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On the road with Simon Honywill: We all came out to Montreux…

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

Simon Honywill writes…

Well, I survived. Having put myself up for a potential public lynching in the yard at Worthy Farm, it seems I was right to persuade Glastonbury Festival that a change of PA system was needed on the Pyramid Stage… and that PA system is Martin Audio’s remarkable MLA. It did not disappoint – in any way whatsoever. (Make sure you catch up parts one and two of “Simon’s Sonic Summer” before reading any further…)

A change of PA system usually comes about as a result of a change of supply company, but not so this time. RG Jones has supplied the Pyramid Stage (main picture) for seven years now, and so it was that they brought together a system so totally absorbing for all, no matter where they were in the field, that I would defy anybody to step forward and say they could get a better result whilst still maintaining the peace with the local authority. Anybody that disagrees can step outside, now. MLA’s radical technology allowed general levels of around 103/104dBa at front of house – a significant increase on past years of around 4–5dBa. With a volume profile of 6dB from the mosh pit to the back of the field, some 300 metres away, this made for an altogether much more involving audience experience; a fact supported by the number of punters squashed up against the FOH barrier who actually said so.

Sonically, the system was simply immense – there is no other word to describe it. The few engineers who walked the field prior to their gigs commented on how unprecedented was the evenness of coverage, and when it came to actually mixing, much fun was had by all. Rarely have I encountered such a totally relaxed FOH at Glastonbury. Tribute must be paid to everybody on the RG Jones team, who provided slick, tight, stress-free service worthy of the world’s greatest festival stage.

All of this meant that I could relax, to the extent that I spent Saturday with my wife, youngest son and his bewildered mate doing the festival – we had only made it as far as the outer reaches of the camp sites when he pronounced that this was already the best day of his life! Great as it was to indulge the family and share the festival together, I soon started to consider the impact of what sound engineers do (or don’t do) on the experience for the punters. What led me to this was sheer disappointment, I am sad to say, and if there is one message I have, it’s this: come down from your ivory towers and get amongst it with the people you are there to serve. I experienced everything from the sublime to the crashingly awful, not necessarily in the places you would expect. All praise to the guy mixing Irish trad band Dervish on the Avalon Stage: the place was absolutely rocking (with the help of an excellent band of musicians, of course). But there were plenty of brilliant bands for whom both the system set-up and/or the mix did anything but get people rocking. I was left wondering if some people had actually ever left FOH at all to listen to the system off-axis, so totally uninvolving was it compared to ‘power alley’ down the centre.

One system (on a major stage) sounded completely un-tuned to me – fortunately, the engineer for the act we witnessed sussed this pretty quickly and ended up with a great result, all credit due, but that’s not the way to approach it. Get out there – get wet, get muddy and listen!

Glastonbury was massive, certainly; muddy, naturally; but unsurpassable in its size, eclecticism and communal joy.

From Pilton it was on to another iconic festival. I started mixing Chris Rea in 1996, when he was asked to play at Ferrari’s 50th birthday party in Modena. (How could I refuse?) That was soon followed by an invite to the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, a pervading memory even now. If you haven’t been there, you should forget about any traditional definitions of the word ‘festival’. The location, on the Lake Geneva shoreline (pictured above right), is exquisite, and for two weeks the festival takes over the waterfront. In the Auditorium Stravinski, the schedule is relaxed and the festival crew are equally so, resulting in the kind of working atmosphere that makes these one-off shows a joy. Equipment sponsorship from DiGiCo, Meyer Sound and Waves also helps!

Getting the chance to go back there again with Chris was a privilege, but first there were some rehearsals to be had. Longcross Studios in Surrey is straight out of a BBC Blake’s 7 set from the 1970s. It was apparently a tank testing facility for the MoD, which might explain some of the extraordinary architecture (pictured right). The room we were using (№116) had all the acoustic qualities of a shipping container. With the strange markings remaining from its past inhabitants, it’s a wonder any of us didn’t suffer from rapid hair loss.

Oh, hang on…