With the festival season fast approaching, the Prodigy's live sound-man, Jon Burton, talks to some of those involved about the unique demands of running open-air shows.
Festivals have risen in importance over the last 10 years. With the dwindling amount of live music on TV, the coverage of Glastonbury and the like is often the only chance to see a live concert on the major channels.
For artists, it is a chance to play to a bigger crowd than they would normally attract, and possibly break through to the next level. I remember working for Pulp in 1995 when they were given the headline slot at Glastonbury, after the Stone Roses pulled out at the last minute. Their electrifying performance catapulted them to new heights, as a larger audience were able to see and hear the songs from the then-to-be-released Different Class album, and the rest is history. A great festival band can make a weekend — but the weather can ruin it! I remember working the same festival in 2007 with Pendulum: I walked off-site afterwards in the rain, having worked in deep mud for a miserable three days.
In this article, I hope to give some insight into festivals and, in particular, festival sound. Is it, as sometimes claimed, always rubbish? If so, why? What makes running a festival different from running a regular show, and what special problems are there? As for the exorbitant price of warm beer and cold burgers, I'll have to leave that to another day!
For an engineer, festivals are a mixed blessing. Walking up to a possibly unfamiliar desk and an unheard PA system and mixing the show from cold is one of the scariest, yet most exhilarating feelings. It's a bit like jumping in a car that's already moving and taking over the controls just before a hairpin bend. The lack of a sound check or chance to listen to the system (aside from hearing the previous band) can leave you with little idea of how things will sound. But where would the fun be if everything was easy?
For the purposes of this article, I'm not going to be discussing one particular festival, but rather giving a generalised view based on my experience and that of others who work at these events. In the last 20 years, I have mixed at festival shows in tents, on beaches, on islands, in castles and on the edge of canyons. Though they're are all different, there are many similarities between them.
Most major, modern festivals follow a similar pattern in the way they operate. There is usually a main stage, plus secondary stages of differing sizes. Each has speaker systems designed to suit the size of the area or audience they're expected to cover.
It's fair to say that sound at festivals and larger venues has been revolutionised by the increased use of line arrays. This technology is now the predominant type of loudspeaker for these events. When Christian Heil introduced the L'Acoustics Vdosc system, with its use of waveguides to control dispersion, he enabled sound systems to cover a much wider area and throw sound further but in a more predictable way.
On the main stage, it's quite common to see towers of speakers about 50 to 70 metres from the stage itself, called delay towers. They carry the same programme material as the main speakers but are processed using digital delays, so that they are time aligned with sound arriving from the main system. There's also a selection of 'in-fill' and 'out-fill' speakers that cover the front of the stage edge as well as the sides — areas not covered by the main 'hang' of speakers.
Quite often, the sound company will calculate in advance how the system will cover the planned site. These predictions will often be done up to six months ahead of the event, and will be submitted to local authorities so that they can decide whether to grant a licence for the festival. This is also where the so-called 'noise police' come in...
With festivals growing all the time in size and popularity, local complaints tend to grow at a similar rate! These days, companies like Vanguardia are brought in to act as intermediaries, advising all sides on how to achieve the low off-site levels that are needed to keep local residents happy, and are thus required by local authorities.
Festival sites also have multiple stages, all of which are close enough together that, without some regulation and care, sound from the larger systems could swamp the smaller ones. On one occasion I was working with a primarily acoustic act about 100m from the main stage, and five minutes into the set we were swamped by Coldplay hitting at full volume.
To get an idea of how long it takes to co-ordinate everything for a festival, I talked to Karel Ham, who was production manager for the Rock At The Ring Festival (at Germany's Nürburg Ring racetrack) for almost 20 years. During this time, he was responsible for co-ordinating the technical challenges of putting on shows not just for the 30 bands playing the main stage, but for over 100 bands that play across the festival's three main stages.
