FOH Magazine Interview with Bruce Johnston

Bigfoot found captured! French Array avoids Radar!

Not a line array? A tangent array system? Maybe they should just call it French.

The new NEXO GEO T speakers are not boxes, as we would typically assume a speaker enclosure to be. They look more like something out of a futuristic Spielberg movie. They are small, very small, and shaped like a mini stealth fighter. The rigging looks weird, very weird, but extremely functional. Like stealth fighters, they are light and weigh less than 100 lbs, or 45 kilograms, as the French would have it (that’s 99.2 lbs). Radar does not bounce off them, and they have been flying over the United States undetected now for sometime...

Given the opportunity to check out the NEXO GEO T system on a stop at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago with Oasis in early June 2005, FOH had no idea what it was in for. Bruce Johnston of Johnston Audio Services was there to man the Front of House duties. Also, a crew from Thunder Audio and Firehouse Sound were moving and shaking the system into position for the evening performance. We sat down with Johnston in catering just after load-in. His company’s history goes back over 20 years in Melbourne, Australia, and worldwide, and credits include Oasis, Midnight Oil, Crowded House and Silverchair.

Over coffee and something that looked like eggs, Johnston explained his NEXO experience, the digital age with a DiGiCo D5 and the decision to use the French fighter. “When NEXO launched the GEO T about two years ago, they gave us the first system,” Johnston related. “I thought it was really impressive, so I bought some for my company. When I was given this tour with Oasis, it seemed like the natural thing to do. I wanted to see how it would sound with a band like this. This band stretches the boundaries between pop and heavy rock. So far, it’s working quite well.”

I asked Johnston what he was using at FOH and why. “For this tour, I bought a DiGiCo D5. I just figured it was time to move into the digital age. I’m starting to like it. It was a bit different sounding at the start. Oasis is pretty much a meat and potatoes band; just throw up an XL-4 and a few compressors, and off you go. That’s their sound,” he said.

So, how does he like the onboard effects in the D5? “If you look at my rack, it’s very small, and you’ll notice I only have one reverb. That’s my drum reverb. I didn’t have the time before the tour left to fool around with the drums and the D5. With that said, sometimes it’s better to go with what you know,” he said.

What about the two opening bands? What are they using?

Johnston replied: “ The D5 too. It came in quite handy on the first three weeks of the tour, with the club shows. We put them all on the D5 and we’re taking up very little floor space. To fit the opening acts on other desks, we would have taken up at least three or four times the floor space, if not more.”

In an age when promoters are trying to squeeze every available seat out of the house, leaving a smaller footprint at FOH is making a lot of people happy. The days of the concert patron who bought great seats in the middle of the main floor, only to get rerouted and told that their seats have been moved, could be a thing of the past sooner than we think. What are the other advantages to “smaller is better”?

Johnston went on. “To be honest, we’ve done four festivals with this desk, and it’s very easy to get the D5 into the festival. Generally, I haven’t carried mixing boards into festivals because of the logistics. Having the D5 there has made a big difference to both myself and the band.”

I asked Johnston if he thinks the console holds up well on the road.

“We had a drink spilled on the desk and channels one through eight went down, but within 10 to 15 seconds, we were able to re-route them and brought them up on the other half of the board. Not only that, but DiGiCo has been unbelievable with their backup. Any type of problem has been fixed on the spot. That’s good to see in this day and age!”

So, what in particular does Johnston like about the GEO T? “I know from using GEO T and about every other line array on the market the difference between GEO T and the rest. Being a lighter system it tends to have some pretty good top end in it. One advantage is that they are half the weight of any of the other P.A.s on the market for the same SPL. A lot of the manufacturers are making half-size line arrays, but not with the output of the big boxes,” he says. “These GEO T enclosures are light, small and the P.A. bends when you fly it like no other. Because it opens right up, it has the capability of bending way more than any of the other P.A.s when you fly them. They are not boxes. They are shaped differently, so they arc more in the air.” Johnston paused, then blurted out, “Let me show you something!”

Johnston leapt to his feet, and we headed out to the arena floor.

