The fundamentals of festival sound

Sound engineer Paul Nicholson examines the issues that he feels are holding this sector of the industry back…

There’s no SPL limit, the PA is perfectly tuned, the system tech really knows their stuff and the weather forecast is rain and wind free… then the alarm clock wakes you up.

I’ve just got back from my eighth festival of the summer and it was the most problematic so far. I was mixing FOH for the headliner and managed to arrange a quick virtual sound check before the arena opened. Running a multi-track certainly gives you a good idea of what the system can deliver and my immediate reaction was one of disappointment. You can always tell within a couple of seconds what the issues are, but how do you fix them all quickly under ‘revolving door’ festival conditions?

Although my mix is very dynamic it peaks at around -3dB on all the songs and this made it easy to gain match my Roland V Mixer output to the system ‘hub’ desk in just a few seconds. ‘Out of the box’ the system EQ was way off, but rather than fix it then and there I just walked the field during the day, listened to all the other bands and put together a curve for our slot. I find this approach works well and I don’t have to bother the system tech while they are busy setting up for the long day ahead.

Then came the big question: what’s the noise limit, are there any frequency issues and how long is the Leq? This is where things always start to go pear shaped.

Why at the majority of festivals is there always some young guy or girl straight out of college waving their diploma in the air and telling everyone that to all intents and purposes they are in charge of ruining an event for 35,000 paying people and a bunch of experienced sound engineers, who are getting paid to do a great job for their employers? And why do they always blame the festival organisers for having to set the limits unreasonably low? It’s never their fault. I’m not interested in politics and I don’t want to get involved in any blame game, I just want everyone to hear my band and go ‘Wow!’

The Live Experience

A lot has been said about audience sound expectations and how everyone wants CD quality (which as we all know is not a great standard) wherever they go because that is what they listen to at home, in their cars and through their earbuds. Sorry, but I don’t buy into this. State-of-the-art car sound systems are useless once you add in the road noise and passengers, and as for buds don’t even get me started.

No, what people want from live is to experience a soundscape that they cannot replicate themselves. This is why the industry strives to provide us with the tools to replicate the emotion of being right there with the band, and not an MP3 equivalent. Vast amounts of R&D know-how, buckets of cash and heaps of marketing go into providing systems that will transport everyone to audio nirvana for a few hours, so why can’t we use them effectively?

Is there any point in installing 32 FOH line array boxes, 12 outfill cabinets and 16 delay boxes when the college kid says 92dB? Either organisers start to gaffa tape the miscreants to the front of the lighting truss where the audience can show their appreciation while we ramp up the sound a few dB to a workable level, or systems become smaller so we don’t upset a couple of locals for a few hours each year. That’s the stark choice. Why have a system that’s capable of 140dB and run it at a fraction of its capability. Imagine Lewis Hamilton having to race in a Dacia… you get my point.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy festivals so why can’t we make the audio experience better for everyone? Personally, I believe they should be curated more effectively at the technical level. Perhaps having a specialist embedded between the organiser, sound company, local community and environmental fundamentalists would work?

Just a final thought for the hard-working PA companies and crew: whenever possible I always bring a self-contained system to festivals and mix FOH and monitors from a very small footprint mixer. All we require is a couple of Cat5s, a few rolling risers and some power. You can then leave the rest to me and my good friend, the college kid.

Paul Nicholson has been a sound engineer and tour manager for 30 years and runs Salisbury-based Midas ProSound. He also worked at L-Acoustics from 1998 to 2008 and continues to specify and use festival systems on a regular basis.