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Mon 11 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

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Coming off the back of last year’s Glastonbury, which was marred by controversy over poor sound quality, this year’s festival was highly anticipated by sound engineers and fans alike. Kelly Lewis reports.

Coming off the back of last year’s Glastonbury, which was marred by controversy over poor sound quality, this year’s festival was highly anticipated by sound engineers and fans alike. Kelly Lewis reports.

Event organiser Michael Eavis, not wanting to be left red-faced again, ensured headline acts did not play to frustrated chants of "turn it up" as was the case during The Killers set on the iconic Pyramid Stage last year.

Instead he employed the credentials of CBA Associates Chris Beale as the festival's sound coordinator to take matters into his own hands.

Funktion One has a unique approach...but, unfortunately it’s not the age of the point source system - it’s the age of the line array. - Chris Beale.

Given the fact there are so many sound systems operating in close proximity at Glastonbury, Beale's role was not only to optimise the sound on the Pyramid Stage, but to also ensure the sound systems across the festival integrated and worked as a whole.

"I worked very closely with the licensee (Mean Fiddler) of the festival to make sure all aspects were overseen and met specification," Beale says.

"This year we took a different approach. For the larger stages where we identified potential problems, we distributed a criteria document to all the sound personnel, which outlined exactly what was asked of them in terms of arena coverage, in terms of sound levels within and outside the arena.

"The document also outlined how the sound systems were to be designed allowing for the vertical elevation of loudspeaker components, while ensuring they were built for sound containment, rather than just for optimising the systems capabilities within the individual arenas."

Beale said the feedback he received from local authorities was that they were pleased with the results as the sound containment was much better than in past years.

To holistically manage the sound requirements at Glastonbury, Beale says a hierarchy system was created, which included the licensee at the top if the ladder, a noise management company to take care of the offsite requirements, Beale as the sound coordinator and on the ground, the responsibility for each individual area was delegated to the companies supplying the sound equipment.

"This enabled us to ensure everybody had a clear understanding of what their responsibilities were and who they were answerable to, which streamlined the process and made working there a pleasure," Beale claims.

One of the primary challenges the organisers' faced this year was the issue of sound leakage from the festival site versus a reasonable sound pressure level within audience areas.To achieve this, RG Jones, the official sound contractor for the Pyramid Stage provided a system designed by Martin Audio's Jim Cousins, which was built to the criteria outlined in Beale's document.

"Cousins received the 15 page criteria document outlining what he had to achieve, which was minimising sound leakage as weather conditions changed," states Beale.

Last year provided some difficult conditions for Glastonbury, but the most prevalent aspect was the rigorous weather conditions the event incurred, which made sound transmission very problematic across the site.

"Everybody talks about the sound issues regarding last year's event, but the issues weren't really related to the loudspeaker system that was used (Funktion One), but more so the unusual meteorological conditions, adding to that I think most people didn't really want the Funktion One system to be there in the first place," says Beale.

"It's a very hard thing to say, but most of the engineers wanted their line array systems and most of the bands also had different ideas about the choice of sound system."

"Funktion One has a unique approach to its speaker design and invests greatly in making its systems, but unfortunately it's not the age of the point source system - it's the age of the line array and trying to swim against the current is a massively difficult task."

Beale says instead of looking at the sound system and designing it from bottom up, which is how the Funktion One system was designed, he identified the space he had to control and worked backwards to integrate the right system.

"One of the main objectives of sending out the criteria document this year was to not actually specify what the PA system should be, but what it should do," he claims.

After Beale distributed the criteria document he received a host of proposals from companies, but says Martin Audio's stood out from the pack.

"Martin's proposal met all the criteria specifications and it was going to be run by industry experts, which meant we didn't have any objections," Beale states.Cousins says designing the system for Glastonbury posed some technical challenges, but none he could not overcome.

"To deliver the best sound quality and meet Beale's criteria we employed 8m long, very directional, inner and outer Martin Audio Longbow line arrays, which enabled us to control the farfield coverage by electronically adjusting the array drives to trim the coverage cut-off points as changing weather conditions - temperature gradients, wind gradients and wind direction - required," he informs.

