Sound Product of the Month: Outline Butterfly Speakers (Or How Butterflies Can Save The World)

It's dark and cold. Our boat is tossed up and down in the waves as the water obeys the will of the moon. My stomach contorts like a Frank Gehry building, and I lose my tofu and bean sprout dinner to the sirens of the sea. "Get it together, and hold the rudder!" the captain screams, and I snap back to reality as the enormous ship approaches our tiny vessel. "We're taking on water! We're not going to make it!" I shout. The captain glares at me. "Damn it, man. We're not important. It's the whales that matter, not us. We are out here to stop this boat from doing any more harm. If we don't make it, at least these whales will. Now hold that rudder, and let's save this planet."

In a flash, I snap back to reality: me, walking through Union Square, avoiding those people in green shirts with green buckets and pamphlets about the horrors of this and the atrocities of that. The truth is I am just a sound guy. I am not interested in joining a movement to save Mother Earth, but I hope she makes it for at least another 50 or 60 years. Is that selfish? So what can I do to help with this global warming? How can I be of assistance, Al Gore?

Well, recently I stumbled upon something that might do the trick. I was at a sound convention when I heard a man get up in front of his speakers and say, "If Florence, Italy is known for anything, it is known for great speakers." Huh? I was intrigued. I always thought of the Duomo, David, Ponte Vecchio, The Uffizi. I had no clue about these so-called speakers of Florence. As he went on to discuss Outline speakers, I was stunned at what I saw. Rarely do I see a speaker that confuses me and then dazzles me. Next time I am in Florence, I know what I want to see.

What They Do
Outline Butterfly speakers are arrayable and can be used for large indoor and outdoor venues. They consist of the CDH 483 Hi-Pack and the CDL 1815 Lo-Pack. The Hi-Pack has a 90˚ horizontal dispersion and weighs around 35 pounds. It is made of two 8" NdFeB bandpass loaded woofers for the low-mids, two 8" NdFeB partially horn-loaded mid woofers for the mids, and a 3" diaphragm NdFeB, DPRWG-loaded compression driver for the highs.

The Lo-Pack is a cardioid or a hypercardioid sub consisting of an 18" woofer for front emission and a 15" woofer inside the box. They are pretty much configured like no other speaker. The Mini-Compass offers 16 different horizontal pattern dispersions ranging from 60° to 150° by 15° steps. It has small vanes that can be adjusted to create the pattern you need, and it has internal DSP to adjust to your custom settings.

Tom Bensen, vice president and director of operations for Outline NA, LLC, explains some of the unique features. "They are highly efficient, very lightweight, and have extremely high fidelity, not to mention that we have always tried to make a different design," he says. "The footprint actually looks like a butterfly."

Most recently, Outline introduced a new software package called Open Array, intended to simulate the Butterfly line as well as all of Outline's speakers. The software makes it possible to design in 3D and simulate what the speakers will sound like.

The speakers are also among the greenest speakers in the world. "They take up less room, cost less to transport, and require less energy consumption in the self-powered versions, which use D-class PFC amplifiers supplied by Powersoft in most of the powered products," Bensen says. When Butterfly speakers are used in conjunction with Powersoft amplifiers, the environmental footprint of the sound system shrinks considerably. As a speaker continues to move after the electrical power ceases, it generates a voltage at its input that travels along the circuit between the speaker and amplifier. The voltage is commonly referred to as back electromotive force (EMF), which is short-circuited by a low output resistance of the amplifier. This short-circuiting effect is referred to as electrical damping and has a braking effect upon continued movement of the loudspeaker. Amplifiers and connected speakers have a specific damping factor, a ratio of speaker resistance to the low output resistance of the amplifier.

"What Powersoft has done is to take this energy and put it back into the power supply," Bensen says. "In a traditional amplifier, this energy returns to the amp but would destroy the power supply if it were allowed to reenter. Therefore, it must be dissipated as heat energy. This is why Powersoft amps, and their Outline branded counterparts, are so extremely efficient and why they run at such low temperatures, regardless of output, duty cycle, or impedance. It is why you can safely stack 20 or more amps in a rack with no heat transfer between amps. This is another major contribution in energy savings, as the amount of space necessary to devote to the equipment room is drastically reduced, and the need for ancillary cooling is significantly reduced as well."

