Live sound production for Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage
Published in PM February 2009
Technique : Live Sound
In Part One of PM's unique behind-the-scenes look at sound production for the world's most iconic festival stage, we examine the gear, the challenges of the site and the roles of all the audio team's key players.
In the deep midwinter, when frost lies hard on last summer's verdant and music-filled fields, the coming outdoor events season's entertainment is busily being planned in offices the length and breadth of the country. Festival line-ups are being assembled, appearance fees negotiated with artist agents, press releases confirming the first headliners are being prepared, ticketing operations are gearing up, entertainment licences applied for. And a slew of up-and-coming bands, and maybe their sound engineers and superhuman crews too, are looking forward to their debut slots on one of the burgeoning number of festivals across the UK and Europe.
If their numbers include you, then this article — and next month's sequel — is for you. We're taking a look behind the scenes of sound production for what is arguably the world's most iconic festival stage, the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, as part of a wider look at what to expect when you hit the festival scene for the first time. In conversation with some of the Glastonbury 2008 audio team's key players — including this article's co-author, Simon Honywill, who was Audio Crew Chief for the Pyramid Stage in 2007 and 2008 — we look at the main roles on the team and the people and situations you will encounter, whether as a performer, sound engineer or band crew member. But festivals come in all shapes and sizes and we're not limiting our scope to the Vale of Avalon, perennially alluring though it is in its glorious midsummer haze (or duplicitous downpour). The second part of this series will feature an interview with, among others, Tony Scott, long-time promoter of the hugely popular Guilfest event in the heart of Guildford, Surrey, which each year provides a platform for unsigned bands, as well as other makers in this now massive live music/live dance market.
For anyone whose festival-going experience stretches back beyond today's hi-tech, Health & Safety-conscious, bearable-loos world to the considerably more anarchic pioneering days of the '70s and '80s, any contemporary 'V', 'T', Reading and Leeds or Glasto — not to mention the equally pulsating events across the continent from Exit in Serbia to Roskilde in Denmark, from Pink Pop in Holland to Benicassim in Spain — amounts to a modern revelation, the product of a consumer revolution. The paying customer expects pristine sound, slick production and good food, and increasingly gets it. You can witness the same qualitative leap forward at a host of what the posh papers like to call 'boutique' festivals: Big Chill, the Glade, Latitude, et al.
Similarly, there's been the dramatic influence of regulation, some driven from within the live music industry, still more imposed by the powers that be in Brussels. After the Roskilde Festival disaster in 2000, when nine audience members died during Pearl Jam's set, safety has risen to the top of every promoter's priority list. Steward training and safety barrier design standards have greatly improved. EU legislation, adopted in varying forms in every member state, has enshrined in law virtually every aspect of producing live shows, from how riggers may work at height to noise exposure levels and crew working hours. Environmental concerns are being embraced in all corners of the green field environment, from lower-power LED lighting to food container recycling.
Sound, of course, is of primary importance to the festival experience for all concerned, even though the delights of light shows and video production remain, for practical and economic reasons, largely the preserve of either outdoor headliners or the tented stages. Which is precisely why attention to how your festival sound is created is deemed worthy of all this ink.
In these days of rarer-than-ever record deals, making the most of your one-off chances on these bigger stages, in front of music lovers unfamiliar with your material, can arguably make a greater career-enhancing difference than ever. Attention to what draws and holds a live audience beyond your original home fan base is worth more than a passing thought if your real aim is longevity. Yours just could be the next band that truly seizes the moment, as did Pulp at Glastonbury in 1995, famously stepping in at the last minute after the Stone Roses pulled out due to John Squire's bike accident. Jarvis Cocker confessed to feeling "the most nervous I've ever been in my life" prior to walking on stage that night, but that platinum-plated Saturday-night slot, disappointed Mancunian baggies notwithstanding, cemented Pulp's A-list status after a searing performance. Last summer, in a twist as ironic as it was energisingly cathartic, Jay-Z, who had clearly relished Noel Gallagher's widely published scepticism about the rapper's forthcoming Saturday headline slot, riposted by opening his set with a brilliant cover of 'Wonderwall' accompanied by one of the wittiest (and most quickly assembled) video backdrops ever seen at a major rock festival. Festivals are like that: a chance to make an impact, a real difference; a chance that's yours to take, to dazzle, to amaze, seize the moment, win friends and influence people.
