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Small talk: An inside look into the sound of small venues

Here, we talk to top pro audio manufacturers about their experiences of the small venues/clubs market and how such venues are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of high quality, versatile sound

In recent years, the pro audio headlines have largely been dominated by the ongoing developments in immersive sound across large scale productions and theatrical performance. However, there is still plenty of innovative and exciting work being done at grassroots level in small venues and clubs all over the world. Of course, this sector is not without its challenges. To find out more, we spoke to some of the live sound industry’s key players to hear about the current state of the small venue and nightclub market and its significance to their business…

PIONEER PRO AUDIO 

Jamie Gomez, head of marketing, EMEA and Alex Barrand, technical manager 

Alex Barrand: In my opinion, some of the best dance venues I’ve been to are actually the smallest ones. With Ministry of Sound, for example, the main room holds 800 people and in its day, people were going there to see a headline DJ. Although the club’s quite big, it’s the small room that is the heartbeat of the night. Lately, there’s a lot more festivals going on, and this is taking away from the club scene in fixed venues. The smaller venues that are popping up are unique, natural and more intimate.

Do you work with many small venues?

AB: We work with many different sized venues, and quite a lot of the small venues I’ve commissioned and installed have been in Japan. Japanese venues are notoriously small and intimate – some are about 150 capacity but have sound systems that can deliver to 1,000 capacity. They’re audiophiles over there, they really pay attention to sound. With these types of venues, you’ve got to keep people in a small space, comfortably, for eight hours, and you can’t do that with a full on L/R system. It needs to be more immersive as opposed to just stereo. It’s fun to go back to the raw, old school surround speakers around the dance floor.

Jamie Gomez: In the UK, we’ve done a couple of smaller places, such as China Whites, Aures in Leake St, McQueen in Shoreditch, and Fabric club.

What makes your products ideal for this sector?

JG: The product line up we have is very well suited to these small venues, even our larger speaker, the XY 3B. It’s also the flexibility of the speakers. One of the reasons McQueen went for the box was its versatility for handling all types of music.

AB: In the beginning, we weren’t really focusing on large venues. At the time, the biggest product we had was a 15 inch two-way box, but with the introduction of XY3, we’ve ended up being one of the go-to brands for some larger clubs.

The first XY speakers we launched were the XY 81 and XY 122 with XY 118 and XY215 subwoofers. With the XY 81, I wanted to design a comfortable eight inch two-way speaker that can be used low-level in a restaurant or bar. We now have an extended range – the XY2 and XY3 – and we’ve managed to fine tune the products to fit what our network installers wanted. Anyone can bring out an eight or 12 inch speaker, but it’s the voicing and how it blends into an environment that makes the difference.

In terms of what the market wants, the sound has to be good, but the aesthetics must be a consideration. Sometimes people want to see something a bit more techy, and in your face. We’ve kept the XYs as they are with that neutral black look, yet the XY2 and XY3 have a flamboyancy with a gold plug.

How important is this market to the brand? 

AB: Small venues are a core part of our business, they make up our regular orders, such as the small XY 81s and the 115 subwoofers. With the compact stuff, you’re selling much bigger volumes and consistently, whereas the bigger ones come along every now and again. Big projects take a lot of time and stock, yet smaller venues are much easier to deal with. However, it’s very much a hands on approach for any sized project. We treat every small venue as if they are the biggest venue we’ve ever worked on, working closely with installers to make sure the selection of enclosures is right for the space.

There are some venues that are small and looking for a cheap solution to sound, but venues having a variety of performances need a reliable system to adapt and change to that schedule. That’s where we find ourselves in this environment. Our product is not cheap, but if you’re looking for a powerful performance, you have to pay for it.

JG: There’s a trend with small venues trying to increase revenue by putting on different nights. A sound system is a marketable tool that you can put on your website. Our customer, Aures, uses their Pioneer sound system to market their venue. When they invite clients down to the venue, they always do an audio demo. That’s how small venues are looking to stand out from the crowd.

MARTIN AUDIO 

James King, marketing director 

Do you see any trends in the small venue/club market? 

