The City Wakes

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citywakestrinitygalaThe City Wakes was a festival in Cambridge in October 2008 celebrating the life and work of Syd Barrett, one of the founder members of Pink Floyd. It was put on by the mental health charity Escape Artists together with Syd’s sister Rosemary Breen.

I was asked by creative director Simon Gunton to provide live sound and recording services for the whole festival, from a free-form 60’s-style “Happening” to a series of large concerts featuring a 21-piece band and lighting from legendary designer Pete Wynne-Wilson. The climax of the festival was a Gala Night in the beautiful chapel of Trinity College, where a packed-out audience enjoyed fresh re-interpretations of Syd’s songs (the band on this occasion being supplemented by a full choir) whilst the chapel was bathed in Pete’s extraordinary light show – all psychedelic swirls and kaleidoscopes, with my personal favourite being the flames seemingly dripping down from the high altar.

The festival involved a number of different venues, with gear moving between them, and very little time for rigging, de-rigging and sound-checking. There was also a high demand for tickets, and the pressure was on for me to design a system that was flexible, transportable, quick to rig and had a minimal footprint.

The solution I devised had a front-of-house mixing position that was only a single seat wide. Instead of a physical mixer, I used the recently-released Software Audio Console (SAC) from RML Labs, running on a rack-mount PC. I wrote a small piece of software that allowed me to use a Yamaha 01V96 as a 16-fader MIDI controller, which sat on top of the PC rack together with a monitor, keyboard and mouse. 48-track recording of all events was handled by RML Labs Software Audio Workshop (SAW), running on the same PC as the SAC software.

For the Trinity Chapel Gala Night there were a number of extra technical challenges. Firstly the chapel has a glorious acoustic, but one that is more cathedral-like and suited to choral music than what was effectively a large rock band. Secondly it is very long and narrow, and what might sound intelligible and at a comfortable volume at one end would be indistinct and quiet at the other. With a technical crew of just two, a few hours to rig the whole thing, and a minimal budget, there was no possibility of anything clever such as using line arrays, so I designed a system that used eight small, pole-mounted Yamaha MSR100 active speakers, positioned at various points down the length of the chapel, as well as a main stack of Mackie speakers and subwoofer at the stage/altar end. In this way, no audience member was very far from a speaker, and I was able to get clarity for everyone without excessive volume – a particular concern for the understandably conservative chapel authorities, who had never had a rock band in there before!

As an added bonus of using SAC with multiple speakers, I was able to supplement some of Pete’s head-spinning lighting effects with some of my own, using SAC’s surround panning facilities to fly various sound effects and instruments around the room during the show.

Because I had multitrack recordings of previous concerts, I was able to do a virtual soundcheck – playing back the clean recordings through the live PA desk software before the musicians arrived. This turned out to be a great help as, for reasons beyond our control, we ended up with only 15 minutes to do a final soundcheck of a two-hour show featuring about 40 musicians, with completely different line-ups for every song.

The results were a spectacular success. Every review I saw commented on the quality of the sound – for example, the Pink Floyd news site www.brain-damage.co.uk said: ‘Despite the high ceilings, and sonically unfriendly construction, the acoustics of the show were incredible, showcasing Simon Gunton's radically different and inspired interpretations of familiar songs’.

The multitrack recordings of all the concerts were brought back to my post-production studio, where they were mixed in SAW for CD and download release.

The City Wakes was a fun project. Hard work, long hours, but a massive buzz and a chance to work with some of the most inspiring and lovely people I have ever had the privilege to meet.