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Sound & Production For The Hastings Pier Weekend

Live Sound In Action By Matt Frost
Published February 2017

pier pressurePhoto: Mike Burnell

The team behind a three-day event on Hastings Pier had to battle weight restrictions, noise limits and the elements to make it happen!

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Hastings Pier was one of the go-to rock & roll venues on the national gigging circuit. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who, the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Clash all cranked out sets in the pier’s 1920s-era ballroom, whilst perhaps the most notable performance was by Pink Floyd on 20th January 1968. That concert was the last ever time Syd Barrett shared a stage with the psychedelic troupe he’d co-founded and fronted during its pioneering formative years.

pier pressurepier pressureSadly, the pier fell into decline and disrepair during the 1990s and 2000s and high-profile gigs became nothing more than a nostalgic memory. In 2008, the historic attraction was closed completely by its then private owners and was ultimately all but wiped out by an extensive fire in 2010. While arson was strongly suspected, no charges were ever brought.

Thankfully, however, this was far from the end of the story. In 2013, Hastings Borough Council initiated a compulsory purchase order in which the remaining structure was bought for just £1 by the Hastings Pier Charity. During the course of the past three years, a £15 million restoration project — largely funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant — culminated in the pier reopening on 27th April 2016.

Boasting a thoroughly modern open-plan 21st-century design, Hastings Pier now houses just a handful of permanent buildings comprising a central visitor centre and raised viewing platform called The Deck, as well as a bar/restaurant close to the shore end. This latter attraction was crafted into the pier’s original Pavilion, which somehow survived the 2010 fire. The rest of the pier is completely open to the elements, allowing temporary attractions and mobile structures such as and fairground rides to be set up and moved around as and when required. One-off events such as an open-air cinema, children’s workshops and a circus tent have all proved popular over the past nine months.

Significantly, major live music concerts have also been welcomed back onto Hastings Pier amid a torrent of local fanfare. On 21st May, Madness (including local Hastings hero Suggs) delivered the pier’s first open-air gig, whilst 16th-18th September heralded three varied days and evenings of top-notch live bands and artists. Friday’s main acts were Dizzee Rascal and KRS-One, while Happy Mondays and the Orb proved a sell-out draw on the Saturday. The Levellers and Turin Brakes then ably closed the weekend’s proceedings on Sunday evening.

Planning The Weekend

The September weekend on Hastings Pier was organised and managed by two Brighton-based companies, One Inch Badge and C3 Productions. Whilst promotions outfit One Inch Badge booked and managed the artists as well as overseeing essential elements such as refreshments, toilets and security, C3 were responsible for the staging, lighting, visuals and live sound for all the acts.

C3 Operations Manager Lewis Hughes.C3 Operations Manager Lewis Hughes.The event, which proved a resounding success for all concerned, was actually the first major live project that C3’s Operations Manager Lewis Hughes had headed up for the company.

“It was my first time managing a big project for C3,” explains Hughes. “But I certainly can’t take all of the credit. I had well-established industry professionals advising me and watching my back but, generally, I made the decisions and planned it from the ground upwards, which was very rewarding and exciting and is definitely something I want to get involved with again. I’ve dabbled in various events up to a 1200 capacity over the last few years but it is difficult for me to squeeze production management into my time because I’m also running the operations for C3. I can maybe only do it two or three times a year at the moment, but the plan is for me to move forward and get more into project and production management. Everyone here is always moving up the chain. That’s the way the company works.”

One of the first decisions to be taken for the September shows was choosing appropriate staging.

