For three years now I’ve been in the privileged position of taking care of monitors on the ‘Pyramid’ main stage at the world’s largest greenfield festival, Glastonbury. I spend around ten days on site preparing for the three show days, and it’s always an enriching experience, albeit one that requires a lot of hard work, concentration and a high tolerance for mud! Each year we play host to some of the world’s biggest bands and artists, and around 100,000 people gather to watch the headliner each night. Oh, and it’s broadcast live.
I’ll admit that when I was first offered the gig, I was slightly daunted – it’s a big deal, and I knew it was a lot of responsibility. Although I had many years of large-scale touring experience under my belt, keeping one band happy is a different skill set from co-ordinating 24 different bands over a three day festival; but I do know that two of my strengths are being organised and being able to stay calm under pressure, so I said yes.
I was honoured to be invited to take care of this iconic event, and I had a blast. Three years on I’ve got a few tips up my sleeve for running monitors on any festival or multi-band event, and I’ll share some of them with you here – I hope you find them helpful!
The three master keys to this job are in the title: organisation, communication, anticipation.
There’s very little margin for error at Glasto – we have eight bands per day on the Pyramid, and changeovers might be as short as 20 minutes, so everyone’s got to be totally on the ball. The groundwork starts months before we get anywhere near site; collecting tech riders, stage plots, desk files and input lists from bands, and cross-referencing them with the engineers to make sure we’ve got the correct version. We need to know who’s bringing all their own monitor gear; who’s bringing their own desk but needs the house wedges / IEMs/ sidefills/ line system; who’s coming with an engineer but no gear; who’s turning up with no engineer (in which case I or my fellow house engineer mix them) and so on. Who needs what kind of power? Who’s bringing their own RF? They’ll need to co-ordinate with whoever is managing radios – in the case of Glasto we bring in the big guns and have the UK governing body, Ofcom, take care of all the frequency co-ordination and licensing requirements, but on a small festival it might be down to you. Some bands will be forthcoming early on with this stuff, others need chasing almost until show day. Frequently there will be some changes once they get to the site despite our best efforts, so we have be ready to adapt.
Then there’s the logistics of space.
Hopefully you have a good stage manager looking after rolling riser movements, and you’ll co-ordinate with them to decide on stage left space allocation. It can get pretty crowded if several bands have their own desks! At Glasto we have two house desks which are on rolling risers. Typically the headliner will load in overnight and be set furthest back, then we’ll wheel in the house desks in front of them, along with other guest desks as appropriate. As the day goes on and the bands get bigger and more self-contained, when the house desks are no longer needed we can get them out of the way.
Communication is absolutely vital on any gig, and never more so than on a festival.
Carefully consider and plan your shout systems. Think about how your patch and stage techs are going to communicate with you, FOH and (if it’s going live) the broadcast truck – radio mics with push-to-talk switches and IEMs, or a radio comms headset system that can also be patched into the shout systems are options.
We always linecheck bands during the previous band’s set, which saves loads of time on changeovers. We ensure we have enough length on the split tails to get to desks on risers backstage, and linecheck with FOH, monitors and the truck all listening in. We have a strict communication system for linechecks to keep it efficient and avoid people talking over each other – the patch tech will say where they are going next, and then we confirm each line in turn; ‘house, mons, truck’.
A lot of practical preparation can be done off site. Besides the obvious sorting of equipment and cable, I load up any session files that are sent to me by engineers who are using the house boards, and make a note on their stage plot of which wedge and IEM circuits I’m going to patch their outputs to. There are usually several bands who come along without an engineer, so in my master session file I make a scene for each of them, and dial in some low gains to save time in linecheck, as well as pre-setting my HPFs and programming some reverbs ready to use if required.
The preparation continues on site.
Consider how each changeover is going to go, and how you can speed it up. Can you pre-run labelled cables? How can you make it easy to identify wedge mixes? Label EVERYTHING!
I set a basic EQ on the wedges and sidefills, which I then store in the amps or crossovers. This means that any visiting bands can rock up and immediately have plenty of gain before feedback.
Once the outputs are patched I work with my fellow engineer to ID mixes. We’ll then either hand over to the visiting engineer; or, if one of us is mixing, the other one will stay on stage and communicate with the one mixing to get basic mixes dialled up. It’s quick and efficient to do it this way, and saves a lot of arm waving. Also consider how you’re going to mute amps as you switch between systems – having a master mute saves precious seconds spent muting individual amps.
Then there’s the soft skills.
Running monitors on a festival is intense. It’s not the time to be partying – you need to get as much sleep as you can to stay on your A-game. Make sure you’ve got snacks and water to hand, because there’s no time to leave the stage for meal-breaks. Be as organised as you possibly can be – I cannot emphasise this enough! Make sure you have a good overview of exactly what’s happening each day, and what you need to do, before the first show day. Get on stage early and go over your paperwork each morning to recap what’s happening each day. Do you know EXACTLY how you’re going to do each changeover? Sit down with the patch and stage techs well before the festival to figure out logistics. Because that’s basically what running monitors on a festival is – logistics. But it’s good logistics which make it possible to get all those great bands onstage, and which will make you proud to get to the end of the festival knowing that you did a great job of running monitors in a complex, high pressure, but ultimately fantastically rewarding environment!
Becky Pell: Becky is a monitor engineer with over 20 years experience in the live sound industry. Since 2012, Becky has been a registered yoga teacher and leads retreats and workshops when she’s not on the road, as well as teaching the artists and musicians she tours with mixing monitors.
About Becky: Becky started her professional life as an apprentice at RG Jones Sound Engineering in London, where she swept a lot of floors, cleaned a lot of cables and loaded a lot of trucks, gradually working her way up to become an engineer. After going freelance in 2001, she toured as a monitor and RF tech with Black Crowes, Travis and Kylie Minogue, before moving behind the desk to mix monitors for artists such as Aha, Muse, Westlife, Anastacia and Take That. She also runs monitors annually on the main stage at the world’s largest festival, Glastonbury.