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Engineering A Band Competition

The Final Frontier By Mike Crofts
Published August 2014

Thirteen acts playing two sets each, in an historic venue, with minimal changeover time? It's all in a day's work for our intrepid live‑sound engineer...

Now and again, you get the chance to work on a live‑sound event that is a bit out of the ordinary. One such was the Under 19 Rock The House finals, hosted by Yamaha Music at famous music venue The Bedford in Balham, South London. Now in its fourth year, Rock The House was founded by Mike Weatherley, MP for Hove & Portslade and Intellectual Property Advisor to the Prime Minister. It's an annual competition that raises awareness of the importance of protecting intellectual property rights. Since the 2014 launch party last November (which I was also happy to work on), musicians across the country have submitted their original material to local MPs, who ultimately nominated one finalist per competition category, and a panel of music-industry gurus worked their way through all the entries to choose the 2014 finalists. It's a high‑profile event, as the winners go on to have their pieces played in Parliament, and the prizes on offer can include equipment, festival slots, recording time and radio/TV airplay. It also enjoys the support of many famous patrons including the likes of Alice Cooper, Brian May and Rick Wakeman, and some heavyweight industry sponsors — these finals were hosted by Yamaha Music, and the backline gear was provided by Orange Amps.

No fewer than 13 acts (10 bands and three solo singer‑songwriters) took part in the finals of the under‑19 category, so planning had to be tight. The plan for the day was that each band or solo artist would perform one song as a closed audition, with only the three judges (and the crew) present: no family, friends or onlookers would be allowed to watch and the performers would be very much on their own. The judging panel consisted of Joe Emsden from Yamaha, Paul Anthony from Planet Rock Radio and Tony Moore, founder member of Iron Maiden and a legendary music promoter and musician. The Bedford is Tony's home territory, and he made sure everything went smoothly on the day as far as the venue was concerned.

As the musicians were travelling in from various parts of the country, we were going to soundcheck each act immediately before they performed their chosen number, then soundcheck the next one, and so on throughout the day. In the evening they would all perform again, but this time round, everyone involved (plus a number of sponsors' representatives and guests) would be in the audience, with the three winners due to be announced at the end of the gig. So the gig was going to be a busy one for the crew: 13 acts on and off stage twice, so 26 changeovers, and all to a very tight schedule — partly dictated by homeward travelling arrangements,

The Yamaha drum kit, being brand-new, required a fair bit of time to set up — and also plenty of damping in the bass drum. and therefore not really negotiable.

Advance Planning

As with most complex events, the work began well in advance. Nigel Burrows from Yamaha Education was putting the whole project together, and I know from having worked with him on other events that he is a meticulous sort of chap who likes to have everything prepared, checked, and with a Plan B in place just in case. I hadn't visited the venue in many years, and it had recently benefitted from a PA upgrade, so Nigel sent me down to Balham for an advance trip, to talk to Tony Moore and to generally check things out. The Bedford is literally at the end of the road outside Balham station; it's a famous pub with a bit of history behind it and is one of the longest‑established and best‑known music venues in town. Another thing the pub has behind it is an unusual and interesting theatre that is circular, with a wide upper gallery all the way around, modelled on a Shakespearean 'Globe Theatre' theme — indeed that's what the venue owners call it. The room is attractive and has a decorated domed roof. It was originally built as a Masonic temple, and if the carpet were rolled back, I'd put money on there being stars and symbols painted on the floor — it's that kind of place!

After a bit of menu‑delving, the team finally managed to apply a graphic EQ to each of the required outputs, including five monitor sends and the main left/right out.As an established music venue, the room has benefited from years of acoustic treatments, including a lot of very thick wadding under the balcony and in all the appropriate and accessible nooks and crannies, of which there are many. All this wadding and lagging is painted matte black, which together with the dark wooden balustrades and lower‑floor furniture produces a striking atmosphere, and has transformed what might have been a tricky acoustic space into a very nice one indeed. It's got a lot more capacity than you think when you first walk in, and the front‑of‑house sound is noticeably uniform throughout the ground floor, even around the under‑balcony areas. Although the balcony runs right around, there is a fixed stage with the mix position opposite, tucked under the gallery; the engineer sits right amongst the audience and this all adds to the informal atmosphere — the punters can get right up close behind the mixer if they wish to see what's going on.

