D&b is known throughout the professional audio community for its groundbreaking Soundscape technology; at NAMM, we had a chance to visit with Asher Dowson, the House of Worship segment manager at d&b audiotechnik. He was the one to fill us in on the concept of d&b’s belief that “everyone should experience the same impeccable quality of sound, regardless of their position in the audience.”
Judie Stanford: So, tell us what you are most excited about for this show?
Asher Dowson: Well, we just opened our new Los Angeles facility in Signal Hill. We’re celebrating the launch of our new subwoofer; it’s part of our KSL system, which is a huge step forward in the way that it sounds is reproduced for audiences. We’re also bringing a new development with our Soundscape system, so a totally new way of bringing natural experienced sound. So, usually, it may sound a bit like over here and over here [gesturing away]. Because if it’s here, you want to hear it from where they are. Your brain with two ears, those calculations in there that are based on how sound arrives sooner hear, louder over there. Sound hasn’t been reproduced in that way, ever. It’s always been like I can see you, but I can hear you (like it’s out of sync); your brain gets distracted. It’s exciting.
So, we’re releasing the KSL subwoofer; it’s part of our obsession with getting the sound where it should be and not firing it into neighbors or backstage. So, it’s got one speaker that faces backward, two speakers that face forward. So, it’s got one speaker that faces backwards, two speakers that face forward. It basically got like 85% of the energy that’s going forward canceled by this one facing the back. As the soundwave travels from the front speaker, and towards the rear meets a soundwave with completely opposing phase signature so it cancels out the sound, but adds energy to the front, that’s a great one for productions; it would be great for theaters, house of worship, that kind of thing. But super high power, super portable and it fits with the newer line that we released last year.
Judie Stanford: So, this Soundscape that you all have created, when did that come out? Is this something that you all introduced in the last few years? I’m not familiar with the concept yet, beyond what we were shown last night.
Asher Dowson: Well, it became like a product, let’s say three years ago. ISE is a similar trade show to [NAMM], with early live technology in Amsterdam. But it’s kind of been in the brain of the guy who was just sitting here, Ralph Zuleeg [Head of Sales Services and Application Engineering at d&b audiotechnik] for probably 25 years, it just needed the processing and computing power along with the ability to model how that would actually work in real life, and that wasn’t available. So, we’ve kind of come to this point now where you’ve got the amount of processing we need to make it actually happen. We’ve got all the nuts and bolts when it comes to our workflows. It’s kind of like a software portfolio that runs like end to end from planning to performance optimization.
Judie Stanford: So, somebody that was sitting in the audience might think that it was somebody running a soundboard and that they were connecting different speakers to different areas trying to get the sound to come out to where it appears 3D, but instead, it’s all computer-processed, it’s all software related?
Asher Dowson: Yeah, it’s all software related now. It’s not like automatic mixing, which exists for certain applications. But we kind of push past that. It’s more that when they put all that content together, It all layers up, right? Usually, if you imagine you’ve got this bottleneck, right? So, I’ve got a voice in there, I’ve got a drum kit, I got to kind of put different beats out of it. Because I have “this” to work in. Well, if I’ve got 17 of those, or I’ve got five of those, then everything can kind of be represented a bit more naturally. So, what happened to sound is, if I move closer to you, you feel and hear that lower frequency. That excites people’s emotions because it resonates with their nervous system. So, you get excited by that frequency. So, old PA’s can’t really do that. They couldn’t hit that frequency without making loads of feedback as soon as that energy hits the microphone. So, what I guess Soundscape and SL series does is, it means that it can bring that experience close to people. You can make it a lot more intimate. And that’s the thing that excites people, right? If you feel like, if I feel like I’m 100 feet away from the show, and it’s all of that, it doesn’t move me as much. If I can feel like I’m a part of it, it’s an immersive term, which is kind of bringing you right into the experience of connecting to like, there’s no barrier between the heart and me. It’s kind of all around me. It’s within me.
Judie Stanford: So, anywhere that you’re standing in that concert hall, in the general area, that’s been mapped for, of course, it’ll sound like it should?
