A Quick History of Live Sound Systems

Amplified sound for live music and events did not come about from a demand for fidelity. Traditionally, promoters thought of lighting and image as having priority over sound quality, and sound budgets were often 10% or less of the of the full cost of the production. (Indeed, even today’s audiences go to see their favorite performers.)
With the births of the electric guitar, amplifier, and rock n roll within a fifteen year window in the mid-twentieth century, a perfect storm conspired to allow the younger generation to unleash loud music upon the world. As sound system design was still in its infancy, most available amplifiers were not powerful enough to handle the loud volumes being blasted through them, quickly distorting the sound – exactly what the rock musicians of the 1960s wanted. Promoters then learned that audiences will come to a concert even if they can’t hear the performance, (and as long as the headliner as a big enough name.) Case in point was The Beatles’ 1964 world tour. The band played mainly through small 12” house PA speakers driven by 100 Watt amps. This set up was easily drowned out by the screaming audience and helped to turn the band away from live performances.
As The Beatles had encountered, most PA systems in the 1960s were comprised of stacks of 12” speakers. Because of the heavy rotation of bands, most venues only had two 4×12 speaker stacks on the stage. The speakers themselves were the product of the more conservative, softer 1940s and 50s music trends. The speakers had been designed for country, gospel, and jazz; not the hard-driving sound of rock n roll. Indeed some manufacturers were so anti-rock n roll that they would void warranties on equipment that had been run at full power or threaten to sever dealership lines with retailers who catered to rock musicians. But by the late 1960s, successful rock n roll bands kept attracting larger and larger audiences, prompting manufacturers to develop larger audio systems.
The result was two differing schools of though and audio design. The first was the line-source PA system which consists of large speaker columns placed throughout an arena and directed straight at the audience. The philosophy behind this setup was for all members of the audience to be able to hear the music at the same volume throughout the venue. This sacrificed dynamic fidelity and realism, failing to reflect the true sound production happening on stage while allowing the entire audience to hear equivalently in large environments. An alternative philosophy developed and placed emphasis on dynamic fidelity and clarity by amplifying each individual instrument and voice through separate sound systems. This setup required huge walls of speakers to share the stage with the band, and while great clarity could be achieved, inexperienced roadies were notorious for misaiming the speakers, causing jumbled sound.
Audio systems began to migrate from the floor to the ceiling by the 1980s in the form of ceiling clusters, allowing for more floor space for staging and allowing for greater fidelity because the sound comes from a single source. The result was a scaling down in size for onstage instrument amplifiers and an increased complexity for onstage monitor speakers.
By the 1990s, the development of larger, more powerful line-source speakers allowed promoters to book ever larger events. Originally, line-source speaker systems were confined to small stacks that had to be placed in many locations around the venue. They were also highly inefficient and were barely used outside of live concerts. Other media venues, such as movie theaters, had viewed line-source speakers as unacceptable and instead favored carefully designed and calibrated horn systems. However, the growth of larger, cheaper power combined with improved rigging technology, line-source speaker systems became dominant in providing audio to large venues while increasing sound fidelity.
Constant improvements and innovations to designs and techniques are bringing us into a new age of audio technology. Larger and clearer sound systems are now used for festivals teeming with audiences ranging into the hundreds of thousands. As the live music and events industry continues its evolution, Zeo Systems will stand prepared to deliver the latest technological advancements in audio to our clients.