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L-ISA, Darwin and the science of sound: PSNEurope’s exclusive interview with Christian Heil

The L-Acoustics founder sat down for an exclusive interview with PSNEurope...

Few individuals have had as transformative an effect on the pro audio industry as L-Acoustics founder and line array visionary, Christian Heil. His pioneering approach to sound reinforcement has shaped the way much of the industry thinks about live sound, and his more recent excursions into object-based audio continue to innovate in a sector that is accelerating more rapidly than ever. In a rare interview, Heil tells Daniel Gumble about the challenges he overcame to launch a pro audio juggernaut and shares his views on today’s market and the technology shaping its future…

At the top of a hill in Highgate’s leafiest reaches sits L-ISA’s London headquarters. An extension of French loudspeaker and sound reinforcement solutions brand L-Acoustics, the north London facility is focused on developing the business’s immersive, or ‘hyperreal’ audio offering. Its modest exterior gives little away as to the vast technological advancements taking place within, and to cross its threshold is to take a step inside the mind of its enigmatic creator.

The clean, white walls of its reception area are suggestive of the centre’s scientific sonic approach and the ongoing development of L-ISA, interrupted only by flashes of contemporary artwork and photography. The theme continues in the main L-ISA demonstration room, where PSNEurope finds L-Acoustics founder and pro audio pioneer Christian Heil shooting some test shots before a small film crew here to record today’s interview. His reputation as an elusive, media-shy figure has always preceded him, yet he is warm and welcoming upon our arrival, his softly spoken, philosophical manner at odds with his standing as a towering pro audio icon – every word is chosen carefully, every response carefully considered.

Prior to taking our seats he gives us a tour of the building’s various testing rooms before lounging with us for an extensive demo of the L-Acoustics Island – an extremely high-end personal auditorium featuring an immersive surround sound speaker system – as well as a look at some more of the stark artwork and photography spread throughout the building. In many ways, the outwardly humble yet extremely complex inner workings of L-ISA HQ are a manifestation of the man himself and the core components that have lead Heil to where he is today.

With a PhD in Particle Physics and a long-held passion for music and the arts, his work ethic has always been fierce and meticulous, informed by a deep respect for his craft and a ceaseless commitment to pushing the boundaries of what is possible. In the eyes of many, it was his singular vision and scientific rigour that pioneered the line array approach to sound reinforcement that remains ubiquitous in the world of live events.

It is this undimmed passion for breaking new ground that earned him the Outstanding Contribution award at last month’s Pro Sound Awards, celebrating those who have made a significant contribution to the industry and displayed a pioneering spirit within their work.

“I understand that this award celebrates innovation, so as a celebration of innovation I’m very proud of it,” Heil tells PSNEurope. “I’m very proud because this award celebrates evolution in this industry, and if I’ve been a piece of this then I’m happy. I don’t take this award as a personal thing. This is a collective team and many people have been operating with me to perform and innovate every day, so it’s more a collective gift to the L-Acoustics and L-ISA teams.”

In the beginning…
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. Despite a long held love of music, a career in science looked inevitable, given the academic credentials he’d accrued. Yet 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 recalls. “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 quickly understood that I had to change [my approach] completely.”

In September of 1984, three years after completing his PhD 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 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 and some companies started to trust what we were doing and we started expanding our network
of customers.”

Falling in line
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.

“In the ‘80s, people were using two concepts,” he explains. “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 now legendary 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 prising people away from tried and tested practices and pushing them towards new, uncharted territory can be arduous, as it was for Heil and his burgeoning loudspeaker brand.

“It took seven years before V-DOSC, before WST technology was recognised as a standard,” he notes. “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 specialised companies. But we were not doing that; designing a V-DOSC, I had no other choice than to design a dedicated system for it.

“New things take a long time [to catch on]. People need to understand and trust the technology. They must adopt a new behaviour, and there was some resistance. In Europe there were regions where people were interested – Scandinavia and the north of Europe, they wanted a new technology. But some markets were more resistant. It was quite a challenge, but I understand why it took so long.”

