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Audio Must-Haves: Festival Essentials

With multiple musical acts gracing each stage at every festival, a constantly changing lineup of microphones, DIs and backline are juggled. Many acts carry their own or work with a microphone (often wireless) specialist or backline rental company, yet sound reinforcement providers are tasked with making those mics and their own gear all work together for maximum fidelity and unencumbered visuals. Here, we talk to a group of festival-experienced audio pros to detail what are truly supplied “must-haves” for acts hitting 2014’s festival stages.

Thunder Audio flew its newest flagship audio system, an L-Acoustics K2 rig, at Asheville NC’s 2,431-seat Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.
Asheville, NC (June 19, 2014)—With multiple musical acts gracing each stage at every festival, a constantly changing lineup of microphones, DIs and backline are juggled. Many acts carry their own or work with a microphone (often wireless) specialist or backline rental company, yet sound reinforcement providers are tasked with making those mics and their own gear all work together for maximum fidelity and unencumbered visuals. Here, we talk to a group of festival-experienced audio pros to detail what are truly supplied “must-haves” for acts hitting 2014’s festival stages.

Must-Have 1: Comprehensive, Versatile Sound Capturing Tools
Festivals, being artistically broader than an average two-to-three act tour, organically nurture the diversity of modern live sound, providing new challenges to FOH engineers, their sound providers, mic specialists and others. Look no further than Moogfest, which I recently attended, where unique sound source blending and acoustic/digital instrument collaborations are more the norm than the exception. As Gordon Reid—moderator of Moogfest 2014’s Synthesized Sounds & Voices panel series and, by trade, CEDAR Audio Ltd.’s managing director—illustrates, modern festivals ultimately require the widest range of input sources.

“There were 100 performers or so, and it would be fair to say that the vast majority of those conformed very strictly to the “electro” description of modern music,” reflects Reid. “But if you looked in the cracks of the schedule to see the slightly quirkier, innovative things that could lead on to something popular and newer, you would probably be surprised. One example of this was a program at [Asheville NC’s] Diane Wortham Theater. The performer had a little bit of background music from a laptop, but the performance was on a Moog Theremin, with three [Moog] Taurus pedals, plus singing. Unusual, quirky and off the wall, yes—but actually it was excellent. In all my years, I’d never seen someone perform with those three elements.”

As live music and festival performers continue to evolve, unique aural pairings such as Reid’s example will continue to surface—and audio professionals will be tasked with capturing, amplifying and distributing it to the masses.

Must-Have 2: Sonic Power, Then Even More Power, and Fidelity

For electronic dance music (EDM) and other “microphone minimal” forms of live sound entertainment, gear needs notably stray from that of a more traditional rock backline. Of course, comprehensive mic packages aren’t needed for the EDM-based festival scene, but the input side of things isn’t the only big difference, shares Greg Snyder, business development manager for Thunder Audio, the primary sound vendor for Moogfest 2014—a job that entailed providing sound for acts such as Kraftwerk at the Asheville NC’s Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

“Power is the key,” says Snyder on what is needed in greater amounts for EDM shows. “In order to make those speakers do what their specs require, we need a significant amount of power. And what happens when you do these high SPL events—with frequencies dropping down to 16 or 18 cycles—in older venues not generally built to host that kind of material such as Thomas Wolfe? Things happen in the room acoustically, in which we do throttle back the system as opposed to let the system go for it. Site surveys, the specs of the room and specs of the system all come into play. As simple as it is to say, ‘We take our best tools from the box and put them into position,’ we must take these other things into consideration. That said, the artists are key, too: They have to agree to use what we provide. We’re very blessed to have the L-Acoustics K1 and K2 systems, the JBL VTX line array, and such groundstack systems as the Nexo Alpha—all very high-powered, clean systems—to cover gamut of both power and frequency.”

