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The Isle Of Wight Festival Sound

Behind The Scenes By Daniel James
Published December 2004

The Isle Of Wight Festival Sound

The Isle of Wight Festivals of 1968-1970 attracted hundreds of thousands of music lovers, and after a long break the event is back. We talk to some of those who helped create the festival's sound past and present.

Conceived as a fund-raiser for a public swimming pool, the first Isle of Wight Festival took place in 1968 with Jefferson Airplane headlining an 'underground' all-nighter for 10,000 people. The second festival put Bob Dylan back on stage after his self-imposed exile, and drew over 150,000 for two days. By the time of the third event in 1970, featuring Jimi Hendrix's last UK performance, the festival had become a five-day monster attracting an estimated 600,000 hippies. A special Act of Parliament was passed with the intention that there would never be another music event on this small, previously quiet island.

A generation later, music festivals are thought of as mainstream entertainment rather than subversive gatherings of sonic revolutionaries, so it's more a case of corporate culture than counter-culture. The third Isle of Wight festival in the revived series this decade was even sponsored by a well-known mobile-phone manufacturer. And it's not just attitudes that have changed: the recording and PA equipment of today is vastly different, even if some of the music sounds very similar.

The original UK pop festivals of the sixties only became possible when sound technology evolved from the basic live setup that had been in use since the early days of rock & roll. Charlie Watkins had a music shop in Balham, London, and was already known for his guitar amplifiers and the Copicat tape echo unit when he started working on festival PA systems. "If you go back to about 1961 or 1962, guitar music had peaked, and there had been a lot of potential guitarists from the skiffle and early rock days. They had amplifiers by then, because the likes of me, Selmer and Vox were all making them. But there was nothing for the singer — they would plug a Lustraphone or Reslo ribbon microphone into a guitar amp, with a diabolical result, of course. The poor buggers used to hold a hand against an ear to try to get an idea of what the accompaniment was doing — it was terrible. Big studios had mixers, but they weren't for the likes of us."

According to Watkins, the financial opportunities for musicians were constrained by the equipment available at the time. "If you had a six-piece band, you could only get a job in a pub, or play at the local scout hall, because you couldn't perform if people couldn't hear you." Promoters also realised that the guitar groups could also play to bigger (and therefore much more lucrative) audiences if the sound equipment could scale up to match.

Watkins devised a system of parallel amplifiers which meant that it was feasible to create much louder sound systems, so that gigs were not limited to the range of low-powered backline amps. A typical speaker could only handle around 25W in those days, but Watkins realised that if he put four cones each in multiple cabinets, powered by 100W slave amps, the singer would have a chance to be heard over the rest of the band.

But volume alone didn't produce the sound that he was looking for. "I found at the very early stages that half the problem wasn't the amplifiers, it was the speakers. Speakers that you'd play a guitar through were hard-coned with hard suspension, and they'd have a peaky response that guitarists could use to their advantage. I wanted a sound for singers that I could get on my hi-fi at home. I approached Goodmans, who had the 12-inch Axiom 301 with a plastic rim and a concentric cone. That was gorgeous on the voice, but it didn't have enough balls. So I got from them a 12-inch Audiom 60 woofer which went down to about 50Hz, and I found if I put four Axiom 301s in a box and four Audiom 60s in a box beside it, I began to get the sound I was looking for — but it was terribly short on upper end, above 10kHz. Celestion had a 6x2-inch tweeter horn, so I put three of those in a narrow column, pinned in between the two big 4x12 columns."

These early PA systems also offered the possibility of mixing live vocals to get somewhat closer to the balance heard on studio productions. "I designed a Baxendale-based five-channel mixer called an Audiomaster, and at the same time RCA brought out a transformerless transistor amplifier circuit. Valve amplifiers were out, because unless they had massive transformers they were nowhere near hi-fi." A 1000W Watkins Electric Music (WEM) system was used at the National Jazz & Blues Festival of 1967 in Windsor, which featured the debut of Fleetwood Mac, and the pattern for many outdoor events to follow was set. Watkins was arrested for 'breaching the peace', but fortunately he managed to talk his way out of trouble with the law!

