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Inside the Audio (and Mud) of Glastonbury

Coachella, Bonnaroo and Outside Lands may have become the premier festivals of the U.S., but they still have a way to go before they become as revered as the traditional U.K. mud pit known as Glastonbury. With that in mind, live audio consultant, engineer and sound system designer Simon Honywill shares his experiences overseeing audio at the 2016 edition of the world’s best-known quagmire/festival.

Coachella, Bonnaroo and Outside Lands may have become the premier festivals of the U.S., but they still have a way to go before they become as revered as the traditional U.K. mud pit known as Glastonbury. With that in mind, live audio consultant, engineer and sound system designer Simon Honywill shares his experiences overseeing audio at the 2016 edition of the world’s best-known quagmire/festival.

I have come to the conclusion that this fractured nation needs a new holiday. This holiday would coincide with the end of Glastonbury Festival and link with the ancient celebration of the summer solstice. There would be fires lit, cider drunk, fatted calves slaughtered. There would also be tents discarded, camper vans towed from unimaginably filthy swamps, cars slept in, trucks stuck in queues and tour busses over-booked due to being unable to meet return deadlines. The upshot of all this carnage is hundreds of thousands of working hours missed due to Glastonbury punters being unable to return to work after a weekend of swamp culture and mud dancing. It’s so much more ‘now’ to consider the Monday after Glastonbury a write off. Come on Westminster, it’s not like you’ve much else to do – let’s make it easy for everyone and call it a Bank Holiday – the Glastonbury Bank Holiday Mudday.

From the point of view of anyone who works at Glastonbury with a sound system or anything else for that matter, this year turned out to be as difficult as any when the Mud Monster paid a visit. It was like a fleet of muck-spreaders had driven through Frankfurt Prolight + Sound, turned around, drove back through it again, all as a précis to a tank battle in the resulting quagmire. It’s mud, but not as we know it. It has the most extraordinary qualities, being able to form pools of latte-like liquid and clods of adhesive miasma at the same time. Legs become turgid appendages and boots become a liability, getting stuck at the most inconvenient times. Clothes are soiled beyond the means of any Zanussi or Dyson. My washing machine has, in fact, left home. The time taken to clean equipment in the festival’s wake adds many man-hours to the original plans of the best of any rental company, a hit they all must take if they are to play their part in the most iconic festival in the world. Not only are muddy cables and cases the issue, but after both Muse and Adele used an excessive use of confetti, which mutates into some kind of Rizla-based glue when mixed with slurry, some of the gear looked like the aftermath of a particularly rough wedding.

What never ceases to amaze me though is the resilience and commitment of the punters. On the face of it, it’s pure madness: let’s pay a fat wodge for tickets, queue for ever to get in, spend three or four days wading about in the kind of conditions reserved for pig farmers, and sleep in a tent that might keep you dry if you are sufficiently together to put it up correctly when desperation dictates. Some people bring kids in pushchairs, for pity’s sake! They’re struggling to move themselves around, let alone something that has doubled in weight due to the amount of mud clinging to the wheels like a parasitic fungus! From behind a laminate and production wristband, which affords a degree of respite and somewhere relatively dry to sit down for a while (catering did however develop its own weather system this year), it’s easy to forget that Glastonbury is the one thing every year that thousands of people rely on as an excuse for completely letting go, running wild and abandoning the everyday, something that many do to the point where the mud becomes irrelevant. Reality is suspended, mud does not matter, cleanliness is anathema; music and partying are the ultimate priorities. Glastonbury delivers in spades – everybody can go wild in the country.

Moving around the site is at times like being caught up in some form of mass psychosis. In a scene redolent of a Quatermass film, a seething mass of muddy humanity, plodding ever closer to whichever god they want to worship, grinds to a halt to watch some wretched teenage girl writhing around trying to avoid full body contact with the sludge as her boot gets stuck, trapped as if in the jaws of some hideous mud-fiend. Her ‘friends’ first laugh and then themselves fight through the sticky stuff in a feckless attempt to help. They all end up in a tangled, writhing heap of legs, spangled make-up, over-sized eyelashes, wellies and hot pants. It is like rubber-necking a disco motorway pile-up in slo-mo. But hey, who cares? They’re having the time of their lives!

My personal part this time round was on behalf of the festival to design, spec and commission new Martin Audio MLA systems for West Holts and Block 9 Genosys, as well as keep an eye on the Pyramid and John Peel stages. The name of the game was containment within the festival site and between stages, which was achieved with bells on. Sigh: if only all these stages were closer together. They stretched across the entire NW-SE diagonal of the entire site, turning the load-in period into something akin to Royal Marine training. Sometimes carrying two backpacks full of computers and associated hardware, I must have made around 20 trips back and forth. I would have broken a sweat at the best of times but with the additional friction afforded by a foot of mud it was more than exercise.

