Oasis’s 1996 gig at Knebworth marked the end of an era for point–source PA. We asked the people who made it happen what has changed since.
The fight of the century! The match of the year! The gig of the decade! It sells newspapers and it sells tickets — what’s not to like? Rarely, of course, do the actual events live up the that sort of billing, but one band and two gigs in particular stand out as having not only defined their decade but left an indelible impression on their audiences. The band was Oasis and the two gigs were at Maine Road on 27th April 1996, in their native city of Manchester, and their triumphant open–air appearances at Knebworth on 10th and 11th of August, where a claimed 250,000 (or more) watched them finally settle the argument about which ‘Brit Pop’ outfit was boss. No–one put it better than Noel Gallagher, who, with characteristic immodesty and absolute accuracy said, as he walked onto the stage: “This is bloody history. We’re all making history tonight.”
The 1996 Knebworth gig was historical in another way, too. It was possibly the high point in the evolution of traditional analogue, point–source PA systems. These were the giant dinosaurs of audio, which saw huge analogue mixers with multiple racks of outboard processors feed sound via strata of power amplifiers to mountains of speakers, not just at the front of the stage, but on stage too, as well as to delay towers, so essential at a huge outdoor event like Knebworth to even out the sound experience for those not lucky enough not to be nose–to–bouncer at the front.
Just like the dinosaurs, the proponents of the giant point–source rigs at the end of the 20th century may have been aware of the small furry technologies scurrying about their feet, but few realised just how quickly line arrays and digital mixers would change the appearance, sound and, perhaps most crucially of all, the cost, of providing large–scale live sound.
Handling audio duties for Oasis at Knebworth were Britannia Row, no strangers to that venue (the company’s very first gig was at Knebworth in 1975, when they provided sound for a 100,000–strong audience there to see the company’s originators, Pink Floyd). It was one of a handful of sound companies that pioneered modern PA and is still at the top of its game today — but even when it handles events like Knebworth’s Sonisphere, or this year’s Simple Minds European tour, nothing like the physical size of rig that was built for that 1996 Oasis event is called for. Times have changed.
Back in 1996, SOS’s then sister magazine, Sound On Stage, ran an extensive feature on the Oasis Knebworth event. Writer Mark Cunningham, clearly a fan, went into forensic detail on the giant Turbosound rig assembled for the event, and we’re indebted to him today for having provided that resource as we pose the question: what’s changed?
And change it most certainly has. Anyone who had just woken up from a trance induced in 1996 (quite likely given some of the substances on offer at an Oasis gig) and wandered into a contemporary equivalent might think he had stumbled upon the setup for a support band. Gone are the gargantuan analogue mixers; if there are any at all, ‘toy racks’ will contain just one or two favourite processors; and the speakers will be one of the ubiquitous line array systems. Pioneered by L–Acoustics’ Dr Christian Heil, the French particle physicist turned PA designer who blazed the trail for them, line arays have more or less wiped point–source PA off the map today — certainly for most major concerts worldwide. The modern approach offers many advantages, but is better sound quality among them? That’s another question we wanted to ask.
This being the music industry, and 1996 being quite a long time ago, tracking down the people who helped make the Oasis gig happen wasn’t easy, but Mike Lowe, Britannia Row’s Director, is still very much in the thick of things, so we began by quizzing him on the event — and how differently he would handle it today.
But first, it might be an idea just to look back at what actually had been assembled in that Hertfordshire field in the attempt to make the decade’s most in–your–face band actually sound that way, when you were sat a quarter of a mile away in a field full of very noisy, excited people...
The Sound On Stage article is exhaustive, revealing that Brit Row had provided the biggest ever set of Turbosound point–source Flashlight PA yet assembled. FOH duties saw no fewer than 34 TFS 780 Flashlight narrows used per side, with 96 lows in four columns at each side, plus 46–degree wide dispersion boxes, “to provide extra penetration in the field”. The aim was to cover 120 degrees, which meant, as Mark Cunningham revealed, “no fewer than 168 Turbosound cabinets — 72 lows, 72 narrows, 16 underhung, and eight wides — were spread between 11 delay towers in three zones: at 75, 150, and 225 metres from the stage, providing 80–degree delay coverage.”
