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The Big Picture: LED Video Displays for Music Festivals

Whether it’s Coachella, Lollapalooza or SXSW, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major music festival that doesn’t feature larger-than-life video displays accompanying performers on stage. From the resurrection of departed rapper Tupac Shakur via hologram at Coachella 2012 and Natalie Cole’s long-running “duet” with archival video imagery of her late father, Nat King Cole, at her performances, to the more run-of-the-mill video screens on either side of a stage displaying performers writ large, video displays have become an integral part of many acts. And with more manufacturers getting into the game of mass-producing sophisticated display technology, smaller local and regional festivals are finding it more affordable to employ them as well.

Production company Wizard of Ahs sets up a video display at the Playhouse Square Theater in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo Courtesy of Playhouse Square/ Wizard of Ahs

Whether it’s Coachella, Lollapalooza or SXSW, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major music festival that doesn’t feature larger-than-life video displays accompanying performers on stage. From the resurrection of departed rapper Tupac Shakur via hologram at Coachella 2012 and Natalie Cole’s long-running “duet” with archival video imagery of her late father, Nat King Cole, at her performances, to the more run-of-the-mill video screens on either side of a stage displaying performers writ large, video displays have become an integral part of many acts. And with more manufacturers getting into the game of mass-producing sophisticated display technology, smaller local and regional festivals are finding it more affordable to employ them as well.

While a robust video display market offers music festival organizers a plethora of choices when it comes to the look they want for their productions, the sheer number of displays available, combined with the rapid pace at which display technology evolves, can make it difficult to know where to start when working with these systems. This article aims to clear up some of the confusion by providing an overview on the use of video displays for live music festivals.

Sugar, Spice and…Diodes

These days, Light-Emitting Diode (LED) displays are the most popular way to showcase video at music festivals. With their relatively low power consumption, longevity and ability to offer rich imagery even in direct sunlight, they are ideal for such applications. They are available as either single large displays or as modular screens, which are made of tiles that can be put together to create a video wall customized to virtually any shape or size.

Both types of displays in turn are subdivided into two more categories: discrete and Surface Mounted Diode (SMD). Discrete LED screens, which are more common, are generally made up of pixels formed by a cluster of two red LEDs, one green LED and one blue LED. Manipulating the brightness of each individual LED results in specific colors.

SMD LEDs, named as such because they have been mounted on chips instead of being soldered through like a traditional LED, feature three tiny LEDs per chip instead of the discrete LED’s three or four separate LEDs per pixel. As the LEDs are so small, they are closer together, resulting in a sharper image. While SMD LEDs are still somewhat cutting-edge, they are gradually making their way into the music festival circuit.

More than likely, however, anyone tasked with installing an LED screen display for a music festival will be dealing with a discrete system. The choice of display, then, comes down to either a single-screen solution or a modular system. Benefits of single screens include greater simplicity of installation—as many of the screens can be mounted on a vehicle and driven to the festival site, or even come built into a vehicle—and greater image continuity. Drawbacks include a fixed size and resolution.

Owing to their inherent scalability, video panels offer the advantage of being more customizable, allowing users to set up video walls of virtually any size, resolution and aspect ratio. They also come in a variety of shapes, from the standard square to curved, wraparound and other non-rectangular forms.

It Takes All Kinds

LED3, a company that provides LED displays and services for a variety of applications, including music festivals, supplies both traditional square-shaped LED panels, along with more unusual shapes.

“When you deploy the type of LED we sell, you can use it for either image magnification or theatrical dressings,” says LED3 president Bruce Neff. “As some of it is flexible, you can wrap it [around objects on stage] and do concave and convex screens. We even have LED that does 90-degree corners, so you can essentially dress out a particular design stage in a way that gives you a lot of creativity.”

Neff notes that modular video panels also come in handy when handling performer requests. “The artist might have a rider specifying a very specific screen size, such as two 16-by-9-foot screens,” notes Neff. “The promoter or rental staging company can use the panels to build to these specifications.”

