Hurry Up and Wait: How Funktion-One’s New Speaker Array Sat Idle During the Pandemic

by | Jul 4, 2021 | Tech | 0 comments

A precedent-setting update to the world’s first point source vertical speaker array designed for touring debuted in 2019 to much acclaim and anticipation. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it has largely sat unused in production warehouses around the globe.

Funktion-One, for years now a staple in nightclubs and bespoke dance music festivals, has traditionally employed point source arrays to deliver on its goals of uncompromising audio fidelity and high-efficiency sound reinforcement. Meanwhile, recent decades have seen competing speaker manufacturers capitalize on the convenience of the now ubiquitous touring line array approach.

For a time, Funktion-One was conspicuously absent from this specific sector of the loudspeaker market. Then, the mid 2010s marked the long-awaited debut of their first vertical array format offering in the form of the Funktion One Vero system. Vero is a large format system that combines the convenience of a line array with Funktion-One’s proprietary point source technology. It is designed for large-scale concerts and festivals with over 10,000 in attendance.

Funktion-One Vero Prolight + Sound 2016

Funktion-One Vero debut at Prolight + Sound Frankfurt 2016.

In 2019, the loudspeaker manufacturer introduced a first-of-its-kind compact speaker variant. The launch of the Vero VX compact point source vertical array was, of course, not the headlining story of the event production world in 2020. Early March of the same year saw the near-complete shutdown of countless trades around the globe due to restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19.

As an industry inherently reliant on social gatherings, the nightclubs, concert halls and festival production companies of the world were among the hardest hit by the ensuing social distancing mandates. Introducing a touring concert sound system to an already competitive market was made all the more challenging for Funktion-One by the global lockdown.

For all the hurdles facing it, the company certainly has inertia working in its favor – due in no small part to a history in live music that extends farther back than many music fans may realize.

Funktion-One was founded in 1992, but the company traces its speaker design lineage back to the early days of big concert sound in the early 1970s, when audio engineers were still deciphering the alchemy of live audio reinforcement. Prior to that, in the initial years of big crowds and live bands, achieving a good audio result was almost impossible with the existing technology.

Funktion-One Tony Andrews Glastonbury Festival 1971

Sound provided by Funktion-One cofounder Tony Andrews for the debut 1971 edition of Glastonbury Festival.

The infamous 1966 U.S. tour on which The Beatles embarked was perhaps most notable for exposing just how woefully incapable the existing amplification solutions were of adequately broadcasting music to the often tens of thousands of fans in attendance. For reference, the entire Vox amp speaker assembly onstage at most of their bookings ran at a total of around 500 watts. Today, its common for a rock concert or festival rig to operate at 200,000 watts or more. 

Following that enlightening set of disasters was a major ramp up of live audio technology development and experimentation over the next decade and beyond. This period arguably jump started the large-format speaker industry we know today.

Some such approaches, like the Grateful Dead‘s famous Wall of Sound, were useful exercises in exploring what could be done with sound on this new scale, even if the overall concept of per-instrument speaker arrays didn’t catch on for too long. At the forefront of the new standards in big audio were the designers and engineers at Turbosound, namely Tony Andrews and John Newsham

1978 Tony Andrews and John Newsham Funktion-One Turbosound

John Newsham (left) and Tony Andrews (right) in 1978.

Cutting their teeth at the debut 1971 edition of Glastonbury Festival in their development of the original Festival System, Andrews and Newsham’s large-format arrays initially relied on separate speaker enclosures for low, mid, and high frequencies, respectively. It was during these early years that the duo happened upon the signature Turbo for the mid frequency driver loading. They reportedly “put a rolling pin down the middle of the horn,” causing “the waves coming off the cone started to become more organized” in a way which greatly increased the fidelity of the mid-range output.

Andrews and Newsham went on to incorporate all three frequency-range output devices into a succession of all-in-one speaker cabinets. Their original TSM-3 design and its variant dominated the live sound reinforcement industry through the ’80s. It gradually evolved into the award-winning FLASHLIGHT system, so named for its exceptionally directionally precise output. 

The FLASHLIGHT array debuted in at Roger WatersThe Wall: Live in Berlin in 1990. It was thereafter adopted by a wide range of touring musicians and bands at the time, among them Depeche Mode, The Cure, Iron Maiden and Oasis

A look at photos of these concerts from the early ’90s reveals that the speaker clusters, rather than the now familiar line array format, were often in a semispherical point source arrangement. The success of such formations relied on highly directional cabinets like the FLASHLIGHT system, typically configured so that the final output of any given speaker doesn’t overlap with any adjacent units, resulting in exceptionally clear and intelligible sound. Andrews and Newsham went on to form Funktion-One in 1992, and they continued their design legacy with the Resolution and Evo point source arrays.