Over the years, the festival has seen acts such as Metallica and Guns 'n' Roses, and this year Kings Of Leon and Coldplay headline the main stage. It's linked with the Rock In The Park festival, and acts travel between the two festivals playing on alternate days. I asked him how far in advance he starts planning, and what this planning entails.
"It starts when the previous festival finishes and the first acts are getting confirmed. Usually we start planning at the beginning of the year, which is five months before the festival gates open. We get quotes from all companies involved, for audio, lights, video, staging, vehicles, furniture, tents, fences, barricades and manpower.
"We check all the technical riders of the confirmed bands for any specials such as back-line requests, pyrotechnics or lasers (in which case permits will be needed). This also influences the lighting design of the stage, as requests of headlining bands will be taken into consideration. This advance work is not only focusing on one, but all three stages of the festival and for both festivals, Rock At The Ring and Rock In The Park.
"Some of the acts are confirmed at the festival the year before, but most of them early the following year, as soon as it's possible to see who is going to be on tour that year. But there are always last-minute additions and changes, sometimes due to tour cancellations, or to make our life more exciting!”
I also asked how much Karel would change the festival layout in order to accommodate a really big act?
"The festival has natural limitations when it comes to dressing-room space and facilities. However, specialist lighting design or audio requests by main acts are usually accommodated, within the limits of possibility. The festival offers a high-class sound and lighting system as standard. If, for example, three bands wish to bring in their own video walls, it would go beyond the capacity of the stage-roof construction. There always needs to be room for reasonable negotiations, and most of the time that hasn't really been an issue.”
I asked Karel if there had been any particularly memorable performances over the years, and was surprised when he picked the co-frontman and founder of '70s act Supertramp.
"Roger Hodgson, who played solo on the main stage. He performed all of his Supertramp hits and the crowd went crazy. What a wonderful atmosphere and feeling was given by just one man on stage. Everyone stopped what they were doing at that moment and just watched his show. Very Impressive”.
As we can see, the logistics for events like these are huge, and everything is planned from the size of the stage, through the number of crew and the number of meals required to feed the artists and crew, to the number of portable toilets needed!
Usually an artist will turn up at least five hours before they are due to go on stage. This gives them a chance to find the stage they are playing at, pick up the passes that will get them to the backstage area and onto the stage at their allotted time, and be shown their dressing room. Meanwhile, equipment is being loaded onto the back of the stage at the loading bay. Here, the crew will be given just enough space to start building the equipment onto rolling risers. These are staging units that can be set at different heights and sizes, then rolled into place when the band are due to go on.
When everything is set up, personnel from the sound company will arrive and start arranging the various microphones and DI boxes that are needed. These will be cabled up into sub-boxes, which are then connected to the main stage box using multi-pin connectors. This means that when the band's equipment is rolled out, only a few multi-pins need to be connected, rather than lots of individual microphone cables, which would take far too long. The changeover time between bands can be anything from 15 to 30 minutes. That's not long to remove a complete band and set up a new one, as well as making all the monitor and EQ settings for a different show.
At larger festivals, there may be several monitor and front-of-house (FOH) consoles: the festival's chosen console and, increasingly these days, consoles brought in by visiting acts. Sometimes the festival will have 'flip-flop' systems, where two desks are used, alternating between the acts. While one act is on stage, another will be setting up on the second desk, dialling in the appropriate settings and checking lines.
Nowadays, digital desks are increasingly being used, and they give the engineer opportunity to save their show on a drive and load it onto the festival desk. However, with all the different desks and models out there, this method can cause its own problems.
Each separate festival stage has its own stage manager — usually the chap with the largest voice! Stage managers are responsible for making sure all the bands start and finish on time. They have a stage crew to help unload and load all the equipment, and will be first there in the morning and amongst the last to leave at night.
When all a band's equipment has been set up, the preceding band have finished and their equipment has been rolled off stage, the next band's gear will be rolled on. It's important, at this point, not to get carried away with how much space there can be on a festival stage compared with your local club! I remember seeing one band taking up most of the stage, only to discover that their guitar leads were a good six feet shorter than the distance between their guitar amps and the monitors and vocal microphones.