Some other companies that manufacture LED screens in less-than-typical shapes include, Barco LiveDots, Daktronics, GoVision and Upstage Videos. These are just a few examples—virtually all makers of quality LED panels can offer multiple types of shapes to fit the aesthetic of a particular festival.

Modular LED panels have some drawbacks. These include gaps between the panels, though generally this is not a problem with LED panels, as well as the potential for higher power draw and heavier overall weight. Recognizing these issues, some manufacturers, including Absen (sold in the U.S. by LED3), Chauvet, Elation Professional, Lighthouse and PixelFLEX, among others, offer lighter-weight, more efficient panels.

Another maker of lighter-weight panels is Barco LiveDots, a manufacturer of video display systems, along with image processing and content management technology, for the rental and staging and permanent installations markets. Two of the company’s lightweight LED screens are the V14m and V9m. The V14m weighs 28.15 pounds per tile, while the V9m, weighs about 28.9 pounds per tile.

The lighter weight of the V14m and V9m give users the flexibility to build large, dynamic video backdrops for both indoor and outdoor stages, whether straight or curved, as well as side screens or lightweight trusses. They are also suitable for overhead and ceiling screens, adding to their flexibility. Barco LiveDots has made both displays available as transparent models as well.

According to Barco Live Dots product manager Joost De Frene, comparable LED tiles are about double the weight of the V14m and V9m. The lighter weight, he notes, has a direct impact on installation costs. “The lighter the weight, the less people you need to carry it on stage,” he said.

As with most manufacturers of high-quality LED video wall panels, Barco LiveDots designs its LED panels with magnetic physical connectivity to make them easier to put together. Its solution, the trademarked V-lock, which is strong enough to carry the weight of one panel, snaps two panels together magnetically when they are brought in close proximity with one another. This leaves the person assembling the video wall with both hands free to assemble the actual lock. It’s still necessary to connect the panels with locks that can take their actual load, but the magnets do make it easier to keep the panels together while locking them.

“If you look at our products, we avoid the use of [too many] tools,” says De Frene. “That’s why the V-lock system gives you a big advantage. It cuts down on the actions required to put together the panels, and in some cases, the amount of people needed to put together the panels.”

Sizeable Matters

Before he can consider flying a single LED screen or creating a video wall in the first place, however, a festival organizer has to choose the size and weight of display that will work best for the event. This, of course, is a major consideration when it comes to an outdoor music festival. Especially with the biggest shows, the only way many of the attendees will be able to see a performance is through the video display.

Most festival organizers looking to purchase or—as is more often the case—rent a video display, will need to look at how far the audience will be from the stage, then calculate the size of video display they can afford by cost per square foot. They will also need to look at the pixel pitch of a specific display. Usually measured in millimeters, pixel pitch is the distance between two adjacent pixels. The closer the pixels, the sharper the image, determining the minimum viewer distance—the minimum amount of distance a viewer needs to be away from the screen to see the images without pixilation.

Weight, discussed earlier as a component of the installation process, is ultimately what determines the choice of LED display. “At an outdoor event, you don’t have the luxury of a big steel building [as a place to affix the display or wall],” says Chip Self, owner of Logic Systems Sound and Lighting, an AV production company with clients in the music production industry, notes. “These are the heaviest things you put up, and as it is hanging at the very edge of a structure, it is susceptible to wind and dynamic loads.” If a panel display is going to be too heavy, you might have to go down in pixel pitch and resolution. “There have been plenty of occasions where we had to go to a smaller or lower-resolution screen to keep the weight down.”

Speaking of resolution, it is sometimes confused with pixel pitch. The terms have two very different meanings, however. Pixel pitch is the physical distance between two adjacent pixels on a specific LED display. Resolution, meanwhile, is the number of pixels a screen can display. A resolution of 650 x 480, for example, refers to 640 pixels horizontally across the screen, and 480 pixels vertically.

