L-Acoustics CEO: 'We're leading the spatial sound revolution'

Try as one might, it’s all but impossible to broach any conversation about the current state of the pro audio market without at least mentioning the dreaded C word. From studio gear manufacturers to rental firms to loudspeaker brands and system integrators, there isn’t a corner of the industry that hasn’t been touched by the pandemic. Of course, the devastation and suffering it has caused have been documented far and wide, but amongst the immense challenges, slivers of the artistry and innovation that the pro audio world was built on have been able to shine through.

The studio sector has seen music creators utilise their downtime to upgrade their audio tool kits, while those on the live sound and installation side of the market, who have inevitably felt the brute force of Covid to the fullest, have found ways to diversify their offering and dip more than the proverbial toe into uncharted waters. French loudspeaker giant L-Acoustics certainly falls into the latter category.

A company that has always been synonymous with audio innovation, L-Acoustics was already on the way to significantly diversifying its offering before the pandemic struck, but the grinding halt of live events in March 2020 allowed the business to recalibrate, see where it could fast-track the moves it was making into certain quarters and explore new markets with a focus and lightness of foot that it may not have been able to do otherwise.

Last year, L-Acoustics launched its new L-Acoustics Creations division in earnest – a special division within the company aimed at high-end commercial and residential customers. Chief among its offering is Island, an experiential product designed for the most aspirational of consumers and for the company to showcase its object-based L-ISA technology without the need for a theatre or concert venue in which to do so. Driven by the vision of L-Acoustics founder, Christian Heil, Island takes the form of a literal island, with a lounging area at its centre, surrounded by an arc of speakers to create a 360° sonic environment, bringing the listener inside the audio experience. A range of variations on the theme of spatial audio have been unveiled over the past 12 months, with new products and innovations set to see the light of day over the coming months.

Another significant breakthrough came in the form of L-ISA Studio, a software suite that offers an L-ISA 3D control interface and audio processing on a personal computer. Through L-ISA Studio’s binaural engine, users can produce immersive audio on headphones with headtracking or up to 12 loudspeakers in any studio. This, too, will be elaborated upon yet further in 2022 and beyond.

To find out more about where the company is headed next, as well as the market trends and insights that have informed its movements over the past 18 months, we caught up with L-Acoustics CEO Laurent Vaissié for an exclusive chat about the ever-changing nature of the business…

Let’s rewind to March 2020. What were you and the company thinking when you realised that Covid was going to be a long-term problem?

First of all, it was a health crisis, so we shut down operations for two weeks to allow us to regroup and see what health protocols we had to put in place to protect our employees. We moved almost 300 out of 500 employees into remote work, which meant IT had to get everybody online very quickly. Two weeks later, we started resuming operations with health protocols in place. These were limited operations, but we had some backlog and projects we had to fulfil.

How are things progressing now?

It definitely feels a lot better. Q1 2021 was still very difficult, everything was shut down, and vaccinations were starting to roll in. But we’ve seen a big shift in Q2 and Q3, especially in America, so as a consequence, we’ve seen our backlog starting to increase in Q2. Some big projects that should have happened in 2020 were released, so June and July were very strong in terms of delivery, and much higher than we expected.

We’re still seeing a predominance of installation, around 60% of the business is still the installation market, but even on the rental side, we’ve seen companies come out of the pandemic who are now very busy. International tours are still not happening on a big scale, but festivals are taking place, and regional tours are happening, so we are in a good position compared to 2020. We planned for similar results to 2020, but we are going to be higher without a doubt. And 2022 is looking like a very active year, pending any new variants of Covid.

Many companies have been diversifying their offering during the pandemic. How much has this been the case for L-Acoustics?

It was an opportunity for us to take a step back and look at our mission statement to elevate the listener experience. So, in the first stage of the pandemic, we focused on something we started a few years ago, which is L-Acoustics Creations. Suddenly, the idea of bringing the concert home became very relevant, and we had already prepared for that. So, it was a chance to expand on that with some products for integration.\
We continue to develop installation market products, so K3i and K3, which were in the works, were launched, but we also saw the opportunity to work more on the content creation side; we saw the push for immersive technology. With L-ISA, we’ve been leading the revolution for a few years, and we’re seeing this happening on the consumer side with Apple Music, Amazon, and Dolby Atmos. So, one of the missing pieces we felt needed to be addressed was in the workflow and the ability for engineers and creators to prepare immersive content in any situation. The pandemic gave us a chance to release this early with L-ISA Studio, which has been really well received and closes the loop for us in terms of the full workflow, from creating the immersive content, preparing for production, then getting the design into Soundvision and then implementing it onsite. This changes the type of discussion we have with artists, their teams, and the production and FOH engineers.