Competition winners Hex playing the evening part of the show.During my advance reconnaissance visit, Tony introduced me to Roberto, the venue's resident sound engineer — literally resident, as I believe he lives on site. He showed me the recently upgraded sound system, featuring a set of interesting and impressive Flare Audio main speakers, and assured me that he would be there on the day. This was great news, as it meant that I would be free to run the stage end with Keith, my other crew guy, and we reckoned that three pairs of hands (with the support of the Yamaha drum tech) to manage the whole sound job would make the timings work. We spent a while talking microphones, mixers and speakers, as you do, and decided that, as Yamaha were supplying an LS9 digital mixer as part of their support package, we'd better get hold of it in advance. Despite the LS9 being something of an industry standard and probably the most frequently encountered compact digital desk of the last few years, neither Roberto nor I had spent many hours on one, so I rang Nigel and arranged to collect it from the company's headquarters in Milton Keynes.

Into Action

The LS9 was duly shipped to The Bedford, travel and accommodation arrangements were made, and we met up at our hotel in Wimbledon the night before, to be sure of an early start on site the following morning. At the venue, Keith got on with unpacking the brand‑new Orange amps (two 100W guitar combos and a compact bass rig) and Jay took charge of assembling and tuning an equally brand‑new Yamaha Live Recording Custom drum kit. I hooked up with Roberto, who was having a bit of an issue with the LS9. He wanted to run five monitor sends and main left/right outputs through the mixer's internal graphic EQs. Not being familiar with the model, we did quite a lot of head‑scratching and button‑pressing (whilst of course telling everyone, especially Nigel, that we had everything under complete control), until we finally realised that while the LS9 has four on‑board 31‑band graphic EQs, it is possible to assign more (we needed seven) if you set them up in 'split' mode, which gives you eight separate 15‑band processors. So easy when you know how, of course.

Roberto had already set up various mics and DIs on stage, so that we could use whatever was in the best position. He had also already rung out any potentially unwanted frequencies and worked out an overall EQ plot. Having solved the graphic‑EQ conundrum we faced another issue‑ette, in that none of the DIs or capacitor mics were working, even though we'd turned on the phantom power on the appropriate channels. Having checked that cabling wasn't an issue, and verified one of the DIs by plugging it directly into another device with phantom power on, we were left with only two logical explanations: either there was a mixer fault, or the LS9 has a global phantom option somewhere. This, thankfully, we duly discovered after looking at the system settings.

Runner‑up band the Rooz in full swing.Now, the only problem at the stage end was that the drum kit brought in by Yamaha that morning was freshly out‑of‑the‑box new, and needed some tuning and settling‑down time. The bass drum, in particular, needed a lot of damping behind the front skin, and although the process of inserting one of Roberto's ready‑made bolsters looked worryingly like something you might experience at veterinary college, the bass drum sounded really good when miked. We spent a while getting Tony Moore to sing and play piano, guitar and drums for a generic soundcheck, and eventually all was ready to rock, if a little further around the clock than intended.

Ch‑Ch‑Ch‑Ch‑Changes

The order of the day was that each act was allocated a 30‑minute slot, which had to include setting up on stage, soundchecking the 'audition' song and then the song for the evening gig if different, bringing in the judging panel from their secret nuclear bunker, a bit of chat about the musicians themselves and their music, and the actual performance. Keeping to the plan was always a priority, with the evening gig lurking in the near future, and as is the way of these things, we managed to start a little bit late, before falling even further behind, before really getting into our stride and catching up in fine style at the end, even finishing slightly ahead of time. It was a long time since I'd worked at the sharp end (ie. the stage) of a live gig, as I usually sit behind my desk taking the blame for everything, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed working closely with the musicians — it was great to speak to them without using a talkback mic! Despite their ages, they were all polite, appreciative and cooperative, even though they were understandably very focused on their impending performance in front of the judges. One or two bands had brought their own backline amps, which caused a bit of a workflow issue, and after a bit of negotiation, they all agreed to use the Orange gear which was already set up and would save a lot of changeover time for the evening gig.

Keith and myself helped them on (and off again) with their gear, checked on‑stage levels with Roberto and did quite a lot of plugging and patching, especially whenever keyboards were involved — there seems to be an unbreakable rule that keyboards brought to a gig by bands must never be equipped with any form of useful output socket or internal power supply, so we went through the time‑honoured ritual of finding a mini‑jack‑to‑phono‑to‑big‑jack or other suitable cable so that we could connect them into a DI box, whereupon everything would become controllable.

