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‘The focus is on the music 100 per cent’: Meyer Sound’s Spacemap LIVE takes the stage

Phil Ward witnesses the new generation of Meyer Sound's immersive sound tools with the introduction of a new version of Spacemap for live music installations, Spacemap LIVE

With a pedigree of some 25 years, Spacemap is hardly a new technology. Its spatial audio processing has been featured in various productions across the Vegas, West End and Broadway diaspora, as well as in theme parks and many other attractions that love to take you for a ride, but until now its unique properties have not yet been exploited in live sound for concert and touring. This year’s Prolight + Sound show promised to change all that, with regular demonstrations – in a brand new wing of the Frankfurt Messe – of the prototype of a new version of Spacemap called, appropriately enough, Spacemap LIVE.

This heritage is something of a USP for Meyer Sound, which can confidently point to real-world experience of immersive audio that stretches further back than any other company now engaged in it. Overall, though, the market should welcome this expansion of activity into live sound, which needs a few more shots in the arm in order to catch up with multimedia production, just as the digital console and the IEM markets needed more players out there in the field to get the crowds on their feet back in the day. This is the final frontier, after all. 

Flow rider 

As designers of IEM, line arrays and digital mixing consoles have all witnessed over the last 20 years, the live sound workflow is a place where angels fear to tread. Until you have won over the hearts and minds of committed and exacting sound engineers in systems, monitoring and FOH, you have nothing. You can only win at this game if you can smoothly integrate your innovation within touring systems almost without their users noticing. In common with the other spatial systems addressing this market today, Spacemap LIVE does this consummately. It had to. 

Meyer Sound’s strategic position was made very clear by recent activity in this sector, especially given that the default, anecdotal and entirely unofficial trinity of market leaders in loudspeakers for touring still includes the brand from Berkeley. The other two will have to be left to the imagination, but put it this way: now there are three offering a bespoke spatial processing package in order to keep them somewhere near that pole position.

Meyer’s Prolight demo featured Nina, not a new Meyer box but a female vocalist from Amsterdam; Pro Tools backing tracks; and a “mainstream” Avid console: simplicity itself. Up to 32 outputs from this or any other suitable desk are fed to a single Meyer Sound Galaxy 816 Audio Processor where all the spatial magic happens, and this is important. Instead of having to build a new box into which to put these tricks, Meyer has utilised an established platform with thousands of users worldwide – something of an immersive Trojan horse – with the details of the Spacemap LIVE upgrade yet to be finalised. 

The one break with normal workflow, at least for the demo, was the use of three iPads for the GUI. New software is to be released that creates a ‘spatial mix position’, and the use of these iPads divided the interface into various visible pages from macro to micro mixing throughout the Galaxy matrix. Of particular note is Spacemap LIVE’s ability to mix reverberation returns spatially for relatively static mixes, in a way far more natural than the conventional pinning of a reverb tail on the signal donkey and, with the likelihood that very limited motion will suit most concert music applications of immersive audio, this is crucial. Equally important is Spacemap LIVE’s complete integration into existing show files and content, including groups or stems, with no need to rebuild the rest of the mix around it.

“Spacemap was developed for music originally,” confirms Meyer Sound’s director for Spatial Sound, Steve Ellison, who wrote the algorithm, “but it was then adopted by and adapted for live theatre and Cirque du Soleil-style spectaculars. 

“Last year, we had the opportunity to sponsor Moogfest, the art and technology festival in North Carolina, and used it to create an immersive system for a room of about 800 people – with 10 artists over three nights. So, it was for people who wanted to use their ‘art’ brain rather than their ‘AutoCAD’ brain, meaning quick ways of accessing spatial mixes and then being able to dig into more detail, and that was the impetus for Spacemap LIVE.” 

The Moogfest example is apposite. Just as hi-tech MI has developed intuitive ways of accessing music technology for rewarding expression, so too Spacemap LIVE attempts to reveal the technical reach of spatial mixing in a creative way. “We’ve been able to exploit advances in multi-touch technology,” confirms Ellison, “especially the iPad Pro. Three of them provide access to a great many channels, although you can of course make good use of only one or two.” 

Future GUI integration into plugin territory within a console is purely theoretical and, as Meyer Sound’s director of digital product experience Tim Boot points out, the processing is outboard. 

“It’s downstream from the console,” he says, “and that’s where all the power happens. The GUI is part of the evolution, and the iPad implementation is just an example. But there is a roadmap.” 

Join the Cue 

Spacemap is a core processing element of D-Mitri, Meyer Sound’s large-scale digital audio platform programmed by CueStation software. It should come as no surprise that custom iOS apps have already been made for this combination on previous largescale shows in Las Vegas, third-party control being one of D-Mitri’s calling cards. These have pointed the way for new spatial mixing workflows, beyond cue trajectories, and further iterations of this FOH-meetsspatial engineering paradigm are being perfected at this month’s Moogfest in Durham, NC. 

Elsewhere, traditional models of FOH engineering are expected to incorporate Spacemap LIVE as it suits the individual production. 

The loudspeaker configuration for the demo was, of course, optimised for the room: three of the newly launched Meyer Sound ULTRA-X40 compact speakers covered the ‘proscenium arch’ with one UPQ-D1 wide coverage enclosure in each corner to create a five channel frontal image; along the sides and rear of the room were a number of LINA ultra-compact line array modules; with a pair of 750-LFC compact subs in the rear corners and an extra pair of USW-210P subs at the back. A ring of UP-4slims and an MM-10 miniature sub provided central coverage above a small B-stage, and came into their own as the means of localising Nina as she slinked towards the centre of the room. 

There is no fixed loudspeaker configuration for immersive audio, but Meyer does emphasise the need for consistency across the range. Naturally, this suggests a proprietary solution every time but, beyond this, careful consideration must be given to the dimension and performance relationships between each enclosure as the images pass between them: the more dynamic the mix, the more solid the bedrock required. Without one single formula, such as 5.1, immersive live sound needs a strong bond between the entirely flexible processor and its multifarious outlets. 

Above all, Spacemap LIVE will contribute to the greater efficacy and creativity of FOH mixing afforded by immersive audio. 

“It’s a lot easier to mix multiple channels with this system than in stereo,” confirms Ellison. “The individual elements no longer compete with each other, and many of the traditional problems are solved.” 

“You don’t have to EQ the hell out of something to make it fit with something else,” adds Boot, “and when it comes to reverb, things are a lot more natural because it can be separated from the source much more flexibly.” 

Math production 

Ellison’s original algorithm has not been reinvented, but it has been streamlined to take account of the subtleties of live music performance. 

“The underlying math is the same,” he says. “But the approach to using it is a little different. This is designed to take advantage of the ability to blend between space maps, and to do that we need to standardise on the size and the shape. Traditionally, if you’re working on a desktop computer, the scenes and shapes may differ from one to the next as you use one or the other. Spacemap LIVE is more like a gel in lighting: the transitions between spatial settings are much smoother, and you can customise them. The balance of focused to diffuse is entirely flexible, and what’s really new is how fast and intuitive it is to use in relation to the dynamics of live music.” 

It’s a genuinely American algorithm too, with some British roots, courtesy of Ellison’s early association with sound designer Jonathan Deans and the work Deans did to bring Spacemap to Cirque du Soleil. 

“In theatre the music is there in support of the action,” Ellison says, reflecting on some of the limitations set for the programme’s first implementations. “But now the focus is on the music 100 per cent.”