Cousins says the Martin team also used XTA AudioCore to remotely access the system's heavily zoned controllers allowing them to control leakage without heavily attenuating arena levels.

"Glastonbury runs a lot of stages and while designing the system for good punchy coverage, we also needed to minimise leakage to the other stages," Cousins states.

"In addition to using inner and outer Longbow arrays to allow the main horizontal coverage to be trimmed, we also used one large, very directional bass array stretching from house left to house right to provide maximum impact in the arena while minimising low frequency leakage to other stages."

Cousins says the bass system comprised a planar array of 54 Martin Audio WS218X subwoofers arranged in 18 groups of three.

"Each set of three was arranged in a cardioid format with the middle one facing backwards. The whole thing was driven by a complex arrangement of drive signals employed by special Martin Audio software and controlled via AudioCore to optimise the cardioid effect for minimal camera track, stage spill and to tailor the horizontal coverage pattern for a sharp cut-off at the edges of the arena," he explains.

To retain its licence the Glastonbury Festival has to meet strict noise abatement criteria, which is not always easy to do given the variable weather conditions the event faces, so not only did Martin have to design a system that would give good coverage more than 300m from the stage, but it had to allow for any leakage to be reduced by 40-45dB by the time it reached 1km from stage.

Cousins describes operating a sound system under such strict noise leakage rules similar to flying a plane.

"You have to be alert to changing conditions - adjusting the horizontal spread and vertical ‘aim' of the system as required. The Pyramid Stage arena is a natural amphitheatre, which is great, but the gusty winds and regular changes of wind direction can place continual demands on coverage control," Cousins states.He says curtailing sound leakage to other stages and out to the surrounding neighbourhood, while avoiding audible changes at the mix position "can be tricky".

"You just have to zone the system carefully and arm yourself with plenty of control options. We were very happy with the result and I think there is general agreement that the system was controllable and was able to deal with the ever-changing conditions, while retaining the power and excitement required of a festival system," he claims.

 Sound engineers know all too well the pressures they face at festivals and as Cousins states, "there is no time for sound checks - just line checks and the engineer is on a rapid learning curve for the first few bars, if not the whole first number".

But on the whole, he says Martin received very positive comments from the majority of the visiting engineers.

"They could hear what they were doing; the system was big, powerful and responsive and gave them exactly what they were after," Cousins states.

In lieu of the publicity that trailed last year's event and to avoid propaganda about what sound systems would be employed this year, Beale imposed a media ban to minimise "over-inflated system hype".

"Many manufacturers over-blow their descriptions of the system, which inflates people's expectations beyond an achievable level. We wanted to avoid this, so we decided to approach the festival without overstated expectations, this tactic worked and the systems prevailed," Beale claims.

He says for an event of this size, there are always aspects that can be improved, but across the board the sound quality that wasdelivered was high-class.

"The feedback from this year's Glastonbury was very positive from all involved. I didn't hear a single negative comment from any of the bands and not one engineer came to me and said they weren't satisfied with the quality of the system."

For Glastonbury 2009, Beale says he will again incorporate the criteria document, but develop it further and use it on the basis of not what the system is, but on the basis of the people that will be running it.

"It has always amazed me that it doesn't matter how big an audio system is, it can be a small touring system with two boxes a side and a load of control gear - it's still identified by the manufacturer of the boxes and to me it's ridiculous," states Beale.

"It's not about who made the boxes it's about what the box characteristics do for that particular event and how it's run."

Although the de-brief for this year's Glastonbury has not yet taken place, Beale says the 2009 festival will be one to look forward to with possible expansions.

"The de-brief will take place soon, but already I know there are a few things we are looking to do differently next year. In particular, I would like to see a few additional small stages scattered around the site. But, in terms of the fundamental design of the main arenas, I'm sure it will be very much along the lines of what we did this year," says Beale.

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