Beyond The Kilowatt Barrier

The first WEM system had helped prove that outdoor pop festivals could attract excellent line-ups and mass audiences, but it needed further development. Watkins explains: "It left me with two problems. One was that you couldn't hear the guitars because the singing was so loud. That was fine for bands like the Beach Boys and a lot of the pop groups that were based on singing, but you couldn't hear the backing — despite putting another stack of Marshalls or Hiwatts in."

"At the Hyde Park free concerts [which began in 1968], the organiser, Pete Jenner, told me that from the back of the crowd it didn't sound like a record any more. So I linked up three Audiomaster mixers and used Shure Unidyne microphones to mike the gear up. But now the bass player couldn't hear his bass as he had when it had been behind him, and they'd expect me to get that result from the back of a column. All that was going to do was break my speakers, which it did. In the end I wouldn't let bass guitars through direct, they'd have to mic up their own amplifiers. Then we got the beginnings of good balance. The other problem was the torture that the singers would go through when they couldn't hear themselves, and I got around that by taking the headphone output of the Audiomaster into a 100W slave, and then a column which I put on the stage, so I had a controllable and patchable monitor system."

When it came to recording the sound of the festivals, the limitations of the mixer technology meant that most setups used two microphones on each stand, often lashed together — one for the PA and one for a second mixer connected to the tape machine. Watkins tried to accommodate tape recording within his system, but it wasn't easy to reconcile the different needs of live and recorded sound. "We made a buffer box with an equaliser that came out of the Audiomaster, and it had about 10 outputs. The recording engineers could get a pretty good mix from that, but the mix we wanted for our live audience, they didn't want."

Competition developed between the leading groups of the day as each acquired more amplifier power. "When The Who came up with 1000W, the [Pink] Floyd — who were the apple of my eye — wanted 2000. It went a bit mad." For the Stones In The Park concert in the summer of 1969, Watkins had to borrow back some of the equipment he'd sold to other groups. "I didn't have all that many columns, but I wanted to put 1500W up. I borrowed some from T-Rex. They all chipped in, that's what we used to do. It was quite a family; if anyone had a big gig, they'd all pool their gear."

Jimi Hendrix made his last ever UK appearance at 1970's Isle of Wight event.Jimi Hendrix made his last ever UK appearance at 1970's Isle of Wight event.

Hendrix On The Isle Of Wight

With his festival experience, Watkins was the obvious choice to supply and operate the PA for the original Isle of Wight events. Although he'd figured out the technology by then, other factors remained outside his control. "The Dylan concert went down as having the most exemplary mass sound, because it was held in a natural amphitheatre; but the sound in 1970 was awful. The difference was that the stage was on top of a hill, and the prevailing wind was against us. After the first night they let me do an experiment. The roadies went around the site with their walkie-talkies saying 'put the bass up a bit' or whatever. We put the presence up, which is a false sound, of course, but at least you could hear it. Then the telephone went, and one of the promoters said 'Charlie, you've cracked it — whatever you've done, keep doing it'. I asked where his house was in reference to the stage, and he said 'About four miles behind it'. Then I knew what was happening — you could hear the phasing in the wind."

The Isle of Wight 1970 was arguably the last great festival of the psychedelic era.The Isle of Wight 1970 was arguably the last great festival of the psychedelic era.By the time the headline act closed the festival, the fences had been smashed down by would-be anarchists, and grasping artist management had further damaged the vibe backstage. "Hendrix didn't perform very well. He was ill, his wah-wah pedal went wrong and he was really getting steamed up. He said 'Charlie, I can't hear it', and I already had so many monitors. I started taking the PA down from the left-hand side, and got my boys to put another 500W behind him. I'd done a tour round Britain with him, and I knew what he wanted for his sound, but he wasn't up for it this time. Everyone was very kind — nobody criticised him, because he was obviously under stress."

Eddie Kramer had engineered Hendrix's studio albums, so he was asked to mix the band's recording from the 1970 festival. "I've mixed the Isle of Wight three times now — first in 1971 — and I didn't like it, quite frankly. I mixed again it in stereo many years later." The festival was filmed for a documentary, Message To Love, and now the complete Hendrix performance has been released on the Blue Wild Angel DVD. "Recently we did the 5.1 surround mix, which actually helped it. I think we did a pretty decent job with it, considering, and now with all the bits and pieces of gear that we have, we can really help it. It's never going to be brilliant, but it's certainly nice when you compare it to the original.

