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‘It’s about the music and the audience’: A look back at Roskilde 2019

Denmark’s iconic Roskilde Festival took place from June 29- July 6 this year, with Meyer Sound systems deployed throughout its expansive grounds. Tara Lepore dropped by for a chat with the event's sound crew, as well as company founders John and Helen Meyer, to find out more about this unique relationship

Article by Tara Lepore

If you’ve ever walked around a music festival hours before the gates open, you’ll be familiar with the buzz of expectation across the site. Soundchecks happening on every stage (which, of course, adds to the buzzing); clouds gathering overhead making you think you should’ve packed something waterproof. The distinct feeling that anything could happen as the weekend unfolds.

Walking around the Roskilde Festival site in Denmark, the anticipation is palpable, but chaotic it is not. The 2019 edition of northern Europe’s largest continuing festival marks the second year of a unique partnership between Roskilde and Meyer Sound, where the Californian manufacturer hires its own sound crew and deploys its systems across 100 per cent of the site. But the partnership extends beyond the eight-day festival in the first week of July, with the two working together year-round to look at how live sound can be fine-tuned to be consistently brilliant, year after year. And what better place is there to showcase the collaborative progress
of the past 24 months than a working festival site with 130,000 attendees?

Roskilde Festival took place for the first time in 1971, taking inspiration from the legendary Woodstock festival, and a few years after Meyer Sound founders John and Helen Meyer first met during the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ (the couple were awarded the Pro Sound Awards Grand Prix accolade in 2017 for almost four decades’ service in the industry). Constructed over two weeks, the small town of Roskilde, 40km west of Copenhagen, is transformed into the equivalent of the fourth largest city in Denmark. Since 1972, the festival has operated as a not-for-profit event and is mostly run by volunteers (the sound professionals are paid). Last year, the event raised €2.5m for charity.

Meyer Sound systems had been present at the festival for many years, but what led Roskilde to make the first move to secure official partnership status? Lars Lillengren, Roskilde Festival’s artist production manager, tells PSNEurope: “What we’d experienced with the stages where Meyer systems were deployed was that the tech support always showed up. We didn’t ask for them to do that, but they were here supporting the system.”

And, as co-founder Helen Meyer adds, the company was the only manufacturer to do that. She says: “We invest a lot in our technical team and we expect them to be there for our customers. So when Roskilde was a customer – even though another rental house was supplying the equipment – we wanted to make sure that everything worked right, so we would send our techs. We were the only ones. I think that made an impression.

“So, they approached us and asked if we’d be willing to work with their technicians: to train them and do research with them to figure out how to elevate the whole experience. That idea was so interesting and we really liked their attitude and the way they approached their problems. So, we visited the festival ourselves, and it felt like this could be a team effort, working together on different aspects of sound that we haven’t had the opportunity to really research.”

Left to right: John Meyer, Roskilde CEO Signe Lopdrup and Helen Meyer

Outdoor factory

At the 2018 event, which marked the first of the five-year deal, onsite research explored the effects of weather and atmospherics on broadband sound propagation. This year’s work took that research another step further.

On the main Orange Stage, weather sensors were mounted to the microphones to measure factors such as temperature, humidity and wind speed and direction. Headed up by Meyer’s senior scientist Roger Schwenke, and supported by the Danish Technical University, the teams were looking at how these factors affect the way sound bends and will analyse the data to reduce sound spill to other stages.

Schwenke explains: “What we’ve been doing [differently] this year, is instead of separating our weather stations vertically, we’re separating them horizontally, so we can broaden the range of our findings and bring more precision to our predictions.

Andy Davies, from Meyer’s technical team, tells PSNEurope: “Obviously we measure our own boxes an enormous amount back at the Factory [at the firm’s HQ in Berkley, California]. But what we’re really looking for is the performance of the hardest-working box in different weather conditions. When you really push it hard over time – and it’s hot – is it making any difference to the performance of the box? With the measurement chambers we have in the Factory, you can’t change the temperature to the extremes that they experience when they’re out on the field. It’s one of those interesting things we could only do in collaboration with someone like Roskilde to let us do it.”

