For 42 years, fans have trekked to a tiny town in Southwestern Colorado to enjoy bluegrass music in a setting marked by stunning mountain vistas. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival has grown from its humble roots and now sells out with more than 10,000 people each day for four days during the third weekend of June.
Many performers play Telluride every year, including new-generation stars like mandolin player Chris Thile, who has played the festival with Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers, and in duets with Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall. Others include Tim O’Brien, who has played solo, with Darrell Scott, and with his longtime band Hot Rize; and the “King of Telluride,” Sam Bush, who in 2015 played the festival for the 41st time. In fact, Bush’s appearance at the second festival, with his newgrass supergroup New Grass Revival, helped put the festival on the map.
Telluride Bluegrass is the crown jewel of the Planet Bluegrass festival lineup. Planet Bluegrass, based in Lyons, Colo., also puts on RockyGrass and the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, and has in the past also hosted the Mabon Festival and Yonder Mountain String Band’s Kinfolk Festival.
In 2014, Telluride got recognition from the industry when it was named “Music Festival of the Year” at the Pollstar Concert Industry Awards. It was the first time ever that a bluegrass festival and a Colorado festival had won the prestigious award.
Most of the artists feel that Telluride is a special festival.
“It’s the most beautiful place to play,” says folk singer/songwriter Brett Dennen. “It would be an injustice to try to describe it. The best thing I can say is that the fans here are real music fans. You always have a great crowd when you play here, cause it’s like a built-in audience. The mountains on top of that make it one of the best places.”
It’s not just the artists who return year after year. Many of the same members of the production crew have been on board for a decade or more, including Stage Manager Skip Kent, who also manages the stage for Planet Bluegrass’ other two festivals and is the stage manager at the Emmys and the Super Bowl, among other high-profile gigs.
“I’ve been doing it for over 20 years,” says Mark Miceli, who helps run the system at FOH. “I don’t remember the first one I did, but I remember the system. It was a Meyer system set up on scaffolding. I was working for a Meyer dealer.”
At the 2015 festival, they were running an L-Acoustics line array, with Avid Profiles at FOH, which were run by house engineer Tom Holmes, who also interfaces with the guest engineers brought by certain acts to get them up to speed quickly.
“We are running two Avid Profiles at front of house,” explains Miceli. “One is what we call the ‘batter-up’ mixer. It’s a place for the engineers to get their files together on a console that is not hot, and then they just bounce the files over to the live console, and that keeps the flow going. There are always caching issues and things that you need to straighten out.
“The speakers are L-Acoustics K1s, which are relatively new on the scene and are outstanding speakers. The L-Acoustics line arrays are in my opinion probably the best in terms of steering and doing what we tell them to do.”
For the array, the crew settled on 14 K1s per side, plus five KARA boxes a side for underfill. Front fills were handled by dV-DOSC boxes. There are also four delay towers out in the venue, each of which has dV-DOSC boxes. The angle of the boxes is set by the L-Acoustics program SoundVision. The crew arrives the weekend before the festival and starts building the system on Monday.
“I use two methods for system tuning,” says Miceli. “I use (Gold Line) TEF, which is kind of old school, but very, very accurate, and immune to outside noise interference. During the show, I use SMAART. I have multiple microphones out so I can look at the front fill system from the front of house position and delay position.
“These K1s could definitely handle the size of this field, by the way. The main reasoning for doing delay towers is that we really want to try to keep the average level down to 85 or 90 dB, so having the dV-DOSC out in the field allows us to keep the volume low and maintain good coverage. There is a signal-to-noise issue here with the wind, and if you turn it down in front and you are in the back and the wind is blowing, you aren’t going to hear it. Those delay towers really help to improve the signal-to-noise ratio when the conditions are really bad, and that’s about every 20 minutes here sometimes.”
The only outboard gear used at FOH is a Summit tube compressor; everything else is plug-ins from the Pro Tools pack.
A different console is used for the tweener acts that sometimes play while the stage is being prepared for the next act.
“We have an old Allen & Heath 16-channel analog desk just for the tweeners,” says Miceli. “The funny thing is some people come up and say, ‘That’s the best sound you’ve had all day,’ and they may be right. I’m a little biased toward the old analog sounds, especially for bluegrass, but it would be almost impossible to do a festival this way analog.”
With Telluride Town Park being at nearly 9,000 feet high, there are some challenges with weather and altitude that the crew needs to deal with, according to Miceli.
“The interesting thing that makes Telluride a unique venue is the altitude density. Because we are at almost 9,000 feet, the air is much thinner, so all the transducers, the pistons, which need something to push against, behave a little differently because the air is thinner. That even affects some of the microphones, too. They are designed to work at a certain pressure.
“The temperature changes here, we go from 80 degrees during the day to 40 at night within a couple of hours, and the interesting thing that happens is there are different temperature layers, with warmer air over the audience and colder air sitting on top of it, and the line arrays have to penetrate that. What happens is the propagation rates differ in the temperature layers, so that causes the sound to change direction. It’s also never the same twice, so we have different presets in our delay settings for different temperatures, and once we look at things in SMAART we’ll see what we need to do compensate. We are always doing things with the system out here.”
Handling the monitor mixes is Michael Bové, who works with Kent and Holmes on a variety of other projects, including the Tony Awards. Bové has also worked the Kennedy Center Honors and the Latin Grammy Awards. The 2015 Telluride Bluegrass Festival was Bové’s seventh.
“This is the only festival I do of this type,” says Bové. “I mainly do live television shows, special events. Last week, I did the Tony Awards at Radio City, I did a Memorial Day concert at the Capitol Lawn, I’ll be doing the July 4 concert at the Capitol Lawn. I do stuff for Univision down in Miami a lot, and I do things at the White House for PBS.”
Bové is mixing on an Avid Profile.
“A lot of people come in with files, so that makes it easy,” explains Bové. “There’s a lot of dust in this show that accumulates, and the faders deal well with it, so the console is good for that. You can run previews, so you can run audio while the show is going on and you can preview and go to the next act and prepare for it. When the act is over, you can snap to the new scene.”
Bové’s big push is to try to get more of the artists using in-ear monitors, which he says is a great help on a stage that has a lot of condenser microphones.
“The violins, they want to have a condenser mic; some of them don’t even have a DI,” says Bové. “Trying to make a condenser mic work on stage and not make it difficult for the front-of-house mixer, we turn off all the wedges, or as many wedges as we can, and having everyone use in-ears makes it good for the former and good for the front-of-house mixer.”
All of the wedges on stage are Clair 12AMs, and the crew also provides Shure PSM 1000 in-ear monitors to those willing to try them.
Asked about house microphones, Bové says he has “a little bit of everything.” Most of the acoustic instruments get Shure SM81s, while the vocal mics are Shure SM58s with a windscreen on them. The occasional drum kit gets a combination of a Sennheiser e 602 and Shure Beta 52A or Shure Beta 91A on the kick, Shure SM57s, and then Neumann KM 184s on the overheads.
Bové enjoys Telluride in part because of the musicianship of the artists, and also because of the crew he gets to work with.
“I think a big reason Telluride Bluegrass Festival won Pollstar Concert Industry Awards Music Festival of the year is because Skip Kent always assembles a top-notch audio team from around the country.”