"It took an awful lot of work to make it sound like it does in the surround mix. There was so much leakage on everything, and the technology was not quite up to par in those days. You're actually dealing with only seven tracks of audio because the eighth track would be the pulse sync, to lock everything up. Seven tracks, in and of itself, is not too bad, but the circumstances under which they were recorded were horrendous. Jimi always got the bad end of the stick, in the sense that he was supposed to be the one who everybody was coming to see, and inevitably — the way those concerts used to run — things would get delayed. Jimi went on last, two o'clock in the morning or something. I think the fans were completely out of their minds, with boredom, being tired, hungry, cold, stoned or whatever — and Jimi bore the brunt of that. He had to whip up the crowd; you can imagine how the recording was going.

"He had every kind of trouble imaginable. Under normal circumstances you get a few buzzes and hums and things like that, but he was getting taxi radios at about 500W coming through his speaker cabinets. You're in the middle of a nice blues lick and all of a sudden you're getting this crap coming through; it's very disturbing. So he had to fight that, and the fact that you could barely tell the crowd was out there because it was so dark.

"To compare 1970 technology to today's is really unfair. The fact that we've actually got something on tape is terrific! When I consider some of the recordings that I've been involved with — I did Woodstock, and I've recorded a tremendous amount of live material — it was always a challenge, to say the least. It was part of the whole culture that you improvised and made things work. Recording outside of the studio has always been very exciting, because it puts a different twist on everything. There's a lot more urgency, and you only have one shot at it."

PA At The Modern Festivals

People on the Isle of Wight had talked for many years about reviving the festival — although a significant minority declared that they would fight to prevent it ever happening again. There had been a few small commemorative events, but it was over 30 years before a major music festival could return. A relatively low-key event was planned for 2002 featuring local band The Bees, with The Coral, Starsailor, the Charlatans and a guest appearance by Robert Plant. PA specialists Canegreen were asked to provide the sound system for the event and have returned to the Island for a further two annual festivals, including the sold-out 2004 event headlined by David Bowie.

Pete Hughes, Canegreen's man in charge of special projects (centre), with two of his 11-strong PA crew, at 2004's Festival.Pete Hughes, Canegreen's man in charge of special projects (centre), with two of his 11-strong PA crew, at 2004's Festival.

Pete Hughes is in charge of special projects at Canegreen, and supervised the PA crew of 11 at this year's festival. Despite the advances in sound technology since 1970, Hughes still has respect for pioneers like Charlie Watkins. "A lot of people still talk about WEM columns, and how great they were. The WEM column had elements of the 'line array' system in it, and of course we use line array nowadays. They had the right idea in those days — they just didn't have the power."

Line array theory uses a stack of speakers arranged carefully to create constructive interference on-axis and destructive interference away from it. This has the effect of focusing the sound in front of the stage, instead of wasting power outside the arena. "The more elements you add to a line, the tighter the beam becomes vertically. You still have a wide pattern horizontally." Sound escaping upwards and downwards is energy wasted, since there's no ceiling to the venue and there shouldn't be any festival-goers underneath the stage. In addition, local residents don't always appreciate wasted sound energy, and since the festival is now held on the outskirts of the town of Newport, reducing spill is a priority. If a festival can't comply with licensing conditions, its future is at risk.

A flying line array in action.A flying line array in action.Canegreen used vertical arrays of active speakers, suspended on cranes either side of the stage. The arrays are deceptively small, given their output. "We had Meyer M3Ds, their top-of-the-range line array, four per side." The M3D has four 15-inch woofers and two four-inch compression drivers. At 1125W into each of four channels, a single cabinet has more power than the entire PA at a typical 1960s festival. "Underneath that we had 12 Meyer Milos per side. It's a cantilever frame, which means that the PA is right out in the open — it has no constriction of stage, sides or anything like that. Meyer make their boxes totally waterproof, so it's fine to leave them out in the elements. We did have a slight problem with the wind, so we had to land them at the end of each day." The column of speakers swaying a little in mid-air looks disconcerting, but fortunately the system is engineered to cope with that. "You don't tie them off completely because that puts too much strain on the cantilever support. The whole thing weighs two and a half tons."