We also developed a partnership with (IEM industry leader) JH Audio, collaborating with them on a professional in-ear monitor matching L-Acoustics live sound signature. This development was linked in part to the L-ISA Studio concept – it allows people to use L-ISA Studio anywhere with a binaural mix on a pair of professional headphones that would match the signature of our PA. It’s opened a new space for us and is a very interesting and successful collaboration.

We’ll always be a premium solution. We'll never address 100% of the commercial market. Laurent Vaissié, CEO, L-Acoustics

Are you seeing an increase in interest from artists with regard to L-ISA?

Yes, without a doubt. To take advantage of L-ISA, it must be a process that is thought out from the very beginning, so we are having these discussions earlier and earlier. Implementing L-ISA and immersive sound is more involved, so it will happen in different steps. One of the first steps we started seeing was an increase in residencies. When artists go into a residency, they really want to make a statement. The production level is high, and they want to do something unique, so following the residency with Aerosmith and Lady Gaga in Las Vegas, we’ve seen an increase in these types of projects. There’s the ABBA project in London, which is going to be fantastic, and there are a number of residencies in Las Vegas around the Resorts world theater - many discussions are happening with the creative directors and FOH engineers to explore what is possible.
The tools are coming along as well. We’ve just released L-ISA Processor II, which offers up to 128 channels at 96kHz. The workflow is very user-friendly. Some of the fears and preconceived notions around what it means to mix in an object-based way are disappearing quickly. It’s happening slowly, but the shift is there and is being pushed both in the consumer and professional world. And when companies like Apple Music and Amazon Music see the benefits of spatial audio, then the consumers will be used to that.

The response we see from the audience and engineers who have tried L-ISA is overwhelmingly positive. We supported a show this week with Bon Iver in LA with a 7.1 system at the YouTube Theater, and without prompting, the response from the audience on social media was a lot of people noticing how the sound was different and how intimate the experience was.

What has the response to L-ISA Studio been like?

It’s been very positive. The community using the software still needs to be expanded, and there is a lot of potential for content creators to use this tool to create their immersive mix, not only for L-ISA but also for Dolby Atmos. We need to communicate that a little better to expand the user base. But we have met our targets and expectations, and the response has been really positive.

How much of a focus will the residential and commercial markets be for L-Acoustics?

Christian’s vision has always been to find ways to get the best listening experience. When we talk about architectural or commercial space, the same rules apply. A product like Island is for a very niche market, but it’s a fantastic way to showcase the technology as well. It’s an easy way to show decision-makers, artists, people who aren’t technical but are involved in professional live entertainment to understand what L-ISA is about. It’s not only a way for us to penetrate a new market but also a way to communicate about our new technologies.

The focus is not to be just another residential loudspeaker manufacturer. We would not enter this market for that. Christian’s vision is to create sound experiences: how do we transform private spaces into places where audio can be an integral part of everyday life and where audio can transform the space from both a resonance and content standpoint? This is the vision that guides the technologies and products to come from L-Acoustics Creations in the coming months and years. ] We will also be announcing some new partnerships with AV companies that complement some of the products we have launched and position us at the very top of the market.

What have been some of the key market trends you’ve seen in the past 18 months or so?

The first is the push for immersive audio. We’ve seen more and more venues, not just performance venues but also houses of worship, requesting L-ISA to create a better connection, more intimate, for the congregation. Sometimes that means we are deploying smaller lines but more points, and sometimes slightly smaller boxes but more boxes deployed in the space.

The other has been the success of the A Series. The form factor of that product family, along with Panflex directivity, gives a lot of flexibility to integrators. It also addresses a part of the market which could not access line arrays before, yet they were always interested in L-Acoustics, but settled with other brands. Now with this configuration, we’ve seen a lot of demand from the sports market to theatres to clubs. That’s been a success: and there is a lot more we can do with this.

Where are the biggest opportunities and challenges in the market for L-Acoustics?

I’ll start with the challenges! Right now, what’s at the top of our minds is the stability of the supply chain. This is hitting everybody. We are in a particular position because our model is very highly European centered and our manufacturing sites are in France and Germany, so we control most of our supply chains, which is a great help. However, we still depend on some raw materials, and shipping routes have been very congested. 

In terms of opportunities, in addition to immersive, we also see trends shifting towards more sustainable touring. We’ve been working on this for a long time, since the introduction of V-DOSC in fact, and now we’ll be preparing to take the next generation leap in the coming years, which will put us in a great position to address the future of touring. Also, as we start to expand through Creations, and with our portfolio of products increasingly suited for fixed installation markets, we’ll see markets in the commercial space open up to L-Acoustics. We’ll always be a premium solution; we will never address 100% of the commercial market, but we will always be there with solutions for customers who want that premium experience, such as hospitality and beyond.

All photos courtesy of Hal Horowitz Photography