From the Experts: Playing Summer Music Festivals
It wouldn’t be summer without music festivals. And music festivals wouldn’t be fixtures of summer without the groundwork laid almost sixty years ago at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Real historians trace festival origins back to Greece in the sixth century B.C. when a line-up of dancers, singers and musicians competed against once another (more like a Battle of the Bands) as part of the Pythian Games. For the rest of us, music festivals mean Coachella, Lollapalooza, Pitchfork or any number of local and regional outdoor events where there’s a line-up of bands.
We wanted to know what makes this experience different and how, whether you’re in the crew or onstage, to prepare for a day or a series of days when sound checks are reserved for the headliners and you’ve got fifteen minutes to get on and off the stage.
Our expert team for this summer odyssey: Cain Hogsed (FOH engineer for Jason Isbell) and Zito (Production Manager for OneRepublic). We caught them just as they were finishing up one tour and getting ready for the busy summer festival season. Both mixing board-certified road warriors, they’ve faced challenges on hundreds of festival stages – in the rarefied air of Lincoln Center and the inescapable ‘let’s party’ vibe of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Everyone wants an invitation
Cain and Zito have the luxury of touring with established headliners. But for artists looking to elevate their visibility and expand their fan bases, music festivals offer a unique opportunity to do both. There are literally hundreds of festivals every year and their popularity is based not only on the magnitude of the major acts, but the fact that fans may be able to see dozens of bands for the cost of a couple concert tickets. The promoters make money with merchandising, the fans get a line-up of all-stars and emerging artist and bands have an opportunity to break out.
Let’s say you’re an artist or in a band. You’re probably not going to get a call from Bonnaroo’s artistic director, but if you’re established locally, you can toss your hat in the ring for a much-coveted slot at regional music festivals, especially those that garner media attention. According to Markato Musician Artist Manager Darren Gallop, “the larger the profile of the festival, the more competition there is.” There can be thousands of submissions for medium-sized festivals featuring 25 performance slots.
Suggestions for entering the fray
- Start local. The goal is to build an audience, even if you’re forced to play for free starting out.
- Stand out. Make sure your live show is awesome. Playing local festivals for large audience will help you hone your performance.
- Have an EPK – an electronic press kit that contains professionally produced band photos, a band bio plus audio and video link, preferably of live performances. Don’t forget favorable press – concert reviews from local and regional media outlets – the bigger the better.
- Turn up your social media presence. Festival directors are looking for ways to gauge your fan base and how you interact with them.
- Plan ahead. Music festivals book annually, so the review process for spring and summer events begins in preceding fall.
Still, setting up for a slot in your community’s two-day arts festival is different than being one of 10 bands sharing the same emerging artist stage at a major music festival. We wanted to know, from a sound engineer’s point of view, what the experience is like.
What happens before the gig?
Cain Hogsed There’s an advance process that the tour manager handles, so most of this is well documented and worked out ahead of time. If you’re touring with a production manager, he’ll get involved, too. They’ll already have a stage plot which is a map of where everything goes onstage. It has all the details, all of our equipment, all of our needs and an input list that includes all the channels and everything we need for mixing.
Usually, we bring our gear to the backstage area to start setting it up when the act before us begins their set, so by the time we’re up, everything is pretty much built. The band usually hangs on the bus until pretty close to show time if there isn’t a green room or a backstage hospitality area.
What’s the first thing you need to do when you get there?
CH If you’re the tour manager, you’ll interface with the festival staff – that’s the first point of contact. The festival’s stage manager will introduce the tour manager to the monitor engineer, the systems tech or the festival engineer – plus all of the other guys working on stage.
Then, the tour manager introduces our crew to our festival counterparts. We’ll review a plan of action, what the setup’s going to be, what our stage formation is – and of course, where the food is. We set a timetable for setting up our stuff backstage, when the changeover begins, how we’re going to get the band on and off stage and basic logistics.
Zito Verify your input list! No matter how many times you’ve sent the new one, the first step once you get onsite is to verify that the local techs doing your gig on your stage have the right info. It doesn’t matter if you sent it to the guy in their shop in advance. Somehow the local guy always has the wrong outdated list with them. Carry PRINTED copies with you at all times.
What’s the relationship like between the festival sound crew and the artist’s crew?
CH We’ve never had any conflicts. Sometimes the Tour Manager doesn’t want the Sound Crew to hang with the artist, but we’re not like that. We’re all in it together.
Is there a sound check?
Z I don’t line-check through a PA in front of an audience. The audience doesn’t care if the tom sounds ‘boxy’. They don’t want to be annoyed with a tom drum getting hit 50 times. It takes the mystery out of your mix line-checking with punters present. You’ll only have one moment to make a first impression with your band. Let the band do that. That’s what the audience came to hear.
CH If you’re a headliner, you’ll get a soundcheck early in the morning before the festival even starts. Other than that, it’s primarily just a line check- with the PA off – to make sure everything is showing up where it’s supposed to and all the signals are coming through. When you’ve been working with a band for a while, you generally know where your starting point is from a mix perspective.