100 per cent Meyer

A five-year coalition between an audio manufacturer, live music event and leading technical university means there are countless opportunities to tweak and improve the set-up year after year. Already, John and Helen say the atmosphere behind the scenes is running much smoother this year, as a result of the year-round partnership and the teams working together through all seasons. But as the experiments happen across the site, it’s clear that for both Roskilde and Meyer the audience is the most important element of the whole event.

Roskilde’s Lillengren adds: “When we first started talking about sound, we didn’t talk about SPL or any of the data sets, we thought, ‘What can we do to create the absolute best audience experience?’”

To achieve this, Meyer Sound deployed its LEO systems across all eight stages, with almost 1,000 loudspeaker across the site. All systems were supplied by Bright Group, Scandinavia’s largest event technology company. LEO and LYON line arrays took prominence on the main Orange stage, which welcomed top-bill artists including Bob Dylan, Cardi B and The Cure. The intimate Gloria stage had a LINA line array system, and LYON and LEOPARD line arrays were deployed across the other stages. Meyer’s ULTRA-X40 and UPQ-D series, its newest loudspeakers, were introduced for the first time this year and provided fill and delay systems on some of the stages.

Davies says: “The LEO family really brings together all the research we’ve done over the past 14 years. The core thread that runs through the whole of the LEO family is the idea of linearity. To put it simply, if we design and build a successful linear system, then what goes in is what you get out of the other side. Achieving linearity means we have to apply very rigorous standards so every step in the chain of the system must be perfect in order to achieve the result we want.”

Working together

When you’re showcasing your products across an entire festival, your sound crew will certainly benefit from a few pointers if you want to achieve the best possible output. But the tutorials Meyer Sound offers aren’t exactly typical of traditional tech training. Since the partnership was signed back in autumn 2017, Meyer has run two six-day training courses. The first two days are headed up by Meyer Sound’s director of system optimisation, Bob McCarthy, who teaches product-specific tutorials about the PA’s system designs. The rest of the course covers topics such as group collaboration, crisis management, psychology and communication. It’s all about getting the teams to consider the festival experience as a whole, as Andy comments: “We train our techs to work with the other technicians coming in, but also with the festival to understand what it is we’re going to create.”

In its first year in, Roskilde was originally called Sound Festival. Audio is still a key element, and as
John points out, the notes in the festival programme encourage people to bring their own sound systems into the camping area (noting guidelines for decibel levels as to not upset your tent neighbours). It’s this supportive, inclusive focus on the audience’s experience that is core to Roskilde’s ethos.

Davies comments: “Roskilde pours so much effort into understanding how the social aspect of a festival works, how to make people feel comfortable and engaged on a massive scale. If the audience engage with the artists and the artists engage with the audience, something magical happens. As you scale that up, some performances require technology. A performance on a massive stage with 70,000 people watching requires technology to link the artist to the audience, and that’s where Meyer Sound comes in. We aren’t creating the art, we aren’t managing the people onsite, we come in and we bridge the gap. It’s such a unique thing that we get to do this on a festival site and it’s because both sides
of the equation are so passionate about moving the experience forward. Roskilde want to know how to make music festivals, we want to know how to deliver music festivals better, and we’ve found a relationship that lets us use this site to work out this stuff.”

John Meyer concludes: “I’d say 99 per cent of these people have no clue how this festival was put together. It’s about the music and it’s about the audience. All the rest is just what you have to put around it to make it happen.”

Here’s to another three years of the partnership, and – hopefully – many more to come.

Meyer Sound’s systems have powered a number of leading festivals and concerts this summer, including Montreux’s Jazz Festival, top Chinese festivals, and Ed Sheeran’s Divide tour.