Driving that mass of speakers were BSS EPC–760 and EPC–780 power amps: “17 amp racks, containing two of each amplifier type, drove the delay towers. Eight identical racks drove each side of the PA and a further nine racks powered the monitor system, contributing to a total of 168 BSS power converters.”
At the time, Mike Lowe said that, “No–one else has ever installed 11 delay towers at a Knebworth show, but Oasis are very committed to getting good quality sound in people’s faces... everywhere!
“To decide on their positions, we marked out the actual dispersions that we were looking for, on the ground with white lines. We went through a whole rigmarole of staking out the ground with red stakes to indicate the delays and blue ones to mark angles. We used a big protractor–like board which was staked to the front of the stage and had that as the point from which we measured out. The first thing was to stake out the distances between the three delay zone arcs. That was OK on paper, but after about an hour and a half, it really didn’t look good, and we came to the conclusion that the stage had been set up at a different orientation to the plans we’d been given. We checked this out with the staging guys, and it turned out that our hunch was correct, so we rearranged things at our end.”
The stick and string approach reminds us of another sea change in the way sound is handled today: the adoption of software and accurate measurement and prediction...
Today, Mike Lowe looks back on ‘96 and the technical challenges and says that not everything has changed. “The structure people would probably still mark out on the site with stakes, but the tools used to create the sound design have come on a long way. We would be provided with far more advanced AutoCad drawings of the site by Production. System prediction software would be used by our system technicians, to position every loudspeaker enclosure, together with its height and the vertical and horizontal angle of each array. Laser measurements would now replace tape measures. The accuracy in getting it right first time has improved immensely.
“The delay rigs in 1996 were at 75m, 150m and 225m from the stage. We would use almost the same distances today. However, due to the throw capability of today’s line–array systems, the consistency of volume down the field is greater.”
A serious consideration back in ‘96 was the local authority’s concern about noise pollution. Oasis were famously loud and Brit Row had to work hard to keep the sound in the venue, as far as was possible. Today, limits are enforced even more fiercely but, paradoxically, the power the company would use on a comparable gig today would be greater, he says: “The amplification used in 1996 would have been capable of delivering around 210,000 Watts into 4Ω. If we were to put a system into Knebworth today, the amplifiers would be capable of delivering something like 850,000 Watts. The enormous difference in the firepower of the system and delays between now and then is because of the ever increasing expectations of audiences, and the artists’ and promoters’ desire and/or need to meet those expectations — and, of course, the technology has developed.
“The increase in the capability of the PA has less to do with volume and more about better coverage and audio quality. Having said that, the Flashlight system used in 1996 was truly great for its time.”
If the speakers have changed, so, dramatically, has been the way the sound is mixed, as Mike Lowe says: “The 1996 system was mainly analogue. The improvements in system performance today by advanced digital signal processors are also another giant step forward in potential audio quality. By using digital consoles today, Huw Richards (FOH engineer) and Gareth Williams (Monitor engineer) would have much of the mix stored in memory to step through during the show, so that they would have far more time to work on the finer details. The same would go for the support band engineers. Much of the outboard effects and dynamics would no longer be in evidence as they are now in the digital console systems.
“Obviously, anything that somebody felt very passionate about — maybe valve equipment — would be in an outboard rack, and very possibly if they felt they couldn’t quite get the reverb they wanted with the onboard stuff, maybe something like a TCM6000 might be used, but we’re talking about less than 10 or 12 units of outboard gear, if anything, as opposed to three or four 20U racks, which would have been quite common then.”
One area where change has not been so dynamic (pun intended) is in miking. “The microphones we use would be much the same, or updated but largely unchanged models. The odd esoteric microphone might now be thrown in. Microphone technology has been good for a long time. If one listens to the Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra recordings from the 1950s from the Capitol Studios in LA (remember that multitrack machines were almost a thing of the future then), the quality is amazing.”
