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SSE delivers a proper sound bite at Wilderness Festival

Nick Lythgoe, for SSE Audio Group, got the festival bug at Wilderness – in more ways than one

The ideal time to do your technical festival interview is late morning/early afternoon on the second or third day. The punters are still in their tents and the crew are anything but tense: the grind of getting in and setting up a memory from a few days previously, and all that needs to happen is the engineers to turn up on time, and the weather to stay fine.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with Wilderness Festival this summer; and despite PSNEurope’s exceptional lunchtime vigilance in attempting to track down SSE Audio’s systems tech Nick Lythgoe – twice – it wasn’t until several days afterwards that we spoke.

“I spent those two mornings in A&E with a swollen arm!” he explains. “I suffered some form of infection from a suspected insect bite, is what they think…”

A distinctly boutique, civilised and (whisper it) middle-class affair, Wilderness offers talks, arts and crafts and fine dining alongside the music, which itself is restricted to one main stage and a handful of smaller tents and performance spaces.

In spite of being savaged by an unseen miniscule malevolence, Lythgoe’s stint at the Cornbury Park Estate in Oxfordshire was nothing out of the ordinary, even though it was his first time working there.

Lythgoe (pictured): “We were using one half of a flip-flop system – that size of festival didn’t warrant having the full flip-flop system.” Just the ‘flip’ half, one would hope. Definitely not the ‘flop’ – though, Björk’s headline performance on the Friday night was a little slow and ultimately, disappointing to PSNEurope’s eyes and ears. Dave Bracey, of course, did a fine job of mixing the Icelandic innovator, on his own DiGiCo SD9; other guests desks at the Wilderness main stage mix position included an SD7 (for Ben Howard) and an Avid S3L.

“A lot of the bands at Wilderness aren’t at the level where they bring their own desk,” says Lythgoe, “so I mix them on the Avid Profile. It’s SSE’s standard festival desk.”

How does he get on with it? “I love it. Everyone knows it, everyone’s got a [show] file for it. If visiting engineers haven’t got a file, it’s very easy to get around it and write one. It’s compact, and you’ve got the flexibility of the plug-ins – because we don’t take an outboard rack to festivals.”

Lythgoe, a long-time tech on the dustbin-clanging Stomp! tour and a regular name on SSE’s roster, helped design the PA too. This time it’s 10 boxes of L-Acoustics K1 per side, with three KSUBs at the top of the array, and four KARA underneath (pictured). Three lots of two KARA stacked serve as frontfill, with a pair of KARA as outfill per side (looking distinctly lonely). Nine stacked SB28 subs per side provide the grunt.

SSE’s standard ‘festival system’ has evolved with the times: AES outputs from the Profile run to the drive racks (two Lake LM44 and an LM26); processed audio is transferred to an optical Dante network running down to the stage; that’s picked up by two more Lake processors (26 and 44), and then distributed to the L-Acoustics amplifiers via AES. “It’s a complete digital path all the way to the amps, where it becomes analogue again,” explains Lythgoe. “The whole thing is protected with an analogue redundant back up.”

And of course, wheeled in for the show is the ‘Shout’ system (of which SSE Audio MD John Penn is particularly proud, it should be noted).

“Our ‘Shout’ system is fully digital; it sits on the Dante network as well. We have a Yamaha LS9 16-channel at FOH and a 32-channel on stage. Not only does our ‘Shout’ feed us presenter mics, changeover DJs, anything we might need to put into the PA while we’re using the house desks – emergency mics, evac mics – but it’s also the [inter]comms so we can talk to each other while we’re setting up, from the mix position to the patch guys on stage who are all on [Clear-Com] Tempest sets. So did anything unexpected at all crop up during that balmy August weekend? Other than the hospital visit, of course…

“Not really. The weird act was the aerial show on the cranes after Björk on Friday night. Even while we were doing it we weren’t quite sure what was going on! We had an opera singer dangling from a crane wearing a DPA mic, singing away… you’re never sure what’s going to happen when you have a mic right in front of the PA…”

While Wilderness fell fairly late in the festival calendar, Lythgoe still had enough to keep him occupied for the few weeks following, prepping a system for the celebrated Cropredy folk beano and then the somewhat more sedate Shrewsbury Festival. And alongside his Leatherman and torch, you can be sure he’d be packing the repellent and the Anthisan.

The secret of the silent changeover

Changeovers between acts at festivals tend to be fairly quiet these days – no persistent snare thwacking or ‘One, two, one, two’-ing. SPOILER ALERT! Lythgoe shines a light on the magic…

“Behind the screen at the back we have the next act set up, and as we roll them around we plug them all in. There’s no soundcheck as such; we do a line-check on headphones so we know all the [outputs] are working. Nobody wants to sit listening to a drum kit; it’s not a good audience experience.

Also, the music playlist between acts is not just a random list, it’s a proper DJ set programmed by the organiser, and they were very specific and didn’t want it disturbing.

“So what I do is mix together on headphones and then as a bit of a reference point, I will hear a kick drum or lead vocal through the PA, just a quick ‘one, two’ or a single kick. That gives you a starting point. I know the PA so well, and I mixed a lot of the bands myself, so I know what sort of level I need.

“An experienced engineer will always ease into a mix rather than coming out hell for leather and then start pulling faders down.

“By the second number you should be somewhere close.”