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The Minds Behind Coachella, Roskilde and Signal

Festival Fever

Festival season is officially upon us, and with it comes an annual innovative showcase of AV talent. LIVE meets the minds behind Coachella, Signal and Roskilde to learn more

Words Verity Butler

Sweltering summer nights filled with sequin-studded faces and fluorescent forms are the usual images the mind conjures when thinking about a music festival.

This, plus a psychedelic backdrop of striking strobes, booming sound systems and dazzling visuals. However, these creative gatherings go back much further than the invention of the glow stick, having been a permanent fixture in societies that dates back many thousands of years.

One of the first-ever recorded festivals was held in 582BC in ancient Greece – marking the creation of the Pythian Games.

Though that might have been somewhat different to today’s definition, it does highlight the inherent element in human nature that draws us towards celebrating live music and cultural experiences with each other.

The festivals of the late 20th and 21st centuries have exploded in popularity, and their format has consequently changed drastically both in terms of the music and how it’s performed.

This has led to a myriad of show-stopping innovations in the audio-visual (AV) field, with world-renowned events such as Glastonbury, Primavera Sound, Burning Man and Tomorrowland acting as yearly exhibitions for some of the most exciting tools available to the live events market.

There’s no place like Coachella

A rising star in the festival pool has been the US’s answer to Glastonbury: Coachella.

Garnering a mix of opinions regarding its influencer-studded range of attendees, it has served some of the most advanced AV feats of recent times.

There was the legendary performance by Daft Punk in 2006, landing in the festival’s Sahara Tent in an LED pyramid that somewhat resembled a spaceship.

This show has been so influential, some even claim it to be to EDM what the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall was to punk.

Coachella has even been known to ‘resurrect’ music greats; during a set by Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, rap legend Tupac materialised on the stage with them via hologram.

With great performances like these come great production teams. Bianca Gan is an RF coordinator for Frequency Coordination Group, and 2024 was her second year of being part of the team for Coachella.

“As the RF coordinators, we check in with the stage audio crew to make sure all the house wireless gear is working throughout the festival, as well as the monitor engineers, techs or RF techs for each band that may be bringing in their own wireless package,” Gan says.

With the focal role of troubleshooting any issues people may have with their RF equipment, Bianca and her team have first-hand experience of the AV needs for an event of this size.

“Most of the prep involves getting as much information beforehand from the bands about what wireless gear they’re bringing in. We need to know exactly what model and ranges are needed, plus how many frequencies and any two-way intercom systems they may be using.”

A big issue often faced by AV teams when it comes to large-scale music festivals is a basic one: communication.

“The challenges at Coachella are like every other music festival, where we’re often working with either insufficient or incorrect information. It’s important that bands and any other activations across a festival site get us correct information regarding makes, models and ranges of gear. We can then ensure it will all work within the specific RF spectrum and avoid making last-minute changes.”

Gan emphasises that she usually carries a pair of Shure SE215s with her in instances where ‘we’ll occasionally need to listen to an IEM pack to help troubleshoot something’, leveraging the earphones’ professional sound-isolating qualities.

As another successful edition of the festival comes to a close – with groundbreaking performances from the likes of Lana Del Rey, Tyler the Creator and Doja Cat this year – the controversial festival continues to be a glowing emblem for AV innovation.

More than the music

That said, not all festivals serve as a celebration of sound – many exist to recognise a wide array of arts and cultures.

There is even a festival out there with a dedicated focus on the unwavering creative talents of those hailing from our own industry.

Signal, based in Prague, is a festival of digital and creative culture.

During its ten-year run, it has welcomed more than 4.5 million visitors, aiming to link contemporary visual art, urban space and modern technology. In other words: it’s an AV nerd’s idea of heaven.

“Our festival unites top talent from around the world, showcasing everything from dazzling light design and digital art to cutting-edge AI and thoughtful conceptual pieces,” begins Martin Pošta, founder and CEO of Signal Festival. “But Signal is so much more than just a show – it’s about learning, exploring and getting inspired. Whether you are a kid or a professional, there’s something at Signal for you.”

Having become the most-visited cultural event in Czechia, the festival acts to educate itself as well as its visitors.

It links the historical backdrop of beloved Prague with the latest technologies and contemporary social issues.

When asked to highlight some of his favourite installations featured at Signal, Pošta immediately noted, The Physical Possibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

“Unveiled in 2022, [the project] challenges conventional notions of mortality through a captivating display of light and sculpture,” he explains. “This thought-provoking installation confronts viewers with the fragility of life, inviting them to contemplate their personal experience in the face of mortality. “Through its powerful imagery and immersive design, [the project] sparks meaningful conversations about human experience and the passage of time.”

The installation was composed of burnt-out cars from the war in Ukraine – the cars acting as a cruel testimony to a horrific tragedy and direct evidence of 21st-century warfare.

The cars on display were imported directly from areas affected by the war, accompanied by the stories of Ukrainian citizens who not only lost their cars, but all of their possessions and loved ones in many cases.

When it came to identifying the AV trends – which Pošta had picked up from the installations on display at Signal over the years – there were certainly a few unsurprising candidates.

“There has been a tendency toward the creation of immersive environments. For a totally immersive experience, these installations frequently incorporate noises, graphics and occasionally even tactile aspects.