When everything is in place, a quick line check is done. Each microphone is tested, to make sure it's working, and the gain set. This will often be the only chance the engineer has to hear the microphone before the band starts. Once everything is confirmed as working, the engineer may have a few minutes to test the more important channels, get someone to hit the drums quickly or give a few one-twos into the lead vocal mic. Then the message to 'go for show' is given, the between-band music fades, and the band walk out. Rarely is this enough time, but that's the nature of the job and is what makes festival engineering so exciting.
For me, the first two minutes of a festival are crucial. My main priority is always the vocal, usually followed by drums. Once I've set a vocal level, I will bring up the other instruments to match it. I'll rarely get round to adding any effects until I am happy with the overall balance. I will then spend the next few songs tweaking the mix and listening to the various instruments. However, from the very start of the show I'll try to have a basic mix happening. This gets easier the more festivals you do. Setting priorities is important. You need to ensure that instruments are audible, but keeping vocal clarity is essential.
Just when you feel comfortable is normally when you're told that you have exceeded the permitted sound level and need to turn down, so it's important, when building up the mix, to always keep an eye on the level and the decibel meter. It's easy to turn up the volume at a gig, but very hard to turn it down without ruining the dynamic of the show.
Noise-level regulation is a fact of life these days at a show, and no amount of complaining will change that. Many an engineer has felt cheated of those extra couple of decibels that would have turned their show into a magnificent aural extravaganza, instead of the damp squib they felt it to be. In order to combat this feeling, constant attention to the peaks and how the sound is metering is important. Good use of compression helps the sound in the same way that it does when mastering a mix. Overall loudness can be achieved in the same way.
Sound level at festivals is measured as a 'Leq', or 'continuous equivalent noise level', using a decibel meter. This gives you a level at a particular weighting over a set period of time, usually around 98dBA over 15 minutes, providing a certain amount of flexibility in the mix, as the engineer can use stolen moments of quiet to help with the average, saving up level for the last or loudest song. Often the headline act will also be given a few extra decibels over the other acts, and since they are usually playing to the largest crowds, this is understandable. A well-distributed sound system will help maintain the level over all the audience, so that it's as loud at the back as it is in the middle.
Warren King is one of the people with the unenviable role of policing noise levels at festivals. Although people like him are seen by some as the 'bad guy', this is a real misunderstanding of his role. I asked him for his viewpoint.
"It can be difficult being the interface between all parties at an event, including the promoter, sound engineers and local authority, who all ultimately want different results from a show. Keeping everyone happy can be a challenge.
"I would say that only a small minority of sound engineers don't realise the role we play in the months before an event. Those people only see us as the 'noise police', reading numbers from a sound -evel meter and asking them to turn it down. We understand the pressure a sound engineer can be under to deliver a good show, with the band manager looking over their shoulder, but at the same time the consequences of excess noise can be monumental: the future of an event can be jeopardised if off-site noise limits are breached. We try not to jump on an engineer during the first song or so, as they are settling down the mix, but on occasion it is necessary if noise limits are significantly exceeded during the first couple of minutes.
"Although a noise limit is generally expressed as a 15-minute level, we have to be on top of the monitoring every minute, both at the mixing desk and at residential locations, as even one very loud minute may not be recoverable, causing a breach of off-site noise limits. Unpredictable and uncontrollable factors such as the weather can dramatically affect noise levels off-site, by anything up to 10dB.”
With so many factors to consider and factors so variable, how exactly does Warren walk the tightrope of keeping all parties happy?
"We try, where possible, to provide advice at the planning stages of an event so as to achieve the best possible levels for a show. Vanguardia [the company that Warren works for] have developed acoustic models to predict the sound propagation from sites, based on the orientation and type of sound system. These models are useful at the planning stage.
