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05/08/2020
Article
In Streams or On Stage, Audiofusion Inspires Better Performances, Transforming Smartphones into In-Ear Monitors

Musicians are leaping into live streams as the touring world holds its breath. Yet a persistent problem has followed them into virtual performance and makeshift spaces: They still can’t hear themselves very well when they play or sing.

Monitoring has been a drag on great live performances for decades, especially for independent touring musicians who don’t have a team of monitoring engineers at their beck and call. Hearing the right mix via equipment that doesn’t cramp a performer’s style with inscrutable controls or cumbersome packs or wires has proved elusive.

Audiofusion is the first monitor system to change that, allowing artists to use a device they already love, their smartphone, to hear and control custom monitor mixes via Wi-Fi. It opens up the bespoke monitoring experience of major touring acts to everyone with a dedicated router, a few smartphones, and their budget-friendly one-time software purchase.

“We talk about how big the software impact has been on the recording studio, moving from discrete hardware to software plugins at a fraction of the cost,” notes Audio Fusion Systems co-founder Brandon Leafblad. “That same shift is finally hitting live music, be it on stage or streaming. We can connect musicians and instruments in live performance to let them use the devices they already have to do what they’ve never been able to do well with previous gear or software.”

“People are familiar with using their phones. They can fire up an app and it feels natural to play around with it, as opposed to a box of knobs they may or may not figure out,” explains Audio Fusion Systems CEO Kevin Slick. “It’s great to have gear, but it brings its own set of problems because it’s not very robust or portable or user friendly. Smartphones give artists and sound engineers more flexibility and familiarity.”

Slick is a software engineer, but he has also been a devoted musician and sound engineer at his local church, working to help musicians give their best performances at worship. Though the musicians in his church gave it all they had, Slick ran into the limitations of different monitoring systems, from usefulness to price point, and thought there had to be a better way.

His curiosity was piqued right when smartphones gained traction, and he was amazed at what they could do. Unlike on-stage wedge monitors that blast the band with the same mix, smartphones allow for custom, personalized mixes to go to each musician, as they do with pricey in-ear systems. Yet unlike in-ear monitors requiring receivers and transmitters, they were already on hand and comfortable for musicians to use. And unlike the personal monitor mixers popular at houses of worship -- small, stationary boxes that allow musicians to each create their own mix -- smartphones wouldn’t inhibit a dynamic performer from moving around as needed.

“People make tradeoffs as they are figuring out what to go with,” Leafblad says. “Wireless isn’t important to a more stationary player, but if you’re a front man, you have to be wireless and you don’t want a personal monitor mixer over on the other side of the stage. If overall cost is the big barrier, they’ll just settle for wedges. People don’t always realize the tradeoffs they’re making. They don’t know what they are giving up by going for the cheapest way to do what they need to do most.”

Slick experimented with ways to put an end to tradeoffs, giving performers a custom mix in their earbuds via their smartphone over Wi-Fi. There was just one problem: Wi-Fi itself. “Wi-Fi at the time and smartphones didn’t have enough horsepower,” recalls Slick. “It required next-generation Wi-Fi for this to work well. That coincided with what I was doing. I was able to demo a prototype at SXSW in 2015 because, by that time, the gear had gotten to a point where raw speed and performance was no longer an issue.”

Audio Fusion Systems released the first version of its software suite for iOS and macOS devices in 2018 and currently has more than 700 regular paying users. Users can determine just how much of each instrument they need to hear, as well as add click tracks or backing tracks to their mix. An Android version is planned for release later this year.

Some of its earliest and most enthusiastic adopters have been houses of worship, the source of Slick’s inspiration. Yet a growing number of independent bands have gravitated towards Audiofusion. Audiofusion takes the input from a digital mixer or audio source. Then all a band needs for a killer custom monitoring setup is a dedicated high-end router, a Mac, and their smartphones.

Slick and Leafblad know musicians, no matter where they play, are all facing the challenge of sounding great and playing with all the vitality and intensity of on-stage performance, but with serious logistical and technical hurdles to clear. Audiofusion lowers the barrier to great live streaming sound, and it can make a rehearsal productive and fun, rather than deeply frustrating.

No matter what the context, Audio Fusion Systems strives to empower musicians to give their best performances by hearing just what they need to hear. “Musicians don’t need to hear everything; in fact if they do, via their monitor, it can be extremely distracting,” reflects Slick. “A good clean monitor mix has the essentials in it, so that musicians can get into their zone and be focused on the music.”