Immersive audio reproduction in the live arena is now very much a reality for big gigs. Mainstream artists like Bon Iver, alt-J, and Angus & Julia Stone are now all delivering large capacity gigs in one of the two dominant PA formats for immersive audio experiences. While this requires both big budgets and big audiences, there’s a quiet revolution brewing in alternatives to the two proprietary processing systems and their respective loudspeaker products.
Processing tools for some versions of surround or immersive audio have been around since the 1970s. Digital technology has made them affordable, and indeed even free in the case of some development tools available through GitHub. For artists looking to work with multi-channel audio on a small scale or budget, a computer, a DAW compatible with immersive plug-ins, and an interface with multiple outs is all they need in order to create. The more intractable issue is the multiple amplifiers and speakers needed in order to make it happen in a live space.
The Hardware Dilemma
There’s really no getting around that immersive means many more speakers; multiple line arrays for big venues, distributed point source for smaller applications. That means lots of cabinets, lots of amp channels and cabling. The plus is that all of the drivers can be smaller, and the amp power lower than traditional L/C/R systems. For small venues to install, that is expensive. For temporary systems brought into venues, as is the case in most mid-level touring, that is expensive and time-consuming. A new approach is needed.
As affordable digital processing has revolutionised what’s possible for signal manipulation, so too has it redefined what’s possible for signal, control, and power distribution. A small venue looking at installing a multifunction distributed audio system capable of handling both immersive music and corporate functions would be contemplating around 24 passive loudspeakers mounted around the venue, 24 individual speaker cable runs, a big rack of amps, and a huge amount of analogue cabling running from a prohibitively expensive processor, all tied into an unwieldy mixing source. There’s now a better way.
The AIREA Network
Fohhn’s AIREA system is a leading example of what’s possible by leveraging network cabling and digital distribution. AIREA combines small, self-powered loudspeakers with standard CatX cabling and centralised processing to create an environment that allows incredibly complex and flexible audio systems to be delivered with a minimum of hassle, labour, and cost.
The brain of an AIREA system is the AIREA Master Module. This accepts signal from a variety of sources, and depending on the model, sends that signal plus control and power out to up to 32 AIREA loudspeakers, who all receive their own individually controllable and processable signals. Master Modules are available with either 8, 16 or 32 outs to suit each project, and can be networked together for bigger systems.
The massive labour and cost-saving come when running the signal from the master unit out to the speakers. A single Cat cable (Cat5e recommended at minimum) is all that’s required to get power, signal and control to the first loudspeaker, and then simply daisy chain the Cat cable along the speaker run – up to eight speakers per Master output, up to 100 metres. That is an astonishing saving in cabling, space, and labour!
In Part II of this piece, we’ll look at affordable and accessible tools to send processed immersive audio to an AIREA system. In the meantime, here’s a run-down of the AIREA environment, with all of the components available to system designers:
All models have on-board DSP and Class D amps.
LX-10 ASX a single 4” with a 0.75 high-frequency driver. AIREA Net-Load: 50 W.
LX-20 ASX, a dual 4“ with a 0.75 high-frequency driver. AIREA Net-Load: 100 W.
LX-60 ASX, a 4 x 4“ with a 0.75 high-frequency driver. AIREA Net-Load: 100 W.
AS-06 ASX a 6.5“ subwoofer. AIREA Net-Load 100 W.
AS-10 ASX a dual 6.5“ subwoofer. AIREA Net-Load 200 W.
AS-22 ASX a 12“ subwoofer. AIREA Net-Load: 200 W.
The AIREA Master Module is the central power supply for connected AIREA loudspeakers and the interface to the AIREA network. The models available are the AM-10, 20, 40, and 50, which can run up to 8, 16, and 32 AIREA loudspeakers respectively, with the AM-50 capable of powering 32 loudspeakers with 600W more than the AM-40.
The ABX -1,2, 3 , 4 and 5 are a series of break-in and out boxes that enable you to get in and out of the AIREA network via analogue, AES/EBU, or Dante. The A-2 LIVE is a USB computer audio interface with AES/EBU outs on XLR.
The AAX-2.300 is an AIREA DSP amplifier module running 2 x 300W, an AIREA-Net input, and 2 x loudspeaker outputs.