Summer of '14 - PART 2

Episode 2

Summer of ’14 – posh, eclectic and just plain muddy

Huge thanks to Sarah Rushton-Read of The Fifth Estate for the amazing Glastonbury images

Well I survived.  Having put myself up for a potential public lynching in the yard at Worthy Farm it seems I was right to persuade Glastonbury Festival that a change of PA system was due on the Pyramid Stage, and that PA system is Martin Audio’s remarkable MLA.  It did not disappoint, in any way whatsoever.

In the past, a change of PA system has come about as a result of a change of supply company, but not so this time.  R G Jones has supplied the Pyramid Stage for seven years now, and so it was that they brought together a system so immense, so totally absorbing for all, no matter where they were in the field, that I would defy anybody to step forward and say they could get a better result whilst still maintaining the peace with the local authority.  Anybody that disagrees can step outside, now.  MLA’s radical technology allowed general levels of around 103/104dBA at Front of House, a significant increase on past years of around 4-5dBA.  With a volume profile of 6dB from the mosh pit to the back of the field, some 300 metres away, this made for an altogether much more involving audience experience, a fact supported by the number of punters squashed up against the FOH barrier who actually said so.  Beyond the audience, through the campsites and on into the surrounding villages, the level dropped away that rapidly that you could actually hear where it started on the other side of the track at the back of the field (if the air was still and it was relatively quiet).

Sonically, the system was simply immense – there is no other word to describe it, and tribute to this was made by many of the engineers who came to mix on it.  The few who walked the field prior to their gigs commented on how unprecedented was the evenness of coverage, and when it came to actually mixing much fun was had by all.  Rarely have I encountered such a totally relaxed FOH at Glastonbury.  Tribute must be paid to everybody on the RG Jones team, who provided the slickest, tightest and stress-free service worthy of the world’s greatest festival stage.  Sonic Jedi to a man.

All of this meant that I could relax, to the extent that I spent Saturday with my lovely wife and youngest son and his bewildered mate doing the festival – we had only made it as far as the outer reaches of the camp sites when he pronounced that this was already the best day of his life!  Great as it was to indulge the family and share the festival together, I soon started to consider the impact of what sound engineers do (or don’t do) on the experience for the punters.  What led me to this was sheer disappointment, I am sad to say, and if there is one message I have, it’s this – come down from your ivory towers and get amongst it with the people you are there to serve.  I experienced everything from the sublime to the crashingly awful, and not in the places you would expect.  All praise to the guy mixing Irish trad band Dervish on the Avalon Stage, who got the place absolutely rocking in no time, with the help of an excellent band of crack musicians of course, but there were plenty of excellent bands for whom both the system set up and/or the mix did anything but get people rocking.  I was left wondering if some people had actually ever left FOH at all to listen to the system off axis, so totally uninvolving was it compared to ‘power alley’ down the centre.

One particular system (on a major stage) sounded completely un-tuned to me – fortunately the engineer for the act we witnessed sussed this pretty quickly and ended up with a great result, all credit due, but that’s not the way to approach it.

The fact is that even in a muddy field, the presence of several thousand bodies full of wet, warm mush makes a huge difference to the listening experience when you are closely surrounded by them, and if you stay there in your dry mix position with your ‘no go zone’ around the console how can you ever make decisions based on what people are actually experiencing?  Get out there, get wet, get muddy, get with the vibe.

So that was Glastonbury, massive, certainly, muddy, naturally, and unsurpassable in its size, eclecticism and overall sense of overwhelming fun.  It brings out the best in the human race for sure, apart from their terrible litter habits and the smell of their excretions.  I could write this whole article on Pilton’s global village fete, but from there I moved on to another iconic festival, in a very different location and under somewhat different circumstances.

I started mixing Chris Rea in 1996 when he was asked to play at Ferrari’s 50th birthday party in Modena (how could I refuse?)  Not long after that show we were invited to Montreux in Switzerland to play the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival, an experience that etched itself solidly in the forefront of the mushy collage of my career memories.  If you haven’t been there, you should forget about any traditional ideas of what represents a ‘festival’ when trying to envisage it.  The location, in one of the most picturesque towns imaginable on the shore of the Eastern end of Lake Geneva, is exquisite.  The festival lasts about two weeks, and takes place in a variety of venues along the waterfront, which is totally taken over by the event. With the headline shows for each evening being staged in the 2M2C venue, the Stravinsky Auditorium stage only ever has one act on a night, so the schedule is relaxed and the festival crew are equally so, resulting in the kind of working atmosphere that makes these kind of one off shows a real treat.  Equipment sponsorship from Digico, Meyer Sound (what, no MLA?) and Waves also helps.

So getting the chance to go back there again with Chris was a privilege to be savoured, but first there were some rehearsals to be had.  There is a Twitter account that I follow called @AbandonedPics which posts photos of all kinds of fascinating structures, equipment and places that have been left to nature for whatever reason, and if it were possible to walk into a Twitter account, then I think that rehearsing at Longcross Studios is it – straight out of a BBC Blake’s Seven set from the 1970’s.  It was apparently a tank testing facility for the MOD, which might explain some of the extraordinary architecture, but despite the place now being a film and television production studio it has a real feeling of being abandoned in a hurry for some dodgy reason.  The room we were using (no.116 for reference) had all the acoustic qualities of an inflated shipping container, and with the very strange markings remaining from its past inhabitants it’s a wonder any of us haven’t suffered rapid hair loss – well, no more rapid than usual.

