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Capital Sound’s upgrade to 2.0

The south London-based hire company has made major investments in PA kit this year

Capital Sound’s recent warehouse shake-up reveals more than you might expect, reports Phil Ward

Within the space of a month or so, London-based full-service rental company Capital Sound began this year by announcing its investment in, firstly, Italian manufacturer Outline’s GTO long-throw line array, and then the German J Series by d&b audiotechnik: a thoroughly pro-European series of gestures that suddenly seems desperately welcome.

Regardless of politics, Capital’s decisions have redefined the company’s role and strategy in the thick of top-drawer international touring, where it is right and proper nowadays to expect enterprises forged in British rock show business to be crossing Continental borders on a daily basis. The multinational and multicultural nature of Capital’s diary and inventory sends out its own message, but there’s more: the “one size doesn’t fit all” advertising campaign is a real sign of the times.

We are Divo

The roots of this change, like so much else in history’s unclipped hedge, are technological. As we’ll see, rising standards across multiple pro-audio brands are forcing a re-think of business policy as buying habits – you might call these ‘revenue’ habits, as this is rental – change: expenditure decisions are registering new criteria.

Proof of the acumen of Capital’s manoeuvres is already visible, with a few striking successes for both new systems. To begin with, the GTO has been out for some time on ‘popera’ quartet Il Divo’s Amor & Pasion tour, covering Europe and now awaiting confirmation of an extension into the US leg. Capital has been servicing Il Divo production from the beginning, with FOH luminaries Chris Pyne and Davide Lombardi, among others, presiding on various different occasions. In the past Capital has employed Meyer Sound on Il Divo tours, but latterly engineer Matteo Cifelli has used Martin Audio’s MLA: a successful decision that served to deepen relations between Capital and the four tenors’ current choice of guardian at FOH. Capital’s purchase of Outline’s GTO cemented this relationship further, as it’s a Cifelli favourite.

Apart from the Il Divo tour, early outings for Capital’s GTO have included the classic rock Stone Free Festival at London’s O2 Arena and an important showcase at Wrexham Racecourse featuring faithful clients The Stereophonics.

“That was a benchmark for us,” admits Timmins, “as engineer Dave Roden’s first choice system is usually the MLA. The show came about late in the day and we weren’t able to supply MLA — we had it at Hyde Park (top picture), at festivals in Hungary and finishing the Barry Manilow tour – so we had to look at it very carefully. Fortunately, like Il Divo, the ‘Phonics are one of our long-term clients and we feel we can be honest with them and that we have their trust: when we explained the situation to Dave he was quite happy to take the GTO for that show.”

This was not, Timmins (in red shirt) stresses, a case of settling for the only boxes left in the warehouse. In fact, the wider range of high-quality line array now available to Capital Sound clients is a deliberate strategy to update the stock and to broaden the brand horizons.

“We’re moving a lot of the older kit onto the used PA markets overseas,” he reveals, “and this year has been the first year that we haven’t had what you would once have called a ‘B’ system. Our situation has changed and we want to offer customers premium choices every time, and not to be associated with only one brand. We want to be a company of real choice.

“We’ve made these investments because where we sit in the marketplace does not make us a global powerhouse like some of the others out there, but neither are we a company that has to rely on just one or two of the leading brands. We all know that L-Acoustics and d&b are ahead in terms of most riders, but we’ve got four excellent systems and a reputation for unrivalled service. Production people want to work with us, but nowadays they also have to make sure their engineers are getting what they want: one or two choices is no longer enough.”

Salade Noisoise

Just to clarify, then: Martin Audio’s MLA remains on board – “our primary brand for the past four years,” confirms Timmins – as does the Meyer Sound brand, plus now Outline’s GTO C-12s, DFs and SUBs as well as J12s, J8s and T10s from d&b. There is of course an additional inventory of point source and other formats of loudspeaker, including L-Acoustics ARC.

Paul Timmins acknowledges that breaking in a new kid on the truss is a long game. “We put a lot of work in with MLA to bring it to where we feel it’s a little closer to the market leaders,” he says, “and we knew we’d have to go through the same process with GTO. It was a big decision, but one we know will be worth it as the market changes.”

MLA has just ticked off its second year on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, and other festival breakthroughs for the system now include main stages at Lisbon’s Rock In Rio and Budapest’s Sziget. Hyde Park has been established, of course, and Martin Audio finds itself in a position it has not occupied for at least two decades.