And, happily for all who have ears to hear, large-scale PA and stage-monitoring technology have more than kept pace with the CD revolution that powered the great migration from vinyl to digital. Some would contend that we experience live music in a more sanitised, less rock & roll world. Some are just glad to leave a field with their ears intact — apart, perhaps, from the incessant ringing of mobile phones. But there's no doubt that contemporary audio technology makes the great outdoors a far more enjoyable sonic experience for more people than used to be the case. It also means there's less chance of getting away with messy stage sound, a fuzzy mindset, ill-prepared equipment or a badly planned set list. It's a pro's world.
Glastonbury has witnessed some of the pro audio industry's most ground-breaking ideas launched, literally 'in the field', from Tony Andrews' earliest Turbosound systems onwards. So we'll kick off with a look at the complex sound design that was created for last year's festival, while on page 30 Simon Honywill introduces a guide to who's who in a typical festival audio production team.
Worthy Farm sound waves
The sound of the Pyramid Stage at Glasto '08 represented a comprehensive team effort, drawing on collective experience and featuring a highly integrated approach to the way sound from the three main stages would interact, a unique customised sub-bass system design and the full panoply of state-of-the-art wireless system, used both to configure and monitor the loudspeaker systems. With mostly dry weather and a fantastically eclectic musical line-up including Kings Of Leon, the Fratellis, Amy Winehouse, Jay-Z, Goldfrapp, Leonard Cohen and the Verve to savour, there was plenty for audiences to smile about.
Engaged the previous year to provide full control systems and stage monitoring, for 2008 audio rental company, RG Jones, were brought in by Chris Beale of CBA and Dick Tee, respectively Pyramid Stage Sound Co-ordinator and Production Manager, to supply equipment and a highly experienced crew for both stage and FOH. The sound design was an integrated concept, using computer mapping to minimise both the way in which the PA systems on the Pyramid, Other and Jazz stages would interact with each other and to contain noise spill beyond the site's boundaries.
The PA configuration was designed as a joint effort between RG Jones and Martin Audio's Jim Cousins and Jason Baird, using Martin Audio's Display 3-D predictive software. Acoustician Andy Pardoe devised a special sub-bass array, lined up under the stage front, which consisted of a row of 54 WS218X subwoofers, arranged in blocks of three (two front-facing, one rear-facing) to provide enhanced directivity control. Out front, the team rigged dual 15-deep left and right hangs of Martin Audio's W8L Longbow high-power line array, each with down-fills and complemented by Martin Audio W8LC stereo in-fills. The arrays, sub-hired from Capital Sound, were individually EQ'd and aligned using XTA Audiocore software controlling an array of XTA DP226 processors under wireless tablet PC control. The outfield was covered by three delay hangs of Synco by Martin Audio W8LC line-array hangs, with eight-cabinet cardioid sub-bass arrays. As ever, the sound design team, working in conjunction with environmental acoustics consultants Capita Symons, faced a dual challenge: delivering an exciting sound level to the packed main bowl audience, yet without allowing the excess spillage into areas outside the site that have caused problems in the past.
"A great deal was learned during last year's festival," says Chris Beale, "and in particular, it was decided that we would draw up an audio specification that described not only how the audio system in each of the three main arenas — Pyramid, Other and Jazz — should perform, but how they should be designed so as not to interfere with each other. For the Pyramid Stage arena itself, the design called for a main PA in which the top cabinets would be angled down by eight degrees relative to the ground slope to ensure it would get under potential wind effects, and a bass-array design that took into account low-frequency pressure limits in the audience areas near to the stage, relative to the low-frequency sound pressure distance. And the delays would need to be proportionately as powerful as the main system, again angled down and with individual cabinet control. Comprehensive system control was another vital factor. All control for all arrays, both main and delays, was split up into sections, which enabled subtle changes to be made to the throw and coverage of the entire system. The intention was that these changes would be significant in the off-site readings, where you are juggling with single decibels to maintain the levels within the license criteria, but barely discernible in the arena. Those criteria together provided the basis for designing the arena system."
