Fear Inoculum

Completing the southern-hemisphere leg of an extensive and technically ambitious arena tour in support of their Fear Inoculum album, Tool headed to Australia and New Zealand with a TiMax SoundHub-driven 3D surround sound system – that had begun as something of an experiment – as ‘part of the show’.

The system design – a distributed d&b audiotechnik arrangement of main left and right, plus overheads focused vertically down forward and back, rear surround hangs and upper seating ‘front’ channels – is the result of extensive research by the band’s system engineer, Liam Halpin, to realise the suggestion of FOH engineer, Alan ‘Big Nobby’ Hopkinson, that their audience would love ‘sounds to appear from different places around the room’.

Liam Halpin and Big Nobby HopkinsonHalpin’s research took him to TiMax: ‘Keeping abreast of what TiMax can do over the years I thought this might be an ideal use for it – to create something that is not quite what everybody else is doing,’ he says. He had ruled out other immersive systems, ‘because they’re quite heavily geared around having multiple hangs across the stage, they weren’t the right systems for what we were trying to do’.

A key element of the success of the TiMax-rendered ‘effects system’ was that it avoided blocking sightlines for the highly video-intensive production design, in addition to offering spatial mapping across multiple subsystems so that almost every seat in the house would experience spatial placement and panning of individual or groups of mix elements. It was also vital that it could be readily adapted for different arenas.

Halpin took his initial system ideas and the results of his summer of multitrack experimentation to Out Board’s Dave Haydon, and a TiMax demo system was set up at Eighth Day Sound UK, alongside Halpin’s newly devised PA distribution infrastructure. Together, then worked out how TiMax could spatially render, manage and drive it.

For the tour, Eighth Day Sound supplied a TiMax SoundHub-S64 unit with 64x64 I/O on Dante plus some analogue and AES outputs, used to provide a failsafe redundant feed into the PA.

Room mapping was rendered by dropping the multichannel loudspeaker locations onto a dimensioned TiMax PanSpace map. TiMax Image Definition objects were created from combinations of the relevant speakers with levels and delays set to allow placement or panning of the sound at or between the required 3D locations. Object-based spatial event layers were programmed in the PanSpace Spatialisation window to be used in various ways – triggered manually at FOH or remotely from stage via MIDI; or set up as live real-time 3D pans. More than 20 mix channels could be spatialised live at FOH by Halpin, using TouchOSC on iPads driving the OSC port of the TiMax control computer.

The adaptability and workflow of TiMax, and the ability to view every Image Definition object parameter involved in the spatialisation made it quick and easy to fine-tune the core spatialisation template for each venue. The speed and accuracy of TiMax Panspace and its matrix level/delay Auto-Calc function, plus the fact it is not reliant on any strict system geometry or topology ensured portability across different venues and overall ease of use.

‘The decision to keep using the system and take it to Australia and other territories has been made by the band – which says a lot about just how effective it’s been,’ Halpin observes.

System processing

Also key to the operation of he immersive audio system is Outline’s Newton FPGA-based processor...

No stranger to arena-sized, multi-zone PA systems, and having worked with the band since 2015, Halpin was an early Newton adopter: ‘As far back as 2008, I wrote and submitted a spec for a device like Newton to a few of the major signal processing manufacturers,’ he recalls. ‘At the time it was a digital version of the Midas XL88 – which was the industry standard unit for managing multiple analogue consoles in festival-type situations. I could see the coming need for something with all its matrixing capabilities and great sound but with an updated feature set to accommodate digital consoles – sadly none of the manufacturers were as excited about it as I was.

Liam Halpin, system tech; Beau Alexander, monitors; Nobby, FOH engineer; Dan Buckley, P.A./stage tech; and Jerod Untiedt, crew chief and monitor tech‘Fast forward to 2016, when Capital Sound bought their Outline GTO system and I found myself in conversation with some of the guys at Outline who mentioned that they were working on a very advanced multi-purpose system processor. My first contact with Newton was also through Capital Sound, and I later used Newtons with great success on the Sam Smith tour, which they supplied. Since then, Newtons have been repeatedly making my life easier.’

A pair of Newtons now tour with Tool: ‘The Newtons are my main front-end for the whole drive system,’ Halpin says. ‘I run a pair simultaneously as main and backup, with their inputs taking Y-splits from the [analogue FOH] Midas XL4’s LR outputs, LR from the Midas Pro2 [used for the separate effects audio system and for the support act if they don’t have their own console], LR plus sub on both analogue and AES for any guest consoles and L&R plus sub feeds from the TiMax SoundHub-S64 spatial audio processor which controls the effects PA.

The Newton outputs connect via Dante to a rack of d&b DS10 Dante to AES converters, and from those to the racks of d&b amplifiers. The amps will effect automatic switchover in case of any interruption to their Dante subscription. ‘It’s very easy to copy and paste sets of data from one Newton to another so at all times both are configured identically – in this way the two Newtons provide fail-safed master matrix processors for every part of the entire loudspeaker system,’ Halpin says.

‘The Newtons offer me many real advantages – for example, the ability to easily create control groups of outputs really helps in both setup and system tuning. I also make pretty extensive use of the WFIR filters for room and system EQ, and they are definitely more powerful yet somehow more transparent than the FIR filters in other units. Obviously, we never have any issues with multiple-console clock sync now, just plug everything into the Newtons and it will work, I don’t even have to think about it.

‘Newton has also made life so much easier from a matrixing viewpoint, important for this show in particular but now I wouldn’t be without all that extra flexibility,’ he adds. ‘Having such plentiful input and output options, being able to use several digital formats plus analogue simultaneously, even our walk-on music is a Dante patch from a computer, no need to use up a channel on the console or use an external switcher of any kind…

‘The reality is that we would need a rack full of pretty much any other processor currently on the market to do what one Newton does for us. I will quite happily use them on every show I do and, in fact, not using them almost feels like a decision to make my life harder.’

See also:
Eighth Day Sound powers Slipknot’s stage show

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