“Aside from the budget limitations, there are weight restrictions on the pier and that’s around 500kg per square metre,” says Lewis. “That’s across the entire pier. You can also only drive up to a 3.5-ton vehicle on the pier, so any construction we had to move in had to be loaded in by a van or a standard pickup. We looked at various structure solutions but most constructed-on-site stages are very expensive, weigh an absolute ton and take a considerable amount of time to build. You’re looking at a whole day to build most decent-size stage structures. The promoter only had the pier from 6pm onwards on the evening before the first show day, which was the usual public closing time, so that was obviously quite tight, and then we had to be clear by 10am on Monday morning, so the stage also had to be able to be de-rigged quickly. Another factor we had to consider was the noisy disassembling of an overnight de-rig when we had fairly close proximity to residential areas. In the end, the stage we went for was a 10 x 6.1 m trailer stage, which has a hydraulic roof that raises up to 4m, which was supplied by Event Equipment Hire based up in Leeds. It was quite an impressive structure and it went up in about three hours and came down even more quickly — plus it was really good, budget-wise.”

The staging, power and lights all arrived on the Thursday before the event — and had to be set up in torrential rain...The staging, power and lights all arrived on the Thursday before the event — and had to be set up in torrential rain...

In addition to Lewis Hughes’ role as Production Manager, under which he managed all pre-production and implementation, there were also a number of other key members of the crew: Jon Crawley (C3 Director and Production Manager, who was also involved in pre-production for the Hastings Pier Weekender); lvaro de la Osa (FOH engineer and system engineer); Finian Salter (monitors engineer); Nikolai Yonker (stage and patch engineer); Tom Taylor (lighting designer and house lighting engineer); and Alexei Ekkel (assistant lighting designer and rigger).

The Stage Of Reason

For the inaugural Madness pier gig back in May, the stage was built at the end of the pier, facing the shoreline. However, C3 opted to have the stage in the middle of the pier facing the sea and backing onto the Deck/visitor centre. Metal barriers then ran outwards from the sides of the stage in order to house the audience.

“Basically, the visitor centre was our backstage area with green rooms and catering,” explains Hughes. “That’s 12-metres wide so we wanted to fit everything in line with the footprint of that and have walkways on either side, allowing enough space for vehicles to move in if required. The stage structure was 10-metres wide plus an extra metre per side for PA wings, which added up to 12-metres in total, so it seemed like it was made for the job. Our setup was more self-contained than the setup for the Madness show, where people could sit on the beach and watch their performance, because it was more of a community event. Even if people didn’t manage to get tickets, they could still be involved and see the show.

"With our shows, One Inch Badge wanted them to be more closed and exclusive so people had a reason to pay and go in. I also think there were certain noise issues and concerns with Madness because the PA was facing the shore and so there was a lot more high-end and mid-range noise carriage all the way up the surrounding hills. KRS-One were quite loud and shouty but, generally, I think our spill onto the seafront and local housing was a lot less than it was with Madness. We also used a cardioid bass array for bass as well to try to limit the impact of bass frequencies both on stage and onto surrounding residential areas. I don’t think we ran into any particularly serious issues with regards to noise with local residents.”

Turbosound TFM-560s were used for the stage wedges.Turbosound TFM-560s were used for the stage wedges.

There was one particular surprise in store for Lewis Hughes when he went to check out the site on the day of Madness’s May concert.

“Our event was a completely different beast to Madness’s, really, and I don’t think there was a massive amount we carried over from that visit as such but, funnily enough, they did actually use the same stage as us!” laughs Lewis. “We didn’t steal their idea or anything. We’d booked it a week before I went to the Madness event and they had the same stage from exactly the same supplier as well, which was quite funny. It just shows that it was the no-brainer choice for that venue! I can’t really think of any other staging solutions which would really work on there that well but, like I say, ours was a completely different kind of beast. The only similarities, I guess, would be the stage itself and the way we ran the power out of the building, which was the only way it could be done. I guess one other thing we took from it was that we wanted our event to have more of that live music-festival feel, but we each had a very different brief.”

Health and safety concerns, as with any public event, also played a significant role. Hastings Pier is surrounded by fairly low railings, which raise obvious safety issues, whilst the capacity for the gigs on the pier could be no more than 2500.

