration and a new digital engine – Quantum 7 – that promises even more flexibility.

Speaking to PSNEurope, Digico MD James Gordon expanded on the current brand openness. “L-Acoustics and d&b have different technology,” he said, “but actually it’s important to control both from our work surface because the last thing you want to do is get in the way of the engineer’s workflow. Our customers are their customers, so we have to be part of it.”

Gordon’s comments followed his press conference teaser that this might well be the final appearance of the brand within these walls, confirming an uneasy sense of doubt in the ether. Conventional wisdom, in plentiful supply at this Messe, assumed that the combination of a spirited campaign by NAMM; the curious popularity of ISE among touring production professionals; and the accidents of the calendar has eaten away at the commitment of some to what was, beginning in 1995, a key indicator for the industry and even one nail in the coffin of the Spring exhibition side of AES in Europe. The absentees – Harman, Loud, Sennheiser, Shure, Meyer Sound and MUSiC among them – seem to have migrated to a world defined by concepts of ‘AV’ in preference to ‘PA’, and this is the vacuum that could suck the remainers out.

Others pointed to the city of Frankfurt’s self-destructive tendencies towards over-pricing, warning of a Montreux-style kamikaze attitude – the one that forced IBC to relocate from Switzerland to Amsterdam – while at the same time highlighting the joys of bargain motels in Orange County. Really? And so the theories trundled round and round, like the Rolltreppen of a forgotten shopping mall, ignoring important details such as the free transport provided by Messe badges – just like Amsterdam; the soaring air fares and paranoid immigration methods associated with travel to California; and the global habit of hiking room rates when the Convention Centre is busy – just like Amsterdam.

Finally, and this made the least sense of all, the opinion formed that if you hadn’t completed your specification and spending spree for the season by the time Frankfurt came around, you obviously weren’t very busy. Therefore, manufacturers need not waste resources by aiming themselves at rental operations that clearly had nothing better to do and little money to spend.

When did it happen that all production reinvestment was obliged to take place in January and February? When did an MI show on the West Coast – despite an excellent and expanding sound reinforcement dimension – begin to dictate European touring patterns? And when did an exhibition of digital signage take over the buying habits of those responsible for a convincing rock sound? Despite these unanswered questions, the industry awaits DiGiCo’s lead and the outcome of mooted consultations behind the scenes. Reflecting on the lemming-like habit of negativity, Out Board’s Dave Haydon summed it up well: “Although there were a few naysayers trying to get us to agree it was dead, we were flat out for all four days both with booked meetings and with walk-ups.”

Box clever

Meanwhile, PL+S 2018 delivered plenty of what this show used to be all about before the cable monkeys went all RJ45. Boxes made a spirited comeback, some of them big enough to hide Tony Andrews in. Funktion One’s F124 bass bin has a 24-inch driver coupled to the company’s famed horn-loading technology, and two years’ work has gone into a new, highly durable electro-magnetic assembly. Pioneer Pro, a company similarly enthusiastic about low end, showcased the XY-2 2-way mid-high downfill and the rental-friendly XY-3B.

Outline – more of these irrepressible Italians shortly – unveiled the Superfly compact line array, itself boasting more low-end than it deserves, while HK Audio went nuts: three new box concepts appeared, representing “the biggest product launch in its history”. Cosmo is a line array family; Contour X is a new series of point source models; and Vortis 2 is an installation line first spotted, appropriately, at ISE. Fohhn Audio AG showed Focus Venue, a line array with beam steering that comes with Performance Series subs and some Class D amps that happily mingle AES/EBU, Dante, Optocore, Fohhn’s own AIREA protocol and analogue XLR.

dBTechnologies had new additions for its VIO group of line array and subs, and a new portable option in the BH Series, together with a line called Opera Unica that networks up with the RD-net protocol and Aurora Net software. From the US, Crest Audio launched another powered line array with plenty of on-board DSP: Versarray Pro is a medium-range weapon of mass dispersion with ribbon drivers and a waveguide christened ClearForm. LD Systems, part of the boldly present and aisle-filling Adam Hall Group, introduced the CURV 500 Touring Set – “the newest member in the CURV 500 family” – an active, portable line array with duplex satellites and a spiral array design.

Dutch house-of-ribbon Alcons Audio rolled out the VR5 compact monitor previewed at ISE, with a new Alcons waveguide technology claiming 90ºx60º dispersion all the way up to 20kHz, plus additions to the L-Series line array and proprietary VHIR processing. Finally, some proper German boxes to kick the Fahrtgasse out of Old Heidelberg: d&b’s GSL is “is the next generation line array in the d&b series, sitting above the J, Y and V-Series. [It] delivers unparalleled cardioid dispersion control across the entire audio bandwidth, providing excellent output and accuracy in large-format line arrays for the largest sound reinforcement applications”. Guests at the out-of-town, 65-year old Jahrhunderdhalle, which has hosted everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Justin Bieber, were rooted to the spot.

Digital magic

Today’s digital brains are totally dominated by the fabric of networking, and were here represented by a few key players. Audinate highlighted Dante Domain Manager, to scale and secure Dante networks everywhere that IT may take it, as well as NAMM debutante AVIO. Stage Tec announced that it was finally joining the Ravenna protocol community, in addition to supporting Dante and AES67 and consolidating the agnostic mood across this sector. Outline backed up Superfly with the official launch of Newton, the far-reaching audio management and control platform with all the FPGA trimmings and some new Warped Finite Impulse Response filtering, while Optocore gave a world debut to The Festival Box, a timely funnel for all the main protocols likely to pop up under festival conditions and another triumph for the company’s unyielding faith in fibre-optic solutions.

Crest’s ProTour series amplifiers already grasp the zeitgeist by integrating Dante and DSP. There was a bit of mixer activity: Crest debuted a couple of compacts in the form of XD-16 and XD-28; Cadac marked 50 years in the business with further showings of the CDC Five and CDC Seven.

On the last day of the show, traditionally quiet even when numbers are up, the queue for demos of L-Acoustics’ L-ISA immersive audio platform stretched around the block. Sherif El Barbari of L-Acoustics’s London-based R&D team behind L-ISA reported unprecedented interest in the technology, helped no doubt by PL+S’s parallel promotion of an Immersive Technology Forum and even a ‘Klangdome’ featuring more homespun solutions using Ambisonics. Meanwhile d&b audiotechnik had the very good fortune to have Kraftwerk’s FOH engineer Serge Graef available to demonstrate its competing solution – Soundscape – using the plug-in on an Avid S6L. No shame: this Kraftwerk fan had a tear in his eye.

And that wasn’t all. Fellow Dutch exhibitors Alcons Audio and Astro Spatial Audio (ASA), with adjoining booths, continued the theme with demonstrations of ASA’s SARA II Premium Rendering Engine for object-based audio processing through Alcons speakers.

Spatial sound

Despite “the positive echo from the exhibitors of the two fairs” reported by Detlef Braun, Member of the Executive Board of Messe Frankfurt, and a course to “exploit synergistic effects between the events to the utmost” that will schedule Musikmesse and Prolight+Sound to overlap over all four days, many pro audio observers were dismayed to hear that next year the cohesive profile of Hall 3.1 will be uprooted to Hall 8 – and closer to the music fair it has taken 24 years to avoid. According to another source, the two shows should “move closer together spatially.” Well, why not? Unfortunately – and it frustrates me to say it – there’s plenty of room.

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