Is It Too Expensive?

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Fountain Pen

This article is an editorial and expresses the opinion and experience of the author. Please post comments in the discussion page.
Thank you.


This originally appeared in my blog between March and July 2005. Except for the release of the PackLite® power amplifier model A1, the L1 Model II and the T1 ToneMatch Audio Engine, not much has changed. My thoughts below are still applicable.

Introduction

My niece announced at our last family gathering... "I'm the lead singer in a new band". Her mother had hinted to me earlier, "Now that you have completely converted to that fancy Bose system, do you have any of your old gear you could donate?"

This got me thinking once again about this question, "Is the Bose system too expensive?" and pondering the options.

Well, I've already given away all of my old PA gear. I didn't have the heart to sell it as once having adopted the new system, I couldn't perceive a lot of value in the old stuff. (Bose 802s, powered mixer, power amps, floor wedge monitors). So I donated it all to a worthy cause.

So what do I do for my niece and her fledgling band. She is the only vocalist and the other four members of the band already have their instrument amps. There probably wouldn't be a lot of motivation for them to pool resources for what is essentially, an amp for her. I'm not quite sure how I will handle this specific situation, but back to some more general thoughts about the meaning of "expensive".

What have you paid for things that didn't work?

Over time, I have spent many times the cost of the Bose system, for things that basically didn't work. I had gotten to the point that I thought it was as good as it was going to get for what I was willing to spend. Throwing more money at the problem wasn't going to make the sound significantly better.

Expensive - Compared to What?

Pondering value, I look around at other things that I spend money on, and notice:

The new system is:

  • About the cost of a Tablet PC, a tool I use to generate the funds that supports my music habit. I typically replace this kind of gear at least once a year.
  • Significantly less than a decent instrument, and yet my electric instruments don't realize their promise without some kind of amplification. The new system does this better than anything else I've ever owned in this respect.
  • Significantly less than the aggregate total of other guitar rigs I've owned, most of which I simply stopped using as I went through the cycle of gear acquisition in search of tone.
  • About what I paid for a TC Electronic G-Force (that's a single piece of gear that goes between the guitar and and amplifier).

I draw no conclusions about this, just that in this light, it somehow just doesn't seem all that expensive.

It's probably going to take a couple of days to get all of my thoughts on this reduced to words.

Logistics

Let me spare you any raving about the sound. That can be pretty subjective. Let's talk about things that are easier to measure.

Logistics

The logistics I'm talking about is all the planning and labour it takes to make a gig happen, before, during and after.

Unless you have a sound technician with a system and transportation for your band, there is a certain amount of planning required to get the gear to the venue, set up and ready to go. Chances are pretty good that if you move your gear in a semi, you are not in the target profile for the Bose® system.

If you are like many bands, a gig means some or all of the following:

  • Tearing down your practice studio
  • Loading gear into one or more vehicles
  • Unloading it at the site several hours before the show
  • Setting up the gear
  • Sound check (usually at full volume) in an empty space
  • Finding something to do for a couple of hours
  • Showing up at the gig when it's time for the show
  • Fine tuning the sound during the first couple songs to compensate for the warm bodies that are now in the space
  • Checking with folks during the set, and between sets to find out how you sound (because you can't tell from the stage)
  • When the show is over, you have teardown and transport to look forward to, and
  • Unloading at the other end
  • At some point you probably will setup your gear again, so you can practice

Life is Ticking By

Life is ticking by while all of this is going on and no matter how well organized I have tried to be, the payback (time playing) was always overshadowed by the logistics. A four hour show might require eight to twelve hours from beginning-to-end. In the extreme this looks like: Start packing early afternoon, and not be finished unpacking until the early hours of the following morning.

What if you didn't have to do the full volume sound check and you could physically setup in 5-10 minutes? This cuts out the need for the early setup / sound check routine. For me, this means the difference between doing setup in the afternoon, and just showing up an hour before the show. That knocks three to four hours out of the routine.

What if teardown after the gig could be done in under twenty minutes (from stage to the vehicle)? At the other end of the journey, how about ten minutes to have your gear setup and ready to go for practice? This could save another hour or more.

What's the payback here? For me, about four to six hours per gig.

So if you have ever had the thought: "Is this really worth all the effort?" as you contemplated eight to twelve hours of activity with three hours of actual music in there someplace... Consider what it would be like to do the whole thing in half the time.