Which brings us to another great driving factor that seldom gets a look in amid all the talk of technological advances and artists’ demands for better and better quality sound — money. A gigantic rig takes a lot of people to truck, assemble, run, disassemble and then take home again. It also represents a huge capital investment that has to be paid for. In as much as the evolution of modern PA has been driven by considerations of improved sound quality and ease of operation, so it has also been goaded by the sharp prong of profit. And that has coincided, curiously enough, with a huge rise in ticket prices. If you are sensing a disconnect there, sorry. That’s just how it is.
As Mike Lowe says: “One other observation about the gig was that it grossed £5,625,000. For 250,00 people the average ticket price would be £22.50. My guess is that the average ticket price for Ed Sheeran at Wembley Stadium this summer will be sixfold — and the ticket price for the 1975 Pink Floyd Knebworth concert was £2.75 in advance, or £3.50 on the door!”
The $64,000 question for audiophiles, of course, is not whether it’s easier to truck, set up and tear down, or if it costs the band less money, but is the sound as good? You wouldn’t expect Mike Lowe to answer no, but his answer is interesting.
“Yes, I believe it is. The first thing is that, because of prediction software, you can get the whole thing far more accurately arrayed. Secondly, the thing with point source — and it has its advantages — is that at the end of the day you’re talking about fairly narrow dispersion boxes, probably 25 degrees. Side by side it can be got very clean, but the laws of physics dictate that you’ve got a lot of boxes interacting with a lot of other boxes, so there is a limit. Also, with any touring box, consistency is an issue. You get a 12– or 15–inch speaker that may be just slightly not performing to the degree that the next one is, and you’ve got a problem. With line array, you can cover a lot better, especially in the vertical plane — from the front of the stage to the top gallery, you can get much more accurate arraying and more even coverage. And that applies just as much as an outdoor gig.
“That said, at a dance event, for example, I’ve heard a really well set–up Funktion One point–source system sound absolutely superb, but the time involved in getting it there compared to a line array is something else that we’re all conscious of.”
In charge of the audience end of assembled might was the band’s resident FOH engineer, Huw Richards, with fellow sound man Rick Pope working alongside him. Both have remained very active in the business, Rick Pope having spent the past 21 years working for Jay Kay and Jamiroquai, managing Jay Kay’s studio as well as handling the band’s FOH duties on tour, though he also handles FOH for other artists, most recently Will Young. What were Rick’s memories of Knebworth?
“That was probably the last of the great point–source systems. Thinking back, Huw and I were probably doing Peter Gabriel’s tour around then and on that tour we were one of the first to try an L–Acoustics line–array system. I remember we were playing Paris when we first met them. We’d come from the days when you needed loads of boxes, so that was a revelation. So yes, Oasis at Knebworth must have been one of the last gigs where that huge amount of gear would have been used.
“One big difference was the software that we didn’t have back then. Putting the PA up then was a hands–on art that you learnt by doing it, and if it didn’t look right or sound right, you’d bring it back down, change your angles, and fly it up again. There was no computer programme to tell you what to do. You had to be good to make it work. Of course, you still have to be good, but today you’re relying on a computer programme to tell you how high you’re going to have to fly the boxes and so on.
“Another thing that software allows you to do is put little delays in between your stacks, which back then you couldn’t do because it was so cost prohibitive — so bass coverage is a lot more even today than it was.
“It’s also a lot quicker to put a system up today and then take it down again, so there’s a lot less manpower required. I’m pretty sure Knebworth was 10 wide and six deep... That’s an awful lot of boxes. And there would have been another 10 boxes as well and they used to have dollies, four to a dolly, so think of the manpower to move all that, just to get it in and out of trucks. You do a gig today and you’d probably get it in one truck, rather than two and a half. From a cost point of view, it’s been a great change.”
At least one aspect of the sound has changed though, Rick believes. “The stereo image that you used to get back in the days of the multi–box rigs was much wider than you ever get today, but personally I use line arrays. One thing you find is that the sound coming from the back of the boxes doesn’t affect the stage sound half as much as it used to with, say, a Flashlight system. It used to be horrendous for the poor monitor engineers.
