Foreword by Bob McCarthy

Foreword by Bob McCarthy

I have written and released a book about sound system design and optimization, inspired by these blog posts, and fittingly titled Between the Lines: Concepts in Sound System Design and Alignment. You can purchase a copy directly from the publisher by clicking here, or order it from most booksellers. I am incredibly humbled and honored that the book features a foreword by Bob McCarthy, which you can read below.

There are many books devoted to audio engineering. And yet there are very few books focused specifically on live sound system engineering, design and optimization. In the modern era, virtually every system gets designed with prediction software and optimized with an FFT analyzer, making this a field well worth dedicated study. This book adds to that small number with a thoughtful study of the subject, presented in plain language with a plethora of practical information ready for immediate use by practicing system engineers, designers and mixers. It is a new book with a fresh, modern approach to the subject.

Audio is a very young form of engineering. Contrast this to the Stone Age roots of civil engineering or the 19th century electrical engineering of Tesla and Edison. Live sound engineering, in particular, is so young that many of its pioneers are still alive to tell the tales of its primordial era. The youth and rapid evolution combine to create a great challenge to those entering this field, since there are limited avenues of formal study to draw upon before venturing into the wild of on-the-job training or to supplement our skills along the way.

The 1st generation live sound engineers attempted to fill a technology vacuum that emerged when promoters booked rock bands into arenas and stadiums at a time when no sound reinforcement systems were capable of delivering a show that either the audience or the band could hear.  My brother “saw” the Beatles in a baseball stadium in 1964, but he never claimed to have heard them. Nevertheless, these pioneers adapted to the challenge and developed tools that we might think have existed forever, like portable systems that could emerge from a truck and do a show on the same day. 

In 1967, stage monitors and monitor mixing desks only existed if you built them yourself.  Major rental companies made their own loudspeaker cabinets since leading loudspeaker manufacturers were too far behind the curve to make road-ready systems. The live sound engineer of that era needed a very different set of skills than those of the current day. Theile/Small parameters, carpentry, passive crossover design, soldering, RC circuit analysis, transformer winding ratios, analog transistor and op-amp circuit analysis, grounding, matching amplifiers with appropriate drivers and most importantly putting up a ground-stacked PA so that it didn’t tip over.

As a 2nd generation engineer, starting my touring in 1978, I was able to learn from the pioneers, but primarily through direct contact since they were still on the road. There also emerged a great number of important books, seminars and trainings wherein the knowledge gained by their experience was passed on. Many of these books had strong emphasis on physics and mathematics, most notably the incomparable works of Harry Olson. There is no arguing the value and validity of such deep explorations into our field of work, but there is also no arguing that one can be a great system engineer without understanding the difference between particle velocity and pressure waves. Such matters are required for the designers of loudspeakers and microphones, but not the users.

As my career moved on, I saw the skillset evolve and differentiate exponentially. Yes, there are still analog circuits, reflex ports to be designed and amplifiers to be matched with speakers, but these skills rest entirely within the scope of the manufacturers, not the everyday engineers doing shows. In the 1st generation, the people who built the gear were the same ones who used it, but this practice has become largely extinct as consoles, amplifiers, processing and loudspeaker systems evolved into the highly engineered tools of today.

Two of the most significant advances of that period, in my estimation, were the emergence of FFT analyzers into the mainstream, and accurate acoustical modeling. These gave system designers and engineers self-sufficiency to predict the performance of their systems in advance of installation, and finely calibrate the system in place. These tools had the heavy math baked into them, allowing a new generation of engineers to focus on the decision-making process of system design and optimization with unprecedented levels of accurate information, all without a science degree.

A new approach is required as the current generation of live sound engineers moves to the forefront.  This book clearly engenders the perspective of the modern engineer, of which Michael Lawrence is a card-carrying member. Michael has been a thought leader for his generation using his in-depth knowledge to both ask and answer the critical questions that emerge in our work. As a specialist in system design and optimization with real-world touring experience he brings all the required elements to the table in this book.

This book’s emphasis is on practical decision making with the mature tools of the current day. You will not learn how to find the free air resonance of a cone driver. You will never need that to be a FOH, system or monitor engineer in the present or foreseeable future. Instead, you will find an orderly series of decision points presented in plain language, the very same ones we grapple with in venues each day.

There are very few black and white, clear-cut decisions in live sound reinforcement. Even polarity, seemingly the best candidate for such, is much grayer than you might think (as you will learn here).  So many of the decisions we face in the design stage, such as array type, box count, aim, splay, height and more have a thousand possible answers. This book shows a logical process for the decision matrix involved to get to a final result or set of best options. Likewise, we face calibration decisions such as target curve, delay timing, fill levels and so much more, which have their own set of logical decision points. There is no single right answer to timing mains and subs, but there is a logical process to determining the best options. And no gig is complete without compromise, whether it be caused by budget, video screens, sightlines, lighting, weight or egomaniac architects and artists. Once again – decisions, decisions.

This book presents enough practical applications to age forward as systems continue their technological progression because it is based on rules of logic which will not go out of date. If reading this book makes you look back and reevaluate some of your past decisions, then that becomes a useful exercise for going forward, which is the only logical direction to take.

One last thing: you still need to learn to solder.

6o6 McCarthy


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