A video wall display at a recent ZZ Top Show. Photo Courtesy of Boulevard Pro

Sailing the Ship

Once one has determined the type, size, weight, pixel pitch and resolution of a display that will work best for a particular music festival, it’s time to consider how to fly and/or build it. According to Self, this process isn’t too much different from flying any other staging element for a festival. “There is nothing really unique to the video other than it’s heavy,” he says. “If you are building a video wall outdoors, where the terrain doesn’t always present a flat surface, you may have to wrestle with the wall a bit to get it level, but that is about it.”

One pitfall of setup, however, is timing. John Grasso, managing owner of ACIR Professional, which provides A/V systems to a number of different markets including the music festival circuit, says that because video displays are relatively new to the concert-staging process, people often overlook the time it takes to set them up.

“There are only so many hours before a show, and every element of staging and setup must be carefully planned, so that you are not impacting anyone else’s tasks,” he says. “It’s really important to schedule in enough time to make the video setup happen.”

The number of hours it takes to set up a video display or wall varies according to the needs and demographics of a specific festival, but a good rule of thumb is to schedule in around two to four hours of setup time. Grasso also suggests making sure the video display, especially when it is the video-wall variety, comes with a bumper, to save some time.

“The newer video walls have a bumper that actually attaches to the wall itself and keeps everything rigid, so it’s much easier to stack and fly the panels,” he says. “They allow you to hook the walls directly to your motors and keep it rigid while you assemble it.”

Another thing to keep in mind while setting up a video display is that it does not affect other staging elements. It’s important that the system doesn’t interfere with sightlines for lighting or coverage patterns for the speaker systems, for example. Also watch out for placement when it comes to scrims, banners and signage, as well.

One thing that can really put a damper on a concert is any kind of RF interference between different types of wireless gear on and around the stage. While the video display itself is wired, it will emit RF interference, which could interfere with wireless mics and wireless instrument packs. “It’s best to look closely at placement so you don’t interfere with that stuff, because on any given festival, you may have 50-100 channels of wireless going on, and if the video wall is spitting out RF interference in that range, it just makes everyone else have a bad day,” says Self.

Video displays and panels with UL and CE certification tend to emit less RF interference. A UL mark indicates compliance with applicable safety requirements in effect in North America, and is evidence of UL certification, which is accepted by model North American installation codes such as the National Electrical Code (NEC) in the U.S. A CE marking is a European marking of conformity that indicates a product complies with the essential requirements of the applicable European laws or directives with respect to safety, health, environment and consumer protection.

Mercurial Mother Nature

Most music festivals take place in the great outdoors, so once a video display is in place, the biggest concern with its operation is weather. Wind is especially dangerous, as video displays are typically hung at the extreme edges of the stage, where they are most vulnerable. “You need to make sure the isn’t blowing around, because it presents a big dynamic load to the stage. If it starts blowing around, it could destroy itself and something else if it hits anything,” says Self.

If possible, Self recommends going with a video display that has a blow-through screen. This type of screen features alternating slats of LED and open space, allowing air to move through it. As a result, the wind can literally blow through the screen, decreasing the chances it will topple the structure.

Another major weather phenomenon to watch out for with outdoor LED displays is rain. Obviously, LED displays built for outdoor use can handle rain, but it is still important to look into any screen’s IP certification before purchasing and/or installing it. Not to be confused with the computing term Internet Protocol, IP in the world of video displays stands for Ingress Protection (sometimes referred to as Ingress Proofness). This is a classification of the degree of protection an electronic device has against the intrusion of water, among other elements.

“Because the video walls are almost always located at the edges of the stage, they aren’t covered, so they need inherent protection,” says Self. “The IP rating is all about keeping water out of electronics, so something with a lower IP rating, maybe it can take drizzling rain without a problem, whereas something with a higher IP rating can take blowing rain, and something even higher, you can submerge. Typically, the screens we use for outdoor shows are rated above IP 50.”