"The sub speakers were Meyer's 700 series. They've taken the line array theory and applied it to sub-bass — if you take the line and put it on its side, the theory still works and you have a tight pattern horizontally. At the Isle of Wight the local council wanted us to reduce the levels from the previous year into the housing estate off to the right of the site, which we duly did. We used 24 Meyer 700s, precisely and evenly spaced, in a very straight line across the front of the stage. This produced very smooth and coherent sub-bass throughout the whole audience area, with a drastic reduction off to the sides, which meant that when we did sound tests with the local environmental health officer we were 10dB below the recommended levels at the sub-bass frequencies.

"I ran Meyer and BSS Soundweb [DSPs] to control the PA. The sub line needs a certain amount of control; you need delay and volume control within the line to make it work." Fortunately, the system allows for testing of individual speakers without the need for a fearless individual to climb the suspended array of cabinets while bands are on stage. "With an amplifier in each box, it makes it very hard to know if it's running properly when it's in the air. Meyer have put in a link that comes from the amplifier and goes to a laptop running a remote monitoring system. We were monitoring the speakers' performance as they were running, and we could tell if a component was going. So if we were overdriving a particular component, or we'd lost it and we needed to turn it off, we could."

All-Analogue Mixing

Canegreen's sound tent in front of the stage housed a collection of large analogue desks. Pete Hughes: "In the front of house we had Midas XL4s, and the control desk was an Audient Aztec. The nature of the show requires us to use two systems, so we have a front-of-house board and a monitor board. We just flip-flop the two systems throughout the day. It means you can get 15-minute change-overs between the bands, so the audience aren't sat there wondering what's going on. We kept to time because of that."

Canegreen's Audient and Midas desks help keep the show on schedule.Canegreen's Audient and Midas desks help keep the show on schedule.

Given that digital mixer technology is now well established, it's perhaps surprising that there wasn't any in use on the festival PA system. But it seems that using analogue desks isn't just about equipment reliability. "People still have a fear of using digital desks in a festival situation where you don't get a soundcheck. You walk in, you get a line check and the band plays. Although digital can help with that, still a lot of the engineers don't have the experience of digital desks. For comfort, ease and making sure the show runs smoothly, analogue is still the best way of doing it."

On stage, the choice of microphones was largely traditional too. "Everyone has their favourites, but in general most people use the Shure Beta 58 — still a very good microphone. We also use AKG and Sennheiser condensers. If anyone has anything special they tend to bring it with them these days."

Recording Today

Hiding behind the stage was an anonymous white seven-and-a-half-ton truck operated by location-recording specialists Floating Earth. Will Shapland supervised the recording of the Isle of Wight festival this year, after forming a partnership with the company. "We clubbed together and put in the new SSL C200 console. This year Virgin Radio contacted us and asked us to get involved — we do the V festivals, so it made sense for us to do the Isle of Wight too." Highlights of the festival were also televised by Channel Four over the weekend, with the help of video-production Portakabins located to one side of the backstage area. The Message To Love film took many years to finish, but these days festival video footage and soundtracks have to be ready for TV or radio in just a few hours.

Unlike the PA, the recording system relied heavily on digital technology. "The C200 is fibre optic right from the truck. It doesn't become analogue again until the feed to the TV and radio boys." However, this setup isn't the first digital system used by Floating Earth for mobile work. "The truck was originally built for classical recording, with a Sony DMX console and the Cobranet fibre system for mic amps, which worked very well. But a small digital desk isn't really fast enough — and doesn't really have the facilities — for large-scale rock & roll-style recording."

Floating Earth's location recording truck.Floating Earth's location recording truck.

Primarily, the truck studio mixes down to stereo on the fly. "With the festivals, the priority is the broadcast. For Virgin, we wire directly to their room and they record to hard drive. Then we do backups for them on CD-R and DAT, so if the line or their machinery fails for any reason, we have two-track copies. Virgin Radio broadcasts the same day, or has highlights over the weekend. They would just edit the CDs into individual tracks — there's no time for remixing. As far as the TV goes, we're directly hooked up and they record straight onto Hi-Def machines. Again, we run a timecode DAT backup for them."

