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Behind the scenes of Belgium’s 1,000th Night of the Proms

August saw Belgium’s Night of the Proms celebrate its 1,000th outing. Marc Maes took a look behind the scenes of this historic event

Proms Summer Edition 9. Photo: Freya Goossens.

No one could have predicted that an event which was first organised by two young students/entrepreneurs in 1985 would end up attracting over 10 million visitors from across 11 European countries and the US. But on August 1, the Night of the Proms celebrated its 1,000th edition with an open-air show held in the beachside town of Koksijde, Belgium.

“We never thought that the event would last this long,” remembers Jan Vereecke, co-founder and director of Night of the Proms. “34 years ago we were quoted ‘if we can make it in Belgium, we can cross the border to the Netherlands and Germany’ – we were quite euphoric after the first successful edition of the event.”

The formula stood the test of time, combining classic pop artists bringing their greatest hits, with a large choir and orchestra. “We started off when record sales were still booming and artists were happy to tour to promote a new release,” explains Vereecke. “As music sales dropped, budgets for live concerts went up – we mined for ‘gold’ artists in the ‘80s and ’90s. The good thing about it is that the public has a long memory when it comes to music.”

For the millennial ‘summer’ show of the Night of the Proms, the event moved to the Flemish coast for an open-air edition. The festive concert was staged on a huge parking lot in front of the Our Lady-of-the-Dune church in Koksijde, and was organised by the city of Koksijde, with artists like Gérard Lenorman, Milow, Lady Linn, Regi, and Gers Pardoel performing. It was headed by long time Proms musical director and honoree guest John Miles, and backed by the Antwerp Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Alexandra Arrieche.

“There were two major challenges,” said Tom Vuerstaek, sound designer/FOH engineer for the concert. “So close to the sea, the wind could have become an unpredictable element, disturbing the fragile classical repertoire. And there’s the lack of acoustics, requiring careful calculation of the FOH system.”

The production team decided to use a transparent Arch stage construction in the round, offering a great view on the magistral church at the back of the stage, with the conductor in the centre.

“To safeguard the audience’s line of sight, the organisers decided not to use any delay speakers,” Vuersteak continues. “The stage’s array flying height, with every metre being crucial, ensures full coverage of the stands.”

The main FOH system consisted of an Adamson set-up supplied by PRG, comprising 12 E15 and four E12 speakers, plus three flown E219 subs placed front-back- front with eight E12 cabinets as outfill speakers on either side of the stage. Eight S10 cabinets per side were used as front fills.

Proms Summer Edition 1. FOH engineer Tom Vuerstaek. Photo: mmpress.

“Eight clusters of two E-119 subs are stacked in front of the stage. Personally, I wanted to have more flown low end instead of stacked subs to increase the audience’s listening comfort. After some complaints in the past from people sitting in the front rows (too much low end because of the stacked subs), I realised that flown subs would be the next step. In this specific case, it was a matter of calculating the specific distances between flown and stacked subs and adjusting the delay times to achieve maximal coverage.”

The stacked E-119 cabinets were in a cardioid (front and back) set-up with extra processing on the back subs, resulting in a relaxed atmosphere on stage where every musician plays a crucial role and has to be properly placed in the space.

All of the speakers were powered by Lab Gruppen PLM (20K44) amplifiers and connected over a Dante network, with the PLM’s integrated Lake Processing allowing equalising and speaker delay control.

Essential in setting up the audio system was Adamson’s Blueprint simulation and modelling software – Vuerstaek started to work with the software from scratch some eight months ago and rapidly assimilated the essential elements and started training in December last year.

“The input of the site’s dimensions is crucial in preparing the audio system’s load. Blueprint was instrumental in finetuning the FOH without the use of delays, and calculating the respective distance between the subs,” he said. “With the main speakers, outfills and subs hanging close to each other, we managed to avoid speaker phase issues – the long flown speaker array also results in better low control. Blueprint’s predictions were extremely accurate for the job.”

Whereas, the ‘traditional’ arena indoor Nights of the Proms in the fall use five DiGiCo consoles, the Koksijde open-air production opted for three desks.

“We were facing a tight schedule in this production. As we already had the DiGiCo files on hand, we could just check the hardware and go ahead with the soundcheck,” Vuerstaek explains, adding that using other brands for the job was not an option as starting from scratch would be too time consuming.

One DiGiCo SD7 was used as the main FOH console, featuring Waves plugins and a Universal Audio Server.

“Waves’ Sidechain controllable dynamic EQs offer a wealth of opportunities. We wanted to remain in the digital domain, without any analogue inserts on vocals or pre-mixes,” says Vuerstaek. “I have been using a Manley VOXBOX for many years. The difference between the Manley channel strip and UAD’s plugin, especially in the 96kHz sampling rate, is minimal – the tube version is quite fragile and the A/D conversion results in more latency on the system.”

Vuerstaek used the Manley VOXBOX plugin on the lead vocals and other UAD plugins, like the Teletronix LA-2A on the bass guitar, an API Vision Channel strip compressor on the kick and snare plus an AMS rmx16 reverb on the snare for the ’80s and ’90s pop and rock songs. A Manley Massive Passive EQ completed the mix.

For the premix and monitoring of the more than 30 classical musicians plus conductor, and the fully wireless 24-strong ‘Fine Fleur’ choir, the production used a second SD7, operated by Alexander Schmidt. The electric band’s and artists’ vocals were monitored by a DiGiCo SD10 console.

Some 20 Glensound Symphony units served the classical musicians, offering individual microphone amplification and headphone monitoring in three different stereo mixes for two musicians. The system was developed two years ago by the Nights of the Proms production team, FOH engineer Patrick Demoustier and Benelux audio distributor Amptec, in collaboration with UK-based Glensound and is Dante-compatible. The orchestra’s signal entered the SD7 using two DiGiCo Orange Box converters with a Dante and Madi card to convert Glensound’s Dante signal to Madi for the DiGiCo’s input.

With the choir using 24 wireless Sony DWT-B01 BeltPack Transmitter channels, with dedicated IEM frequencies and mixes for each of the four choir sections, some 20 Sennheiser 2000 series in-ear beltpacks for the band and artists plus 13 Sony DWM-B02/42 handheld transmitters and four DWT-B01 belt-packs, the Night of the Proms proved to be a huge wireless set-up, managed by engineer Pieter Tanghe.

Some 8,000 people attended the Night of The Proms 1000th edition, setting a marker for the future of the concept. Looking back on the 1,000 editions so far, Proms co-founder Jan Vereecke is proud that the events have brought together so many incredibly talented people: musicians, orchestra, choir, the artists and crew.

“And I was very happy to work with some of my all times musical heroes like Toto, Rodger Hodgson or Chic’s Nile Rodgers,” he concludes. “And I’’m so happy that they appreciated what we do.”