He adds: "Melvin Benn [Festival Production Director] paid very close attention to the system and walked the arena with us, and he's extremely satisfied. We've got a great result because of the amount of effort that everyone's put in. The thinking and cooperation that's gone on between everyone involved has been really good. And following the weekend, the local authority declared themselves very happy too, which is great news for the festival."
On stage, a further ingredient in the mix was RG Jones' status as a member of the Synco Network, a Europe-wide alliance of independent equipment rental companies (mostly offering sound, though some provide lighting, staging and other services too). This means the venerable Wimbledon-based firm, which on its 80th birthday in 2006 became the first UK sound rental company to be awarded the Royal Warrant, includes in its hire stock the custom-designed Synco low-profile stage monitors that you can see in our photos, as well as a wide range of Synco by Martin Audio line-array systems. The monitor system comprised 24 Synco CW15A low-profile, dual-concentric, 15-inch monitor wedges, complemented with two 2 x 15-inch STS Synco subs for the drum fill. System equalisation was achieved using XTA digital EQ controlled by a wireless tablet and Klark Teknik DN360 for grab EQ. The company's team was headed by FOH engineer Simon Honywill with Diarmuid McLennan at his side and system engineer Mark Edwards. Monitor world was ruled by Steve Watson and Mark Isbister alongside the Patch Master Ali Viles, whilst Steve Carr, Ben Milton and Laura Yensen took care of the stage.
Digital in control
Control systems reflected RG Jones' successful deployment of an all-digital signal control solution in 2007. A highly flexible line system provided both digital and analogue feeds to monitors, FOH and the BBC's outside broadcast team, configured as classic festival A/B systems, allowing one band to perform while the next was being line-checked, and a third set of equipment was being prepared backstage. A mixture of 12-pair and 48-pair multicore systems was interfaced with 96 ways of Klark Teknik active splits to generate the FOH, monitor and media outputs. The system was also designed for fast interfacing with visiting bands' line systems.
An essential ingredient in a production such as this is good communications. A sophisticated shout system between stage and FOH saw all stage crew wearing a radio in-ear monitor and a push-to-talk radio headset, while FOH and Monitors had switched microphones and wedges, all controlled by a dedicated Yamaha LS9 mixer. The BBC were also included in the loop for full interactive involvement in the rapid turn-arounds and line checks.
Another solution carried over from 2007 was the all-digital FOH setup, offering engineers a pair of Digidesign Venue consoles at FOH in an A/B flip-flop configuration, with a D-Show Profile serving as FOH matrix, linked to stage via an Optocore DD32E digital fibre-based network system — and from there via AES to the XTA loudspeaker processors. The solution maintained a digital signal path all the way to the DP226 outputs, while the consoles' integral processing and plug-ins eliminated the need for effects racks and much of the potential grief caused by visiting engineers' specific demands for esoteric signal processing.
The combination of Venue's unique mix-buss algorithms and the Optocore's ultra-high-speed transmission resulted in optimum audio quality, while for visiting engineers who opted to use their own consoles, the team had a rapid changeover routine well rehearsed, allowing 20- to 30-minute intervals between bands.
Weather, noise and going wireless
As anyone who has flown in an aircraft in turbulence knows, perfectly clear air can move in mysterious ways. A phenomenon known as temperature inversion is the festival sound company's equivalent of the pilot's wind shear, transforming the smooth progress of a sunny afternoon into a bumpy ride for the promoter as local environmental health inspectors (aka the 'Noise Police') begin calling to report neighbours' complaints that the last band had drowned out Strictly Come Dancing on TVs in the village over the hill.
The Reading Festival site at Rivermead is one that is well known among audio professionals for its susceptibility to inversions, notwithstanding its numerous other attractions. Its position adjacent to the River Thames in a shallow valley beside the town creates the ideal midsummer conditions for an inversion, typically in early evening at precisely the point when the biggest acts are cranking it up on stage. As the sun sets, the air at the bottom of the valley cools rapidly and can become 'trapped' under a warmer layer of air above. This can have several effects. Firstly, the inversion may 'cap' normal convection currents, concentrating smoke and other pollutants near the ground. Breathing a self-created carcinogenic smog of complex hydrocarbons from burning plastic bags is one of several good reasons why bonfires are a bad idea here. The boundary between the two layers of air can also reflect sound back down into surrounding residential districts, apparently defying the laws of physics that suggest that houses further away should be less affected by noise spill from the stages.