From the perspective of Antony King—Depeche Mode’s front-of-house engineer, thus a regular festival audio pro—sound providers can best help him by providing his number-one request. “I expect them to have a very clean signal path,” King notes. “Quite often, the problems arise when everyone brings their own desk to interface into the system. The key is to get the system uncompressed and with no limitations apart from standard system presets. You’re pretty much at the mercy of the local providers. Depending on the scale of how you’re traveling, you’ll have all your own backline and your own mics, and all the stage side stuff.”

Must-Have 3: Knowledgeable, Friendly Staffs
Thunder Audio’s Snyder finds festivals all very similar in their needs for staffing: knowledge and sunny dispositions all around. “It’s similar from Bonnaroo, The Governors Ball, Lollapalooza or Austin City Limits,” he prefaces. “We have a great team of technicians, trucking and staffing for all these kinds of events, and we do not understaff any of these events. If any [staff] is working more than a certain number of hours, a second staff comes in. For example, at Moogfest, it was probably 20 people for five events handled by Thunder Audio.”

As Moogfest was a balance of daytime educational and/or instructional events and nighttime entertainment, Thunder selected staff members with an equal balance of experience in corporate and festival sound work. “This helped wrangle more channels of wireless, lavs, any sort of playback, etcetera,” Snyder continues. “Yes, this was a unique festival, with an educational rollout, and then you had the ‘ka-boom’ evening events—so much different than a Lollapalooza, which is music from start to finish. The staff has to compliment the event and schedule.”

“Staffing is a huge part of it,” offers King, on the needs of most headlining FOH engineers working festivals. “The systems guy—the one who puts up the PA—is crucial. It’s not easy to point the PA to everyone in the room properly. He needs to know exactly how it works and how to tune it. Then, when we walk up, we’ll have a nice sounding system right off the bat. And if you’re greeted by someone with a smile, knowing how it all works, who says, ‘Here’s your inputs’ and there’s nothing in the way, it’s all the difference.”

“Good old fashioned standards include Shure Beta 98, Sennheiser 604, Shure KSM9 [pictured], Shure SM91, Sennheiser 904 and 609, and so on,” offers Thunder Audio’s Greg Snyder.
Must-Have 4: Rider-Matching Microphones & Wireless Systems
A live sound firm such as Thunder Audio doesn’t supply backline (instruments and amps) for festivals, yet artist riders are regularly quite specific when it comes to microphones, DIs and other input requirements. As such, Thunder Audio restocks its microphone, DI and wireless systems coffers each year, using last year’s requests and emerging technologies to determine purchase factors.

“We look at the riders, then provide the festival with the gear for the largest, highest priority rider,” offers Thunder Audio president Tony Villarreal on the subject of “front end” gear. “Those smaller [acts] are usually okay with what’s available. Typically we can put together a system that can suffice for all of them.”

“For someone like us, we see that every manufacturer has a good/better/best product range,” adds Snyder. “In our situation, if we’re utilizing good, we’re not going to beat the pack; it’s a requirement to use the best technology. Failure is not an option. Part of our purchasing regimen is that it’s based on trends from the past year: what we see on this year’s riders, and what we know from our manufacturers’ reports that are guaranteed to work every time. Then our best practices fall into play; you can have 100 channels of wireless, and the best of the best, but if you don’t frequency coordinate them, they’re not going to work. The education of our staff is critical.”

“The real specialty items end up becoming wireless,” continues Snyder. “Wireless heads are a great example: Shure KSM9 with UHF-R, Beta 58, and Sennheiser SKM Series systems are popular. Also, in-ear systems—Shure’s PSM 1000, Sennheiser G3s—those are the things we carry to all the festivals to create the backbone of the wireless systems, in-ears and handhelds. The festival counts on us to provide those things.

“We’re also seeing the emergence, especially in the festival world, of wireless technology specialists, such as PWS [Professional Wireless Systems, a Masque Sound company, based in Orlando, FL],” tells Snyder. “They are often on-site with us, coordinating multiple stages of wireless. Not only do they help us, but they help the acts travelling with their equipment because each stage and performance is a ‘non-failure’ application.”

“We see this in touring all the time: You have certain acts that are Sennheiser, others that are Audix, and others that are Shure-oriented,” tells Snyder. “When we do our purchases, generally at the beginning of the year, we buy what we saw requested as a common thing over the past year.”

