LEO Q&A with John Meyer: Where Does Live Sound Go from Here?
Linear sound systems are hardly a radical concept. A linear loudspeaker does just one thing: it faithfully reproduces every sonic element, only louder, without any change in tonality. For years, music recording and cinema post-production have embraced linear systems. But why haven't linear systems taken off in a big way in the large event loudspeaker marketplace?
With the recent advances in digital tools and loudspeaker engineering at Meyer Sound, CEO John Meyer sees linear sound systems as the natural next step for large touring and festival events. As a result, the Meyer Sound LEO system was born, consisting of the LEO-M line array loudspeaker, 1100-LFC low-frequency control element, and the Galileo Callisto loudspeaker management system.
In this interview, John Meyer reveals the story behind LEO, why the industry can benefit from linear large-scale sound reinforcement, and how this technology gives more control to the FOH mixer and brings the audience closer to the music than ever before.
Q: How is LEO different from other large-scale sound systems?
It's like a very powerful projector that stays color neutral no matter how bright it gets. It has enough power to do Metallica—as we proved at the Outside Lands festival—but at the same time it can do classical or opera with absolute transparency. It has no sonic signature of its own.
Q: Then how is mixing on LEO different from mixing on other, less linear systems?
Meyer: With other systems, a lot of engineers will push the loudspeakers past where they have a linear response to get a particular sound by overstressing them. With LEO, we built in a tremendous amount of headroom to cover very large venues. And as you increase the levels, the tonality stays constant across all frequencies. You can trust that your output is going to be a linear representation of the input.
Q: But why would engineers want to overstress the system?
Meyer: They do it to get a particular sound. It's similar to overdriving a guitar amplifier for effect. I remember in the early days, Steve Miller did that to get what he called his "dying speaker sound," and he had to replace that speaker after every show. Now you can get that sound using digital modeling.
Q: Isn't that similar to what recording engineers did with analog tape?
Meyer: To some extent, yes. They would push tape into saturation to get a fatter drum sound, and again there are ways now to emulate that effect in the digital domain.
Q: So why weren't systems like LEO introduced before? Why is this change happening now?
Meyer: It's extremely difficult to build so much power into a mechanical device and have it stay linear. LEO is a result of more than three decades of audio research and development, with thousands of hours of testing to get it to be this robust.
The second reason is that digital consoles now provide the plugins necessary to create those characteristic sounds upstream so you don't have to overdrive your PA to get the sound you want. So that mindset of needing to use a specific concert loudspeaker system for a type of music, or even for a particular band, is starting to disappear.
Q: What are the advantages of mixing on a linear system?
Meyer: For one thing, an accurate system is also a scalable system. If you're happy with the drum sound on our smaller HD-1 studio monitor, you'll be happy with the sound on a stadium-sized LEO system. That makes it much easier to prepare your mix in advance in a studio or a smaller venue and not have to worry about how to mix for the large venues.
With this level of accuracy in LEO, it also means that audience at an outdoor festival or a stadium can experience the music with a whole new level of fidelity and impact.
Q: So, does a linear system mean you should always tune it flat?
Meyer: Not at all. LEO is indifferent to what kind of signal you put into it. It simply gives you exactly the same thing back out. So you can boost the bass, add second harmonics, or add 30 dB to the high end if you really want to. LEO simply makes a linear transformation from an electrical signal to an acoustical signal.
Q: Is there a history behind this? What started the trend toward so many different types of non-linear large PA systems?
When I was with McCune Sound during that era, we started using linear theory with the JM3, which was a tri-amped cabinet that we used for acts ranging from Joan Baez to Creedence Clearwater Revival. We figured it was more practical and efficient to have one kind of system to rent to everybody. It was a novel idea at the time, and technology has evolved since then.
Q: Applying the linear philosophy in practice with so much power must be an important milestone for Meyer Sound.
Meyer: Yes, and so were our first self-powered systems HD-1 and MSL-4. Self-powered technology is crucial in achieving the accuracy in a linear loudspeaker. Our pre-release version of the LEO system has been in use since last fall on an arena spectacle tour that is now traveling across Europe. This summer, we worked with LEO rental companies to bring the system to several big festivals across Europe and North America. The input from mixing engineers and promoters so far has assured us that we're going down the right path, and this is exciting.