Cool air is also denser, which means that sound wave energy can travel through it more easily, as it has more closely packed molecules. Energy is therefore transmitted more easily and sound travels further — think of how sound travels through water. Sound companies go to great lengths to minimise this effect, using a blend of hard-won experience and computer technology (which is used to 'map' predicted sound dispersion across the festival site's topography). The experience — and the widespread availability of lightweight, compact line-array PA systems — has led to the concept of flying a PA high and angling it downwards, reducing the distance the sound carries beyond the audience area. The same principle applies to delay towers. Keeping the sound contained within the site is a critical mantra. The more complaints a council gets from local residents, the tougher it will be on the promoter's next licence application.
A festival, if it is to be legal, needs a license to operate. This license is generally granted by the local authority for the area in which the event is taking place, and they have a responsibility to the residents of the area to protect their interests as well as help the festival be as successful as possible. No matter how fantastic everybody thinks your festival is, there will always be somebody that wants it to go away. It could be for any number of reasons, but the one that concerns us is noise. The local authority, in consultation with specialist environmental noise consultants, will set parameters for off-site sound levels to which the festival must adhere or accept the consequences — usually a hefty fine, at worst licence cancellation and reduced chances of licences being granted in the future.
These consultants, whose job it is to monitor sound levels at designated locations around the festival site and ensure that the decibel levels stipulated in the event licence are complied with, are known colloquially as the 'Noise Police'. Or to put it more correctly (and politely!), the environmental noise monitoring team. They are usually fair to all parties, but can favour the minority in some cases. Whatever the case, the noise restrictions must be honoured, and it can often be a very difficult job to keep the punters, band and local residents happy — as many may remember from the Killers' set at Glastonbury in 2007, where weather conditions (temperature inversion, changing wind direction) dictated excellent sound transmission over a great distance, rendering off-site levels way above the recommended. The sign of a good noise policeman that knows the score is somebody who tells you that you can turn up if you want — a rare, but wonderful occasion! Whatever they're saying, it's the sound engineers who have their fingers on the faders and have to do the deed, making their position politically sensitive and potentially difficult.
Among the leaders in noise control that you may encounter are Capita Symons, on hand at Glastonbury and elsewhere, and Vanguardia Consulting, who work for a variety of festivals and venue owners. Their work on monitoring sound levels on and off site, using the latest in digital monitoring and recording technology, is reflected by continental counterparts such as Holland's Team Projects, whose clients include the 14-stage North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, a task that also involves taming the acoustics of numerous large, concrete-and-glass exhibition halls.
Another practitioner in the field, albeit with a slightly different focus, is Chris Beale, a former director of Birmingham-based sound rental firm SSE Hire, which worked for several years on the Pyramid Stage sound. Nowadays head of his own outfit, CBA, Beale has made his mark on the greening of outdoor events with wireless technology and, doubling his duties at Glasto, as Pyramid Stage Sound Coordinator. CBA's packages of wireless, site-wide communications have been adopted by leading outdoor events including Glastonbury, Download Festival, the V Festivals, Reading and Leeds, Latitude, T In The Park and others. The objective is to transform communications between the myriad companies and people scattered across event sites spanning hundreds of acres, with Glastonbury's Worthy Farm being a prime example. The firm were contracted to supply IT, networking and telephone services to the site, with most delivered wirelessly, including some 200 telephone handsets and Internet access nodes in all the significant backstage and other administrative locations.