If you've worked on sound for multi‑act events you'll identify with the experience of thinking "Let's see who's next... Oh brilliant, it's a solo singer” (and its opposite, when you discover that it's a 12‑piece folk band playing 'Favourites Of Arthurian Legend' on period instruments). And the three singer-songwriters helped us to make up time overall. We worked hard and fast, and Roberto was great with all of them, getting through the soundchecks efficiently and offering supportive advice where needed. Knowing the venue so well, he could tell what balance the judges would be hearing, once or twice using the phrase "Trust me, guys” when asking for guitar amps to be turned down or cymbal‑hitting to be moderated a little. So it came to pass that, by 6pm, we had overcome graphic EQ, keyboard and traffic issues, and had completed the closed auditions — so it was now time to get ready for the evening performances.

Part Two...

Having come through to this stage of the competition, the musicians were always going to be good, but they were far more than that — they truly did impress the judges, who I know were having great difficulty in deciding between acts, and they all put across confident, committed and engaging performances of their work. It must have felt strange to suddenly produce a full‑on show with no live audience, but it didn't seem to bother any of the performers. Family and friends, by contrast, seemed much more concerned and anxious, and were often reluctant (in a good way!) to leave the theatre for the formal closed auditions. The judges were still deliberating. They were looking to pick one solo artist and two bands who would then be awarded a first, second and third prize depending on the overall placement.

Solo‑act winner Leoni Jane Kennedy.Solo‑act winner Leoni Jane Kennedy.

Getting ready for the evening session was easier than for the closed auditions, as we now knew exactly who the performers were and what they would be doing, and Roberto had saved all his settings in mixer memory. Where the bands were playing different songs in the evening we had already soundchecked those, too. We were ready and waiting for the keyboard connectivity foibles, and felt re‑energised after a short break and a bit of The Bedford's excellent food. The timetable, however, was more challenging, as instead of a 30‑minute slot, each band had to be on, finish playing and then come off again in around five minutes. Tony Moore compered the evening, telling the packed audience about each act and doing mini‑interviews where possible while Keith and I worked to get the bands turned around as fast as possible. We instigated a sort of production line, with the next act waiting at the top of the stairs before being brought on stage to set up as soon as the previous occupants had cleared to the far side. If I'd enjoyed the afternoon sessions, this was way better — with the audience made up of fellow (not to say rival) musicians and their supporters, the sponsors and organisers, the atmosphere was one of the best I've ever experienced. Although the results had not yet been announced, Tony and the audience treated everyone like worthy winners, and of course they all were, as they were the Rock The House under-19 finalists and had earned their place at The Bedford that day. The place was both heaving and rocking, and it's difficult to imagine a better setting for this type of event.

Win When You're Singing

When the winners were announced it was great to see all the other musicians cheering and clapping, and although those outside the top three would have been disappointed, they seemed genuinely happy for the Chosen Three. As far as the crew were concerned, I think we all agreed with the judges' decision, but there were several acts who could just as easily have been on the podium. Someone has to win, however, and this year it was a fabulous rock four‑piece from Crewe called Hex, who were outright winners. They were tight, accomplished, polished and highly entertaining — and from a crew perspective they were an absolute joy to work with. Second place overall (and solo winner) went to singer-songwriter Leoni Jane Kennedy from Blackpool, who won over the judges with her song 'Anatomy'. The third prize was claimed by a Telford‑based outfit called the Rooz, who were an exuberant and highly talented good‑time band fronted by singer‑songwriter Louis Coupe. Special mention has to be made of a very young band from Newbury called Base Camp. Aged only 10‑13, they took to the stage and performed like rock veterans — the lead singer preferred to use her mic off the stand, which was fortunate for us as I don't think it would have gone down low enough! Tony very kindly offered them the opportunity to perform at The Bedford at a future date — a promise which went down extremely well with their families and mentors.

After Hex had returned to the stage to perform a much‑demanded winner's encore to close the show, there wasn't very much for us (the non‑resident sound crew) to do. The Orange backline amps were staying behind to be used at the The Bedford's upcoming London Folk Fest, and again at another Rock The House gig at the House of Commons, and the house rig was of course staying put. It had been a marathon stint but absolutely worth the effort. We enjoyed working with Tony and Roberto and the Yamaha team, and even after 12 hours and 26 changeovers, I reckon we'd have been up for more. I'm sure that the winners will benefit from all the good things that will follow their success (and will enjoy using their shares of over £1500 worth of Yamaha prize equipment!), and I really hope that I get the opportunity to work with some of them again before I finally hang up my mic leads.  

Details about the Rock The House competition, and the wider initiative, can be found at www.rockthehousehoc.com.  

Published August 2014