He opened what I thought was an FX or amp rack case. It was like a Cracker Jack box, and there was a surprise inside. When the top was removed, there sat three little GEO Ts comfortably in a road case. The case didn’t reach waist-high.

Johnston went on, “It seems to be that the other good thing about it is the underfill part of this P.A. has been designed with the whole P.A. hang in mind. Near fill wasn’t an afterthought in the design. It tends to be one of the best under hangs I’ve heard. It really does cover 90 degrees. It seems like it’s closer to studio monitors in its sound than other systems. If you’re good at your job, the GEO T system can reward you with results that you won’t get out of the other systems.”

Lack of exposure and a high price in the tightly competitive American market has made these systems somewhat scarce on U.S. soil. That in itself has made a lot of Yanks skeptical. A good friend, Stan Doty (FOH for Wilco), commented about his NEXO experiences. “I‘ve had the opportunity to use these GEO Ts over in Europe with Wilco, and I really like what they do—though they do take a little getting used to. I guess you could say that about any new system. The fidelity they release is incredible. Not to mention the control that you have once you know what they can do,” Doty said.

Johnston reaffirmed that statement. “It can be a very hard P.A. to jump on straight up. When I use it over in Australia, it takes most engineers a bit of time to get used to it. It’s so clear and it’s so accurate that it does put a few people off. They’re used to having the box column of sound of your typical P.A. With GEO T’s cardioid approach, it tends to make this P.A. really clear. It brings out all the nasties that you’re not used to hearing on other P.A.s.”

So, does size really matter? “I think so!” said Johnston. “The whole arena P.A. with the CD 18 subs takes up about 35 feet of truck. Also, it’s a flat pack, like a pan.”

Watching the rigging go up was interesting. They started with a bump of five enclosures, and from there, it was three at a time rolled in and under. Four pins in, and up they went. It took a little over 24 minutes to fly the system at the UIC Pavilion. That’s not counting the side fill hangs. It can rig in a tension mode and a non-tension mode with a cam system with 12 enclosures per side. The P.A. flies dead straight, and they have a pickup point on the bottom of each box with a cam that controls the pitch, curve and splay. There are levelers on the boxes that tell you at which pitch degree they are flying.

Then there are the subs, which are best described on the NEXO Web site: “NEXO R&D has used the advanced DSP power of the digital NX242 TD controller to develop an extremely compact and highly efficient method for controlling the dispersion of very large acoustical waves. The CD18 uses a pair of long excursion neodymium 18-inch drivers, two amplifier channels and two channels of DSP processing to generate a cardioid or supercardioid pattern with up to -15dB of attenuation at the rear. Yet, the enclosure is no larger than is required for proper loading of the transducers. CD18s deliver high-impact sub bass energy to the audience while keeping very low frequencies away from open microphones and reflective/ reverberant surfaces. The end result is a much more controlled and coherent foundation for the mix, as compared with conventional subwoofers.”

During sound check, I became a believer of what this French array could really do. Standing about six feet in front of the CD 18 subs and about 10 feet off to center stage from the GEO T hang, I heard nothing but pure high fidelity. I moved directly under the hang, at the same distance from the subs, and got the same effect. I can only contribute this to an acoustical illusion. Then, back up in the highest sky seats of the arena, the low end was not only there, but sounded as good as it did on the floor.

You don’t see a lot of NEXO GEO T systems in the States. The cost has been the main factor. With the new alliance between Yamaha and NEXO, this certainly should change things (see page 32 for the report on Yamaha and NEXO by Dan Daly).

The bottom line is, the designers at NEXO set out to build a smaller, lighter and better- sounding enclosure than the rest. They used companies in Europe like SSE Hire to painstakingly come up with something better than the best. With all things considered, they might have done just that. As for the DiGiCo D5? This is just the beginning —as these digital machines and tools are refined, it means a smaller footprint in the house and a smaller one in the air! Concertgoers, promoters and artists are staring the future in the face. With systems like these, it could very well mean a better concert experience for all involved.

Article by Nort Johnson, Front of House Online August 05 issue