Asher Dowson: So, this is a software controller that you can either use tracking tools, like a stage tracker and stuff like that, to track the objects that move around or just the GUI itself. So, if I was at a corporate event and I was speaking, hardware —two metal tags… So, I’m walking to the stage, the sound would be distributed across multiple speakers as if it would be heard, so exactly how a normal soundwave works. Everyone who is seeing the speaker on the stage, wherever they’re sitting, will be able to look at the person and hear the sound exactly as it tracks to the person while they are moving. It’s never been possible before.
Judie Stanford: So, they’re wearing an actual tracker?
Asher Dowson: Yeah.
Judie Stanford: Would a musician wear the same?
Asher Dowson: Yeah. Stick it on your guitar, and the tracking will work, for example. Yeah, exactly. So, we did this with Imogen Heap where it’s a control protocol called OSC. So, she had these OSC gloves, and with her fingers, she was moving her vocal around, it sends the OSC command to our signal processor, picks it up and moves in automation. Or you can preprogram it, or you can have just like an RF tracker, just a radiofrequency device that syncs and moves around the object as that person moves.
Judie Stanford: So, there’s no real learning curve there for the person who’s performing or speaking. Because they just put it on and they just do what they’re going to do.
Asher Dowson: Exactly.
Helena Stone: How big is this thing that they’re putting on?
Asher Dowson: Probably the size of that [he points to a small black piece of plastic]. You can put it in your pocket, you can put them on your shoulders.
Helena Stone: What size of audiences is this best suited for it?
Asher Dowson: Well, it’s scalable, like everything we have we got, you know, stuff that would work in a boardroom for 20, 30 people, or this could go up to… We’ve done applications of 10-20,000 people with this stuff. But the point where I think it reaches its limit is when localizing within your field of view. So, if I’ve got speakers and the whole of the music is coming from speakers in front of me. Then when I’m close to it, it’s easier. If I’m a thousand meters back, I’m localizing this. So at that point, I’d say when it gets to within like 15% of the field of view [because the person or group on stage is so far away from you], then it’s not making much of an exciting experience
Judie Stanford: That makes sense. What about when you have something like a Jumbotron, does that sync up the Soundscape experience and make it work better in a larger area? I get that what you’re talking about is when you see someone on the stage, but they’re so far away, but the music is as loud here [where you’re standing], it creates a weird distortion in your mind. But if you have something like a jumbotron and you were hearing the music, would it recreate the experience of actually being in front of that person? Or not so much?
Asher Dowson: Yes, absolutely. We did it at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville for the Predators — they put in Soundscape because they wanted to have this experience where they could do whatever they wanted to do and everyone would be able to immediately localize. That’s the thing. In an arena, if someone makes an announcement on a microphone, you’re looking around for 30 or 40 seconds [trying to figure out where the sound is coming from and who to look at], and that’s 30, 40 seconds where you disengage from the experience, your mind is distracted and you’re not connected.
Judie Stanford: Where with a proper soundstage, you could hear the sound and it would direct you to the right area to look?
Asher Dowson: Precisely locate.
Judie Stanford: Wow. Okay.
Asher Dowson: So, when it comes to what I do, it’s mostly is with houses of worship; listening fatigue can be really difficult because you’ve people listening for 20, 30, 40 minutes. And if someone’s not fun and entertaining and charming, then it’s a challenge already. But if your brain is getting tired from concentrating on trying to track sound with the person or people on stage… We have our moments where like, my attention’s kind of social, you know? I’ve got to be engaged. So, this is a tool for the modern era, and the experience actually brings engagement back to the level where it’s natural; I can have a conversation with people for an hour, but I can’t listen to someone speak for five minutes.
Helena Stone: So this is good for corporate events, right?
Asher Dowson: Exactly. Yeah, big stadium, corporate events or even like little talking head stuff. But the musical thing is where it gets really full of flavor.
Helena Stone: Are there genres that you’d say that it does well or does better with than others?