“Addressing the noise pollution issues that suddenly became the hot topic it is today certainly helped MLA,” says Timmins, “but of course d&b are now challenging with new solutions – and others will follow suit. That will shift MLA’s USP to some extent, but it’s still a totally original concept. We’re now examining d&b’s NoizCalc software developments to see how that works, and we’re getting into a position where we can advise customers on the subtle differences between the two systems and help them to tackle their noise issues with a sensible option. Even in off-site noise management, one size doesn’t fit all and more!”

So all of the rigs are first among equals, in the hope that none will pigeonhole Capital Sound along traditional lines. It makes for a challenging new public profile…

“We’re making it clear that we are still a Meyer ‘house’,” says Timmins, “although the other three brands all offer the most current models and the full range: with Meyer, we’re still in the process of renewing and refining the inventory. It all depends what comes into the office, the type of project and the kind of tour, so we can assess what they’re looking for and look at what we have. Then we can go back to them with advice and choices, customised options that really tackle their needs – as opposed to only a couple of years ago when we might recognise what they wanted and yet not be able to provide it.”

In not being able to provide it, Capital would then find itself in the position of promoting what it did have available, quite possibly at odds with the customer’s actual requirements. And this was the realisation: the revenue motive was flawed, doomed to fall short of expectations and, at best, able only to generate compromise. “It’s a lot harder to secure business that way,” Timmins underlines.

Sound balance

A rental company can’t buy everything, of course, and risk having three-quarters of the stock lying idle in the warehouse. But according to Timmins, the speaker market has now matured to a similar point to the console market, at which specific requests must be honoured. “You can’t say to someone who asks for a DiGiCo [digital console] SD7, sorry, we haven’t got one — we’ll give you a Midas PRO 6. It just doesn’t work like that, especially with consoles that have unique operational characteristics. But loudspeakers have almost become as subjective, and engineers are getting used to securing their first choice every time in most departments. And, of course, if you can’t supply it, somebody else will…”

The balancing act, then, is to arrive at a competitive range of brands that cover as wide a margin of preferences as possible, without over-stocking. “It does make it harder to manage,” says Timmins, “especially when you consider that every system might need different power supplies, drive racks and all the rest of the infrastructure. We decided to make sure that everything we offer runs on consistent power solutions and drive racks, and that makes the whole operation easier. We also have to make sure that the expertise is there: that people are confident we’re not just experienced with MLA but we can also get the best out of an Outline, Meyer or d&b system. You’re only as good as your last gig…”

Capital Sound’s new strategy is put into even sharper relief when you consider that the business continues to focus on rental – apart from moving on its outmoded stock – at a time when many competitors are diversifying into fixed installation, sales and even distribution. These dynamics, says Timmins, are risky.

“We’re not doing that: companies can become their own competitors. It’s not a policy that we see positively, and I think it’s a bit short-term. There’s been a spate of venue installations, most of them in the last three years, and we’re on the cusp of a change when all the maintenance contracts run out. When the kit all gets a bit older, the venues won’t want to spend any money on it: we’ve seen that happen with the few that were carried out 15 years ago, and we hear a lot of complaints.

“It’s not such a good solutions for artists because, even though they may be carrying control, they have to encounter different conditions every day — not all of them set up perfectly, in my opinion – the people aren’t there to take care of things and, nine times out of ten, there’s no tech support on the tour because the control and the console mixes are in these compact, low-cost packages. We get a lot of calls asking for our help, after people have arrived somewhere and the system is out of phase, for example. It muddies the situation.”

Sale or rental, sound reinforcement is entering a new phase – and Capital Sound will be a big part of it. As Paul Timmins confirms, these speaker boxes are now the horses for the many new courses…

“Most systems now do a good job,” he reflects, “and sound quality as a measure is becoming more subjective: it’s harder to say well, system ‘B’ would obviously never stand up to system ‘A’ but it’s cheaper… and that subjectivity has to be addressed in a new way. The show may sound amazing, objectively, but if the engineer is not personally happy with that sound it’s not going to work. You just get a difficult situation that runs through the duration of the project.”

There’s a certain irony to this: improved specifications all throughout a PA are actually making it harder to sell individual systems. Much as in studio monitoring, the margins of competition are being transferred from scientific judgement to some other kind – and that carries the whole business of the rental and sales of high-end sound reinforcement into a realm dominated by more mysterious forces. Whisper it gently, but the changes expressed by Capital Sound’s recent alteration of some of its business models could auger a new type of consumerism within pro audio: not the kind associated with toothpaste or Aga ovens, but the kind in which highly sophisticated marketing plays its part.