Injecting some Flare into Sound Systems
- Published on Wednesday, 13 November 2013 13:38
Flare Audio is a relatively new speaker manufacturer, but they're already making a fair amount of noise thanks to the innovative advances in audio technology they've managed to make in just two years. Not only have they picked up Plasa's 2013 Innovation Award, but they look set to give Funktion-One and the rest of the leading sound system manufacturers a run for their money. Head of the company Davies Roberts has immersed himself in the world of sound in an attempt to crack the secret of supplying pure, untainted audio to the masses and he think he's cracked it. By all accounts, Flare Audio's speakers do a very impressive job – even Andy C was blown away after a recent gig at the Brixton Academy. Here MEOKO speak with Davies about Flare, how he developed its technology and its repercussions for audio at all levels...
So how did you get involved with making speakers in the first place?
I got into it pretty late on in my life, around 2005 – I was a fireman for 13 years but had always been involved in electronics. I had a mobile disco when I was very young and was always a lover of music. My wife Naomi (who's also a director at Flare) started working for the council doing events. I went along to an event and thought, 'I can do this', so I borrowed some speakers, soldered some cables together and did this gig, for a live band. Without any prior knowledge or experience of live sound, I engineered the gig and fell in love with sound and the delivery of pro audio. Over the next few months I started Purple Audio in 2007, which was a rental company, I quickly established that company as a reputable, high quality sound provider.
Over the following nine or ten months I became aware that I wasn't happy with the sound quality that we were providing at Purple. I was noticing huge distortion and everyone was saying it was either not loud enough, or too loud, it was hurting their ears... all these different complaints about sound quality. So, in 2009, I formed Flare Audio – originally as a small manufacturer for our own equipment, again that took off quite significantly.
Nice one, and where did you go from there?
Well my first speaker designs took a different approach, we weren't tuning speakers like you would tune instruments. I wasn't getting a cabinet and I wasn't making it resonate. What I was doing was making the drivers become pistons and we started to realise, 'Hey there's still some wood in there shaking around, there's still some resonance', so we tried to really pinpoint where the problem was. Sound is very simple; if you think about your ears, they're just a flap of skin that moves backwards and forwards at different speeds to give us different frequencies. It's a compression and expansion of particles, it's that simple – so why are speakers not producing accurate sound? That was the challenge.
How did you go about tackling this challenge?
Around last June I realised how to solve the problems. There were two issues surrounding the speakers, 1) The cabinet resonating. You have a square box and a driver inside vibrating like mad inside, if the sides of it flex the internal volume changes – no matter how small the change, if the volume changes it affects the driver. Because a driver is like putting a bit of clingfilm over a box. To illustrate this, the way to understand it is: If I you compare a guitar string to the side wall of a loudspeaker, if I want to stop it resonating we don't want to put our finger on the thread because that will change the frequency, it's still going to resonate. We don't want to use a thicker string because a thicker string will lower the frequency but still resonate. If we're going to stop a guitar string moving we have to put some weight on it and stop it moving, and that's what Space Technology does. It applies compression to the speakers, to the front and back plate – you tighten up the bolts and it stops the structure from oscillating independently, it becomes one unified structure. That's the first problem solved...
And the second problem?
Once you've stopped the box resonating, the other issue is pressure. Through our research we've created what we call 'Vortex Technology': lots of lots of small vortices, which kill the sound energy but allow the pressure to evacuate the box – so it's like completely silencing the port inside a loudspeaker. Those two technologies together mean we have a structure that doesn't resonate and no pressure inside the box.
How long did it take you to get your head round all of this and put it into practice?
It's a long, hard process – from June last year up to now it's been all about getting the patterns formed. The way we've done it, as a pro audio company, is to consider the needs and wants of the artists, the engineers, the big events and taken our ideas of what a speaker needs to be and made a prototype. We've got a lab here, so we built a speaker knowing what the frequency range needed to be and so on. The interesting thing for us is, we're not just a professional audio speaker manufacturer, we're going into the studio market, domestic and home and we're going to be taking the technology right down to micro level because it can be applied to any sound producing or receiving device. It's going to take calm and control over the coming years – we've unlocked the secrets to clear sound, so we're going to now apply them to each market. Speaker boxes have been stuck in their ways for the last 40 years, and it's because they've been treated as instruments and not scientific devices.
The real turning point came when I realised that what was in ever loudspeaker was 'wadding', you know the fibreglass they put in speakers? That was the first realisation of where the key issues were coming because that adds significant amounts of friction. When the driver moves back and forth it's got to move all the air around that wadding and that's the bit we don't have in our speakers. Because we've isolated the resonance and there's nothing else inside our speakers but wood and metal, it's bare inside and that was the key.
And you've been roadtesting the speakers at events haven't you? Tell me about that... ?
We did two nights at the Brixton Academy, we did Andy C's Ram night. At that gig we had a Q18 along the frontal space, two hangs of X5A, which is a small amount for a two tier building. We had the new SB21s for surrounding and the X3C also for surrounding. That was the first time we'd used the technology at a large event and we were getting unprecendented levels inside – the clarity and volume was quite insane. The most impressive thing was, you could walk out of the main room and go by the production entrance and you couldn't hear a thing. That's one of the benefits of this technology is, if you create pure sound you can control pure sound – it's the distortion that's causing all the problems with noise control.