“Additionally, real-world data streams are being used by artists more to create amazing visual and aural experiences. This trend demonstrates the creative possibilities of leveraging technology to interpret and depict complex facts in ways that are both interesting and understandable to a wider audience, as well as highlighting the beauty concealed in the data all around us.”

With projections the dominant equipment used at Signal, it was interesting to hear what the projector of choice was. “At the 11th Signal Festival,” reveals Pošta, “we extensively utilised a range of Christie products to bring our immersive light art experience to life. Primarily, we used Christie projectors across many different key installations, enhancing the visual impact of our featured artists’ works.

“For instance, at the Public Library in Prague’s centre, we showed off the mesmerising video mapping titled Luminary Glyphs by Hungarian artist András László Nagy. This captivating presentation relied on Christie projectors to seamlessly transform the architectural canvas into a dynamic display.”

As Pošta and his team gear up for the 12th edition of Signal in October this year, he reflects on its transformation in line with AV’s own industry-wide evolution.

“It is evident that the Signal Festival – which began as a festival of light – has evolved into a display of digital and creative culture, as we get ready for its 12th edition,” he concludes. “We’re thrilled to add a conference this year – it is more than simply an educational event; it’s a lively forum for conversation that connects the domains of business, cutting-edge technology and the arts.”

Danish decibels

Europe is brimming with internationally recognised festivals. From Glastonbury to Primavera Sound, Tomorrowland to Sziget, there is certainly no shortage.

Denmark’s own major addition to this list is Roskilde Festival. One of the largest festivals in Europe, it was created in 1971 and became the country’s first music-orientated festival created for hippies. Today, it covers more of the mainstream youth from Scandinavia and the rest of Europe.

Lars Liliengren, head of production at Roskilde Festival, has been with the organisation for 16 years – the first six as a volunteer production manager.

His extensive background with the festival gives him a unique insight into its personal evolution, as well as how the production has grown over that period.

“I oversee the production of our programme, which includes everything from building stages, working with suppliers for any kind of AV solution –including sound, lighting and staging,” he begins. “We also have a volunteer organisation which brings us in roughly 2000 volunteers.”

Since 1972, Roskilde has been a non-profit organisation.

By the early eighties, a professional board of directors was necessary due to its growth – but the festival remains non-profit and still relies largely on thousands of volunteers.

“We are not a traditional concert promoter; we’re a foundation with a charitable purpose. Throughout the previous 50 festivals, we have raised around $62 million,” says Liliengren.

It was during the eighties that Roskilde truly began to branch out in its music genres. In the nineties, electronic music was introduced – and with that came new stages and tents to accommodate it. Since then, artists like Fatboy Slim, The Prodigy, Basement Jaxx and the Chemical Brothers have appeared on the main stage.

“We are looking into doing our 52nd festival this year. For this edition, we have seven stages and a couple of others with interdisciplinary programmes – with arts and activism joining music,” he adds.

So, where do you even start with a live production of this scale?

“First of all, it’s figuring out what the site is going to be like for the upcoming festival and looking at the capacity for the different stages. We then start to work with suppliers (most of which we have 20-year-old relationships with) and figure out the festival’s needs for that year. From there, it goes into design.”

The most recognisable stage of the event is dubbed the Orange Stage.

Formerly known as the Canopy Scene, this orange-tented stage was previously used by the legendary Rolling Stones on a European tour.

Since its beginning, the Canopy Scene and its characteristic arches have become a well-recognised symbol and logo proudly representing the festival.

Getting the staging right is the first step to the preparation of any festival; the next is sound, and it’s not one you want to be taking lightly.

“In 2018, we kicked off our strategic partnership with Meyer Sound,” remarks Liliengren. “We had worked with many brands on the side, but we had Meyer Sound systems at some of the stages for many years. We chose them back then because they always sent a tech support to the festival.

“We have a fairly small site, where we cram in seven stages. The noise you get from the stages can carry through the wind; Denmark is quite a flat country, and we usually have a heavy western wind coming through. Once you get a supplier or manufacturer involved like we have with Meyer, you can plan your site more thoroughly.”

Meyer Sound is at the origin of several major audio innovations which have led to more than 100 patents. “We deploy almost every product in its live range. Some stages vary from a couple of hundred up to the Orange Stage, which is 60,000 in capacity, making the variety of speakers and systems at the festival very wide,” concludes Liliengren.

“Last year saw the debut of Panther at Roskilde – and it was a huge success,” begins Bob McCarthy, director of system optimisation at Meyer Sound. “This year, we will be joined by the 2100-LFC. We have expanded the system to the full set of modern tools.

“We are able to deliver a consistency of sound from venue to venue, despite the huge differences in scale – all the way from the 500-person barn to the 100,000-capacity Orange Stage.”

With its sound set-up secured, Liliengren looks to the festival’s future. “Right now, many concerts are turning into shows,” he surmises. “Some 20 years ago, it was a band on a stage. Currently, it’s an artist with a group of dancers and special effects, turning it into a different audience experience.

“Roskilde has a primary focus on sustainability, but it’s a huge challenge that the whole industry faces. It will be interesting to see how we can use our brilliant minds to get around it and work towards greener touring.”

This feature was first published in the Summer 2024 issue of LIVE.


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