So could he have predicted the huge success he and the business would go on to have with the format? Not a chance, he says.

“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. Most commonly associated with classical music and theatre productions, it is now making its presence felt in more conventional live settings, with UK indie act alt-J becoming the first rock band to incorporate L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound technology within their show, which they did to stunning effect last month at the Royal Albert Hall. For Heil, the possibilities offered by L-ISA and its ‘hyperreal’ capabilities are endless.

“I believe that using left and right configuration is a mistake and has always been a mistake,” he states. “Since the beginning of L-Acoustics and my experience in sound, I wondered why people were using pseudo stereo systems for concerts. I did not understand the concept, I just admitted that it was practical. It was practical to put the sound on the side and leave the centre to the stage, to the performers and the visuals. But it is what it is in every single concert today, and the problem is that during these 30 years, visuals and stages have become more [central] and sound has been pushed to the sides, which disconnects the audience from what is really happening on stage.

“The concept of L-ISA and other alternative technologies is to bring the speakers back to the centre, 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 going on onstage, 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.

“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 explains. “alt-J is a perfect example of complex electronic music which deserves a much more spatial localisation panorama. I was at the first alt-J night at the Royal Albert Hall and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. The lighting design was absolutely awesome, but what if, with such beautiful visual effects, we had just had a mono sound? No way! I believe [hyperreal sound] is the future for maybe five or 10 per cent of productions, but 90 per cent will remain classic left and right because the sound is not considered as important. That is the next challenge. Convincing the 90 per cent 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.”

As was the case when establishing L-Acoustics’ line array technology, the key to spreading greater understanding of L-ISA’s full potential is education. While the format he helped establish has held steady for so long, the aesthetic element of live events has been evolving at a rate of knots, often sidelining both figuratively and literally. This, says Heil, is a trend that must be rectified. “There is never only one path,” he observes. “Genetics have proven that there are several solutions to one question. We could have completely ignored the situation and kept doing sound as usual, making bigger and bigger line arrays and using the same configuration. But that would have driven us to a situation where sound would have been less and less important and the visuals would have taken all the attention. I hope we are helping audiences and artists see that we need to combine visuals and sound together so that we don’t go in a direction where sound is just the poor commodity factor.”

Darwin, the future and Brexit
Though much of Heil’s time is spent at L-ISA’s Highgate HQ these days, he is still heavily involved in the refinement of L-Acoustics’ vast product range.

“As in the car industry, you are not making a revolution each time you create a new model,” he says. “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.”

One of the most transformative shifts experienced by Heil during his career was the evolution from analogue to digital technology. In his view, its impact on the audio world is unlike anything seen (or heard) before or since.

“It has impacted everybody,” he comments. “In comparison, the line array revolution is a nice story, but it doesn’t have the impact of digital and DSP technology. DSP serves us every day. We can provide better control of our systems, better modelling, better assistance and support to the engineers. I’m also a photographer i and there is still this debate of analogue or digital. There is no comparison. With digital you can do so many more things than with analogue.”

On a more personal note, one of Heil’s most transformative moments came four years ago when he relocated from the Paris suburbs to north London to be closer to L-ISA. “Living in London is great,” he beams. “I was planning to relocate to central Paris or to London, because with the concept of L-ISA I wanted more contact with decision makers, people involved in sound, artists and so on. So I decided on London and I’m happy to be here. It’s a very international city.”

With a busy afternoon schedule awaiting, Heil has just enough time to broach the subject of Brexit before PSNEurope departs. Having navigated and indeed instigated some of the biggest changes in the industry’s history, he is philosophical about Britain’s future outside of the EU and what it could mean for business. Though potentially troubling social, economic and political days may well lie ahead, Heil’s Darwinian view that the key to progress is to adapt and evolve rather than repel and resist remains unshakeable.

“Democracy has made a choice,” he concludes. “I’m hoping smart people will make smart decisions. As I said before, one effect will have several solutions and I’m confident the UK will survive and Europe will survive, just in a different way.”