Festivals are a staple of the summer, and the dBs Music Live Sound team often find themselves gaining a ton of work experience at these events. But, as you can imagine, festivals can be full of pitfalls for a bands’ sound engineer. Over the August bank holiday our Live Sound course leader, Jim Parsons worked at two very different events with the band Reef. Jim filled us in on what life's really like for a gigging live sound engineer at a music festival. Over to Jim...
"As a band Reef have been around for ages and are experienced on the touring and festival circuit. They are a five-piece rock band, no samples or click track and they put on a good show. To prepare for the weekend I went through the sound specification that the contracted sound companies were supplying as we were reliant on their control such as desks, cabling and microphones. A band with a bigger budget often carries their own desks and mics package to ensure continuity from show to show but I knew we were not. I then spoke directly to both sound companies to check they had received an up to date channel list for the band and to discuss console options."
"Watchet Live Festival, had a choice of a Digico SD12 or a Midas PRO-2 at the mix position and I already had a PRO-2 show set available on a USB stick and I have never gigged with the Digico. However, the Midas can be confusing to use particularly the ‘soft patch’ options and the Digico is a lot newer and has been getting rave reviews. My decision was to play safe and go for the Midas option, this was sealed when I discovered that this was also the console for the second day at Chris Evans’ Carfest South."
Day 1: Watchet Live Festival, Somerset
"Reef were the Friday night headline act for this 5,000-capacity family friendly 3-day event on the west Somerset coast. I arrived onsite amidst torrential rain and a strong gusty wind. The sound crew from Bristol company King Sound were helpful and professional and they had networked computers so that at both stage and the mix position any changes to stage patch, channel lists and stage times were clearly communicated to everyone. My showfile had already been loaded onto my chosen PRO-2 desk as I had previously emailed it to the system chief and the flown L-Acoustics Kara system with a large block of SB28 subs all controlled by a Lake LM44 processor was sounding good with a reggae act entertaining the weatherproofed audience. Unless you are a very large act the general rule is “line check only” at festivals so showfile preparation in advance is crucial."
"Listening to the Dub Pistols who played immediately before us it was obvious that the strong gusty wind was causing phasing and variations in higher frequencies and their engineer who was mixing on the Digico was struggling to get clarity and a consistent sound. However, I was relieved after a quick line check on headphones that when Reef started, to discover the wind had far less effect on their ‘rock’ sound than it had done on the more complex dance sounds of the Dub Pistols. The crowd loved the band and I really enjoyed the power and clarity of the speaker system."
Day 2: Carfest South 2018, Hampshire
"Unless you are a petrolhead or a regular listener to Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2 this event may have passed you by, however it is a big event by any measure, primarily about the cars during the day but in late afternoon it becomes a music festival with a disparate range of musical genres. Total site capacity was around 80,000 people and all profits go to Children In Need."
"Due to a lack of production planning it took some time to get access to site and I had to walk a couple of miles and talk my way through security with no pass or accreditation. The festival was running ‘analogue style’ with two matching orbit stages side by side so that one band was setting up while another act was performing. A total of seven large flown hangs of Martin Audio W8LC and W8LM (64 flown speaker elements in total and 12 extra as ground fills) along with 20 Martin Audio WS218X subs distributed the sound throughout a huge sloping audience area holding maybe 10 - 15,000 capacity although it was difficult to judge as everyone had brought folding chairs and rugs and seemed to take up a large amount of personal space."
"On arrival at the FOH mix position the system technician, from Bristol company, SWG Events, informed me that we had been moved from Stage 2 to 1 which meant that instead of the Midas PRO-2 that I was expecting I was now on an Avid Profile [pictured left], a very different beast. Luckily on my USB drive I had a showfile for the desk from a gig with the band in May, so after a few tweaks in the channel organisation and labelling I was good to go. The show itself was notable for a few things. The line check was curtailed due to a Tai Chi class for the assembled masses, plus total power failure about 30 secs into the performance. Chris Evans inviting the band back for an encore, remarking that it was the band he most wanted to join as a musician. I enjoyed the power of the large Martin PA and kept to the typical site noise level of 98dBA measured as LEQ average over 15mins easily. Well, nearly!"
Offline Editors: Digital festival essentials
"I have mentioned show files for digital consoles above, these are important festival engineer survival tools which you should always have on a USB drive, along with a waterproof jacket, headphones and a bottle of water. Oh, and a mobile phone to get the set-list five minutes before the band go onstage. Nearly all console manufacturers offer a computer based offline editor for the proprietary software that the console uses to control parameters. This means that you can sit at home, on a plane or backstage and edit your show settings on a laptop, making this the accepted way to update changes or even build a fresh show with a new act. Of course, this does not happen with an analogue console but hopefully the digital difference results in more polished results in the time pressured festival environment. Predictably some programs work on Mac and PC others only in one operating system, so most people end up with a Macbook Pro with Parallels installed to allow Windows operation on a single machine."
"Here [above] is my showfile for the Watchet Live Festival on the left showing the console overview highlighting the lead vocal. The editor software is Mac based although the console runs under Linux. Contrast it with my profile file on the right from Carfest the following day, again highlighting the lead vocal channel. This is a Windows program and the console operates under an Avid custom version of Windows XP. The Profile view is arguably better as in addition to the zoom view of all parameters for the chosen channel at the top, you still have an overview of all the other input channels and FX at the bottom. The PRO-2 on the left makes good use of colour to convey the different sections of the overall view on the left. The chosen channel is highlighted on the right but you must use the vertical blue tabs to look at comps, EQ, auxes etc. separately."
"Alternatively, if you are sharing an analogue console at a festival you will need to resort to pen and paper to note down your important settings on the mixer. Here [on the left] is an example from a crib sheet for a Midas Verona, where simple pen lines mark the relevant recall settings. As you can see, it's not quite as neat and instant as using the software with a digital console and USB key!"
Other festival essentials
"If you're on tour you'll need a regular 'go-to' bag of supplies and at festivals this can be even more crucial and in my many years of experience have a few things I always bring with me. I always bring some ACS Custom earplugs to reduce my exposure to noise when not engineering but working onstage or close to the speakers. This keeps my ears fresh for show time and additionally helps to preserve my sanity!"
"Secondly a couple of special microphones, firstly a Sennheiser e945 hyper-cardioid dynamic which belongs to the lead vocalist. He is an important part of the show and for sonic consistency and hygiene/health reasons this is essential. The second microphone is my Audio-Technica AE3000 side entry condenser for use on the guitar amplifier as the sound company may not have one. I use this in conjunction with a Shure SM57 which is delayed a few milliseconds to produce a thick rich tone."
Above is the full case annotated up for you to see!
- Lanyard with Sharpie attached and mini Maglite torch
- Audio Technica AE3000 mic
- ACS Custom ear plugs
- Black PVC tape
- Leatherman Multitool
- Headache tablets
- Lanyard with USB show files
- Stereo mini jack to 2 x XLR
- Sony MDR-7506 headphones
- Old Nokia phone as a backup
- More pens!
- Clipboard with full, current band specifications
"So, be prepared with your kit and know your consoles! Things change on the fly at festivals, and being exposed to the elements can cause problems whatever the weather. Experience plays a big part too, so get involved in every opportunity you can early on in your career!"
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