Bez.Bez.“Our design meant that the arena was in the middle surrounded by barriers with walkways between the arena and the pier railings,” explains Hughes. “It’s a long drop from the pier to the sea so we had to have people going around making sure people were not sitting on the railings or even standing in the walkways so there could be no pressure on the railings. During the Happy Mondays set, the walkways got a bit chock-a-block, which was a bit of a concern, but I think they managed to move everybody on. The 2500 capacity was calculated on the basis of around one person per square foot. Personally, I think you could fit another 500 people on there quite comfortably, especially if we extended the size of the arena by installing barriers before the railings to make things safer... but that’s a thought for another event!

"Another thing to maybe think about for the future in terms of increasing capacity would be to move back of house further back a bit, which we could do if we moved vendors from that spot [ie. bars, food]. We could then have a second delay system, which could potentially be extended right to the end of the pier head. Overall though, I really liked the way that the layout of the arena worked because it gave you that festival feeling.”

System Decisions

As would be expected for such a major bespoke event as the September weekend of shows on Hastings Pier, a considerable amount of thought and planning went into deciding on the most suitable PA system for the job.

“The main PA system, configured and optimised by lvaro [de la Osa; FOH and system engineer], was a six-a-side [L-Acoustics] KARA system, with six SB18 subwoofers per side, and a centre stack of two SB18s,” says Lewis. “It was originally going to be just the six-a-side subs. We were going to have two-a-side subs as part of the delay system with a three-a-side KARA, but we found there was a lot of spill backwards behind the delays into the main arena, so we ended up just moving two up to the front. We also had four [L-Acoustics] 12XTs across the front, which work really well as front fills for stages this size. I think there was just about enough PA there, although we couldn’t quite open it up as much as we’d have liked to. After consulting with lvaro following the event, next time we’d maybe consider implementing an eight-a-side end-fire sub array to try and direct more bass into the arena. This may also further reduce bass-frequency impact to surrounding areas. But you can always further tweak a system — I think the system sounded great and there were no complaints about sound.”

With outside events close to residential housing, noise pollution is obviously always a very important issue to both plan against and monitor during live performances.

“With those sort of events, we have a noise management professional who goes around the surrounding areas with a dB meter,” Hughes explains. “We put letters out before the show notifying local residents of the event and providing a telephone number to call if there are any issues. The noise management guy went round the area taking readings at various points and locations throughout the weekend and would liaise with anybody who called up with a complaint. There’ll always be a couple of people that complain, so he’ll just go and have a chat with them and assure them that we are taking measures to manage and reduce the noise impact to local residents, and also let them know that it won’t be going on too late! It’s always better to be up-front with these sorts of things by giving people a noise emergency number to call in case they do have a problem. There will always be very receptive people on the other end of the phone to deal with any issues raised. Following the event, the noise management professional will then produce a report detailing various factors and measurements obtained throughout the event, which can be analysed and used when planning subsequent events.”

And were the artists and their teams all happy with the volume the PA system kicked out?

“Yeah, I think so,” says Lewis. “Although, funnily enough — and I don’t know if it was part of his show — on the first night, KRS-One left the stage and travelled through the entire crowd to the front-of-house mix position and shouted ‘Turn me up!’, which was obviously quite astounding for the front-of-house engineer, but aside from that nobody complained or raised any issues!”

Desk Job

The front-of-house console that Lewis Hughes and C3 Productions eventually opted for was an Avid Venue SC48.

“The Happy Mondays brought their own engineer and Turin Breaks, I think, brought their own engineer,” explains Hughes. “But they just used the house console, which we pre-agreed with them before the shows. We worked to their specs as best we could. We were originally going to go with an analogue system at front-of-house, which would have been an old Midas Heritage 1000 with all the outboard. That was the original plan but, in the end, we decided to go with the Avid SC48 just because it’s a lot less trouble to use, takes up a lot less space and people can turn up with their show files and just load them in. The Heritage is a big console and then you’ve got to have all the outboard and the PSUs and everything else that goes with it and, with all that, it’s actually wider than the 3 x 3 m front-of-house structure we wanted to use, so [the decision] was mainly logistical.”