"Luckily, we do have a good working relationship with most sound engineers and sound system companies, built up over a number of years, which makes our job much easier. We work together at difficult venues to find ways in which to maximise sound levels for the audience, while staying within the off-site noise limits. This may be achieved by reducing the level of the top boxes of a line array, compressing a vocal, or reducing certain frequencies that may be causing off-site increases, without reducing the overall level or mix quality of the show.
"I personally get the most satisfaction at the end of a show when I know I have been involved from the start. This includes providing advice to achieve the best levels for the show, negotiating licence conditions in court, and working with sound engineers throughout a show to give an audience the optimum music levels we possibly can. This allows an engineer to run the show at the levels they would like, without noise restrictions, while keeping the local authority happy and minimising noise complaints.”
Ray Furze is easily described as one of the most likeable and experienced engineers in the business. Having worked with such diverse acts as The Pixies, Chris Rea, James and the Spice Girls, and now currently on tour again with The Pixies, he has mixed more festivals than most. I asked him if he had any advice that he could pass on to younger engineers.
"Try to get the chance to be a system tech a festival. You'll gain invaluable experience on how and how not to 'approach' as a visiting engineer. Always be polite! It is quite acceptable to ask for help. If you don't understand something, ask, rather than trying to bluff your way through. You are being let loose on expensive and complicated kit; now is not the time to be experimenting, and nobody expects you to know everything right away.
"If it has been a rushed setup, I often ask the system tech to watch the drum channels and compressor levels at the start of the show, so I can concentrate on the vocals. During your show, you have to get out of the mix tower whenever possible, especially if it is raised up, which they usually are. It can be an awful shock when you realise that the audience are hearing something completely different to you: you have to spend the gig somehow mixing how you think it sounds everywhere else. This is extremely difficult, as we all have an idea of the mix balance in our heads, and it's hard to work with a balance that sounds wrong to you, even if you know it sounds right in the field.”
So given how difficult it is, does Ray enjoy the experience of mixing festivals?
"I can't honestly say I enjoy festivals. They make me too nervous! Too many things that out of your control can undermine even the most competent of engineers. The engineers I know are pretty much perfectionists at heart: paid to be fastidious and listen harder than anyone else on the spot.
"Our whole day is spent trying to get the best sound possible for the audience. This does not sit well with the festival approach of 'you're just another act, get over it' and takes considerable adaptation of your normal touring mentality, where you can feel in control. I should learn to relax more, but it's probably a little late for that!”
Does this experience leave Ray dissatisfied with festivals and festival PA systems, compared to his normal arena and theatre shows?
"It's the same type of gear, usually line arrays these days, but more of it. Plus you didn't choose it or set it up, so you are playing a whole different ball game to the one you're used to. You're not in control of many important parameters — weather, PA placement, mixing position — and though most of the time, these days, systems are set up very well, on occasions when they aren't, it feels a bit like taking away a violinist's favourite Stradivarius and giving them any old fiddle. You can still get a tune out of it, but it will not be a satisfying experience for player, engineer or audience.”
Does Ray have any positive or favourite festival experiences?
"Many great Pixies concerts, but the most surprising and pleasing reaction was when M People played Glastonbury in 1994. It was their first festival, and the band and management had no idea if they would be accepted by the festival audience, their music being mainly dance or pop, but the crowd went totally mad for them, from front to back. I think it's because they were so different to the rest of the bill.”
I asked Ray if he had any top tips or secrets for other engineers aspiring to try their hand at festival sound.
"It's not always possible, but ask to listen to a couple of hits on the kick drum, and a 'one two' on the lead vocal through the PA. No more than that, though, or you'll become annoying! During the show, try pulling back the kick drum and bass a bit. A lot of engineers overdo the low end in an attempt to get some sort of vibe into an open field, but after a few hours of this, all the bands start to sound the same. Try pushing the melody for a bit, then you will be able to use kick and bass for greater dynamic effect when you want the show to take off. This can be a great feeling when the audience pick up on it. You can feel their response on the tip of your finger!”
