Where Do Sound Systems Come From?

Note: To those in the business, this is very basic, because I'm writing this for a general audience. 

OK, so far, I’ve laid out what I think the problem is, and presented a list of the basic criteria I use in evaluating whether a system is “good” or not.  But before we go further into what I believe are some of the problems, we should cover a bit of background on who provides and runs sound systems, how they do it, and why, because if you see five concerts in five venues, the sound system may have been provided for each show in a different way.  (Of course, these are generalizations, but I’m doing so just to give you an idea of how varied it all can be).

A Tale Of Two Systems 

You may not be aware, but at most shows, there are actually two separate, but inter-related, sound systems.  The “monitor” system is the system to which the musicians listen.  You may have seen the “wedge” speakers from the monitor system on the front of the stage (pointed up at the musicians), or the artists may be using “in-ear” monitors, which are like very high quality IPod headphones.  This monitor system is usually under the control of a “monitor engineer” who is typically onstage, where he or she can see the musicians and respond to their needs, since each musician may want their own mix of instruments in their speaker or headphones.

The rest of the front-of-house “PA” (Public Address) system (the large speakers you see aimed at the audience) is controlled by a “front-of-house engineer”, who is typically located in the middle of the audience, where he or she can hear what the audience hears.  Both these systems typically share the same set of microphones.

Who Provides The System?

Arena acts generally carry a complete sound system (everything from microphones to speakers), which is typically rented from a national touring sound company for the duration of the tour.  The front-of-house engineer and monitor engineer, and/or several other sound crew members (depending on the size and structure of the show) travel with the tour, while the rest of the crew to load in the system is provided locally, typically by the concert’s promoter.  These systems are generally installed in the venue on the same day as the show, and the band typically does a “sound check” in the afternoon. The show goes on, and then while the band is out partying, the hard-working crew takes down the whole system, travels overnight to another city, and the next day does the same thing in another, totally different, venue. 

In mid-size concerts in theatres or other similar venues (“legitimate” Broadway-style theatre is typically done differently), the whole sound system might be carried by the tour, or all or part of the sound system might be owned and provided by the venue. Alternatively, the promoter might be contractually obligated to provide a system, and may rent it from a local or regional sound company. In smaller clubs, the system is typically owned and provided by the venue.

Musicians often provide their own instruments, amplifiers, etc, although, depending on the situation, all or part of this “backline” equipment might also be provided by the promoter, who would rent it, or be provided by the venue.  Who provides what is typically determined by contractual “rider” (see http://www.thesmokinggun.com/backstagetour/ for examples).

So, as you can see, even the who/what/where of a sound system is very complicated, and we haven't even looked at the technical details yet. In the next entry, I’ll attempt to detail some of the challenges in doing live sound.