Earlier this year I went to IMS in Ibiza and I watched Jean Michel Jarre's interview there – he made a great point which was, as the technology to create music has evolved and improved, the means by which it's delivered has actually devolved. We now listen to low quality MP3s through laptop speakers, rather than having a plush home stereo system – I guess your technology could help in reversing this.
That hits the nail right on the head really. MP3s are a bad thing – but you can understand why they came along, at the time they were introduced, we didn't have the storage capacity on our computers. We need to wean people off them, WAVs are now completely storable, you can fit a lot of information on your computer now. The thing is, people have got to be made to hear the difference. At home, as the world kicks along things have got to be made cheaper and lighter and that has been a really bad thing for speaker technology in the home – you've got everything made in plastic, with cheap drivers, you can't even tell the difference between an MP3 and a WAV. We've got a new speaker that we're working on at the moment that's a flat panel you can put on your wall – the next step is to make a speaker that is very low profile, which we're also working on.
Do you hope that Flare will be used in not only for concerts and clubs, but in cinemas and places that need big sound?
Yeah, our idea is to have one unified platform where artists could go into the studio and make their track, come out of there into their car, or their home or even into a field at a festival and it sounds exactly the same. That's the mission of the company. Obviously the consumer market is very different from pro audio, you need to make things very cheaply and on a mass production level. We're taking one step at a time, but we're aiming to become a significant player in a short amount of time.
Tell me more about the company, as I know you work a lot with local businesses?
Yes, everything is made in Britain. We use specialist local firms to make all our parts, about a year ago I scouted the real talent in this country for making aluminium and wood and contacted them with regard to using their materials. Having something that's made really well is equally as important to us as the clarity of our sound, you don't just want to make a great speaker but it falls apart within a few months. We don't have to outsource to China or anywhere else, the speakers are simple and fast to make so they can be assembled here. We can train people up to do it here in Britain.
Since Funktion-One, Martin Audio and Void are among the most common audio manufacturers that are used in a club environment, I wanted to know how Flare differs from those and improve on the sound in a club?
We differ significantly. As I said, in the past speakers have been used like musical instruments – so they've been hand-tuned and electronically corrected. I won't mention brand names, but the designs have been used for years. Both of those approaches are what we call 'damage control', they're getting the speaker and trying to make it resonate nicely – which, to us, is fundamentally wrong. A loudspeaker should be producing sound without any resonance. It's like if you have a really sharp and defined sound, you wouldn't place it in a box, you wouldn't slap a reverb over the top of it. You've got a box with a port, the sound's bouncing around inside that box – it might come out deeper, or really rich, but you actually listen to the information in that tone it's all false enhancement, it's all tuning that really shouldn't have happened. With our speakers, because the drivers just react to what they're given it means that when you take any frequency, all the way down to 20/30hz, you're only going to get that out when it's in the track.
When you put our systems in a club environment, like the Knife Party gig at Brixton Academy last week, it goes incredibly clean. The resonance is the space then becomes beautiful. We've put it into churches, we've put into tunnels, we've put into spaces that are regarded pretty badly from an acoustic point of view (like Brixton) – because there's no resonance to start with, the room, the reverb of the room, adds to the sound. Whereas, before it was losing little bits of detail that were just about left in certain frequencies and making it hard to engineer. From a clubbing point of view, you're going to get really clean sound going into the space that has a beautiful natural resonance. That's why we want to get Flare into the Royal Albert Hall or awkward spaces, because you're going to have the acoustics coming into play in a positive way.
Tell me more about the reduction in noise pollution?
If you're producing linear tracks and frequencies, most tracks are generally flat and, of course, they have peaks where the transients come in. But if you're producing sound in a uniform, linear way and you shut a door then you can hear all the sound drop out because you're not hearing the 'thump, thump, thump' of 80hz, which is all distortion and all pressure coming out and travelling through walls. The key is, if you're prouducing everything evenly, you should hear it all drop down at the same level – the key is getting it linear.
Another aspect is the hearing. At Knife Party, where it was incredibly loud, no ear-ringing at all – myself and most of the engineers went all night without any ear plugs as well. You ears felt tired, but there was no audible damage to hearing. Distortion is one of the main factors in hearing damage, I certainly found if I'd had ringing after a gig it would be from a system that's been distorted, even at low levels.
I also wanted to highlight something else – you always know when you've got a flat linear system, or accurate system when you can play everything on it from classical to dubstep, rock to opera, and everything is a reference. That's what I always used to do when I was testing systems, if they could play one thing and not another, then they weren't that great! So that's the important thing with our technology, you don't need another system, you could play rock one night and dubstep the next. It's very versatile.
That's great! Just to finish up, where can people go over the coming months to experience the Flare system?
There's a place in London called Ace Bros, who've got the full range of professional kit and they'll be doing State London's party on January 18th. That will be one of the first outings for the X3A, which is our aluminium product – they're working with Pablo Godofredo to deliver a really unique experience in London. That will be one of the first club nights to utilise our technology. We have a full compliment of events happening at the Brighton Centre soon, too.
So there you have it, Flare Audio purports to be an innovation in sound and is set to revolutionise clubs, concerts and even cinema and home sound when it eventually starts to roll out. Check out yourself and let us know what you think of it...
By Marcus Barnes