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Vocal channel: Choice? What choice?

Dave Wiggins ponders on why the majority of top-level touring and events is serviced by products from just three companies

One of the many interesting paradoxes of the pro-audio business is that while there is now more choice of truly professional loudspeaker systems than ever before, the vast majority of top-level touring and event business (excluding Clair Global clients) is undertaken with products from just three brands. Where once the primary calling-card of a PA hire operation was its loudspeaker system, now we see the results of globalisation where the ‘gold standard’ products have secured what presently looks like an unassailable international hold on the top end.

This process arguably started with the launch of L-Acoustics’ ground breaking V-DOSC line-array system in 1994, the last true paradigm shift in loudspeaker design. For all its revolutionary engineering, the real shift was that V-DOSC marked the point when sound companies stopped doing it their way and started doing it how a manufacturer told them to, using an empirical ‘whole-system’ ethos. In turn this enabled productions to specify systems with greater confidence, knowing that they would be essentially identical regardless of location and that confidence subsequently manifested itself in global sales for the French pioneers and others. Wind the clock forward two decades and there is now clear water between the top three and the rest within this market segment.

This is obviously an enviable position for those brands, one that is undoubtedly coveted by other manufacturers with comparable technologies to sell. Their pre-eminence is maintained both by their own efforts and reinforced by the companies who have invested in them. Whether you think the current status quo is a good or bad thing, however, rather depends on your viewpoint.

Any manufacturer wanting to sell major concert loudspeaker systems into the top level would have somehow to break the hegemony of those brands – several have tried and are trying but, as far as I can see, they’re not getting anywhere fast. Now more ever there is an abundance of systems that contribute operationally and technically to the efficiency of a touring production but they all seem to hit a glass ceiling defined primarily by technical riders. One could argue of course that the companies who dominate the top end of concert sound don’t actually account for the majority of overall sales and that the rest of the market has the real spending power for the manufacturers, but leaders always exert an influence.

The current situation has polarised the market even further, not necessarily in terms of performance but certainly in terms of acceptance. It’s very odd that the more successful one becomes, the less choice one can exercise; in a further paradox, the hire companies who don’t service the upper end of concert touring – those who are not ‘rider driven’ – have the luxury of being able to choose freely from an expanding array of amazing products.

Dave Wiggins is a freelance marketeer and pro-audio pundit.