Montreux was unsurprisingly much more beautiful than Longcross – the views across the lake to France were stunning, the festival vibrant and the gig was a belter.  There wasn’t much jazz in evidence, no smoke on the water either but that was more than covered by the inimitable style of hospitality dealt out by Dave Webster from Digico.  How I ever got out alive I don’t know – it was a marathon of self-restraint.

Such is the power of Dave’s wallet, the bar had added the ‘Webby Special’ to the till menu – if you want to know what constitutes a Webby Special, then I recommend you start using Digico consoles.  You won’t be disappointed.

From the luxurious surroundings of Montreux and its fantastic festival it was back to Blighty for another event that uses the word ‘festival’ but doesn’t conform to the stereotype.  Here, instead of tents, we have gazebos. VW campers are replaced by Rollers, BMW’s and Ferraris.  Instead of wellies and hot pants we have evening dress and bow ties, and instead of falafel and burgers we have the Roux brothers doing the catering.  Where else but Henley Festival – without doubt the poshest festival on the calendar?  At Henley, even the crew wears black tie.

For Henley I was back with RG Jones, who have been providing full audio production services for the entire festival since 1985 – I know, because I’ve been at nearly all of them since then.  But this time I took on a different role to my normal position behind the console at front of house.  Until a few years ago, the festival line up was exclusively up-market, featuring classical and world music on the unique Floating Stage.  As a live mix engineer I cut my teeth on orchestral music, and Henley was a regular opportunity to get some practice in. After some initial and successful forays into more popular genres however, the festival committee realized that there was money to be made in opening up to a less exclusive audience, and recent years have seen Madness, Sting and this year Bryan Ferry step up to the mic.  As a result there’s nothing for me to do, and when I’m bored I get tetchy and a bit miserable, which is not what Henley is all about.  I have to say that some of the finest aftershow hospitality can be found in the sound department’s portacabin come festival closing time, and that is no place for miserablists.

So, as there was nothing for me to mix this year, I went in as system engineer for the Floating Stage to work with Damo Dyer at FOH.  We of course arrived with a truck load of Martin Audio, deploying an exclusively MLA based rig.  The system design is a bit quirky due to the very shallow but wide site that stretches along the bank of the Thames.  The main system consisted of 4 hangs of 8 deep MLA Compact supported by 2 arrays of MLX subs and a series of infills, centre fill and frontfills that were all MLA Mini (my current favourite, simply wonderful!)  The extraordinary abilities of this system were put to full use, with different optimisations for seated or standing audiences, and the cabinets in the lower half of the main arrays being utilized to cover up under the rim of the tiered grandstand seating.  Bonkers really.

I don’t do much system engineering, usually being fortunate enough to rely on the likes of Mark Edwards, who is much quicker than me in every respect (he’s slightly younger for a start), and especially not when wearing a dinner jacket, but the timing of it went a long way to supporting my thoughts on approaching mixing at festivals and the things I was ranting about earlier.  Having established that my mate Nick Warren was happy at FOH, I spent the majority of Bryan Ferry’s set walking the audience.  Wearing black tie as I was, remaining inconspicuous was relatively easy apart from when I was out there with a wireless tablet.  I enjoyed toying with the audience’s possible perceptions of what it was I was doing – taking pre-orders for dinner at Roux, perhaps, or checking for dangerous radiation. 

At Henley, people are so polite that a gentle ‘excuse me’ and a smile is all it takes to get to the front to have a listen to the infills.  Had I been wearing roadie uniform I doubt they would have been so accommodating however!

Henley is undoubtedly a unique event.  The range of entertainment to be had varies wildly from the mainstream to the mad – this year’s fireworks spectacular was accompanied by two blokes in chainmail suits fighting with lightning whilst standing on pillars over the water for instance.  It has been in the past as much of a mudfest as Glastonbury, although it must be said that it lacks that special agricultural aroma, in fact I would suggest that the mud at Henley smells slightly of very expensive perfume.  Throughout the six venues it demands the highest quality production values and flexibility from the crew, who can expect to be dealing with a mariachi band one moment and an orchestra the next.  This year I left the audio A-Team to their cabin full of exotic cocktails after the first night, which was a slightly strange feeling, but with the assurance from Artistic Director Stewart Collins that the place wouldn’t be the same without me and he would ensure that there would be something for me to do next year!  Bless him, he’s deluded but you have to love that kind of loyalty.

So that’s the size of Summer ’14 so far.  There’s more for sure, with shows at Audley End House and Glastonbury Abbey to come, and then some welcome quality time with the family before what looks like a very busy run into Christmas with Chris Rea and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.  And with the thought that there are only 155 days to Christmas at the time of writing, I’ll leave you all alone.

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