Festival Sound: Tom Howat

Festival season is upon us and AMI is celebrating with some special festival sound features, a piece on the challenge of great festival sound featured in our June issue. This week, we will be speaking to live sound experts on the festival circuit to get their thoughts on the challenges of the festival environment, and what tech gets the job done for them. 

Our first expert is Sound Engineer Tom Howat (pictured). Touring the world since 1997, Howat has worked primarily as a monitor engineer, as well as FOH and tech, for bands including Kings of Leon, Franz Ferdinand, Spiritualized and Motorhead. He currently works as monitoring engineer for Morrissey and Paolo Nutini.

How does the challenge of festivals differ from the challenge of your typical live situation?

Whether you bring in a control package for the band or use the system supplied by the festival you face a similar set of challenges: 

  • Compromises are likely to be needed at any time in any area of your day’s work.
  • Tight and strict timings for changeovers.
  • No sound check.
  • An ever-present potential for weather difficulties in all sorts of flavours.
  • Sub bass lobes down stage centre, just where the singer stands.
  • Plenty of folk all trying to use the restricted amount of RF spectrum that is clean and also legal.
  • Mains from generators with all the potential issues that could entail.

How important do you think sound quality is to the typical festival audience?

I think that sound quality is more important than ever at all concerts. Modern speaker, amplifier and console technology drives up these standards relentlessly. It is all too easy to suppose that because a festival crowd is not your band’s own crowd, their expectations will not be as high as if they were attending your band’s own concert. Of course, they expect great sounds from every band they watch at a festival, whatever the size of the stage and system.

A great sounding system can also sweeten the bitter pill of the strict volume limitations in place at many of today’s festivals.

What is your favourite gear to tackle festivals?

A&H iLive desk: I’ve been using it exclusively for the last couple of years and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience; it is a very versatile system which allows you to lay-out and operate the console in ways that you can tailor to your own methods. It has some unique tricks up its sleeve and above all it sounds great and it is very robust.

TTI RF scanner: This is just a really useful tool; small but very effective, it suits the way I think about RF as well as giving me a real-time view of the RF environment without needing a computer to hand.

Space blankets and tarpaulins: I mention these somewhat facetiously perhaps, but it reflects my sincere view that getting through festival seasons is a very pragmatic process and seemingly trivial stuff like this can so often save the day!

How does your gear meet the challenge?

I always try to use equipment that is very robust and that has redundancy built in to all crucial parts – it should be able to withstand very hot, very cold, very dusty and of course very damp conditions and continue to operate flawlessly.

Equipment should be able to withstand being moved around on cobblestones, sand or mud.

Any screens or LED indicators or lamps should be properly visible and/or legible in bright sunshine.

Equipment reliability and performance should be unaffected by fluctuations in the mains supply.

The equipment I listed in answer to the previous question has been my choice for recent festival seasons; it overcomes these challenges, based on the experience of many, many festivals.

How do you think festival sound will evolve in the future?

I look forward to a whole new style of RF management one day, when very low latency robust digital RF transmissions are established – everyone could have as many IEM and radio mic systems as they require without struggling to find sufficient space in the available spectrum.

I hope someone will develop very, very robust wireless solutions to multicores; this would reduce the need to run lots of multicores at a festival be they analogue or one of the many digital variants.

Beam steering developments in PA systems will eventually allow much-improved containment of sound within a festival site, helping to peel back those nasty dB restrictions imposed upon us all; bands, crews and audiences…one can dream!