C3 Productions are certainly now favouring digital consoles for the many events they’re involved with, including Brighton’s hectic annual multi-venue festival The Great Escape. “Old analogue outboard consoles and other gear can be a bit tricky,” says Lewis. “Newer digital consoles tend to be a lot more reliable and versatile than analogue options these days. If you lose a channel or an EQ or have a scratchy fader or something, everything can be reassigned to something else or accessed elsewhere. For us, digital consoles are the present and future. I used to be a total analogue head but, these days, with the endless headaches of analogue systems and their upkeep, I generally go with the digital option. With The Great Escape festival, we were running on 50-percent analogue and 50-percent digital three years ago, but last year it was 100-percent digital for us.

"I think the accessibility of digital consoles has increased a lot over the last couple of years in terms of price and also just how well they work. Things have come a long way since the [Yamaha] LS9 era of affordable and compact digital consoles, which was sort of the bridge into the wide range of affordable, yet surprisingly effective, solutions available today. Now you can get things like the Midas M16 and M32 and the Allen & Heath Qu range, which are great go-to small- and medium-format digital desks for small-to-medium shows. These days, analogue systems just seem to be a constant battle to me, although, in their peak condition, I’ll always have a love for them. For live sound on the road today, digital systems just seem to throw less curveballs at you and give you far greater flexibility.”

Was any outboard gear utilised by either in-house enigneer lvaro or any of the other FOH engineers manning the console during the course of the weekend? “No, we didn’t bring any extra outboard,” replies Hughes. “Occasionally, we’ll be asked to supply an Avalon compressor or something like that, as per an artist tech spec, but I don’t think there was anything we used, outboard-wise, in Hastings.”

Monitors & Miking

Turbosound have long been C3’s company of choice for monitoring purposes, and the Hastings weekend proved no exception. “The wedges were Turbosound TFM-560s,” says Lewis, “powered by Lab Gruppen PLM 10000Q four-channel digital amps. We used a [Midas] Pro 2 for the monitor console, manned by Finian [Salter, monitor engineer], which we went for because we needed plenty of outputs for the Levellers’ in-ear monitoring systems, which — on top of the wedge system — required 24 outputs. Used in conjunction with the DL251 digital Stage Box, you can achieve 24 outputs on the Pro 2, combining the eight on the console and 16 on the Stage Box. A few of the other consoles we considered weren’t able to achieve that many outputs without specific expansion cards, for example. Aside from that, the Pro 2 is obviously a great-sounding desk and most artists’ engineers will have an existing show file for it. Plus it’s relatively inexpensive, which meant it was a good option for us.”

Dizzee Rascal performs in front of an LED wall.Dizzee Rascal performs in front of an LED wall.Lewis Hughes and his team took a varied selection of microphones with them for the Hastings weekend, while some artists opted for their own personal setups.

“With Dizzee Rascal, they brought all their own handhelds, but we brought our own wireless handheld system for backups: four Sennheiser EW 500 G3s with E935s,” explains Hughes. “Then we supplied our standard premium mic package, which consists of [Shure] Beta 58As and Beta 57As, [AKG] C214s and C451s, [Shure] SM57s, Beta 91As, Beta 52As, [Sennheiser] E604s and BSS AR133 DIs. That’ll just about cover any live sound situation, within reason, and is our standard festival stage-mic package. Nikolai [Yonker, stage and patch engineer] was responsible for stage miking and patching and working with the artists and backline crew alongside Finian on monitors. They both helped achieve a great-looking and great-sounding stage.”