The market for small live and club venues has been under pressure recently, both in terms of local authority rulings and changing consumer habits. While this creates a number of challenges, we are seeing a real opportunity for a different kind of venue that is growing in popularity. There is an emerging trend of multi-use establishments that serve as restaurants, pubs or bars and also offer live music or a nightclub opportunity. This tends to maximise the usage of the spaces and, as a result, its patronage as well. While standalone small live venues and clubs still exist and sometimes upgrade their audio, it has been noticeable recently that more have closed down than opened. From Martin Audio’s perspective, that makes it more important than ever to create flexible, adaptable products that deliver excellent sound quality at the right price.

How important is this market to the brand?

We see the market for live entertainment as a key area for both our heritage and our future. Small venues and clubs sit perfectly within our wider hospitality sector because of the emerging multi-use venue trend. This is an area that Martin Audio has consistently performed well in, particularly over the last four years as our portfolio has grown. Has your focus on the area changed? We want to ensure that the next generation of performers continue to have the pathway to the top that small venues have always provided. We have been looking at how we can work with them by examining trends in the market and understanding how our products can help the venues to better meet requirements. This has involved us exploring product costs, flexibility, ease of deployment as well as solving common issues.

What are the biggest challenges of the market?

Venues becoming multi-use has meant that loudspeakers need to be flexible and as cost effective as background speakers, but with the capacity to support foreground usage. Different aspects of a venue will require different types of solution, sometimes with varying budget restrictions. However, it’s important that the same signature sound is present to connect the different facets of the space and ensure that patrons experience the same clarity, precision and richness of tone throughout the venue. Equally, with the noise abatement restrictions faced by some venues, technology that allows for the effective control of sound is also a factor. Consistent coverage is a must for every project, but to ensure that these venues continue to support the talent coming through they have to be confident that the sound will stay within the club.

Do you have any examples of key projects within this sector?

Yes. We recently deployed a Martin Audio WPM loudspeaker system at a local community-owned and operated Festival Drayton Centre in Market Drayton. Martin Audio’s CDD sound system was recently installed in the SX Sky Bar nightclub and lounge that occupies two floors of Hotel Essex across from Chicago’s Grant Park.

What makes your products ideal for small venues/clubs?

Martin Audio’s portfolio offers loudspeakers for the same application at a variety of price points. This ensures that we can help a venue make the most of its budget while meeting the specific requirements of the given space. Our CDD range delivers as both a background and foreground solution. It provides wide, consistent coverage and ensures cost effective install and maintenance.

MEYER SOUND

John Monitto, director of business development 

Have you noticed any trends in this market?

I know the demand for better, more powerful low end headroom is present for clubs, especially those with EDM. We’re seeing the need for powerful subwoofer systems that can blanket an audience with low frequency content of the music being presented. How important is this market to the brand? Very important. Meyer Sound’s UPAs have always sold well in this market, and we now expect that the ULTRA-X40, our new point source loudspeaker, will find the same or greater success.

What are the biggest challenges of the market? 

Budgets can be tight in newer clubs that are just getting off the ground. These clubs recognise that sound is crucial to the success of dance or live performance, but it’s a big investment.

Do you have any examples of key projects?

The Fillmore in San Francisco or the Iridium in New York are great examples of landmark venues with Meyer.

D&B AUDIOTECHNIK

Michael Kinzel, segment manager, live and entertainment venues 

Are you aware of any trends in the small venue/club market? 

We’re seeing a trend for high quality audio installs in smaller venues. Among others, this comes from owners/operators who watch the live touring market and want the same products/brands/sound signature in their venues.

How significant is this market to business? 

It is very important to us, as there’s a large number of smaller venues dedicated to top quality entertainment concepts. On top of that, smaller venues are often the homes of upcoming artists and talent: a perfect opportunity for them to see the exceptional quality they can get from great equipment.

Has your focus on the area developed?

For the last few years, d&b has focused more on this area, with dedicated segment management, and working with industry associations and artists to further brand awareness and build market understanding.

What are the biggest challenges of working with small venues?

The main challenge for smaller venues seems to be to establish themselves and become profitable in an environment that is increasingly dominated by large multi-venue operators. According to the European Venue Association, around 30 per cent of a venue’s income comes from ticket sales, 20 per cent from food and beverage, while up to 35 per cent are subsidies (mainly governmental support programmes). While larger operators have their professional teams available, the smaller grassroot venues often need to rely on volunteers and/or passionate people who work for less. This especially applies to the smaller European live music venues where on average 16 people work full time, approximately 40 per cent of them volunteers.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released a new environmental noise guideline to the European Union which classed sound coming from live music performances as noise pollution. The guideline is under review by several venue associations. This is another challenge, as in the future smaller venues may need to take greater measures to avoid noise emissions – which could discourage sound investment.

