Audio Monitors for Tight Spaces Grow More Sophisticated

“Louder, smaller, and digital” has become the rallying cry for audio monitors in remote-broadcast trucks. Louder and smaller are often diametrically opposed requirements, but that’s not stopping some manufacturers, such as Blue Sky, whose forthcoming revamp of its SAT line will see a 6.5-in. speaker shrink to 6 in.

Chris Fichera, VP of audio at Group One Ltd., which distributes Blue Sky, points out how difficult it is to satisfy the niche requirements of the outside-broadcast sector using speaker-enclosure designs intended for a much wider array of monitoring applications. Prototypes for Blue Sky’s newest speakers were received positively at both the NAMM and the NAB shows, which service music recording and broadcast, respectively, but hit a roadblock with truck builders, who saw its original trapezoidal enclosure design as difficult to insert in the narrower confines of a truck’s audio bay.

“We reshaped the SAT cabinet back to a more traditional size and shape that’s better suited to that kind of environment, but with the same improved performance specs,” he says.

Adding Digital
Loudspeakers are the ultimate analog component in an increasingly digital signal chain: they remain the same air-pushing transducers they have been for a century. However, more monitoring systems have been adding a significant digital element in the form of self-calibration DSP: the ability to sonically “ping” their environment and automatically adjust equalization and other settings to optimize frequency response no matter the conditions in which they’re used. These systems use software to generate sweep tones and other specific frequencies that the software can use to electronically map the room’s acoustical topography, looking for such hazards as reflections from parallel surfaces and frequency-blurring nulls, then using equalization and delay algorithms to correct for the anomalies.

Genelec, which has a substantial market share for audio monitoring in mobile broadcasting, has adapted its auto-calibration DSP capability to its SE (Small Environment) system, scaled for smaller speakers in tight environments. Director of Marketing Will Eggleston acknowledges that the cost for a 5.1 surround system with the SE DSP is relatively high for broadcast-audio monitoring, around $10,000. But, he adds, it’s also insignificant compared with the overall cost of a truck, which runs several million dollars, and adds considerably to a truck’s capabilities, allowing it to be used for a wider range of applications.

He believes that auto-calibration solutions are inevitable. “The technology is out there,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time [and] electro-acoustic expertise, along with proper coding and testing” for it to be more widely implemented.

Other companies have introduced their own versions of the technique. For instance, JBL Room Mode Correction (RMC) system compensates specifically for low-frequency irregularities with a system that measures the room’s frequency response and applies corrective filters. It’s available for all of JBL’s LSR series speakers.

Blue Sky, whose speakers are found in many trucks commissioned by ESPN, plans to include auto-calibration in the revamped SAT, SUB, and BMC products expected out by the end of this year.

“Self-calibration will become a big must-have for this market quickly,” says Fichera, adding that the company’s forthcoming digitally capable series of speaker will also have the ability to emulate some of the characteristics of other speakers, an ability aimed at reassuring A1s that they’ll be able to monitor in a familiar and predictable environment even if they’re used to using other brands of speakers.

He points out that it’s not a modeling solution that creates presets that purposely mimic the characteristics of other speakers but is, instead, an EQ-based solution that lets users achieve the desired result by fine-tuning the outcome of the self-calibration process. “You can add a little sizzle to the top end and dip the mid a bit, whatever your preference might be,” he explains, “and it performs like another type of monitor.”

Another View of Auto-Calibration
Not everyone is enamored of the idea. Tom Holmes, a veteran remote-audio mixer, is skeptical of self-calibrating speakers. He says that typical audio bays aboard remote trucks are noisy to start with and that, as a result, the microphones that DSP-equipped speakers use to sense their environment inevitably include spurious input in their calculations, distorting what the DSP is trying to accomplish. “It changes how you mix and not always for the better,” he says, adding that DSP calibration adds to a speaker’s complexity — not something you want in a live-mix situation.

Truck designers and builders say automatic calibration of monitoring will help make the truck monitoring environment somewhat more flexible. But it’s still well down the hierarchy of perceived needs at the moment.

“It’s nice, but it’s low on the list at the moment because we have bigger issues pressing, such as 4K versus 1080p/60, and more extensive implementation of MADI,” observes Paul Bonar, VP of engineering at Game Creek Video.

It underscores an ongoing condition that may never have a definitive resolution: compared with the video element that dominates truck design and interior real estate, audio remains as subjective a science as it is an objective one, with emotion and personal preference as valid a set of criteria as any documented spec sheet. Under those conditions, any monitoring choice is by definition a compromise. Bonar says he often chooses one particular brand of speaker not because he thinks it’s the best but because it tends to not evoke intense like or dislike among A1s.

“Something that no one loves or hates is better then something that half the people love and the other half hate,” he sighs. “It’s safer in the middle of the road.”