Make/models are generally a “greatest hits” of workhorse live microphones, while ribbon microphones are dramatically increasing in live sound popularity. “Good old-fashioned standards include Shure Beta 98, Sennheiser 604, Shure KSM9, Shure SM91, Sennheiser 904 and 609, and so on,” offers Snyder. “We’re also seeing a lot of the Shure ribbon mics now requested. That’s a great thing, because as Tony [Villarreal, owner of Thunder Audio] says, ‘There’s nothing like a great ribbon on a guitar’. The Royer brand is next in requests, followed by Cascade Fat Head ribbons.”

Why the increase in ribbon popularity? “Ribbon mics of today are finally stable,” answers Snyder. “Previously, you had a ribbon microphone in the studio and it sounded great. It also was worth $5,000 and delicate, which quickly answered the question, ‘Why can’t we have that on the road?’ Today, manufacturers are building road-worthy ribbon mics and we’re getting that sound out there.

“Most acts are traveling with a control package,” explains Snyder. “In that package, they have all the mics they want. In a festival situation, we’re carrying a generic two- to three-band mic package: a smattering of what we see in riders and industry standards, including Radial DIs.”

Must-Have 5: Increased Efficiency
It is no stretch to say that festival business is absolutely booming. And with that change, it brings increased attention to all the gear involved, its size/weight and how it is transported. “It has become a very good industry change,” agrees Snyder, though his Thunder Audio is traditionally a touring-based sound firm. “There’s still a lot of great tours out there, but how many of those tours are having three, four, or five extra trucks of lighting and sound? Truth is, these festivals have allowed many people to come to one spot to see many different bands; as a result, they helped in curbing the trucking costs, how acts look at touring schedules, how summers are spent, how much time is being put into production, and so on. For a company like us, festivals are about having several to two stages of the best gear—our ‘A’ gear. Having it all in our inventory is important.”

A pet peeve of Antony King’s, and likely many other FOH engineers, is when a sound firm looks at a festival as an opportunity to advertise the size and scope of its warehouse. “Recently, it seems a lot of festival [sound providers] try to show off,” he begins. “If you’re a PA company and you have this brand-new thing, or you’re a slightly smaller company and you’ve got the gig, you bring out—or worse, rent—this brand new K1 system and have no idea how to use it, but it looks good. That’s happened a few times. So don’t pull all the PA in your warehouse just to show off. Put out exactly what the festival needs and do it well. This seems obvious, but it needs to happen more often, actually. Keeping it simple is a huge part of this. You don’t have to fill every spot on the stage with PA because you think it looks good, or because you’ll get the next gig because of it. That’s most often counter-productive. Going as deep as you can go, or with an array scraping the stage just to show off that you’re a big enough company to do the gig, is often a negative—and we’re noticing.”

Must-Have 6: Comprehensive Wi-Fi Coverage
As front-of-house engineers are almost universally using digital mixers, and many of those mixers can be controlled via Wi-Fi on an iPad, a contemporary festival need for all acts is excellent Wi-Fi coverage. Yet as many festivals are located in open and/or isolated locations, and available Wi-Fi networks can be shared with the fans for internet access, Wi-Fi availability has become a real issue for festival audio pros. As such, sufficient coverage is almost seen as a festival luxury these days.

“It’s the big problem,” attests King. “We’re running tablets for system control. Once the cell networks are completely saturated and you have no signal, it then happens to the Wi-Fi network, too. I generally plan to use [gear] without Wi-Fi because 50 percent of the time, it won’t work. When you get 50,000 people at a festival, the cell and Wi-Fi activity squashes everything; it’s even hard to get a text message out, let alone get your tablet online.”

Three years ago at Coachella, tells King, tablet remote control worked well, though the problem has been exacerbated since then. “I was using a Midas desk, and since it was super busy at front-of-house, I just left it and walked away with my iPad, within a 15-20 meter radius,” he recalls. “That worked ideally, the way it was supposed to. Other places? It might not work at all.”