Festival System, used in the ’80s by Frank Zappa, Carlos Santana, Status Quo and others.

1990- Flashlight system used for Roger Waters at The Wall, Berlin (350,000 people) and subsequently on Pink Floyd and Dire Straits world tours

FLASHLIGHT system, used for Roger Waters: The Wall in Berlin in 1990 to an audience of 350,000.

1992 Glastonbury Festival Funktion-One

Early Funktion-One deployment at the Immersive Experimental Sound Field at Glastonbury Festival 1992.

The ’90s also saw the rise of the increasingly common and affordable line array format. In addition to loading and assembly conveniences, a line array system uses overlapping speaker outputs to constructively increase the overall volume of the final output beyond the sum of its individual components. Stacking audio wavefronts in this fashion can cause major issues with clarity and intelligibility, however, particularly in the mid and high frequencies. This often calls for corrective equalization and other forms of destructive processing in an effort to maintain audio fidelity.

Funktion-One, and Tony Andrews in particular, have been outspoken about their commitment to absolute audio fidelity in their products. In conversation with Selector, he explained how the compromises inherent to a typical line array speaker arrangement were simply incompatible with the design philosophy of Funktion-One.

“It’s so important to get everything utterly coherent, and it took us some time to develop new technology until we knew we could do that with do that in a vertical array,” Andrews said. “There’s no arguing with the convenience and the ease of it. But you have to ask, at what cost? We just weren’t prepared to make a compromise.”

Andrews was quick to note, however, that “We’ve been at pains to not call it a line array because it’s a different principle at work. We prefer to call it a vertical array.”

Funktion-One Tony Andrews

Funktion-One Cofounder Tony Andrews.

With the Vero system, initially debuted in 2016, Andrews, Newsham and the other engineers on the team managed to find the magic (and secret) blend of their patented waveguide technology. Not only that, but they arrived at a high-efficiency driver expertise that allowed them to configure their speakers as a vertical point source arrangement without the usual compensatory signal processing used in an array hang. As such, while the Vero system is certainly built in the format of a standard line array, the actual output distribution stays largely true to the deployment ethos of traditional Funktion-One speaker clusters.

“I’ve been very much against line arrays, because it’s quite simple for me, if I stand in front of it, I want a stereo image that I can climb on,” Andrews said. “The whole approach with audio should be, do as little to the signal as possible, try and get it right at the source, and then don’t mess about with it. Implementing that with natural geometry instead of processing was a big challenge.”

In addition to the proprietary speaker housing and waveguide that Funktion-One had effectively adapted for the new format, the challenge faced by Andrews and his crew was to devise a custom rigging system that would prove both easily adjustable from the ground while still maintaining the audio fidelity so crucial to the success of the design. “One of the things we had to do with the flying system was to have it rotate around the center of the box,” said Andrews. “That’s quite a big thing really, because no matter what angle you set, it has to be geometrically aligned, and therefore will be singing off the same page.”

The angle-adjustment system of this speaker style is a crucial component in adapting a line array for the standard J-shape required to cover the entire audience from the bleachers to the front row, such that the lowest hanging boxes are curved down towards the audience. Meeting this objective while maintaining natural coherency led to the patented Funktion-One Lambda rigging system, which allows the center of rotation to be exactly between any two Vero enclosures.

Here again, Funktion-One designed the Vero to maximize convenience without sacrificing audio quality by making any such adjustments relatively speedy. If an adjustment of the arrays curve need be made, “you can actually take the tension off the back of the hang, and the system goes into a natural straight line. All the tension’s off the angle adjustment, at which point you can dial in new angles, and then re-tension,” according to Andrews. 

“So that was a nice result that came out of what we had to do for the geometry, and it’s certainly a very unique system,” he continued. “One of our younger engineers called it ‘clockwork tonnage,’ which I thought was quite amusing. We went through probably about a year of all kinds of grief. I had to learn about the vast array of different steels and what you can and can’t do with them. The difference between mild steel and some of the more exotic varieties you can get your hands on is unbelievable.”

Behind the front cover of the Vero speakers, the signature Funktion-One waveguide design is still making magic. “The axe-head has a vertical directivity which allows us to move the angle [of the Vero boxes] between about a quarter of a degree and maybe as much as twenty,” Andrews pointed out – plenty for the needs of a vertical array.