The Minimum Of Outboard

"To keep things simple, we've tended to keep it so that there's no external dynamics control, beyond a TC Electronic Finalizer 96k. If we're in a hurry, it's quite a convenient way of preventing things from getting too out of control until you've got the mix together. Quite often we don't hear anything at all until the band starts playing, so it's nice to have something 'catch' the first song for you. Just having a bit of a 'smiley-face' EQ curve on the output means that you can be a bit more relaxed about your EQ. It's a fix-it tool to get you going, and then hopefully by halfway through the first song your balance comes together and you don't really need it.

"Apart from that, I don't use any external dynamics. I like the channel dynamics on the SSL. Unless I'm looking for a particular effect, such as using a 'distressor' on a vocal, I use the channel-strip dynamics with a really slow attack. They're fantastic. You can hit them really hard and they don't go nasty. I like the EQ on the desk too. It's got a standard EQ that works well for most stuff, but there are also emulations. I quite often use the SSL 'E'-series emulation, because you can crank up the 16k top end as you could on the old console and that works really well for a bit of air on vocals. The 12-way compressor on the centre section of the desk is a reasonable emulation of the SSL Quad compressor, and I might end up just using that.

"The C200 has got 32 physical channels layered one deep so you get 64. Quite a few of the bands have a large number of inputs, and a lot of the recordings are 48 to 50 tracks." For a rock festival with a four- or five-piece live band on stage, it's not obvious why anyone would need so many tracks. But it seems that if you can have that many, you'll be able to find a use for them. "If you look at The Who, for example, for starters we've got quite a lot of audience mics out. Because we now have the luxury of being able to record so many tracks fairly easily, it's simpler just to leave all those mics separate. In the past we would mix them down to maybe one or two pairs, a near and a far pair. You don't really need to do that any more, so I tend to have eight tracks of audience.

"If we've got space, we can track the PA mix as a backup, too. I think The Who's input list is about 48 inputs; there's fairly extensive drum miking — two kick drums, top and bottom snares, four or five toms, overheads, ride mics, and then there's two or three lines of bass. Roger Daltrey's got an acoustic guitar that he plays once, but it's still another input. If it wasn't for the luxury of being able to go 64-track we could very easily get it down to 30-odd just by tracking all of the things that only happen once together, and doing a bit of switching — but we don't need to, so why bother? It's one less thing to think about."

All those extra tracks must come in handy for surround mixes, now that DVD seems to have become the standard home-entertainment platform. "Absolutely — that's the big thing now, keeping your audience miking as flexible as you can. Having done quite a bit of live 5.1 mixing, I know it's a real pain if you've only got stereo, or even just four tracks of audience. In the case of a lot of the mixing I do, I've recorded the source material, so I know where the mics were. It's really helpful if you've got an idea as to how far back you put them in the 5.1 mix."

Inside the truck, Floating Earth's Will Shapland (left) sits at the SSL C200 console surveying the festival happenings via a video monitor. This is where the recording of the festival took place.Inside the truck, Floating Earth's Will Shapland (left) sits at the SSL C200 console surveying the festival happenings via a video monitor. This is where the recording of the festival took place.

Computer-based Recording

Despite its prevalence in the recording industry, Shapland doesn't use a Pro Tools rig on the multitrack output of the SSL console. "We had two [Merging Technologies] Pyramix systems running, set up so that they would be capable of 64 tracks each. It's only very recently that I would trust any of the hard drive systems enough to become the primary system. In the past, if anyone wanted to record with Pro Tools, for example, we would insist on backing up with something, whether with 48-track DASH tape or, at the very minimum, running a whole rack of Tascam DA98s in the background. It's only been a year or two that we've felt reasonably confident with the Pyramix systems, providing they are set up properly and used properly. The Isle of Wight festival is recorded six to ten hours a day for three days, and we were averaging 50 tracks. From what I can tell, Pyramix was designed from the bottom up to be a multitracking machine, whereas a lot of the others were really built as editing machines. When they were first designed, I don't think they were intended to record 50 tracks at a time for six hours on the trot. Whenever we've recorded with Pro Tools systems they've been OK, but we've found they tend to fall over at least once or twice during a large recording." Naturally, for this kind of project even one crash is unacceptable, since there are no re-takes. "I'm not saying Pyramix is perfect — no recording format is — but I'm sufficiently happy running to two independent Pyramix systems that we're as safe as we can be. It's only been in the last six months or year that I would say that.