With a payback like this, is it too expensive?

The Cost of Change

While continuing to ponder "Is it too expensive" today let's look at an intangible cost. The Cost of Change

Forgetting the Past

When I run open stage events, the people who have the easiest time with the Bose System are those who are new to performing with amplification. In some respects, the less experience you have, the easier it is to learn the new way.

Why?

The more time you have spent living in the strange acoustic environment of traditional systems, the better trained you are to compensate. We walk into live sound situations prepared with all of our training to translate what we hear into something we can use.

For some of us, we are talking about walking a journey of many miles in shackles. Remove the shackles, and we still feel them. Everything feels wrong.

The Cost of Change

  • Getting used to hearing yourself, the other performers, the room and the audience takes time.
  • Leaving behind familiar tools, and standing relatively naked with your sound before the audience can be very disruptive to your psyche. (Sing without reverb? You've got to be kidding).
  • Hearing yourself amplified live, warts and all might confront you with some truths that will cost you to deal with. It did for me.
  • Hearing the rest of your band clearly may bring about some uncomfortable realizations.
  • You may have to leave behind many of your understandings about how sound works, stereo, dual mono, effects processing, performing, and even the role of music in your life.


Managing Your Own Sound

When you play without amplification, you manage your own sound.

When you work with amplification in smaller environments or simple gigs you may manage your own sound.

When working with others or in larger environments, things can get more involved. Maybe you, maybe someone else is managing the sound. You create your sound, but there may be someone else at the controls.

At this point you may feel at the mercy of circumstances, or simply relieved that you can focus on making music.

You find yourself asking an odd question. "How did it sound?" Doesn't that seem a little odd? You create the music but you don't know how it sounds to others. For that matter, in some situations you probably couldn't hear either.

If you've got a great sound engineer on your team then maybe you don't worry about it. If you don't maybe you stop asking because there's nothing you can do about it anyway. Perhaps it is just too hard to keep apologizing. My worst nightmare version of this scenario is when I am managing sound for everyone (running the board) while trying to perform.

Now you look at the Bose System and the Remote unit on the microphone stand. There's four controls (three tone and a level) for each channel. There's two channels plus a master volume.

Sorry to say, but I have at times wished that I had a remote control for "the sound guy". (That is: Control the sound guy from the stage). If you've ever wished this, then you will probably have no trouble using the Remote.

Back on topic. You want to create music and now you have to deal with the Remote. You have to (or get to) manage your own sound.

Understanding: What is it Anyway

Understanding - What it is

In order to understand if the Bose System is too expensive, you have to understand what it is. For the official definition of that you can go to the Bose Musicians' Website. To make it easier to read the rest of this I will refer to the Bose® Personalized Amplification System™ Family of Products as simply, "the System".

I've had mine since early June 2004, and have

  • Played through the System
    • starting with one System for our four piece band, and
    • gradually getting up to the ideal of one System per player (four Systems in total)
  • Watched and listened as others played through the System working with dozens of musicians at open stage events, rotating stage (fund raisers), regular gigs and musicians' parties where I invited other musicians to come and take the System for a spin.
  • Read thousands of posts and answered more than a few of those

And from all of that, I've formed a few ideas about what the System is, how you can use it and what it does.

The Ideal

In the ideal situation, an individual musician, playing solo or in an ensemble, in live performance indoors, with an audience of 300 to 500 people uses a System as his or her sole form of amplification for his or her vocal and instrument.

That may sound like a somewhat limited definition, and it is, but it is not a limitation of the System. The System is flexible enough to transcend the ideal, but let's talk about that ideal a little more. Limited or not, the performing situation I've described is pretty common.

Most of the working musicians I know play before live audiences, indoors most of the time for audiences of 300 or less. These hardy types often bring their own sound reinforcement systems, whether for their instrument, vocal or both. That is, they buy, care for, transport, set-up, tear-down, and store their own instruments and gear.

For this musician, the System serves as instrument amplifier (back-line amplifier), vocal and instrument monitor, and the main system through which he or she shares the voice and instrument with the audience.

For this musician, the System provides two flexible inputs that can handle a microphone or instrument (Channels 1 and 2). There are also two routing options for effects (Insert Point for serial effects and a separate return for parallel effects). There is also a +4 dBU line out for each. Control over these two inputs is available (3-band tone and level) on the Remote Control unit. There are also two secondary inputs (Channels 3 and 4)

So what is it? For an individual musician who sings, plays an instrument, or both this is the single aural interface (connection) to the audience.