Because this venerable magazine’s core focus is professional sound and light systems, (with bits about video if they must), I am obliged to tell you about the technology deployed at the festival that came under my responsibility. Since 2008, RG Jones Sound Engineering have been using Martin Audio loudspeaker systems on the Pyramid Stage. Back then we were working with the mighty W8L Longbow, a fine piece of British electro-acoustic engineering and the kind of thing that, if the British Army used line arrays, would have been found in Kandahar, such was its solid reliability and efficiency. Some excellent results were achieved with Longbow, but the inexorable march of technology brought along the now widely accepted ML range, which offered new possibilities in the control of coverage and SPL across an audience and beyond, whilst at the same time sounding knee-tremblingly good. Convincing Glastonbury Festival to make a significant change can be akin to turning a supertanker, such is the scale of the operation, but the organisers take the audiences’ sonic experience extremely seriously, as well as their obligation to adhere to the licensing regulations and minimise the impact of such a huge event on the neighbours. RG installed MLA for the first time for 2014’s festival to great effect, regularly reaching levels of over 100 dBA in the Pyramid arena across the entire audience. For The Who’s set last year [2015], I was reading around 103 dBA at the track that delineates the rearmost extent of the arena, with the offsite levels still under the requisite marker set by the noise police. Atmospherics always play their part, but being able to start with an even, predictable system response and SPL profile, as well as determine what happens outside of the desired coverage area is extremely valuable, as Glastonbury Festival now realises.

It’s therefore not surprising that the festival has decided that other stages on the site were problematic and in need of a fresh approach with some new technology, and the result was that John Peel, West Holts and Block 9 Genosys all featured MLA Compact systems in 2016.

Not a lot you can say about the backstage area…

The John Peel stage was moved from its swampy site on the north-west corner of the festival up the hill in an attempt to avoid some of the hideous ground conditions of soggy years past. The consequence of this was that it was now somewhat closer to the Pyramid, and concerns were raised about sound leakage to the Pyramid arena. On behalf of SW Group, Stage Audio Services deployed their new MLA Compact system to significant effect – amazing inside, quiet outside. Job done. There was more interference on Pyramid from the nearby bar than from the pumping system within the John Peel big top.

West Holts, a popular stage that features a myriad of musical genres from around the world (this year saw a set from the world’s weirdest band, Japan’s Shibusa Shirazu Orchestra), has historically suffered from making a little bit too much of itself in surrounding areas, affecting traders and Greenpeace, and impacting on The Glade Stage. RG Jones were brought in to cover and contain, with two 20 deep hangs of MLA Compact and a broadside cardioid bass array of MLX subs.

Underworld’s return to Glastonbury after something like 16 years was sonically rendered in all its synthy glory, with nobody hammering on the ceiling to tell us to turn it down. Job done. Notable this year for the family of Hippos that had taken up residence in the backstage lake, West Holts provided a welcome relief from the gloop – replacing it with something that resembled a liquidized container full of Caramac.

And then there was Block 9. In one of the worst affected areas of the festival, the building of the incredible structures in Block 9 was severely hampered by horrendous quantities of thick sludge. Of the three EDM stages in Block 9, Genosys is the only one outdoors, and running as it does through the night until 6am, offsite levels are critical. The late night license conditions dictate that no single system should be clearly audible offsite amongst the general throb of the festival. In the past this has forced the Genosys system down to sub-90 dBA levels, hardly conducive to making people dance. The Block 9 production team were steered by festival production in RG Jones’ direction. Two 10 deep hangs of craftily optimised MLA Compact and a tightly controlled bass array later, we had 98 dBA, all night, staggering fidelity and lots of dancing, inaudible offsite. Big smiles all round. Job done.

Above all, Glastonbury Festival is about people. People come, people trade, people dance, people get dirty, and people exercise massive quantities of skill and professionalism in ensuring people have the best time. In the case of the audio systems featured here, the people made them what they were. On the Pyramid Stage was once again one of the finest teams with which I have ever had the privilege to work. Ben Milton, Mark Isbister, Mark Edwards, Jason Baird (Martin Audio), Becky Pell (yoga anybody?), Damion Dyer, Jack Bowcher and Dan Mosely, you are the Right Stuff. On West Holts, Matt Sussex, Sam Lyddiard, Rob Ritchie, James Clark and Martin Shaw. On John Peel Stan Saunders and Chris Pyne (Martin Audio), and several others I didn’t meet, sorry. Block 9, staying up all night were Conners and Shaun: chaps you did great. Job very much done. Next?

This article originally appeared in Pro Sound News Europe as “Hippopotami spotted backstage at West Holts” (really).