Using Funktion-One’s proprietary Projection software, sound engineers can calculate the best set of angles and overall curve for the Vero array at a given event based on the venue specs and attendance layout. This is standard for most line array speaker stacks, but they usually require the individual cabinets to be configured for and locked into specific angles before being flown above the stage, already in a curve.

The Vero array, however, is designed so that the speakers are initially stacked straight up from the ground, with the technicians setting the calculated angles on each box while a set of motors lifts the stack progressively upwards. After being raised in the air, the lowest speaker in the group is pulled back and upwards from a rear tension arm. The hoist naturally pulls the array into the predetermined curve shape, with each cabinet only rotating as far back as the angle setting allows. 

Adaptability of a single sound system to a range of spaces is a key appeal of the line array format. Once the angles of the individual speakers are set and flown, though, it can be quite difficult for most line arrays to be adjusted in the event that, say, the venue decided to open up an additional section of nosebleed seats or move the front rail a few feet closer to the stage, after the speakers had already been flown.

Despite the positive reception of the Vero system in the line array global market, Andrews and his team also recognized the need for a more compact design to fit the wider range of performance spaces that a touring artist might encounter.

Many concert halls, theaters, and music venues can only accommodate speakers up to a certain size and load before safety becomes a concern. “For arenas, Vero was fantastic, but it became apparent that for more standard situations it was too dedicated to achieving a big result. It wasn’t universal enough,” said Andrews.

Funktion-One Vero Welcome to the Future

Early Funktion-One Vero deployment at Welcome to the Future 2017 in Amsterdam.

After the initial award-winning debut of the Vero system at the 2016 edition of Prolight + Sound in Frankfurt and a number of high-profile festival bookings, the need for a more compact touring option became obvious. “Vero is a big system, and one of the early tours we did went through some smaller venues, where capacities were only 2-3,000,” Andrews recounted. “It was quite hard to get it into the venue and into the ceiling.” 

The Vero VX system was born of solutions to these obstacles. In addition to the purely dimensional challenges of fitting a system like the full-format Vero into smaller venues, available rigging points can often be few and far between.

“With the Vero VX, we made further refinements to the basic Lambda flying system because of the experience we’d gained from using Vero – but we still held onto the same principles,” Andrews said. “We only get one hanging point sometimes, so you’ve got to commit. And we’ve got the flexibility to rearrange the angles without having to drop it down and rebuild the entire array.”

He went on: “We thought, well, if we’ve only got one flying point, to maintain adjustability without dropping the system, we had to we get back into the mechanics. We developed a motorized moving point on the main bar where you can change the angle the angle of the entire array by moving the pick up point within the bar via a back and forth hand controller on the ground.”

Andrews is confident that the intended balance between top-tier audio quality and line array-style ease of use was struck in the transformation of the Vero paradigm into its smaller VX product line. “We didn’t put convenience in front of the audio quality,” he said. “So with the vertical arrays that we’ve now got to, we’ve finally figured out how to hold onto that integrity of a perfect geometric three-dimensional cluster in a linear, vertical fashion, which has the huge advantage of being able to be deployed so easily. The two of us could put a Vero or Vero VX system up in twenty minutes.” Funktion-One also developed custom transportation carts, carrying four speakers each, to facilitate speedy array-stacking and disassembly while effectively protecting the hardware.  

Converting the Vero design into this compact form factor was no small challenge, but after three years of experimentation, refinement, and development, Andrews brought the system back to Prolight + Sound in 2019. Billing it as a “a smaller system that offers the same performance characteristics and ease of deployment” as the larger Vero offering, Funktion-One began bringing the VX system out to select U.K. events including Gottwood Festival and Hide&Seek Festival in the latter half of 2019.

Tony Andrews Funktion-One Vero Hide&Seek Festival

Tony Andrews helping with a Funktion-One Vero install at Hide&Seek Festival in Macclesfield.

“Vero achieved what we wanted, but by polling everybody, we got the fact that the VX needed to be not much more than a meter wide,” said Andrews. “So we were really cramming it in because not only are we making it smaller, we were actually trying to get the low frequencies in there as well. It was very challenging in that regard, but we did manage it”

Meanwhile, Funktion-One prepped for a larger global deployment in partnership with live music companies such as Awaken The Night (ATN) in Denver, Colorado. In addition to organizing electronic music gatherings of its own, the company stood out as one of the few official dealers of Funktion-One speaker systems in North America, poising it to capitalize on the upcoming Vero VX rollout.

“Vero VX was all set to go like crazy,” Andrews said, “and then we got hit with COVID-19.”