"Networking is obviously a fact of life," Chris Beale points out. "Most people can't live through a day without logging on and getting their email and browsing the Internet. But people working on event productions now demand a wider concept than that, with service, security, user features and management utilities equivalent to those you'd expect at an enterprise level." The service replaces all the traditional cabled services temporarily installed on an event site, and many more, with a wireless IT backbone capable of supporting sophisticated services such as fully featured, enterprise-level VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) telephony. "You only needed one phone number to reach any Glastonbury production location," says Beale, "and our wireless network supported a CCTV network, noise management utilities, audio and video streaming, public address announcement distribution and more." The 'green' benefit of going wireless is clear: the elimination of, in Glastonbury's case, over 20km of cable, most of which is normally unusable after the event.
At Glastonbury, the company also trialled its new SPLnet networked noise level monitoring system, designed to assist production managers in ensuring the Control of Noise at Work (CNAW) Regulations are met by providing a large, easily visible digital readout of the sound level (dB Leq) at any location, and the number of minutes left before anyone working in that location would exceed their safe and legal limits during their working cycle. In addition, the FOH mix tower was equipped with an LED screen readout that gave sound engineers a meaningful sound level figure to work to and informed them how much 'headroom' they had — in other words, how long they could run it loud before their levels would accumulate above the recommended level set by the Noise Police. 0
Who does what in festival sound?
In any complex situation, there are fundamental factors that have to be in place for the systems that contribute to combine effectively to achieve the desired result. That's a grand statement, but let's look at an example, albeit extreme perhaps. What does it take to complete a successful space shuttle mission? How can so much complexity be controlled in such a way as to ensure the crew and ship are delivered and returned safely, and that they can carry out their specific tasks whilst orbiting Mother Earth at 25,000mph?
I'm no astronaut, but I would suggest that a few key factors need to be recognised before the enormous amount of work required is broken down into manageable chunks and distributed amongst groups of people specialising in specific areas — engineering, ballistics, flight systems, medical, cosmologists, and so on. Whilst the particular disciplines of these specialists may have very little in common with each other on the surface (what could a doctor possibly have in common with a ballistics engineer?), what lies beneath is a singular binding force — that of a desire to see a successful mission through from beginning to end, with the knowledge that their contribution has been the best it possibly could be.
While the mental journey from space shuttle missions to gigging may seem a giant leap, when it comes to festival season there are analogies to be had, and lessons to be learnt, for a modern festival stage is nothing if not a complex situation. You, musicians and crew alike, are the astronauts, and we, the festival sound crew, are mission control, and these articles are about making sure we all work together to achieve a great result. We are there to provide you with a fully functional, fully operational platform for you to deliver your performance into orbit. So it makes sense if a bit of cross-disciplinary knowledge is exchanged, and any band arriving on a festival stage that has their act together technically as well as musically will instantly earn respect and encourage cooperation from the festival sound crew. Let's start with a breakdown of what it is that everybody does at Mission Control. Not every festival is the same, but by taking the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury as arguably the ultimate festival stage, we should be covering most possibilities.
Mission Control — sound crew and stage management
Usually a forthright, shouty bloke whose bark is often worse than his bite. It's his job to ensure that everything runs to schedule, the band equipment load-ins and outs don't all crash into each other, and that all the change-rounds between bands run smoothly. He'll be in charge of a crew that will help get everything in place — in particular your amps, drums and other equipment — and out of the way again when it's finished with. He'll coordinate all technical crews, both in-house and visiting, and ensure that set, screens, risers and so on go in the right place. Very often, he'll have an assistant so that he can get some sleep occasionally. With the ever more tightening license regulations, keeping the stage running to time is critical to protect the integrity of the festival's relationship with the local authority (usually a local council) and to make sure we can all come back next year. He is the most important person on that stage, and no matter who you think you are, he'll tell you if you're overrunning and will, if he has to, give instructions for the power to be switched off.
The member of the sound crew whose responsibility it is to get everything plugged in correctly. Any decent festival will have two alternating control systems, known as A/B systems, which enable the next band to be plugged up and checked behind the curtain whilst another act is actually playing on stage. When you start to consider that there are mixing positions at FOH, on-stage monitors and in the TV truck, let alone any bands that want to bring in their own consoles, you can imagine that it could get complicated. It is the Patch Master's job to deliver the correct inputs to the correct desk channels for all consoles, according to the information supplied by the bands' sound engineers or production managers. He is in constant communication with the other members of the sound crew and the TV truck, and has to be seriously on the case to address any problems that might crop up. For the duration of the show, the Patch Master is the central point in the coordination of the sound crew, and it takes a special kind of person to be good at this. Irony and sarcasm are important tools. Respect is due here.