Z One other trick is ALWAYS carry a good pair of headphones. Shure’s 840 headphones are great for reference cans. I know that when I solo up an input, if it sounds right in the cans, it will sound right in the PA. I also carry my iPod with me and a tune that is appropriate as pre-show music, but serves as my ‘reference’ file. I can listen to this track while the changeover is happening and know what the PA system is going to do. If I need to make any system changes, I do it at this point. The audience thinks it’s pre-show music and I get to do a quick ‘tune’.
How much time do you get to set up and clear the stage?
CH For most festivals, the band and crew will show up 2 ½- 3 hours prior to the set. About two hours before the set begins, you move to the staging area. The band before you gets about 15 minutes to strike their equipment and clear it off stage. When we get the OK from the stage manager, we bring our stuff out. We get the same 15 minutes to move our gear offstage and into a teardown area when the set is over. Generally speaking, we’re back on the bus and on the road two hours after our set is finished.
What about gear?
Z Festival season can be a daunting experience with limited sound checks, different consoles and different PAs every day. Here are a few tips that I’ve learned over the years that have helped me greatly:
- When you’re planning your input list, pick the most basic and widely available mics. One of the great things about the Shure product line is that you know everyone carries it. If you spec a Beta 91A®/52A® combo on kick, SM57 on snare, SM81s for hats and overheads, and 98s for toms… you’re gonna always get them. Same with SM57s on guitars and SM58®s on vocals. Lose the boutique mindset, this is combat audio. Pick your weapon carefully.
- Aside from the consistency of having the same mic, there are other advantages. From experience, I know that a SM58 requires around +32db of gain. It doesn’t matter the console or the PA, I know I need to spin up the gain that amount to reach nominal input gain. I know on a Beta 52A I need around 25db of gain and on the ‘91A, I need the pad in and around 20db of gain. Knowing how mics react will keep you consistent.
- Same thing with EQ, there are basic “curves” I apply to each mic with my high pass filters and EQ. I don’t need to hear the input to get a ballpark of where I need to be.
Knowing these things will give you a better start once the band starts playing.
CH We bring our own mics. They’re all Shure because they give us consistency plus the guys prefer to use their own microphones every night. We know what to expect and everyone’s happy about that. Right now, we’re using:
- Six Beta 58A®s (for all vocals)
- Four SM57s (for guitar amps)
- Four Beta 56A® snare/tom microphones
- One Beta 52A® kick drum microphone
- Three SM81s for overheads and hi-hat
There are six people in the band and they’re all using PSM®900 in-ear systems. Sometimes there’s a feeling of isolation from the audience or even the stage, but we use audience and ambient microphones in their individual mixes to provide that reference and give them a feeling of being connected. Right now, two of the six band members have custom ear molds and we’re working to get those for the rest of the band.
What advice do you have for first-timers playing medium-sized or larger festivals?
Z One thing I can’t stress enough is the importance of communication. I always carry a switched mic with me. Before anything, I make sure that the stage guys can hear me and I can hear the stage. Plan a talkback system into your input list and stick to it.
With festivals being ‘throw and go’, it’s important to be able to communicate with the guys on stage. We also have started putting our two-way radio into the splitter so that the guys can hear me talking over the radio while they have their ‘ears’ in and that’s been invaluable.
CH Dummy-proof everything that you have. And then:
- Anticipate every possible thing that can go wrong and have a back-up plan for that.
- Be as organized as possible and have a stage plot available for the crew that’s helping you.
- Treat everyone with kindness. Yelling at people and being rude is the absolute wrong thing to do.
- Know everyone’s name on the festival crew.
What festivals are on your tour schedule this summer?
Z We just played the Wango Tango Festival in L.A. This summer is a 50-date headlining tour for the band in sheds across the states, so we’ll carry our own production. I’ve heard rumors of a few festival dates to be added, so we’ll see. The band leaves for Europe in August.
CH We just wrapped up our winter tour about two months ago. The band performed at Jazzfest and the Stagecoach Music Festival and have a full-on summer tour schedule beginning in May.
Cain Hogsed is presently on tour with Jason Isbell. A graduate of Full Sail University with a degree in recording, Cain made the switch to live sound at Nashville’s Bluebird Café where he also worked in the kitchen. He says that experience prepared him well for gigs as a tour manager once he was ready to surrender the spatula. He handles FOH for JEFF The Brotherhood and all of Jason Isbell’s US dates.
Zito, a 15-year veteran of the music industry and a native Chicagoan, lives in Nashville and has handled FOH for OneRepublic since 2012. A multi-instrumentalist who parlayed his degree in music into a sound engineer gig with Christian band Daniel’s Window, he has since lent his talents to a variety of touring artists – everyone from Backstreet Boys to Plain White Ts and Babyface. He has also pitched in, between shows, with audio tips for Shure Blog readers.