“But the sound at Knebworth at that gig was fantastic. I remember during the soundcheck saying how loud the monitors were on stage and the guy said, ‘Oh, that’s Liam’s monitor rig, but we haven’t turned it round yet. At the moment it’s facing up stage.’ I said ‘Really? You’re kidding me!’ I think he’s calmed it down now. We did a gig with him recently, a double headliner thing with Jamiroquai and Prodigy, and he’s nowhere near as loud as he was back in those days.
Back to the show — as Rick says, “Oasis simply smashed it that day. It was a fantastic gig.” Their volcanic energy was always tangible on stage — notably in the explosive relationship between the two Gallagher brothers. That must have been a minefield for monitor engineer, Gareth Williams, surely? These days, Gareth holds down what you might imagine to be a somewhat more sedate gig, promoting the Cropredy Festival for Fairport Convention, though he still works as a sound engineer, too.
“I started with Oasis at Maine Road,” he recalls. “I put the system together for them there and there were so many speakers that it was completely uncontrollable, but it wasn’t my business to say so. When we got to the rehearsals for Knebworth, it required a great deal of thought because they wanted to see a huge system but there was no way I could have had it all on at the same time. I remember the sidefills — you could probably have done Hammersmith Odeon with them alone as FOH. They were flying, I think, eight Turbosound Flashlights a side, with underhangs, and on the ground I had either nine or a dozen 21–inch subs per side with three or four Flashlights. It was absolutely huge. There wasn’t just a left and right, I had about six mixes going on in the sidefills. Flashlight is very directional and you could zone it, which was what I did. You couldn’t leave that on all the time.
“Liam wanted his vocal blisteringly loud, and Noel hadn’t really found the guitar sound he wanted — he was experimenting. I remember at Knebworth he brought loads of different amplifiers and he had a switcher box, the idea being that he could use different amplifiers for different songs, which was fine in theory, except what he did was leave them all on all night. He was nine feet behind the vocal mic, so for him to hear his vocals meant the monitors were constantly at 106dB. I remember Huw Richards (FOH engineer) saying that the best guitar sound he got from that rig, which was all out of phase, producing this monstrous noise, was when Noel moved his head out of the way of the vocal mic to look down at his pedals and start a guitar solo — that was the clearest guitar sound all night. It was a ludicrous amount of noise. Someone would get within 10 feet of a microphone and you could hear their breath.
“It wasn’t just huge, it was also very analogue. I think I had two Midas XL3s and then a third one which was a 24–channel quad mixer they’d built for the Pink Floyd Division Bell tour. In fact, it might have been three with the quad mixer as the fourth, I really can’t remember. Obviously, I didn’t use the quad function, I just needed it for extra channels to feed into the master XL3.”
Why all the extra channels? Well this was the Oasis gig that more or less crowned them as heavyweight champions, and like all champions, there was an entourage helping reinforce their status, as Gareth Williams remembers.
“Anybody who knew Oasis at the time got a gig. That’s how it was in those days. With something on that scale it had to be special, but it was a bit too special and they did cut it back for the next tour, the Be Here Now tour. They still had the string section and a brass section for a couple of the songs, but it was four and four rather than eight and eight. At Knebworth it was a case of, “We had a Hammond organ on the album, so we need an organist — anyone know one?” Then it was, “We need a piano player.” Someone would ask “Can’t the organist do that?” and the answer was, “No. We need two keyboard players. We need one to roll on to the start of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and roll off again for Bonehead. Then we need a harmonica player.” I wouldn’t say it was naüve, because it was a bloody good show, but it was chaos. They were making a statement. For Brit Pop to be playing Knebworth was quite something, and demand for the tickets was amazing — they estimated that one in 20 people in the country had applied for tickets.”