Asher Dowson: It’s really flexible. We’ve done it with classical music, we’ve done it with EDM, we’ve done it with Imogen Heap, Bjork has been on tour with it. I guess the flexibility of it kind of means that as long as you’ve got content that has got enough inputs that you can spread around to make it interesting, it’s like a solo acoustic guitar. Like, let’s say, Lewis Capaldi, right? He’s using an ASL system right now. And if he used Soundscape, It’d be great, but it would only really be like a couple of inputs. Since it’s just kind of him and his vocals. So, everyone could localize where he is. But there’s only one focal point, and that wouldn’t be that difficult to do. But when there are effects and things that will move around people, then you’re not just getting the sound from all the way over there [points off in the distance].
Helena Stone: So, what do you call this 360-experience?
Asher Dowson: We call it all-immersive. If it’s just coming from the front — the left and right, that’s called a 180; it’s just in that plane. We call it 360 if it’s in the surrounds.
Judie Stanford: So like last night, the DJ we saw, that was obviously 360.
Asher Dowson: That was in 360. And the object-based mixing, so thinking less about like putting information from different frequency bands together and kind of stacking it up. So many things you have to do to mitigate; I mean, you have how dynamic the source is, how to kind of keep it in its little box, which almost makes it sound boring, but this is what we have to do. It kind of unlocks all of that if you’ve got the freedom to let your mix really breathe. And there’s another element which, we call it convolution reverb. So, we’ve taken models from some of the best concert halls in Europe, and you can put that concert hall in any room that you’re mixing in.
Judie Stanford: Wait, you can recreate that concert hall’s sound landscape pretty much anywhere?
Asher Dowson: The reverb time, yes. So, that happens. The signature that concert pianists, or cellists, or violinists will be used to playing it. And if you think about that, how reverbs don’t right now… If we were in a big hall, and I clapped my hands, modern music says that reverb comes after my hands touch, directly from it. That’s not how the reverb works. It comes from around you because the reflection hits the wall. So, this brings back reverberations, how it’s supposed to work and how it’s variable. So, if you’ve got a church speech moment, you want to be quite dry, really straightforward, just the words — and then you go to music performance, maybe the choir —so, if it changes the terms of flexibility for events that need more than one room, but they can only physically be in one room that can change and adapt that to change it during the performance.
Judie Stanford: So, that’s how you can put a house of worship with a decent soundscape into an old theater, a strip mall, or something like that. You just totally make it work, even if that space wasn’t originally intended to serve the kind of sound that’s now being produced?
Asher Dowson: Any room, anywhere. That’s kind of where it’s been going. So, I think it’s cool, but I’m biased, you know?
Judie Stanford: No, it’s crazy because it’s the stuff that people take for granted. You go in and you hear a fantastic concert that sounds great and sounds are coming from everywhere. You don’t give it a second thought about what went into producing that. Which means you all are doing your job. But at the same time, it’s like nobody has an understanding, or appreciation really, for what you do.
Asher Dowson: The subwoofer is the new element of what we’re doing in terms of demoing Soundscape as a whole new set of content because this is something that has usually been in the hands of technicians, right? That’s it. Now in the hands of creatives, these people like Bjork and Imogen Heap, they’re expanding the concept of what this can do, and they’re kind of learning together about how we can create experiences.
Judie Stanford: Well, yeah, I can see them like completely writing music, knowing that this will be what they’re able to achieve when they’re in concert. So, let’s go ahead and do the sound that pops over here and these other things we might not have even bothered with before today just be a muddy mess.
Asher Dowson: Yeah, exactly. So, it kind of gives them a whole new environment to create music in. And it’s not just like… here, it’s everywhere they want it to be.
Judie Stanford: So, in that environment, the new subwoofer, what’s different about it than a subwoofer that anybody else could put out? What exactly sets you apart?
