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Q&A: Morten Büchert, Roskilde

Diplomas and diplomacy with Roskilde’s sound policeman

Making a living from music creation and audio engineering “since the age of 18”, Morten Büchert’s day job is to teach students at the Royal Academy of Music and the Rhythmic Conservatory in Copenhagen. But each year, he serves a critical role as the principal audio consultant for the ‘Danish Glastonbury’, Roskilde – a seven-day, multistage international festival, run for charity since 1972 and held on a huge, purpose-built showground 35km west of the capital.

How long have you been working with festival, Morten?
For 15 years. I’m not influenced by any company; I’m freelance. It’s important to be non-partisan. I have a huge depth of knowledge [because of my teaching] but I don’t know every manufacturer, so I use my ears to guide the festival on what sort of brands and PA companies they should hire. The acoustics is important to me.

You are the ‘sound policeman’, it would be fair to say… but you’re not ‘the bad guy’?
[Pause] I don’t have any jurisdiction as to tell people what to do. I can challenge the festival, the PA companies and the designers on their decisions – and my approach could be much more mathematical, using physics and so on – but I use dialogue [with] the engineers and designers. You could call me a policeman… you could call me a friend.

I feel warmer already! Maybe you’re a diplomat too?
Everything everybody out here does has to serve the music. Decisions, cables, preamps, whatever; it has to serve the music. My approach to guiding festivals and PA companies is to make sure the framework is right, it is up to the highest standard and [that the audience] realise the vision and intention of the music from the artist’s point of view.

When you say ‘guiding’ in terms of equipment, to what level?
How companies approach the design phase, how they hang the speakers… Roskilde is based on volunteer work and over the last 15 years there has been a whole professionalisation of the business.

[One] focus here has been to control the sound level, to monitor sound pressure levels at festivals. When I came onboard in 2003, there were no level regulations from the government. With bigger PA companies comes a bigger responsibility, both for audiences and the neighbours.

We came up with a two-year plan, with punctuated measurements five times per show, with every PA company instructed to take notes of the sound level. After those two years, we enforced a regulation based on those measurements to 103dB Leq over 15 minutes – my friend Jacob Navne invented the measurement programme 10EaZy, based on the European Directive 10EC, as part of his engineering diploma on that project. (Editor’s note: SG Audio Aps’ 10EaZy package has become a European standard for accurate SPL monitoring across Europe.)

103: That’s a relatively high level!
We are lucky because for Roskilde, bands and engineers come from all over the planet, where they have more restrictions; like in Switzerland, where rules that come with fines. We tell them, ‘yesterday you could play 96, today you can play 103’; they take it as a gift. We don’t have limiters at the show!

Sometimes we have a minimum level, for security and safety reasons. Of course, in 2000 there was a huge catastrophe here at Roskilde [nine people crushed when Pearl Jam played] – it’s in the spine of a lot of people here – and we want to avoid that again at all costs.

What do you do building up to a festival?
I’m involved with the heads of audio and production. Wwe say, ‘How was it last year? What do we want to achieve this year? What’s new, are the tents different?’ So at the Avalon stage we have a Meyer LYON system, and we have to adjust to that, dispersion angles and coverage etc. I help them figure out what to do. Then the PA companies deliver the final system to me – and I could do a lot of measurements based on physics – but I see myself as a representative of the audience, so when serving music the PA must sound reasonable – power and coverage – so I put on some music and ‘start the dialogue’.

You’re not walking around with an NTI Audio Minilyser taking readings?
Not at all. My ears are my main tool and I trust my ears. I know a lot of sound consultants use a lot of measurements; they adhere to a different strategy. My approach is much more human. I believe that raises the quality of the shows in general.

Do you have the proverbial curmudgeon on the periphery who phones and complains every year?
[Laughs] When we had the proactive initiative a few years ago, we tried to do something about sound levels before someone else did it! Fifteen years ago it was point source not line arrays, so the contribution to the neighbourhood was a lot more diffuse and non-linear, with much more low end… now the reactions from neighbours are, oh, it’s just like a clock radio turned all the way down, and they much prefer that.

What is the itch that you just can’t scratch?
It’s an old pet peeve of mine: the acoustics. You can have a good sounding system but still a bad sounding room. The festival needs to deliver on that. So on some of the stages, there are more speakers in the ceiling, or we’ve applied rock wool behind stages to dampen the sound, but there’s always something.

Doesn’t technology make your job easier?
Yes if you use it to your advantage. The more technology that comes out, the music doesn’t always get better. You might have bands that bring out an X32 console which has a lot of features but costs nothing: playing that on a set of speakers that cost a couple of million [krone , or £200,000] there’s something there that doesn’t add up. But I don’t know how to alter that, because lower prices give opportunity to a lot more talent.