"What we normally do is record to fairly large internal SCSI drives and then copy onto Firewire. SCSI is still probably the safest type of drive to record on, but Firewire ones are getting faster. I think it won't be long before we just record directly to drives that people can take away with them; we don't do it that much yet because we're not convinced that it's reliable enough. An awful lot of what we do is about the safety aspect of getting a recording."

Portable hard drives mean that in theory a band can walk off stage, pick up a disk caddy and start mixing their performance before the next band is on. "Quite a lot of artists want to take a drive away with them. The Pyramix can do Pro Tools export, so we copy to a Firewire drive with a Pro Tools session on it. If we recorded on DASH, they'd have to get it copied to Pro Tools anyway, since everyone's mixing on that. It's much cheaper and quicker for everyone, doing it this way."

But the physical fragility of hard disks, containing moving parts — so easily damaged by being dropped, or simply by being left unused for a few years — remains a headache. "The only concern is about long-term storage. Floating Earth are experimenting with archiving, but no-one's really too sure what the best long-term storage is. Tape isn't guaranteed, CDs aren't. I know Virgin Records re-archived all their stuff onto Sony 3324s, the old ones. It was a pretty nasty-sounding converter that they used, and if you can find a 3324 machine to play it back on in 10 years' time, I'll be astonished! Maybe a specialist restoration place would have one. It's a real problem."

The storage problem can only get worse as the amount of data contained in a project continues to increase. "We're doing a classical session at the moment, a 96k recording, with 32 tracks, and it's quite long. We've got several Terabytes of data — it's insane. OK, eventually the technology will catch up and you'll be able to have it on a CD drive or something, but at the moment it's quite worrying. What we tend to do is get copies on to multiple drives, and also on some kind of safe backup, Exabyte or whatever. Drive failures are relatively rare, and I think as long as you've got the data in more than one place, and on more than one or two drives, you're reasonably safe in the short to medium term. Long term, who knows? You make an educated guess and hope it works out in 20 years' time."

Super Furry Animals take to the stage...Super Furry Animals take to the stage...

The demand for live festival recordings has changed. At one time a live set might have appeared on vinyl but, according to Shapland, most are never released these days. "Down the line, someone will say 'give me a mix of that — we're doing a DVD.' With the festivals, many bands do so many of them, and a lot of the festivals are recorded. If they feel they've had a particularly good show, they'll ask for a multitrack, but I think a lot of the bands don't think their performances are going to be that hot, so they don't tend to go looking for the recordings. Sometimes they do for a 'best of' compilation."

This might fuel the argument that modern bands can't play live — at least not at the level of the previous generation of festival acts. But Shapland disagrees: "To be honest, that was at its worst in the mid-to-late '80s, when people had decided you could replace musicians with technology. A lot of bands are playing really well at the moment, especially with the resurgence of guitar bands.

"This was my first go at the Isle of Wight Festival, and I really enjoyed it. The whole vibe of the place is like stepping back 20 or 30 years. Hopefully, now that they've got some major sponsorship their profile should get bigger and bigger and it will be a regular thing." Pete Hughes agrees: "It was thoroughly enjoyable; I think it went really well, and we're looking forward to doing it again."

Festival Photography

Thanks to the Dimbola Lodge photographic museum for the use of images of the 1970 Festival poster and of Jimi Hendrix (remaining photographs used in this feature are by Daniel James). The museum is just around the corner from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival site, and has a permanent exhibition of music festival photography and memorabilia, as well as an extensive archive. The museum's curator, Dr Brian Hinton, has also written a book on the history of the festival, which, like the DVD documentary, is entitled Message To Love.

Web Links

Isle of Wight Festival official site


Floating Earth