All Hands On Deck

As mentioned earlier, the C3 Productions crew only had access to the Hastings Pier site from 6pm on Thursday evening and — with Dizzee Rascal, KRS-One and the rest of Friday’s artists due to soundcheck early on Friday afternoon — time was certainly tight to get the stage, lighting, sound and all other aspects of the build in place in what would essentially amount to less than a 20-hour timeframe. What certainly didn’t help Lewis’ stress levels was the fact that the event’s trailer stage, which was being trucked in from Leeds, got caught in heavy traffic, meaning the local crew that had been booked in to help the construction ended up being sent home before the stage actually arrived. When the trailer truck did finally reach Hastings, it was a case of all C3 hands on deck through the early hours of Friday morning. And, what’s more, the weather didn’t exactly play ball either...

“The main plan for the build on the Thursday night was just to get the power in, get the stage up and get the lighting in so we could come in on Friday morning and do the rest,” says Lewis. “We managed to get the power in but then all we could do was wait for the stage to arrive, and there was not a great deal else the local crew of six could do. We were all just waiting around. By the time we got to the point where we could use the local crew, they got to the end of their call time and it was time for them to go home. So it was me, Tom [Taylor, lighting designer and house lighting engineer] and Alexei [Ekkel, assistant lighting designer and rigger] staying up until half five or six in the morning putting everything together! Because of how the stage works, you can’t rig the lights and then raise the roof. You can rig up to 100 kilos to the roof before it goes up but, beyond that, we were just up and down the scaff tower all night long. The weather was abysmal too. It was sideways rain and the stage was actually flooded at one point because the rain was so intense. I wasn’t originally responsible for any of the lighting rigging but we just needed to get it done and had no other crew due to the late stage. It wouldn’t have been safe for those two guys doing it on their own because there are two levels to the scaff tower and you need one guy on the top tower, one guy on the middle platform addressing and getting stuff ready, and you need another guy to pass the fixtures up to them and then up again. For just two guys, it would have been an absolute nightmare.”

KRS-One (right) at the front-of-house Avid Venue SC48 console.KRS-One (right) at the front-of-house Avid Venue SC48 console.Was there enough weather protection for all the gear? “Most of the fixtures we chose were weatherproof up to a certain extent,” Hughes replies. “The stage offered a fairly decent level of protection for the lighting fixtures once rigged and all powered electronics were kept in marquees, either on stage or under stage, but, needless to say, there was a lot of tarping throughout the weekend!”

Rise & Shine

Inevitably, sleep was not exactly a veritable option for Lewis Hughes and his crew before it was time to get the live sound system set up on Friday morning.

“I remember just sort of peeling my eyes open at 8am Friday morning after about an hour’s rest,” Lewis explains. “I just laid in bed and worried for an hour or two and then got back up again so, of course, I was quite weary at first, but it’s all part of the adventure! The sound arrived just after eight on Friday morning and, unfortunately, the weather was no better. We rigged the PA in the rain and got soaked to the skin so were all quite wet and miserable come lunchtime. We perked up once the sun came out and had dried us off a bit though!”

Indeed, the team had left the setting up of FOH to the very last minute, optimistically hoping for a break in the torrential rain. Throughout the course of the weekend, keeping the rain away from the gear was obviously one of Lewis’s greatest concerns.

“We brought two of our own marquees with us, which are made by Gala Tent,” says Hughes. “They do a really good range of marquees, which are all quite strong. We used to use pop-up gazebos but, in the wet weather and the wind, they’re an absolute nightmare. It only takes one strong gust and the whole thing’s ruined and you’re throwing tarps over the front-of-house desk. We actually left the front and back sides of the marquees open throughout the night to try and reduce wind pressure on the marquee’s sides and then just thoroughly tarped the tech gear up. We didn’t want to come back and find our marquee in the sea in the morning! As I said, there was a lot of tarping throughout the weekend. At the end of each show we dropped the PA and tarped that and tarped all the monitors and tech gear on stage overnight. The light fixtures stayed exposed throughout the weekend but we didn’t really have any issues with any of them. They all seemed to be able to handle it and de-rigging and re-rigging each day would have been a huge undertaking! We used all fairly prolific lighting manufacturers who — although they won’t specify their products as waterproof — certainly design them with exposure to the elements in mind. We try to always use the tried-and-tested industry standard gear that you know you can rely on. You know it can take a bit of a beating or a watering without having to worry too much about it.”

