Festival of Sound

If you think setting up audio for one production is a challenge, imagine having to do dozens in the same week, some involving hundreds of thousands of people outdoors. Matt Caton speaks to CODA Audio, the company installing the sound for the Sydney Festival.

The Sydney Festival has become one of the premier events on the Australian Summer Festival calendar. The three-week festival caters to the whole family, with live bands, DJ’s, theatre, performances and cabaret acts all taking place alongside children’s performers and street performers. The 2012 festival proved to be the biggest yet, with the addition of events in western Sydney.

The program opens with the massive ‘Festival First Night’ event. Hundreds of thousands of people attend events across the CBD.  There is also a huge concert in the The Domain, which this year saw the likes of Manu Chao La Ventura, Washington, Gurrumul, Trocadero Dance Palace, Norman Jay and The Jolly Boys entertaining the masses.

Since 1996, Coda Audio has been providing the Audio Design, equipment and logistics for the majority of the festival. With a myriad of different events happening right across the city and in many cases, right next to each other, the planning and design period for Coda is imperative.

Coming into his sixth year on the event is Project Manager Luke Hutchins. “I officially start working on the designs about 6 weeks out, but the reality is that the planning process begins well before that.”    

Coda supplies the full audio package, from speaker stacks, to the mixing desks, stage microphones and technical staff. With so many events happening simultaneously and straight after each other, Nicholas provides a carefully planned ‘handbook’ for each event.

“I found that providing a full handbook that is specific to each event and its requirements is the most efficient way to communicate across a festival of this size.” Each handbook contains all the relevant roles and contacts, a full equipment list, bump-in / out schedules and scale drawings of the stage or venue being used.

The biggest event in the Domain required up to 50 speakers – typically Milo Boxes provided by Meyer Sound. The smallest in the Festival bar used just four.

While Coda is renowned for its impressive stock levels, the festival does stretch the availability to the max.

Hire Manager Daniel Ricketts said. “We had situations where we were bumping out an event, racing it back to the factory for check-in and testing, and racing it straight back out the door within a matter of hours. With the addition of Parramatta this year, the turnaround was very difficult. Essentially, everything was out the door.”

Also working as the FOH engineer on the Norman Jay Double-decker Good Times Bus, which played an epic 8 hour set, Dan explains some of the challenges the team faced when trying to make audio work in an outdoor situation, especially when the weather didn’t play fair.

“Poor weather definitely had an impact to the overall turnout of people for the Parramatta Opening Party. Although at our end, this did give Norman Jay an excuse to play 'Singing in the Rain,’ and it did make the lighting look even better.”

The other major challenge with being outdoors, and having many different events happening simultaneously, is a real chance of one system drowning out other systems in the local area. “In Hyde Park during Festival First Night the very large, and potentially very loud, 'Norman Jay Good Times Bus' system was spilling towards the Kids Stage and the 'Tangle' stage.”

There were moments where the smaller stages had acoustic acts that were struggling to be heard. This was compensated for as much as possible by attenuating the top elements of the line array of the larger system, in an attempt to localise the sound.

When the other stages finished, at around 8pm, the top elements were turned up, by which time the crowd within the park had grown substantially. Some punters who obviously wanted some space and didn't feel like battling the crowds decided that they would listen to the music as they danced in the Hyde Park fountain. At that time the Norman Jay system could be clearly heard all the way to Macquarie St.”

However, aside from a few of the typical minor problems that haunt an outdoor festival, the 2012 Sydney Festival was a success for both the festival organisers and for Coda Audio, and both will be back again next year to do it all again.