View from the Top: Christian Heil, Founder, L-Acoustics

L-Acoustics founder Christian Heil shares how getting a Ph.D. in particle physics led to creating the P.A. that changed live sound forever—and why “hyperreal sound” will have the same effect.
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Christian Heil, founder, L-Acoustics

Christian Heil

A student of particle physics in the early 1980s, the young Christian Heil could scarcely have predicted the life in audio he would go on to have in the ensuing four decades. A chance meeting with a sound technician proved pivotal in spinning Heil’s world from its axis.

“I remember meeting this engineer at a party and I had no idea what that even was,” Heil recalled. “This person became a friend and he was my connector to this world, which was much more exciting than the physics of elementary particles, and I decided to shift my career. I started building speakers in my garage or in my room. I had no idea what was needed. I made a few mistakes, but progressively, being exposed to the realities of this industry, I understood that I had to change [my approach] completely.”

In September of 1984, three years after completing his Ph.D. and following much experimenting with various speaker and cab designs, Heil deviated permanently from the path mapped out by his studies to launch a two-person, brown-box building operation called L-Acoustics.

“I decided not to go into the nuclear physics domain,” he said, “and when I finally came up with some ideas that were interesting, I founded L-Acoustics. It was just me and my wife, a very small enterprise. At that time, companies making loudspeaker systems were not as big as today. They were small, artisanal companies, with maybe 30 people at most. It was around 10 years before we got to 10 people and received national exposure. We had a small range. Some companies started to trust what we were doing, and we started expanding our network of customers.”

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Despite Heil’s decision to leave behind a career in science, it was his extensive background in the subject that helped inform his biggest audio breakthrough. His reputation as the forefather of line array technology was certainly not something he came by overnight, but over months and years of applying the rules and principles of optics and wave propagation to sound reproduction. Through “science and observation,” he cultivated a new style that remains an industry standard.

L-Acoustics V-DOSC line source array

V-DOSC line source array

“In the ’80s, people were using two concepts,” he explained. “One was using stacks of bass bins, mid cabinets and high-frequency cabs separated—the assembly of that was quite artistic but not very effective. I understood that this was an attempt to combine the lows, the mids and the highs together. And there was another approach, which was cabinets that would include all these sections. When I was trying to [combine separate cabs] with my own products, I could not get the results of coupling I was expecting. Coupling in the low-end was easy but uncontrolled; the mids were controlled in such a way that it was fine up to a certain frequency, but above that, it created a chaotic field. In other sciences, like laser and light, the knowledge was that to combine sources of light together was more efficient, so I took that approach. Basically, what we created was a laser, but it had to be implemented mechanically. We had to understand the rules of combination between frequencies, how to modify the wavefront of conventional drivers. But that was obvious. What was not obvious was how to bring that to the market and how to convince the market.”

Arguably, the task of bringing the V-DOSC line array system to market was even more of a challenge than conceiving it in the first place. As with most markets, the process of prying people away from tried and tested practices and pushing them toward new, uncharted territory can be arduous, as it was for Heil and his burgeoning loudspeaker brand.

UK indie rockers alt-J used L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound technology at two concert dates at London's Royal Albert Hall.

UK indie rockers alt-J used L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound technology at two concert dates at London's Royal Albert Hall.

“It took seven years before V-DOSC, before WST technology was recognized as a standard,” he noted. “When we started, our job was to buy speakers from the market, put them in a box and sell the box. Later, we began to integrate these loudspeakers with other technologies, like mechanical rigging. You have to understand that, at the beginning, no speaker manufacturer was designing mechanical rigging; it was subcontracted to specialized companies. But we were not doing that; designing a V-DOSC, I had no other choice than to design a dedicated system for it.”

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Could he have predicted the huge success he and the business would go on to have with the format? Not a chance, he said: “I thought we had brought one idea to the market, but I was convinced that other manufacturers or designers would come with other ideas or concepts. Apparently, the line source array concept has convinced many, many people—there is still some resistance in some areas—but as a general concept for the pro audio industry, it is interesting to see that it has convinced so many.”

While the concept of immersive or object-based sound has been around for several years, advances over the past 18 months have raised its profile higher than ever before. For Heil, the possibilities offered by L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound technology and its “hyperreal” capabilities are endless.

L-Acoustics L-ISA demo

L-ISA demo

“The concept of L-ISA and other alternative technologies is to bring the speakers back to the center, where they should always have been, and if you have the option to use these speakers across the stage, that means you can bring signals to these arrays that will replicate what is happening on stage, so you are opening a new world of creativity to the engineers, the artists, to production, but the first thing is to accept this concept of having speakers across the stage. That will be the most challenging thing for the next generation.”

However, Heil does accept that in the beginning, L-ISA will not be applicable to the vast majority of rock and pop shows, claiming that the technology’s additional complexity will take time to be widely accepted.

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“There are more challenges because the sound interacts with the lighting and the video, so it will only happen when it makes sense for the artists, when the sound and music are most important,” he explained. “I believe [hyperreal sound] is the future for maybe 5 or 10 percent of productions, but 90 percent will remain classic left and right because the sound is not considered as important. That is the next challenge. Convincing the 90 percent could take another 15 years.”

Heil is also quick to highlight the distinction between immersive and hyperreal sound: “What is important is how you reproduce what the performers on stage are doing. You have to be able to connect the sound to the performers, to create some kind of intimacy. This is nothing like ‘immersive.’ We call that ‘hyperreal sound’ because we want the sound to be true. [Immersion] is the cherry on the cake.”

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Despite the development of L-ISA, Heil is still heavily involved in the refinement of L-Acoustics’ product range. “As in the car industry, you are not making a revolution each time you create a new model,” he said. “You have new models of cars every two years bringing some improvements—we do the same. Our products have to last at least a decade so as not to generate too much reinvestment for rental companies. We are improving in terms of weight, practicality, rigging, control. The new thing is array processing, improving the results of a system over an entire audience. All manufacturers are paying attention to that, so that is a form of evolution. The challenge is always coming from competition. This is where competition is interesting—it is the Darwinian effect of our industry.”