Incomplete Parallels: "oh, I see, it's really a..."

There are a couple of other ways to view this, but none are quite complete. Still, for the uninitiated this is what they think they see when they look at it.

  • It is a powered speaker. The System has onboard amplifiers and integrated speakers. So to some, it's a powered speaker.
  • It is a backline amplifier. You can plug in an instrument and it gets louder but unlike a traditional guitar amplifier you can't crank the preamp to 11 to get that "good" distortion characteristic of guitar amps.
  • It is a monitor. You can hear yourself through it. Maybe calling it a monitor trivializes it. I can't actually say that most monitor systems have allowed me to hear myself. Not really.

All of these somewhat inadequate descriptions have something important in common. Each of these is pretty much the end of the signal chain. Beyond each of these, the signal becomes sound in the air. And that is important and I'll get to it in a minute.

But can it do this...?

Where things get really cloudy is when you don't have that ideal situation. Examples:

  • More than one player sharing a system.
  • Large or outdoor venue.
  • Recording

Is it a Mixer

It's got more than one input... Is it a Mixer?

It has multiple (well two) main inputs that are mixed-down to one output (the powered speaker part). Is it a mixer, No. there's no single summed output for all the inputs. Is that a design flaw? No. Not for the musician who as an individual performer does not require a mixer.

Recording

Large or outdoor venue / Recording - What's the problem?

There's no problem here unless you want to treat the System as a mixer and run a single summed output to another system. This could be a traditional Front-of-House system or a recording device. It's not a mixer so you won't find a single summed output. What you can get out of the system is basically a dry pass-through of the two main inputs. These are the line-outs. You get to control your own mix and add effects if you like - outside the System.

Where's the effects?

Over the last couple of decades, it has been increasingly common to find all-in-one powered mixers with onboard effects. Lately, with the rise in popularity of powered speakers, we are seeing a new generation of relatively inexpensive mixers with onboard effects. So let's see, it's not a mixer, so it's not that odd that there are no effects. It's not a simpler powered speaker, but if it were we wouldn't expect it to have effects, multiple inputs or a single summed output.

So if it isn't any of those things...

It is something new. Not meant to be shared with other musicians, it addresses the needs of the individual performing in not all situations - but a very common one; the ideal I described above.

Savings

Savings: Contemplating the Days Before Bose

Two of Everything

Joseph is another interesting character who writes on the Bose Musicians' Forum. He recently wrote of his PODXT Live -

"The PODXL has become such a major part of my rig set-up now. I thought it wise to buy another one as a backup. " -- see it in context

This reminded me of what things looked like in my days before Bose.

I had pretty much two of everything including:

  • PA systems with mains, monitors, vocal processors, power amps, DI boxes, snakes and miles of cables.
  • Guitar rigs including combo amps, 2x12 cabs, stage monitors, my delicious boutique McIntyre Bluesmaker II amps.

Why have two of everything?

  • One complete rehearsal environment that was ready anytime.
  • One complete performance system, packed and ready to go. The "rehearsal" system was also my backup in case anything failed in the "performance" system.

You can imagine that this took a lot of space, and it did. There were a couple of side benefits. Getting ready for a gig was simpler because I didn't have to dismantle the rehearsal environment before a gig. It also meant that I didn't have to set it up again afterwards. Trying to do it all with one system was too difficult. So I eventually just doubled up on everything. If that seems a little excessive, I'd have to agree, but worth it to me given the alternatives:

  • No rehearsal environment or
  • Twice the setup / teardown time

For more about the rehearsal environment see Rehearsal or Practise.

So what's different now that I have the Bose System? It takes so little time to take-down and set-up the System that I don't feel the need to have one dedicated to that rehearsal environment. All that PA and the back-line Guitar amplification gear is GONE.

Some people say that it is easy to spot the dilettante in the band. He's the guitar player who shows up with a "broken string" guitar. (bought it and brought it in case he breaks a string). I don't agree with the characterization, but I understand it.

But back to the topic at hand; Savings. I shudder at what I had tied up in all that stuff, and am can't help but sigh in relief as I appreciate life without it.

So what do you think? Is it too expensive?