Do you have any key examples of projects within this sector? 

Tape London, based in Mayfair, recently upgraded with a d&b sound system made up of 24S-D and 10S-D loudspeakers. A d&b sound system of Y and V Series, is installed in East London’s Pickle Factory. The Ukrainian nightclub CHI by Decadence House installed d&b.

EAW 

TJ Smith, president 

Do you see any trends in this sector?

Small venues and clubs are increasingly fashion focused, meaning that the aesthetics of the product are of key importance and preferences change over time. The design isn’t required to draw attention to itself, many venues prefer that the product be as architecturally transparent as possible. The demand for excellent coverage throughout the venue at a cost effective price and ease of install remain paramount.

How has your focus on this market developed?

Our focus has changed in relation to aesthetics and ease of install. EAW has always offered cost effective solutions with excellent coverage. Over the past year, EAW has spent hours conceiving, testing, and refining the look and ease of install of our products. These elements have gone from an afterthought to something clearly defined in our definition and validation documentation.

What are the challenges of the market?

End users are focused on cost, as audio is not the first thought in a small venue. The value of a professionally designed and installed solution is typically not valued as highly as it ought to be.

What makes your products suitable for small venues and nightclubs? 

This sector has always been a busy one for EAW. The technology found in our large format touring and installation speaker systems tends to find its way into our small format enclosures.

FUNKTION-ONE

Ann Andrews, manager 

How significant is this market to your business?

It’s important, of course. Our engineering approach and performance standards are embedded in the design of every loudspeaker we make, and that includes our Compact Series. The smaller speakers, such as F81s or F101s, open up the deployment possibilities, in that venues can create zones and really tailor the sound to the specific layout of a particular venue.

Do you see any trends in the small venue/ clubs market? 

It’s difficult to make too many generalisations when addressing the trends of such a large geographic market, but venues are certainly broadening what they offer to become more multi-purpose. Live venues offer club nights, clubs are putting on gigs, and bars are extending their operating times as alternative late night venues. This can mean that some venues decide to pay more attention to the quality of the sound system, but not always.

What are the biggest challenges of the market? 

Budgets for smaller venues can be a challenge, but we pride ourselves on never over-specifying a job. Our loudspeakers are incredibly efficient and offer performance that surpasses expectation. By focusing on quality rather than quantity, we’re able to be competitive while delivering the highest audio standards.

How are your products suited to small venues? 

Our opinion is that the same audio principles apply to every type of venue, whatever the size, and achieving the best sonic result is paramount.

L-ACOUSTICS 

David Dohrmann, head of application install 

Do you see any trends in the market?

Live music clubs are trending more in Europe, whereas EDM clubs are traditionally big in Asia. The big Asian markets for premium Karaoke Clubs or gigantic EDM venues, which require surprisingly high specification, don’t really exist elsewhere. It seems one trending design approach does not really exist – clubs are asking for fairly specific requirements and architecture making for a high level of customisation.

There is an increasingly extensive use of video and immersive audio technology which leads to more sophisticated audio requirements. This holds true even for smaller clubs. We recently worked with an electronic artist called Molecule who commonly does shows in 300-400 pax venues using our immersive L-ISA technology. As for live clubs, we are currently testing the waters with a fixed L-ISA install in a London club called EartH (900 pax), a traditional live venue which hosts bands who typically have never worked with L-ISA before. After testing the system during a quick sound check it turns out that approx. 90 per cent of the bands end up using the system for their show.

How important is this market to the brand? 

It is very important, but also very much dependant on the country. For example, Holland has a tradition of high performance concert stages that tend to spec line source arrays like our K Series. Asia – especially China – has a lot ultra high spec nightclubs and you’ll see a whole panoply of different types of speakers in there. We think this kind of a market is perfect for the new ARCS Series (A15 & A10 with KS21 Sub) which is targeted at these smaller spaces with smaller teams, without leaning too much on the budget.

What are the biggest challenges of the market?

Smaller clubs do not always procure their sound system with the help of professionals. L-Acoustics is responding to this by constantly adding application resources and scaling the global training activities.

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