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On the road with Simon Honywill: Rubbing shoulders with Bryan Ferry at Henley Fest

Exclusively for PSNEurope, renowned FOH engineer Simon Honywill’s account of his sonic summer continues – and it’s been as posh, eclectic and just plain muddy as he was expecting

From the luxurious surroundings of Montreux it was back to the UK for another ‘festival’ that doesn’t conform to the stereotype. Here, instead of tents, there are gazebos. VW campers are replaced by Rolls-Royces; wellies and hot pants by evening dress and bow ties. Where else but Henley Festival, where even the crew wear black tie. (Missed Simon at Henley Festival? Read part three of this four-part feature here!)

For Henley, I was back with RG Jones, audio providers for the festival since 1985 – I know because I’ve been at nearly all of them since then. But this time, instead of my usual place at FOH, I was system engineering. Until recently, the festival line up was perceived as upmarket, featuring classical and world music on the unique Floating Stage. As a live mix engineer, I cut my teeth on orchestral music, and Henley was a regular opportunity to get some practice in. After initial experiments with more popular genres, however, the festival committee realised that there was money to be made in opening up to a less exclusive audience, and recent years have seen Madness, Sting and, this year, Bryan Ferry step up to the mic. As a result, there’s little for me to do, so this year I went in as system engineer for the Floating Stage to work with Damo Dyer at FOH.

The Floating Stage system design is a bit quirky, due to the very shallow but wide site that stretches along the bank of the Thames. The main system consisted of four hangs of eight-deep MLA Compact supported by two arrays of MLX subs and a series MLA Mini fills. The extraordinary abilities of this system were put to full use, with different optimisations for seated or standing audiences and the cabinets in the lower half of the main arrays utilised to cover up under the rim of the tiered grandstand seating. Bonkers, really.

I don’t do much system engineering (I’m usually fortunate enough to rely on the likes of Mark Edwards, who is much quicker than me in every respect – he’s younger for a start), and especially not when wearing a dinner jacket, but the timing of it went a long way to supporting my thoughts on approaching mixing at festivals and the things I was ranting about earlier. Having established that my mate Nick Warren was happy at FOH, I spent the majority of Bryan Ferry’s set walking the audience. Wearing black tie as I was, remaining inconspicuous was easy – apart from when I was out there with a wireless tablet. I enjoyed toying with the audience’s possible perceptions of what it was I was doing: taking pre-orders for dinner at Roux, perhaps, or counting captains of industry.

At Henley, people are so polite that a gentle ‘excuse me’ and a smile is all it takes to get to the front to have a listen to the infills. Had I been wearing roadie uniform I doubt they would have been so accommodating, however!

Henley is undoubtedly a unique event. The range of entertainment to be had varies (Joss Stone is pictured right) wildly from the mainstream to the mad – this year’s fireworks spectacular was accompanied by two blokes in chainmail suits fighting with lightning whilst standing on pillars over the water, for instance (main picture). It has been in the past as much of a mudfest as Glastonbury, although it must be said that it lacks that special agricultural aroma – in fact, I would suggest that the mud at Henley smells slightly of very expensive perfume.

So, that’s my summer ’14 so far. There’s more, for sure, with shows at Audley End House and Glastonbury Abbey to come, and then some welcome time with the family before what looks like a very busy run into Christmas with more Chris Rea and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. There are only 155 days to Christmas at the time of writing, so best spend some time stepping off those ivory towers!