Once digital consoles had arrived, it was only a matter of time before signal processing plug-ins would follow them into the live arena, writes Gez Kahan. And it was a given that Waves would be somewhere in the mix. Sure enough, in 2005, up rocked Digidesign with the plug-in-ready VENUE, and the next year, along came Waves with its D-Show- and VENUE-compatible Live Bundle. And then, besides tweaks to the original offering… well nothing to speak of, until the launch of WavesLive as a separate division in 2009.
So what took so long? Practicalities, says Mick Olesh (pictured), Waves executive VP sales & marketing. "Since the Venue consoles appeared, Waves has been monitoring the live sound market. The challenges were to find the best technology and best solution for that market - and then create it."
Indeed, there's been a flurry of announcements over the past few months: Multirack software for controlling plug-ins either 'natively' using a laptop and I/O box or via a dedicated server; SoundGrid, an audio-over-Ethernet server for networking and processing; a rental option (for studio products, as well as live); and a SoundGrid I/O card for use with Yamaha mixers. Plus there's a possible pointer to a future where outboard goes onboard - a 'strategic alliance' with DiGiCo to develop a system whereby plug-ins integrate seamlessly into, and are tweaked from, the console's control surface.
The requirements, Olesh notes, went beyond simply developing the plug-ins. WavesLive's infrastructure includes a dedicated website (www.waveslive.com); a tech department with a list of I/Os and consoles on hand so it can look at support problems in real time; and TLC (theft and loss coverage) to keep the show on the road should the engineer's iLok, which holds the Waves licence, go AWOL.
"We also had to ensure we had a sales channel able to market, demonstrate and sell the products. Only when all these were in place was a new division worth an announcement."
The plug-ins themselves are not cheap: just like hardware units they are priced to reflect the cost of development, production and support. But there are cogent economic arguments in their favour: they take up less real estate at FOH, which in theory translates into additional ticket sales; they link within the operating environment without cabling (and the software stores settings and scene changes) so they're faster to set up; and they save truck space on the road and storage space back at the rental house.
For FOH engineers, though - and especially for monitor engineers, expected to deliver perfect onstage sound immediately or quicker - economics count for nothing against reliability and familiarity. "Latency, ease of use, redundancy," are typical concerns, Olesh says, "all of which have been addressed by product development." And Waves is investing heavily in demonstration and training.
"Waves dealers have to have an installed demo system and be able to handle demonstrations to all prospects. There are also local ongoing seminars and training with Waves product specialists [four in Europe alone]," he adds. There's oodles of stuff online too - seven-day demo versions, free webinars and videos, plus, for those who have purchased, a paid-for certification programme.
But peer pressure is the ultimate sales tool, so WavesLive has hired Ken 'Pooch' Van Druten, FOH for Linkin Park and others, as a product specialist and evangelist.
"SoundGrid, implemented for Yamaha with the WSG-Y16 and imminent for DiGiCo, is very exciting because it's server-based, meaning you can have an almost unlimited selection of plug-ins." But he's also a big fan of Multirack Native [handling , as the name implies, a rack's worth of effects]. "For festivals I can just show up with Multirack Native on my laptop and know I'll have the outboard I want. For anyone who doesn't carry a console it means you always have instant access to your sound."
He's sold on the reliability, too. "There's masses of redundancy built in - twin servers on the SoundGrid, for example, and audio will still pass even if there should be a crash. Plus," - and here's the evangelist again - "it just plain sounds good. The modelling is exact and very satisfying."
That raises the possibility of a radical change of culture. Anybody comparing live racks with what's in the average studio will see the difference: for studios, sound quality is the sole criterion; on the road, rugged reliability is key. So what happens when both are available in the same unit?
"Here's an illustration," says Van Druten. "Linkin Park were doing a brand new song, recorded with a very different bass tone from usual, and I just couldn't get close with my live set-up. So I called the studio engineer and asked what plug-ins he'd used. I loaded them, and it was better, but not quite there. So I got him to send me the presets - and that got me pretty damn close."
Pretty damn close is definitely what the band expects, so the convergence will definitely make life easier for the monitor engineer. It's probably as close as you want for FOH, given that it's impossible to replicate all those overdubs, and the audience wants atmosphere rather than a clinical copy. But, Van Druten says, "it's a fine line. If you stray too far from the recorded sound, you'll lose the punters."
Regardless of the analogue vs digital debate, and allowing time for natural wastage to deplete existing inventory, virtual plug-ins will probably continue to gain ground for live use. Five years plus is Olesh's estimate for soft processing to reach a dominant position on top-end tours, but he stresses: "This market is not just the big tours with digital consoles. It ranges from the musician at a small gig who wants to use the same tools he has in his home studio, to the church market, to the high-end FOH who loves his analogue console and wants to use Waves processing."
The tipping point will be when riders routinely specify plug-ins, when rental houses start pushing software rather than hardware, and when a few more big-name console manufacturers announce plug-in-ready models. Watch this space.