Concert attendance anticipation often exceeds the actual event. Your seats are either too close to the speakers, resulting in distorted sound and painful post-show ear buzzing -- either extreme left or extreme right, so you only get half the music, or up in the nose bleeds, where the sound is disassociated from the distant performer and filled with arena echo rendering the sound undecipherable -- not to mention that superfan sitting beside or behind you drowning out the performer you paid big bucks to see and hear with his own screeching off-key versions.
Two companies, the venerable THX and two-year-old start-up Mixhalo, founded by former Incubus lead guitarist Mike Einziger and his wife, have sort-of partnered to cure what sonically ails live concerts and ensure that your aural experience matches your excitement anticipation. You can audition these sonic concert upgrades during Aerosmith's "Deuces Are Wild" residency at the MGM Park Theater in Las Vegas, which resumes on Sept. 21 -- or perhaps at an upcoming concert near you.
THX's contribution is a new live event sound certification, which leverages its expertise in system design and acoustic analysis to optimize state-of-the-art systems for large, acoustically awkward event spaces. "What THX Certification did for bringing movies into the Stereo Age, what it did for movies in 1982, it's about doing that for concerts," explains Steve Dixon, Aerosmith's show producer.
"Buildings are getting bigger and bigger, the cubic volume of buildings has tripled in size, and the interiors of the buildings has tripled in size, but our actual approach to sound hasn't changed," Dixon continues. "We're still hanging left and right speakers. But 70% of the people were only getting a mono signal. They were either sitting on the left side of the building or the right side of the building, which meant they were only getting a left signal or a right signal."
THX debuted its live event certification program with a straight stereo set-up for Beyoncé's 2016 Formation World Tour. But Dixon worked with THX and with speaker maker L-Acoustics and its Immersive Hyperreal Sound technology to create what THX is calling the world's first immersive THX Certified live entertainment experience. Dixon needed to solve specific acoustic issues presented by the unusual 140-foot wide MGM Park Theater stage, more than twice as wide as a standard theater stage, and to serve the equally widely scattered 6,400 audience members. Dixon expanded the number of speakers from the usual 60 to 230 and dismissed the whole idea of straight stereo. Instead of standard left-right clusters, THX and Dixon designed speaker placement and hanging angle to present more of a surround sound-like effect.
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"These [speakers] are not set up simply for volume," Dixon stresses. "They're set up for spatial placement. Everybody throughout the house is getting a better type of stereo mix – about 75 percent of the room is in the sweet spot."
As a result, nearly everywhere I wandered in the MGM Park Theater, save the far left and right, sounded as if I was sitting dead center in the theater. Moving around from left to right and center, the soundstage remained remarkably consistent, with Steven Tyler's screeching vocals seemingly following me around.
But Dixon's coverage estimation is spot on; outside of the wider-than-usual 125- to 130-front degree coverage, the extreme wings of the audience, especially close to the stage, were in an acoustically uneven desert, with only bits and pieces of the band's output left or right delivered, depending on which side of the stage you found yourself.
A Personalized Concert Experience
Since THX Certification for live events is currently limited to Aerosmith's Vegas residency, what do the rest of us do to improve our aural enjoyment at a live show? And what about the 25% of the crowd not getting Dixon's otherwise evenly distributed soundstage?
Mixhalo's creative solution not only allowed Aerosmith's VIP ticket holders uniquely placed actually on-stage, perpendicularly left and right, on the wings of MGM Park Theater stage to get a front/center listening experience, but allows attendees anywhere in a stadium, arena, theater, or hall to hear a perfectly balanced performance, "no matter where you sit," says Mixhalo CEO Marc Ruxin. "We want to democratize live audio."
Mixhalo is a three-part low-latency, network-based data delivery platform consisting of a proprietary server, a custom Wi-Fi network, and a mobile app. Live event organizers connect the server to their sound mixer or PA system and hit start. The audio data is ingested, compressed -- while preserving fidelity -- and packetized using a proprietary protocol similar to RTP, and forwarded to the Mixhalo Wi-Fi system. Concert goers just download the Mixhalo or venue app to their smartphone and jack in their own headphones to hear the show as if they were sitting in front of the band in a recording studio.
At the Aerosmith shows, VIP ticket buyers receive a pair of the THX Certified 1More Triple Driver in-ear headphones -- which they get to keep -- along with specially provisioned Apple iPods, through which we could choose to listen to the soundboard mix or the special mix Steven Tyler hears through his in-ear stage monitors. Because of latency issues, Bluetooth headphones aren't recommended.
Best of all, using Mixhalo and headphones, we were also able to control the often -- and literal -- ear-splitting concert volume, lowering the decibels to potentially avoid or delay the onset tinnitus or other hearing issues caused by listening to too-loud music. Because the 1More buds are not completely sound-isolating, I got not only a perfect version of the audio, but I could also still hear "the room" and still felt part of the audience.
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Mixhalo's personal concert experience is technically similar to but philosophically differs from the wireless Peex personal sound system being deployed during Elton John's "Farewell Yellow Brick Road" tour. Peex, which requires a separate wireless receiver, enables more personal five-channel sound mixing, but wants concert goers to pay for their wireless rig -- and extra for the soundboard version -- while Mixhalo wants the soundboard sound experience to be free, with the venue, the band, or the tour sponsors footing the bill.
Since Mixhalo can serve a virtually unlimited number of users and can serve up to 200 channels, the company wants to make its solution available for "any and all live events where audio is a logistical concern," Ruxin says, including sports, which would let fans listen to a radio or TV feed to more easily follow gameplay or even feeds from the sidelines or dugouts, Broadway, or even movie theaters. Mixhalo's advantages are especially highlighted at inherently acoustically-challenged outdoor concerts; for instance, Mixhalo provided perfect audio to attendees of San Francisco's Outside Lands Festival and the Dirty Heads/311 show at North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre in Chula Vista earlier this month.
Both THX and Mixhalo are working out all its partnership, event application and business model particulars, hoping to bring their live event aural improvement programs to a venue near you. In a vote of confidence from VCs, Mixhalo just got a new infusion of investment capital to pursue its vision. As such, "Mixhalo won't be broadly ubiquitous for a couple of years," admits Ruxin, "but a lot of name events will soon start using it."
Disclosure: THX paid for my trip to Las Vegas and accommodations at the Park MGM and supplied me with VIP tickets to Aerosmith's July 4 show.