Seamless Teamwork

After all the intense and diligent C3 teamwork getting Hastings Pier set up for September’s weekend of music, the last pieces in the proverbial pie were obviously the performing artists themselves arriving, setting up their own backlines and soundchecking prior to their live sets.

“The artists tended to start soundchecking from one o’clock onwards so, on Friday, we had about four hours to build the PA before it was needed,” explains Lewis. “Doors were at five on the Friday and three on the Saturday and Sunday. Headline artist load-in was first at around midday. They just loaded in and set up and loaded their show files while the backline crew built their backline setups on stage, and then they soundchecked. The support acts then loaded in and soundchecked after that. Everything went absolutely fine and there were no issues to mention with the headline or support artists’ setups or soundchecks throughout the weekend.”

How far did the rain and wind affect the sound during performances? “It didn’t really affect the sound at all,” replies Hughes. “Fortunately the extreme weathers experienced throughout the weekend were not during show times!” Overall, Lewis Hughes was really chuffed with how everything went so smoothly and seamlessly throughout the event’s three-day duration.

“With regards to the show and its execution, everything was on time throughout the weekend,” he enthuses. “All the changeovers happened really efficiently and everybody concerned seemed really happy with the sound, lighting and AV for the event. I have all the crew involved to thank for that because they did an amazing job of pulling it all together so seamlessly. Everything happened when it was supposed to, bar the delivery of the trailer stage, but that was outside of anybody’s control. Every band was on stage when they were supposed to be and every band finished when they were supposed to. The crew had everything locked down on time and they were militant.”

Pier Reviewed

Is there anything that C3 Productions might do differently if they get the go-ahead for further Hastings Pier gigs in 2017?

“Obviously, there’s a few fine-tunings we’d work on next time, but they’re little things like power runs and where we’d put distro boxes and bits and pieces like that,” says Lewis. “I might also opt for a couple more bass bins but, generally, I was just really happy with the way it all went and came together. I would have liked to have kept the LED wall for the entire weekend as I thought it really made the Friday Dizzee Rascal show stand out. It looked amazing! We’d also maybe look at different lighting options and designs and also maybe look again at other possibilities for staging structures. There were some restrictions to the trailer stage, like we couldn’t really outrig from stage level and have an extra platform for the monitor mixing position off the main stage area, and we couldn’t come straight off the back of the stage with a stage access ramp. We had to build the ramp so you had to come out of the stage-right side door then turn to go down the ramp, as the entire back wall was crossed with steel cables and had no entrances. It’s definitely worth having another look at what’s available but — as far as the format for that event space goes — I think we’d probably apply more or less the same plan again. As far as my first larger project went, I thought it was a really professional and impressive-looking production, executed by an excellent team. I’m really looking forward to the next one!”

Lastly, it’s got to be said that — after such a prolonged gap — having large-scale music events on Hastings Pier once again is fantastic news for the town and its local economy. The concerts in both April and May 2016 were largely welcomed by the majority of the seaside resort’s residents and it surely won’t be long before Hastings is well and truly back on the mainstream gigging circuit.

“I spoke to a lot of people outside the gate during the weekend and everyone was saying, ‘Oh, this is great, it’s amazing! I love that this is happening for Hastings. It’s nice to see everyone coming together and coming down here!’” adds Lewis Hughes. “I think that the local people will — on one level or another — appreciate that something like this is once again going on at the pier with bands and artists that people are familiar with. Hopefully, over time, there will be something for everybody. Let’s see how it goes from here!”