In DSP-equipped Powersoft K and Outline T series amps, this is taken to one more level, where the DSP is able to control the damping factor by calculating the impedance contribution of the speaker cable and configuring the output stage of the amp to a negative impedance output that matches the impedance contribution of the cable. This mathematically eliminates the speaker cable and maintains the true damping factor. "The net result is better, stronger bass that eliminates the non-linear mechanical resonances between identical cabinets that result in bass loss due to mechanically induced phase cancellations," says Bensen. "This reduces the number of cabinets necessary to produce your low end. It is brilliant, and it's green."

How It Came To Be And What's Next
Outline started 36 years ago, by Guido Noselli, who passed away in 2006. The company grew a reputation in the 1970s for huge sound systems in clubs and also built a great reputation as a sound system rental house. From there, the company started to design speakers that are now essential tools for many touring companies. Since Noselli's passing, Outline has been owned by his two sons and Bensen, with sales outlets all over the world.

"We continue to lead the charge in green designs," says Bensen. "Acceptance in the US is going to help establish Outline as a technology leader." The speakers are currently installed in NYC at Clear Channel Radio's P.C. Richard & Son Theatre; The Imperial Palace Casino Biloxi, MS; and Healing Place Church Baton Rouge, LA. Some installs were recently done or are in progress through Special Event Services and Technomedia.

Additional companies using the speakers include Maryland Sound, PRG, Britannia Row, SIA Acoustics, and Kingston Audio. "Britannia Row Productions from London is certainly the largest user of Butterfly," says Outline CEO Giorgio Biffi, who has been with Outline as a partner since 1976.

What End Users Have To Say
Adam Shulman, consultant for SIA Acoustics, recently used the speakers in Madison Square Park for Mad. Sq. Music: The Studio Series and also included them in the Clear Channel Radio's P.C. Richard & Son Theatre system. "We came to Outline through a very specific and objective evaluation process," says Shulman. "Among the qualities that attracted us were the off-axis consistency, exceptional output-to-weight and size ratio, and the use of unique directivity control and DSP features."

Shulman adds that the physical design of the speakers—rigging hardware, packaging, etc—makes them attractive. "One person can rig a large array very quickly," he says, adding that he also likes the Mini-Compass for its mid- and high-frequency horizontal directivity that can be user-varied (symmetrically or asymmetrically) per element. "Because the loudspeaker is self-powered with internal signal processing, micro-switches on the horizontal vanes trigger DSP changes to match the physical configuration of the loudspeaker for the desired horizontal dispersion," he says. "The upshot is that the product's on-axis response remains consistent, regardless of the horizontal directivity. The user needs only to push the vanes in or out with a hand, and the loudspeaker will match the DSP parameters to perform as intended—in short, a complex issue to provide a feature operated by the user in a simple way." Shulman adds that he is looking forward to the recently announced i-Mode platform that "promises to combine DSP, networking, amplification, and acoustics in some very interesting ways."

Jason Farah, vice president for Special Event Services, used Britannia Row's Butterfly system at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and he has a favorable impression of the speakers, which he says have, "rich-sounding low-mids and very smooth highs." Farah's favorite feature is "how far it can throw and still be effective, maintaining a very usable tonal balance throughout," he says, though he would like to see the company develop a companion low-frequency speaker as a complement. "That would round-out the Butterfly toolkit, allowing for even more flexible system designs," he adds.

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Shannon Slaton is a New York-based sound designer/engineer currently working on Fela on Broadway, a tour of The Wizard of Oz, and sound systems for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He recommends a nice Italian rosé when reading his article. If you are not a wine drinker, he recommends Brooklyn Lager. If you stick to the hard stuff, he recommends a margarita on the rocks.

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