LED3 follows similar guidelines: “You have to have an IP 65 with an outdoor product, because this means it can be rained on and not hurt. The IP for indoor products is around 40, which means that it might be able to handle getting wet, but has to be dried off and really can’t take rain.”

Barco LiveDots takes things a step further. It has developed its own program to ensure its displays are weatherproof, called Typhoon Testing. In addition to the effect of water and dust, it also looks at the impact of UV rays, varying temperatures and vibrations on a specific display. Once Barco determines the product can withstand the most severe weather conditions, the company gives it the “Typhoon Tested” quality label.

“IP certification is a useful indication of what a product can withstand, but does not represent the use of products during longer periods, since the test [used for IP certification] only takes about three minutes,” says Barco LiveDots De Frene. “If you just have a thin layer of silicone on top of your product, it will withstand water for three minutes, but that doesn’t tell you how long the product will behave after a year of use, for example.”

As another illustration, he points out that a product exposed to the variable temperatures one might see in a festival set in the desert—where temperatures may plummet at night and skyrocket during the day—may cause the materials it is made of to expand and shrink. “If they are [several types of] different materials, such as plastic and metal, each will expand and shrink in different ways, which means you’ll be pulling at joints constantly. IP doesn’t tell you anything about this. That is why we decided to go beyond this and created the Typhoon Testing.”

There are certain weather conditions, of course, that require immediate action, because they represent potential danger to human safety. If there is lightning, for example, the best course of action is to clear everyone out of the festival until at least 30 minutes have passed without any lightning sightings. Wind can also be deadly, as it can topple video walls and other heavy elements. Many of those handling the gear for festivals keep a close watch on the weather, often hiring special weather companies that alert them immediately to signs of storms, high wind or any other potentially hazardous conditions while there is still time to clear people from the site.

Video wall supply company LED3 offers a variety of LED video walls for festivals, including traditional square-shaped LED panels, along with more unusual shapes. Photo Courtesy of LED3

Safety First

As with all elements of a music festival, safety should always be the first and last consideration for every person working the show. As was tragically demonstrated in 2011 at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis, Indiana, where the roof over the grandstand stage fell on a crowd waiting for a Sugarland performance, crushing seven people to death and injuring 58 others, human life must be put above all other concerns when staging a large event like a music festival.

Founded in the wake of the Indiana State Fair accident and other tragedies, the Event Safety Alliance offers numerous resources for safely handling all elements of the staging process for such live events as music festivals. It also puts out the Event Safety Guide, which can be purchased directly from the ESA website at: This is a comprehensive resource on health and safety for all aspects of a live production.

One way to ensure safety with installing and handling LED displays for music festivals is to hire staging companies that follow safe rigging practices and hire certified riggers. It’s also important that the company has handled LED displays for many festivals. One such company is Boulevard Pro, run by twin brothers Anthony and James Cioffi. In business for more than 28 years, the company has been involved in the installation of numerous LED displays for music festivals and concerts over the years, helping such acts as Heart, Paul Rogers and Natalie Cole get intimate with their audiences all over the U.S.

“We are very much about the safety element,” says James Cioffi. “When [handling the motors used to fly video displays], for example, we to have a 10:1 safety ratio. So, for whatever the weight is, we want to have motors—the rigging—be weighted 10 times the weight, whatever the device. So if the thing weighs 10 pounds, we want to know that we’re rated for 100 pounds. If it weights 1,000 pounds, we are weighted for 10,000 pounds.”

He also notes that Boulevard Pro only works with people and third parties that follow strict safety measures and guidelines. “It’s all about safety,” he says. “Because stages fall down and collapse, and everything is adhered to stages. So we make sure that everyone that we deal with is just as concerned about safety as we are.”

Thanks to decreasing prices and more mass production, LED displays have become de rigueur at most music festivals, even the smaller, less-well-known ones. Whether it’s Coachella, Love Parade or the country fair, audiences now expect to see their favorite performers up close and personal. More than likely, the best way to do this is via video display. Understanding what these displays are and how to handle them is the first step to giving the audience what they want.