So how would Gareth Williams approach the same gig today? “If it was a guitar band, something like the Foo Fighters, there would be a lot less trucks for PA, that’s for sure! At the Cropredy Festival that I organise we use an L–Acoustics K1 system. You look at it and think there’s no way that is going to fill this field because it’s a tiny little stack — but, of course, it does. That’s a big difference; you just would not have so many rigging points, so much PA — it’s all grown up. Then you go on stage, and of course you’d still have sidefills, but the vast majority of bands these days are using in–ear monitors. You’ll have a bloke there with a desk and he might have a few favoured compressors because he doesn’t like the plug-ins, but that’s all, because it’s a digital desk. It’s so different. There was a drain on the National Grid when I powered–up the monitor system at Knebworth! They were exciting times and it was a colossal system that took forever to build and forever to take down.”
So does Gareth Williams think, if he were handling the same gig today, that the sound would actually be better?
“Well, you’ve probably lost a lot of complaints. The sound wasn’t as controlled as it is today. If you want an old–fashioned sound, and many bands do, then you can take an old bin-and-horn system, and that’s absolutely fine. Sometimes bands do that, too — a few years ago AC/DC took out an old Midas Pro 40 desk because that was the sound they wanted, and that’s absolutely fine. I still to this day love TMS3s as sidefills, the old Turbosound big boxes. I really preferred those to the later Floodlights and Flashhlights for sidefills. But I think it is much better now, yes — far less dangerous, for one thing. At some of those Oasis shows, I’d walk out front of house during a soundcheck, somebody would hit a tom and you’d feel your ribcage cave in. People would laugh when I told them that I EQ’d Liam’s monitors in two minutes, but it was true, because after two minutes you’d have to go away for an hour and then come back. It was really very loud.”
At the time, there was talk of an early in–ear system being used on the gig but not, perhaps predictably, by the band. Apparently, the string players (no doubt struggling to keep pitch during ‘I Am The Walrus’) used in–ear monitors, but they were the only performers who did. Impressively, though, Gareth reveals that he did manage to make a breakthrough with the band themselves, albeit later.
“I finally did get them on in–ears. On the tour after Knebworth, the Be Here Now tour, I think we were going to Australia or South America and I said, ‘Look lads, I have absolutely no idea what’s waiting for us over there but it’s probably not going to work and it’s probably not going to be loud enough. As an emergency measure, you will hear yourself clearly perfectly with in–ears. Noel said, ‘OK, I’ll come with you and get sorted,’ and Liam said ‘No fucker in my band’s wearing hearing aids! The Beatles never had them so we’re not having them!’ I said the Beatles never had monitors at all and he argued and argued... He wouldn’t do it. Noel did use them in the end and finally, on the last tour I did with them, I’d had enough and said he’d have to go on in–ears and, I can’t believe it, he just said ‘OK then. I’ll give it a go.’ He did and he’s been on in–ears ever since.”
In–ears started a reverse arms race in the band, too. “When Liam was using in–ears he still had the wedges, and on the first show I turned them down to about 25 percent, and turned his sidefills down as well. Noel tuned round to me and said ‘What the bloody hell’s happened?’ I said ‘I’ve turned him down. He’s got the in–ears now, so he doesn’t need that volume. He said ‘All I can hear is me guitar now, so I’ve turned it down.’ And he did — in fact it brought the whole sound down to a very sensible level. Finally Noel came over to me and said, ‘It sounds fucking great. Turn him off!’
According to the people who were driving the Knebworth Brit Row system, live sound today is better, cheaper, easier to provide, more controlled and prevents premature baldness (I lied about at least one of those). Now all that remains is to decide whether there is a band today that can generate the excitement of Oasis performing to a quarter of a million people and at the height of their powers. Perhaps that’s a question for another time...
Reflecting on just how fast things have changed, Gareth remembers another Brit Row gig he handled, this for the VJ Day celebrations in 1995. “I ended–up on the roof at the apex at the front of Buckingham Palace, putting some speakers up, and there was a chap from the Daily Express there. There were 63–amp three–phase sockets, and also a telephone socket, and I said ‘What’s that for?’ He said: ‘I’m going to take a picture down the Mall of the fly–past dropping the poppies on the Mall, and within five minutes that picture will be on my editor’s desk.’ I thought ‘You’re joking,’ but look how far we’ve come since then with digital cameras!”