And the modern festival in general: how does it feel to Ray?
"I suppose I'm a bit 'old school' in my thinking here, but I feel we may be denying a whole generation of kids a true rock-concert experience. It's been sacrificed to what are sometimes almost unworkable sound-level limits. I know all the good reasons for the limits, and my head tells me it's 'sensible' but my heart sinks sometimes when I walk the field and find that the fairground is louder than the act! If you want a safe radio mix, go listen to the radio. The one thing that we are able to add to live music that people can't listen to at home on their stereo is dynamics.”
When the subject of this article was first brought up, it went under the tongue-in-cheek working title of 'Festival Sound: Why Is It Always Shit?'. Obviously, this wasn't thought an appropriate title for an august publication such as SOS. It did, however, capture some of the feelings people have about the festival experience. Hopefully, what you've read here will serve as a defence against this accusation, and an explanation of the possible reasons behind negative festival experiences.
Festivals can be some of the most inspiring events you can attend, but at other times they can feel like musical versions of the Battle of the Somme. As one of the engineers I interviewed said, a great festival experience is the combination of three things: a great sound system, great weather and great bands. I would add a few more: a good engineer, good company, and maybe a few beers. If, after all of this, you'd still like to try your hand at mixing festivals, one mantra is repeated over and over again by the experienced engineers in the business: keep it simple.
Matt Vickers works for Skan Hire, who supply sound systems for some of the UK's biggest festivals. His job is to provide a system for a given stage that will cover the area the promoter wants to cover, at a price the promoter is willing to pay. He also receives all the technical riders from the acts, which include specific requests. These vary from just a channel list and stage plan to more tailored requirements from acts that are higher up the bill. For most headline acts, riders will run to several pages.
Acts will often bring their own mixing desks, and sometimes not just their own microphones, but whole monitor systems. With the Prodigy we even carry extra sub-bass cabinets with us to provide that special sound! This may seem excessive, but such acts are often playing festival after festival and this is the only practical way to recreate their show each time. A headline act will often turn up with two articulated lorries full of equipment to add to the festival system.
Matt's job involves co-ordinating all these requests and supervising the many stages Skan will have running each weekend during the summer.
JB: What advice do you have for a young engineer or band coming to your stage?
MV: "Get your band info, tech rider and requirements correct, and make sure they get to the sound contractor well in advance of the festival, so that it can be ready for you. Do not turn up on the day and decide to change things around because the drummer has a new tambourine, and you want it in channel 3.”
JB: How should you approach the show, overall?
MV: "Be happy! Everyone who is there wants you to have a nice time, and they want it to sound good as much as you do. Remember, if things go wrong it's their system that will sound bad as well as your mix, so we all want it to sound great! Remember, the system tech has not just come from a nice warm or cool, dry bus or hotel like you have; they have been stood in a muddy, cold, wet field for god knows how long. Turn up with a cup of tea, not a beer!”
JB: How about approaching the mix? You must have seen many good and bad engineers?
MV: "Keep it simple. Basic gates and compressors as required. A load of fancy inserts will distract you from getting the mix together. None of the audience will notice or care that you have a nice vintage valve preamp or compressor on your main vocal if the basic mix is shoddy.”
JB: I must agree; I quite often see engineers sorting out effects instead of making the vocal sit nicely in the mix as soon as possible.
MV: "Remember why you are there. The band chose you to take their sound and give it to the audience. The audience is your priority. As soon as you can, get out of the mix position, which is usually up in a tower, and get to the audience level, off centre if possible. Have another listen. You are the only person in FOH. There's no point in an awesome mix up there if it's sounding bad on the ground.”
JB: Are there any common mix mistakes?
MV: "You should start off quiet. It's easier to get your mix together, and then creep up the overall volume of a mix without people noticing once it's sorted. It's impossible to turn it down without it sounding like you just turned it down, plus before your mix is tidied it will probably sound louder than when it's right. Its safe to assume that as soon as the band start, there will be a perception of things sounding loud anyway, as the chances are you'll be following a changeover DJ or adverts at lower volume. Get it sorted, and then bring it up to show level.”