Probably two or even three sound crew who work alongside the Patch Master to get the stage miked up correctly and neatly. These people will make sure that all the right mics are put on the right stands for the right instruments, that all the right connections are made to the right inputs, and that there is power in the right places for amps and keyboards. They have a complete overview of the whole day in their heads, which is why they might look at you strangely. They're there to help you; don't hassle them.
If you don't travel with your own Monitor Engineer, these guys are there for you. They'll place all the wedges for you and will generate the best instant monitor mix you've ever heard. If you do have your own engineer, they'll see him or her right and help get the stage sound in the ballpark. Just one thing: be a bit patient. Mark Isbister, Monitor Engineer for the Pyramid Stage in 2008, says, "Sometimes you're doing monitors for a band and within the first few bars everyone's on your case. Everyone's running over and saying, "I want this," "I want that," and one thing I would appeal to all musicians is: please give us one song, just the first song"
Since bands don't get soundchecks at festivals, it means that unless you have your own monitor engineer you will most likely meet that person for the first time as you walk on stage. Your adrenalin may be pumping, but the engineer behind the board at stage side must be a paragon of icy calm. As Mark says, "At that point, as monitor engineers we really have to think on our feet to dial up 48 channels into a dozen wedges, or into a mixture of wedges and in-ear monitors, with a band we may never have worked for before and quite possibly music and even instrumentation we're unfamiliar with. It might be an African band or an Indian band who turn up with all this amazing stuff and they sound brilliant, but we have to instantly assess how best to mic it up, what sort of space the sound likes and how it fits in the mix. The engineer needs a little while to kind of get tuned into it. So give us a song and then you can have a go at us."
So treat them well, my friends, for they are your friends and hold the key to your performance in their sweaty hands, and will always respond to decency and reason rather than venom and bile. Like any normal human being, really.
As a musician, you might never see these people, as they are generally positioned about 70m out in the audience, surrounded by cider-soaked mud and punters. If you're the band's sound engineer, the house engineers are there to help you get a big, fat mix up on the enormous PA as quickly as possible without a soundcheck and quite possibly on a console you haven't had the opportunity of using before. Whether you know the equipment or not, you'll need help, as the signal infrastructure for any festival has to accommodate everybody, not just you. Have faith — they know the system, know its idiosyncrasies and what to look for.
Always let the house engineers do the initial line check to make sure everything is working before wading into the desk yourself. They know what's going on at the stage end (usually!) and they are there to present you with a level playing field to get your mix together from. Also, don't be afraid to ask if there's something you're not sure of; it's not a competition to see who is the best engineer, and at my festivals you won't be judged, unlike at some. Be aware that these people are working very closely with the environmental noise monitors and are usually the first point of contact for them if things are proving difficult. Basically, if you are asked to turn down a bit, please try and cooperate. It's in the interest of everybody to do so.
There'll be a few of the festival sound crew that you may never encounter at all — the system engineers. These are the people that make the often-extensive PA system work and keep it working. Any tweaks to the system that need doing during the running of the show will be done by them, usually from a laptop at FOH after taking a walk around the arena or on the fly via wireless link. The reasons for tweaking could be due to atmospheric changes, general settling in of the system, in response to a particular request from the environmental noise monitors or the promoter, or indeed the house or visiting engineers.
So that's a look at some of the key people involved from the festival sound side. In the next issue we'll take a look at things from the astronauts' point of view, and what you can do to glide effortlessly into your slot on a festival stage with the minimum amount of tears and shouting. And we'll hear some wise words of advice from festival organisers themselves.
Simon Honywill has been a live sound engineer for longer than he can remember and since his youth has done much of his work on behalf of Wimbledon-based RG Jones Sound Engineering, as well as lecturing on audio at Deep Blue Sound in Plymouth, Devon. He headed the RG Jones Pyramid Stage audio crew at Glastonbury in 2007 and 2008.
Published in PM February 2009
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