Asher Dowson: We have a patent on the audio technology that we implement in our subwoofers. So, for that rear-facing speaker, it encapsulates the energy behind the driver. So, with releasing our KSL system, that’s the first really useful, fully cardioid system that cancels the sound down. It’s like exactly where it needs to be if you’re in a park, if you’re doing a huge concert, your neighbors behind are not getting pummeled by 500 Hz and their windows are shaking. We can be friends with them now because it’s pretty quiet back there, but the audience is still getting the right experience.
Helena Stone: I hate to paraphrase, but it sounds like you’re allowing people at a concert to listen to music as the artists intended without disturbing anyone who isn’t at the show?
Asher Dowson: That’s right; let’s get to what it should be, and will do all of the technical innovation, all of the hard — they call it German Voodoo Math over here [pointing at some of the d&b engineers nearby] — so those guys plus the crazy, intelligent musician equal magic.
Judie Stanford: So, you’re putting the sound where it needs to be, not spilling out where it shouldn’t be? And you’re giving the best experience to those listening.
Helena Stone: And you said you are working on reducing noise in an urban environment?
Judie Stanford: They’re putting sound wave where it’s supposed to be. Like, whenever you’re having a concert, instead of it like spilling over into the neighborhood, it’s in the venue where it needs to be. And that’s it?
Asher Dowson: Well, think about where it goes now… Think about like Austin City Limits, for example. or, there’s a big one in Miami, the big EDM ultra festival, Ultra Festival, right? Very expensive apartments are all through in Miami. So, how does the city authorize the festival? They guarantee the noise that goes with it. So everyone can have fun where the fun is happening, but these people who’ve paid $20 million for their apartment; they do not want that loud sound in their area. So, d&b has this pretty unique software. One thing that is crazy special is this thing called NoizCalc.
Judie Stanford: What’s a noise calc? Wait? Noise Calculation?
Asher Dowson: Right, NoizCalc. So, you take the system that you’ve designed for the room and you overlay it off of Google Maps, and it will show you where that energy will go and you can predict the offsite noise.
Judie Stanford: Whaaaat?!
Asher Dowson: And it will take into account buildings, it will take into account water, wherever it needs to be. They then take it to a 3D overlay and Google Maps will tell you exactly how much noise it is going to be, so you can guarantee noise levels. No other company can do this. We can guarantee that whoever puts on the event, this will be the level.
Judie Stanford: Wow. And how long have you all been able to do that specifically?
Asher Dowson: Noise Calc? It’s been out on the market for about two years. So that’s kind of… we talk about urban environments, kind of having music in the heart of the city is certainly more of a challenge. You don’t want to add to the noise pollution, you want everyone to have a good time without disrupting other people’s lives.
Judie Stanford: Does this allow you to get around like the 10:30 pm cut off and things like that, like Stubb’s in Austin does since it’s in the middle of the city…?
Asher Dowson: Not always, but yeah, it definitely improves our case. Because when we’ve got a report that we can submit to the people who are organizing the event or festival, to say, “hey — this is going to be the most neighborhood-friendly concert you can possibly do. I was at church on Sunday, in Tulsa, at a 5000 seat arena they’ve got. And it’s like 150 feet behind the stage, that’s a residential area. So they’re getting complaints, that it’s too loud, so when you can use our system to cut the noise down by 20dB, and they no longer get complaints …
Judie Stanford: Yeah.
Asher Dowson: We can be friendly with your neighbors, that kind of thing, you know? So yeah, that’s what we’re excited about which is… it’s a different approach.
Judie Stanford: So, back to the subwoofer for one second; the only people who are going to be buying this are going to be people who are buying for a commercial system. Is this like a turnkey situation? You all come in and you discuss what they can afford and what they need, and then you all come in and do it all for them, or do they hire someone else to do it?
Asher Dowson: So, we as the manufacturer prescribe the audio solution; maybe it’s a rental company, maybe it’s an install company doing installing. So, we would work with them to make sure that the vision and the needs of the customers are met. With the level of training that we offer for free, and the workshops it’s incredibly advanced, but it’s inspired by simplicity. You don’t want a headache when you’re loading into an arena. You want to feel like, “I know how this room is going to work. Let’s go.” So, we make it as simple as possible. And there are so many hidden layers of like crazy rules on what is useful, like the cables, right? That’s copper and that’s a resistive material, so the capacitance of the copper is going to affect how much you drop the power so you measure the cables and the software. But it does a cable compensation. It’s like, if you haven’t thought of it yet, they’ve thought of it, you know? And it’s all that stuff working in the background to make a show great.