JB: How do festival systems differ from touring arena and theatre-style systems?
MV: "A festival system needs to be a blank canvas ready for any type of act to play through, where as an arena or theatre rig can be tailored to suit the style of act that is playing, and can be set up more specifically to suit the desires of the band.”
JB: Are there any things that you have to approach differently with festival systems?
MV: "Coverage. Finding out what your audience capacity and geometry is expected to be and containing the coverage of the system to within these boundaries is a task. In a venue, this is easy: you walk in, measure the room, find out what seats are sold or open and do a plot. Outdoors, this can be a lot more difficult, as you have an audience that is constantly moving, other stages around the site to consider, and weather, which will affect the sound.
"I have seen many festivals where the system is too large and pointing into the sky, not down on to the audience, because the system guy insists on having massive hangs of PA. This will only cause problems, as there will be too much energy leaving the audience area. As a result, the volume will need to be decreased, defeating the object of the massive hangs.
"Waterproofing and protecting against the elements is tough. Outdoors — especially in UK — you have to assume that God is out to get you, and you will either have torrential rain or extreme heat battering your gear to within an inch of its life. Even if there is not a cloud in the sky, waterproof, or be prepared to waterproof at a moment's notice. Always cover your gear overnight. Even if it doesn't rain, it will be hot and dusty, and some kind person with a leaf blower will be wandering around 'tidying up'. Basically, either way your stuff is getting ruined!”
JB: What is your opinion on festival sound in general?
MV: "I have visited a lot of UK and European festivals. Bearing in mind that I strive for perfection, I can honestly say that sound is generally good enough for the event, but rarely is it exceptional. I don't mean this in a negative way. People go to festivals for the atmosphere, to see their favourite bands and to experience new ones, not to have a mind-blowing sound experience! It's a difficult subject to tackle, as there are so many factors to consider, but for it to be amazing requires the weather, system design and engineer to all come together and complement each other. If one of those elements is not present or 100 percent, then it will never be 'perfect'. "
JB: What was your favourite festival performance and which is your favourite festival you have worked or visited?
MV: "Tough question. My favourite performance changes all the time, and it's often the surrounding mood and atmosphere that affects this answer. Also, I am biased because part of my enjoyment comes from being somehow involved and appreciating how much work has gone into something. I can safely say that Glastonbury is by far the best festival I have ever been to.
"I have worked on the Other Stage in various capacities since 1994, and in the last few years have had an opportunity to both work on and explore the rest of the site. From all angles, it's an amazing festival, especially from an audience point of view. At the moment, I have to say my latest favourite performance would be the Chemical Brothers on the Other Stage this year, but before that it was Muse on the Pyramid stage in 2007.”
JB: Has the festival circuit changed in the last 10 years?
MV: "It has improved a lot. Generally, conditions have improved, especially in the UK. We are still not quite as 'sorted' as mainland Europe when it comes to quality and working conditions, but it's getting a lot better. Also, noise control has definitely improved.”
One major factor that can make or break a festival is the weather. Wind is a real mood killer: it blows sound back onto the stage and away from the audience, or swirls it around like a giant phaser. It can also increase the distance the sound travels, raising off-site levels and the number of complaints.
Rain has a huge effect, too. The increased visibility of festival sponsors' logos and advertising usually means that the speakers are hidden from view behind giant mesh scrims. These are supposed to be acoustically transparent, and probably were before they were covered in print and then a thin layer of water from any rain that buffets them. The result of this build-up, however, is masking at the top end. This reduces clarity for the audience and also reflects the treble back onto the stage.
Humidity, low cloud and warm earth all have different affects on the sound at festivals, some good, some bad. There is no doubt, though, that great bands, a hot day and a dry, warm evening can lead to one of the best environments to listen to music — as long as the drinks are cool, that is.