The future of festival sound

Engineer Paul Nicholson ponders what the next few years could have in store for this area of the industry.
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Following on from his ‘Festival Sound Fundamentals’ piece in our September issue, Paul Nicholson ponders what the next few years could have in store for this area of the industry...

I saw a clip from one of those competition based TV cookery shows the other day. Everyone was rushing around, red-faced and becoming almost suicidal over preparing what appeared to be a salad. Two things struck me. First, why not just pop down to the supermarket and save all the bother, and secondly how chefs and festival sound engineers can become strangely alike.

Allow me to explain, and sprinkle a few thoughts on how to prepare the perfect festival dish without ending up looking like a boiled beetroot.

It’s obvious that good festival sound is the sole responsibility of the FoH engineer, or is it? Naturally, the PA system engineer plays an important part, but what about the band? I’ve talked to hundreds of engineers over the years and to my mind the best ones always tell me that they work very closely with the musicians in order to produce better results and make everyone’s life easier. So, how do they go about this?

Starting with the source, its crucial to analyse how musicians perform both individually and collectively, then the engineer can decide how to mentor them towards better audio habits. I believe that some experience as a ‘muso’ certainly helps the engineer to appreciate and understand what band members are trying to produce and want they want to hear. Discussing audio from a shared viewpoint goes a long way towards achieving a great mix. You simply have to get inside the music, and I believe it’s true to say the engineer is a vital part of the creative process and therefore part of the band. So, it’s important to make suggestions, share experiences and bake creative ideas into the musicians’ minds, even drummers.

Naturally, you can’t influence the way people play their instruments, but you can address dynamics, tone and balance. For me, everything begins with the band and keeping things uncomplicated and controlled. Less is definitely more.

Unsurprisingly, I’m a big fan of the silent stage, and I would implore everyone to simply lose the backline and stage monitors. There are some great simulators and apps on the market and together with IEM technology there’s no better way to improve live sound quality for musicians, engineers and the audience than by taking this leap. I’ll wager that in five years time more than 75% of shows will be using ‘silent’ technology because it simply makes sense.

I lost count decades ago how many times I’ve had to ask bands to turn down their backline so they didn’t deafen the audience, themselves, and me. Even in large festival situations, loud backline is still an issue and not good practice. The PA should be doing all the work of balancing the sound. The tail shouldn’t be wagging the dog.

So, if everything is under better control, where does this leave the engineers? Clearly, the role of the traditional monitor engineer is now under threat. With the introduction of digital desks and personal monitors such as the Aviom system and Roland M-48, musicians can now mix their own sound on stage. As a colleague commented the other day, the stage mix is now the band’s problem and I can just concentrate on FoH. Sounds good? Absolutely.

If the monitor engineer is an endangered species, then perhaps FoH engineers should take this opportunity to consolidate and simplify their set up? So, why use a large footprint console when a small one will do? Most manufacturers provide compact derivatives that you can literally tuck under your arm, walk up to the FoH position with and be up and running in two minutes. Sound quality is not an issue even at this entry level.

Just recently, and for the first time, I parked my FoH desk at the side of the stage, set up the monitor mixes then balanced the show from the auditorium with an iPad. It was a very strange experience to begin with, no surfaces other than a small piece of glass, but it worked beautifully. In fact, several manufacturers have already done away with the console altogether and produced remotely accessed stage boxes.

All this begs the question, will the FoH and system engineers also go the way of the monitor engineer? It’s a possibility. Perhaps bands could mix FoH from stage and / or the audience could mix their own binaural sound directly from an app into their buds or wearable tech. Believe me, it will happen and sooner than we think. I’ve already seen and heard the technology that could do this and it’s stunning. Just imagine a festival with no noise issues and studio quality VR IEM mixes for everyone…

Anyway, back to the cookery analogy. If you can nail everything at a festival, then the FoH engineer won’t look like a boiled beetroot having struggled to get the mix together by the last bar of the set. Then again, perhaps someone could create a TV reality show called ‘mix this’. It could be fun.

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 UK from 1998 to 2008 and continues to specify and use festival systems on a regular basis.

Picture: Wacken Open Air 2015 (credit: Riedel Communications)