Judie Stanford: Yeah. It’s a lot.
Helena Stone: It is a lot. Are there any arenas or big concert venues that we may have heard of that are already utilizing Soundscape?
Asher Dowson: Sony Hall has it installed. The Bjork show that I was talking about — that was set up in the O2 Arena in London. That was one of our first real large scale applications of Soundscape in an arena that size.
Helena Stone: But in like a smaller venue, maybe like a church, you’re setting it up in the church?
Asher Dowson: Yeah.
Judie Stanford: And it stays.
Asher Dowson: Yeah, and we’ve done plenty of those. It’s exciting to get this out there; it’s kind of like we are releasing our baby into the wild, and the response has been great!
Judie Stanford: So nobody else is doing anything quite like this?
Asher Dowson: Some people are going into the immersive space, but there is no one else who’s doing it with the two things that you all use to process sound which is level at time. So, it’s the arrival time of my voice to your left ear … and you hear me on the left side. No one else is doing that, and definitely not with the level of integration we have. Yeah. It’s kind of a lot is going on with it, and of course, d&b tour wise — Coldplay uses it, Gorillaz, Kraftwerk, Green Day, Chvrches … they aren’t all using Soundscape, but they are using d&b.
I’ve sold some audio stuff to Snoop Dogg, you know? That was an experience, but it’s off the record …
[I promptly turn off my recorder and we got to hear a great Snoop Dogg story.]
Helena Stone: Where are your biggest sales? Is it music? Is it churches?
Asher Dowson: So, we kind of classify our segments, like our customer groups, into mobile applications. So, like touring, corporate events, and installations. Touring has always been big at d&b; it’s where we have our pedigree. But more recently, we’ve been investing heavily into stuff that’s more install friendly. Because if I’m not taking it up and down every week, I don’t need handles on it. Different amplifiers don’t need to be shockproof to go into a truck. So, I say our biggest area of growth is in installations — not that touring’s not growing, it’s growing fast — but as far as growth, it’s installations.
Judie Stanford: So the church stuff is right under the touring stuff?
Asher Dowson: Oh yeah, yeah. Just you know, we have some great focus segments. We do stadiums, theaters, nightclubs, live performance venues, and churches. Those are kind of our main install segments. Were also very popular on cruise ships because we do this saltwater resistance, so our stuff is friendly to them. We can customize things to make them look like they’re rusted or covered in 24K gold — or whatever it needs to be.
Judie Stanford: Covered in 24K gold … as one does!
A nearby exec: I actually had somebody order that!
Judie Stanford: I believe it — probably a sultan in Dubai.
Asher Dowson: [laughing] Exactly.
Judie Stanford: So, what was the most challenging install that you all have done?
Asher Dowson: I think as a company, the most challenging install that we’ve completed was the Royal Albert Hall; we’ve got the permanent loudspeaker system in there, and it’s the largest single room loudspeaker system in the world — 465 speakers! Now, that room has just been an acoustic nightmare for like, you know, 200 years. So, we kind of say that’s the sound system 200 years in the making, and it’s detailed to the point where every single seating box has speakers in the surround, everyone, wherever you go, it is an incredibly reverberant space, very, very sensitive in terms of say, stuff that gets in the way of the show. It has now got something that’s deserving of its iconic stance. We’re quite happy about that. That was completed at just the end of 2018. For me, I like the challenge of a cathedral. I like a big space; it’s great to work with and put smiles on the people’s faces. I want people to listen and go, “yeah, this is what I came for.” That’s a very good feeling for me.
Bonus video from d&b audiotechnik’s opening in Signal Hill, California; Helena and I were there! See how many times you can spot us. 🙂