Award-Winning Sound System Designer, Liam Halpin Recalls Sam Smith's Tour and His View on The Future of System Design.

Marc Henshall | 04/02/2020

When the audience turns up for a show, few folks give the production much thought. In reality, the average audience member likely only notices the production aspect of a show when something goes wrong! After all, the punters are there (first and foremost) for entertainment, not a lesson in audio tech. This is different for those of us with an audio background of course, as geeking out about the production quality and gear actually becomes part of the entertainment.

There are so many different aspects to audio production, each with their own set of challenges and quirks. From the performance itself, to the finer details of audio technology, lighting, and stage design—everything is planned down to exceptional detail. One niche aspect that is imperative to the success of any production is the process of sound system design. The discipline is so important that it holds its own award category at the annual TPI Awards. Last year's winner was the revered system designer, Liam Halpin; whose work includes the recent Sam Smith tour as a key highlight. Almost one year to the day, we caught up with Liam to learn more about the importance of system design.

"I am hugely proud of the award," opens Liam enthusiastically. "I have to say, the Sam Smith tour was fantastic with some exciting challenges given the stage design. I was also lucky to be a part of a great team from production to creative, with all departments working together to make the show happen effectively and with good humour!"

Liam is refreshingly humble, but I was keen to learn more about his unquestionable skill, firstly by finding out what he considers to be the most critical aspects when designing a sound system.

"I look at each challenge from a combination of viewpoints," he reveals. "Firstly, there's the scientific side in delivering good audio to ALL seats in the venue. Then there is the psychoacoustic viewpoint of 'how do I make it sound like the noise is coming from the artist'. I've always tried to avoid having the sound come from a different direction so that it sounds as natural as possible. Secondly, we have to consider the creative side of system design, which essentially means going beyond the necessity of making a system audible. I want to deliver the best and most exciting experience possible for the audience, while also staying true to the actual performance."

"When I first saw the stage design CAD drawings, I knew it was going to be an exciting project...." 

One of the recent, more ambitious projects Liam worked on was the system behind Sam Smith’s recent tour. Keen to hear a few real-life examples, I asked Liam to tell us a little more about the project and how and why the system was designed as it was.

"When I first saw the stage design CAD drawings, I knew it was going to be an exciting project. The first challenge was maintaining clean stage lines, which meant we had to cover as much as possible from the air. The seats down the side of the stage meant we had to have a speaker "hang" following the stage angle to maximise coverage. The real challenge, though, was working out how to achieve the ‘throw’ to the rear balcony block while still covering enough of the floor. If that wasn't challenging enough, we had to achieve this level of coverage without hitting the stage too hard."

This kind of juggling act is what makes the discipline of sound system design part-art, part-science. You're forever walking the tightrope of sound quality, practical necessity, and the limitations imposed by physics. Not to mention the finer details of performance style and stage positioning, as Liam explains further. 

"With the Sam Smith gig, it was predicted very early on that he would spend a lot of time on the downstage tip and we couldn't afford to have the PA spilling into his mic too much. You can get away with a more traditional design if the artist is only going down a thrust for a few songs, but when the stage is essentially just a thrust, there's a risk you could ‘kill his ears’ with spill from the PA.

"The multiple subwoofer hangs in this system was developed because we couldn't fit subs under the stage due to a ‘mine cart’ running down one side, so that Sam could access his downstage lift. It was a compromise to try and achieve the smooth low-end coverage we've got used to from a virtual arc of subs across the front of a standard stage. Without the option of putting them in a line, I had to create an actual arc. This led to working in four dimensions, as I had to work out the XYZ positions for each hang, along with rotation angles and time alignment to try and smooth the lobbing and deliver the low end to almost 310 degrees of coverage."

Evidently, the list of considerations and anomalies is pretty much never-ending. And like all aspects of sound engineering, the learning never stops. There are constantly new technologies and production trends emerging, all of which sound engineers and system designers need to keep a close eye on. Over the last decade, a knowledge of IT networking, in particular, has changed from a helpful skill to a necessity in most cases. I asked Liam how this trend has changed his work. 

"For many years now, I've been embracing new technologies and taking advantage of new software, ranging from RF planning with Shure's Wireless Workbench to beta testing and demonstrating new consoles and other software. The networking and AoIP (audio over IP) revolution is something that I initially watched from afar. Very quickly, it became clear this was the future, and since then, I've embraced it to the highest possible level. Whenever something new like this comes along, there will always be an initial reluctance to adapt. Still, I always point out that this industry has always pushed the boundaries of technology and embraced new concepts from other sectors to improve workflow.

"I have learnt a lot about networking", Liam continues. "It has led to me expanding my knowledge outside the core audio uses, including recently working on networking for combined audio, CCTV, Lighting control, and communications—all on the same network. I believe these converged networks are only going to become more prevalent, so I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn. In the end, it helps in my capacity as a consultant to manufacturers when helping to steer the development of new products. I strongly urge all in our industry to invest time in learning new skills and technology—it'll only make you more employable further down the line!"

Staying on the topic of new tech, immersive speaker systems for live shows are a hot topic in the industry right now. As artists struggle to make a living purely from music sales, selling the experience of a live show becomes increasingly important. Audiences expect to be taken on a journey when they see an act live, and we're seeing ever-more elaborate production methods in the name of "wowing" audiences. All of this needs to be considered when designing a great sound system. 

Liam gives us his thoughts on the topic of immersive design: "It is a very interesting time for working with speaker systems. There is a greater focus on moving away from the limitations of conventional stereo speakers. There have always been issues with the imaging options available from level-based panning; stereo works well in your living room, but it just doesn't scale up to theatre and arenas. There have been immersive processors around for a while, but it is only recently that artists have started looking to use the newly-developed ‘object-based mixing’ systems.

"Over the years, digital audio drove many improvements in PA systems, while also enabling bigger and bolder productions. More studio "tricks" are being used live, and with the increased adoption of systems like Dolby Atmos—both in cinema and home theatre—immersive studio trickery is increasingly normal in the live environment."

"With any change, it's important to stay grounded and not lose touch of quality along the way; we need to streamline what we have now before we try to make many more leaps."

With so much new technology coming to the forefront, it could be easy to forget the importance of honing one's skills. In other words, try to strike a balance between staying on top of critical changes, while avoiding the classic shiny object syndrome. Liam is keen to embrace change, while also keeping a lid on over-adoption at the expense of quality. 

“The technological advances over the last decade with AoIP and immersive systems enable so many different dimensions to what we do. However, I hope we are now entering into a phase of adoption and refinement so that the software developers can catch up and start making workflows more efficient. With any change, it's important to stay grounded and not lose touch of quality along the way; we need to streamline what we have now before we try to make many more leaps. There is only so far we can go in a short period before mistakes happen as shows try to ‘over-reach’ what is achievable. That is my big concern. I think we'll see substantial developments in immersive systems and the way all that works, but we have to master each technology that comes along before swiftly moving on to the next.”

Marc Henshall

Marc forms part of our Pro Audio team at Shure UK and specialises in Digital Marketing. He also holds a BSc First Class Hons Degree in Music Technology. When not at work he enjoys playing the guitar, producing music, and dabbling in DIY (preferably with a good craft beer or two).