The Ark of Orenda is an art and music vehicle operated by the non-profit, High Seas Energy in affiliation with Burners without Borders. Visually inspired by “the kind of desert hovercraft barge a sci-fi villain rides around on” according to Artist Jeff Deehan, it has already toured regional Burner gatherings and will make its official debut at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada this coming summer.
Deehan and audio engineer John Buehler designed an audio system using QSC live sound equipment exclusively, with KLA12 active line arrays for the main front of house; four E218sw dual-18-inch passive subwoofers driven by PLD4.5 power amplifiers to provide extended bass; K12.2 active loudspeakers serve as stage monitors; together with a TouchMix-30 Pro digital compact mixer.
“The key word for us was value,” says Deehan of the choice to go all-QSC. “The Ark is built on a highly modified 50-foot bus chassis and opens up into a stage. We had operated a smaller art car in the past with QSC gear and were very happy, so for this larger one, it was a ‘Goldilocks’ sort of fit. The QSC gear is well-priced and sounds great.
“Burning Man is also a de-commodified space free of advertising or logos. We appreciate the subtle, function oriented design without needless branding elements. We tried some very high-end brands that have a prestige factor in the DJ community, but for our needs the QSC system worked better because it sounds great and is easy for us to work with.”
Central among those needs is creating what Buehler calls “an immersive and engaging sound field, but one that you can still hold a conversation in. Outdoors, people are constantly moving around,” he explains. “We want them to hear the same beautiful stereo image wherever they are. For this, phase coherence is crucial. The KLA line array is so adjustable that it achieves this easily. When people are gathering very close, I can turn off the bottom cabinet to avoid ground reflections and the swishy comb-filter effect that can result. The way we have things set up now, the stereo image is so coherent you can’t even mess with it. We recently had a fundraiser in a warehouse, and I was worried because it had an eight-second natural reverb. But for people standing within the sound field, the bass was tight and the mids and highs were clear and intelligible.”
Asked if any DSP wizardry is involved in achieving this, Buehler responds, “Nope, just good speaker placement. I credit the fact that the KLA Series and K12.2 monitors are incredibly good at maintaining coherence and imaging when you move off-axis. The QSC gear makes the whole area in front of the Ark into one big sweet spot.”
Another challenge endemic to Burning Man and DJ culture is “that DJs and EDM artists tend to turn up over the course of a set,” reflects Buehler. “That’s the main way they see to increase the intensity. We want to give them space to do that but also protect the gear and people’s ears. The integration of the PLD amps and E Series subs is just spectacular in this regard. The limiters in the amps do a really good job of maintaining musicality and not imposing themselves too audibly.”
“For monitors, the K.2 Series are my go-to for anything,” interjects Deehan. “At Burning Man there are no headliners, no technical riders, and things get very spontaneous, so we never know exactly what the stage setup is going to be. We’ve always been able to throw a couple of K12.2s onstage in a V shape, and the performers hear themselves cleanly without the stage volume needing to get insane. The Black Rock Desert is also notorious for the alkaline dust that gets into everything and is just murder on electronics, but our QSC gear has stood up to it remarkably well. When we need to, it’s also pretty easy to take apart and clean.”
The TouchMix-30 Pro integrates the line arrays, subwoofers, and monitors. “We use aux outs for the subs and monitors,” explains Buehler, “and I have low-pass filters on the auxes that feed the subs, so the TouchMix is effectively doing crossover duties — quite well, too. We didn’t buy this system as a package, but everything works so well together that it sounds like we did.”
A central feature of the TouchMix makes Buehler’s life easier, as he describes: “I really like the big rotary encoder. The environments we are working in are dusty, dirty, and sometimes wet. If I pull a fade on a touchscreen — and this is no fault of the touchscreen itself — it might go all erratic because my hands are sweaty and filthy. Assigning a fader to the rotary encoder is just a tap, which works fine, then I have a nice, big, physical knob to do a smooth fade or precisely cut a dB from something.
“One time, we needed a microphone onstage, and things were already so hot that I was on the edge of feedback even with minimal preamp gain,” he continues. “In the heat of battle, I needed the anti-feedback tool that I was aware existed but had never called up before. I was immediately able to insert it and get that mic sounding sweet inside of 30 seconds. That speaks to a no-nonsense interface design.”
“In the end it’s about emotional engagement,” concludes Buehler. “Pattern graphs and frequency response charts don’t represent the great time we’re trying to create for people. I’m so into phase coherence because it’s critical to great stereo reproduction — that sense of a three-dimensional image with the vocal coming right from the center. Listeners may not know what they’re hearing cerebrally, but they feel it, and it matters to the visceral experience they take home. QSC makes it easier to create those memories than ever before.”
Burners without Borders