First year BA (Hons) Live Sound student Jake Garland demystifies the world of sound systems and guides us through the creation of his own custom design.
Whether it's a small local show, a headline stop at the local academy or main stage at Glastonbury Festival, there's a sound system delivering that goodness to your ears. These systems come in a range of all shapes and sizes, each offering a different set of tools to achieve the perfect sound.
Yet some requirements go beyond what a regular setup can deliver and for student Jake Garland, who is working as the tech and systems support for semi-charitable events and label The Stomp Project, their needs for a system necessitated a custom design, and Jake was more than happy to oblige.
Before we dive in could you talk a little about what constitutes a sound system?
"It can be pretty broad spectrum, but anything essentially that reproduces sound to a greater level than it's originally transmitted at. It can be an active PA with in-built amplifiers, or it can be speakers with amplifiers and a control unit. You can include the mixing desk technically, and even the microphones as well."
How did you first get into live sound and systems design?
"I've grown up on festival sites and my dad managing festivals and doing PA stuff; he's now working in cinema. It's developed from me being young and borrowing kit off him and doing house parties, to buying my own kit and running my own little gigs and it's just expanded from there."
(Photo credit: @noush.photography)
Is this your first time designing a custom system?
"Definitely on this scale. I started out with active equipment, which is very plug and play. You put your input cables in from a desk and you're set to go, but it doesn't give you as much control. The active systems on the market didn't give us what we [Stomp Project] wanted, because we're mainly doing high power dance events. We need very loud subs and quite piercing highs, so that we can have a high level and still have a flat response. The current system we've got was such a good deal that I had to jump on it."
Now would be a good time to distinguish between custom design and custom built
"Yeah, they're two very different approaches. With custom design you're taking pre-existing bits and putting them together in a unique way, so our system is Martin Audio H3T+ paired with EM Acoustics MSE-118 Quakes, mainly because I just think they work together really well. There wasn't anything from Martin Audio that I felt could quite match it.
"All of our power comes from Powersoft amplifiers, which I think both companies occasionally use, but they don't have system settings for them. You plug it in and have a listen to it, tweak it, run it through simulation software and try and optimise it as best as possible."
The sound system in all its glory
What is it specifically about the setup that optimises it for high power dance shows?
"Firstly, all components of the system use a horn design, it's the oldest method of audio amplification and it works really well. It improves efficiency on the drivers and it also helps with directionality as the sound tends to follow the angle of the horn path, which means you get the sound where you need it and not off into the sky or down to the ground and behind it.
"With the Powersoft amplifiers, they have in-built Digital Signal Processing (DSP), which allows for a higher accuracy in system tuning. To put that simply, when you've got different speakers working together, you have to cross them over, so for anyone doing production, it's similar to an EQ curve. So, where the speakers meet, they have to have to sum together so that you get a flat response.
"What the DSP does is allow you to set all your crossover parts in it, and then you can do your room EQ. If you're in a space with a lot of reflections you can cancel those out a little bit where possible. A really good thing with the Powersoft DSP is that it's all in-built into the amplifiers, and you can actually monitor your power and your resistance load on your speakers. So, if you you're running very hard, the resistance will change in the drivers, which could mean that I'm actually burning out the drivers, so being able to monitor that on the amplifiers is amazing."
Interestingly, when it come to the power distributor you decided to custom build the unit. Why did you go bespoke instead of buying something off the shelf?
"I was trying to get our amplifier rack as small as possible; at the moment it's only 4U, which is about 8 inches deep. If I bought an off the shelf distro, I would have had to have it double, maybe triple the size of what I've built and it would have cost me three or four times as much. I decided to buy the parts because I only needed very limited outputs and had a look at some circuit diagrams and put it together. It's being used at the moment and it seems great."
The amplifier rack. From top to bottom: X4, K20 and Jake's custom distro
Do you have a background in electronics then or was this all on the fly?
"My dad's an electrical engineer, so I've always been able to play around on my own and get him to take a look at my work and give me some advice as well. If I was in my room at home, I would show you - there's not an empty surface in sight, it's all covered with broken electronics I'm tinkering with."
When we last spoke you talked about delving into 3D design and other research holes. Did any of that inform the design for this system?
"I think some of the decision to go with the Martin Audio kit might have been due to that. Initially, my 3D design projects started with legacy Martin Audio products that were in the free domain, and taking the plans from those and building them in 3D. I think that made me fall in love with their builds and their process, and pushed me towards investing in their equipment."
You mentioned you'd spoken with an engineer at Martin Audio to get some help, how did you make the connection?
"This is one of my favourite things about the audio industry; if you go with a company who are fully-fledged and well known, they are one email or one phone call away, and they are more than happy to help you all the time. I've spoken to Martin Audio about support, I've spoken to EM Acoustics about settings issues. They're just very supportive companies."
Did you get any support from the tutors in formulating the design for the system?
My tutors definitely influenced my choice on amplifiers quite a lot, just by going over the practicalities of using them and showing me the benefits that you don't really get with anything else. For the most part though it's all been informed by my own research."
(Photo credit: @katiejordan35mm)
You're clearly well-equipped for a project like this. Where would you point someone equally passionate about sound system design that lacks the knowledge to get things started?
"There are some very good books; Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms by Floyd E. Toole is really good, Sound Systems: Design and Optimisation by Bob McCarthy is fantastic- it's the absolute Bible.
"The world of forums for live sound is massive. However, there's a lot of opinion rather than fact out there. They are very useful, but I think you need to have some knowledge or at least enough knowledge to be able to differentiate whether fact from opinion. Cross referencing is the main thing really; once you've found something that relates to your research, you can then specifically search for that information and find other things to back it up.
"I've been doing tinkering with sound system design for maybe three years, two years before I started this degree, and that's what I've been doing is cross-referencing everything and finding sources that back it up."
Love the idea of being responsible for someone's favourite show? Check out our BA (Hons) Live Sound degree.