What can you do when an entire global industry is forced to shut down, with no clear timeline for a return to work, and a precedent-setting sound system sits unheard in your warehouse? For ATN Founder Jimi McClain, the choice was obvious. “We shut it down, completely, and we kept all our guys on,” he told Selector during a meeting at a members-only after-hours club run by the company out of Denver.

“When your lifelong career is music, and you just get furloughed, where do you go? Where does your skill set apply? So I took on the personal debt of keeping my guys working, and we used that time to innovate,” McClain explained.

As the only Funktion-One affiliate to own the Vero VX system in North America – the largest entertainment market in the world – McClain and the ATN crew have been fortunate enough to maintain their business in expectation of events returning. At the same time, they have utilized the downtime to refine both their technical approaches to sound system deployments and the guiding philosophy of their operations. 

“Running a company during the pandemic has been probably the best thing that could have happened to us,” Lee said. “It took us to a different frame of mind, and made us look at things from different angles, and made us better. COVID-19’s been devastating to so many of our peers; it’s tragic. We’re fortunate that we’re still standing and even able to have this conversation.”

ATN was – and still is – the only U.S. production entity in ownership of a full Vero VX array, as well as the sole point of contact for any U.S. touring artists interested in renting the VX system for their shows. The company had thusly been selected to facilitate the U.S. debut of the brand-new array at the June 2020 edition of Sonic Bloom Festival in Rye, Colorado.

“We had it set up where Tony was going to come out as a guest engineer and it was going this really special introduction, with all four stages, as an introduction of the Vero VX to the world,” recounted Lee. In early March, however, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Less than a month later, Sonic Bloom’s organizers announced that emergency guidelines would force them to postpone the 2020 edition.

As discouraging as the turn of events may have been, the ATN crew chose to remain optimistic about their position within the event production world. A year without constant bookings and trade show obligations has allowed them time to refine both their system’s design approaches and continue to build upon the already significant anticipation for the debut of the Vero VX array.

ATN Talent Buyer and Artist Relations Manager Dr. Kelly Neff told Selector about the vocal support the company received from the local music scene. In particular, she and the team were most surprised by the demand to introduce the new system out as soon as possible, despite them never having publicly debuted the VX itself.

 “The system had been at Prolight + Sound and it was at NAMM, but those were just demos. This was the only [touring] build that had ever come to America,” Neff said. “And now Sonic Bloom just got rescheduled again. Same lineup, and we all confirmed with [headliner] Tipper and [the festival management] that yes, we will still do all the sound for 2022. But we’re sitting here with this amazing system that’s really one of a kind, a game changer, and haven’t been able to fly it yet.” 

With the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines in early 2021 bringing just shy of 47% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated at time of writing, the music industry is gearing up for a major return. Many states have lifted social distancing mandates and gathering restrictions entirely. Some festival promoters are already planning and hosting large multi-artist events, and nightclubs across the country are spinning back up into activity.

Fears of infection resurgence remain plausible, to be sure. Variants of the virus are still prevalent in some parts of the globe, with India seeing a record-setting spike in cases early in the month of May. The long-term preparation involved in planning large-scale touring acts, like those who might utilize the Vero VX system, means those bookings aren’t likely to be active until the fall and winter. Many rightly question how event organizers might enforce vaccination requirements or other post-pandemic safety precautions. Across the U.S., though, the live events industry is warming back up and preparing to entertain the millions of people who have spent a whole year foregoing concerts, festivals, and nightclubs.

For his part, Andrews shares McClain’s hopeful outlook about the future of Funktion-One and the anticipated deployment of the Vero VX array in national and global tours. When asked if the initial enthusiasm from potential customers and fellow sound engineers to get the system out into the world had persisted through the pandemic, he affirmed, “Definitely, and I’m pleased to say that hasn’t gone away. We’re just hoping that the vaccines win the race over the virus mutation rate.”

The global lockdown on events has also afforded Andrews a brief respite from the demanding schedule required of a lead systems designer, live sound engineer, and brand ambassador for a company like Funktion-One.

“You know there are trade shows and all manner of things that go on throughout the year, and you have to be there, and it’s very hard to get into a deep developmental groove when your time zone’s being trashed one week to the next,” Andrews said. “And that’s been fantastic; we’ve really been making progress. It never ceases to amaze me how deep this subject is and how many things it involves – everything from human attitudes to what’s the best way to get pure audio to the people.”

Through it all, the music is still the bottom line for Andrews. “The funk is still it for me,” he said. “That’s why we’re Funktion-One I suppose. Funk is on the one.”

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