Legal raves demand state-of-the-art audio-visual technology, and Fantazia are the experts. Dave Arcari reports from the dance floor
Fantazia have organised some of the biggest raves ever seen. Legally. Dave Arcari looks behind the scenes at one such event, and finds technology playing a key role
The days of illegal rave parties in derelict warehouses and muddy fields are fast coming to an end — and it's no wonder, when all-night dancers can revel in less hostile surroundings and enjoy a professionally staged event with top flight facilities. And that's exactly what 12,000 punters found at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) when they turned up for what was probably the biggest and most ambitious legal indoor dance party to date.
Organised by Fantazia for the Terrence Higgins Trust and the Scottish Aids Monitor as part of National Aids Week, the aptly named Big Bang more than lived up to its aim of staging a truly spectacular event of mega-proportions. According to Fantazia's James Perkins, the company's solid reputation on the dance scene is based on a professional and quality-led approach.
"Ever since I was young I've felt a buzz when I've seen people happy and enjoying themselves," explains James — a sentiment shared by his Fantazia partner Barny Reason. James and Barny got fed up with going to raves and seeing people disillusioned, and worst of all, not enjoying themselves.
"So many of the party organisers were (and some still are) only interested in making a quick buck and doing as little as possible — we're not like that, but it's meant that it's taken us a couple of years to become market leaders," says James.
The Big Bang has cost upwards of £250,000 to stage, but there's more to it than money. Success also depends on skill and effort in production and planning. It has taken seven months to pull together and is the first time Fantazia has incorporated as many as eight acts into one of their high-tech events.
"The party has gone from being a rave in a muddy field to this — and I think this is about the closest we can bring it to an all-night concert. The choreography is vital. It's not something boring and psychedelic, there is a very strong visual element. Each artist has got specific footage for their slot which is exclusive to Fantazia and can only be seen at a Fantazia event," adds James.
Project design and management — from structural design to stage management — is handled by Martin Crick of London-based Project 42. Martin was involved with Fantazia's 1992 Castle Donnington event, the biggest ever legal party held outdoors in the UK with over 25,000 people.
Martin met up with James on the Martin Audio stand (designed by Project 42) at last September's PLASA show in London, and began planning for the 14,000-square metre hall at the SECC.
"Once we had designed the main stage the drawings were sent to a company for checking, who produced a report for the health and safety officer at the SECC," explains Martin. "We had to change the angle of the wings at each end to get the licence for 12,000 people, but we'd already decided to make them smaller anyway to cut down on the amount of equipment." In all there are six articulated lorries and numerous vans full of gear, plus a truck from France carrying the water fountains. That's right, the water fountains.
The 94-metre wide stage structure incorporates three stages (the centre stage for bands and PAs and the two side stages for DJs) and two 3-D water features, as well as three projection screens and two levels of dance platforms linked by staircases. By the end of the party, these platforms are carrying the combined weight of 150 dancers. The structure was built by Serious Stages from Somerset using a scaffolding system developed by Martin's partner, Roger Chopping. The trucking bill, by the way, came as a bit of shock to Martin, who explains: "Normally we like to source as much equipment and labour locally, but we had some problems getting what we wanted — for instance, we couldn't get black scaffolding in Scotland..."
With the main stage structure completed the night before, the day of the event is free for stage dressing. Gauze scrims are hung everywhere between the large projection screens, enabling the whole set to be backlit. For this purpose, Martin has brought in lighting designer Alan Wild from Edinburgh, to source all the equipment and operators.
Alan sees The Big Bang as the chance he's waiting for to make the crossover from rock shows to the rave scene. His 14 years' experience, working with such technically demanding acts as Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, David Gilmour and Erasure, make him an ideal candidate for the job.
"James had been to all the big rock shows — Tina Turner, Genesis etc — and liked the production and choreography and wanted to bring the same sort of thing into his dance parties to make everything a bit more professional and exciting," he explains.
The lighting is centred around 30 Icon lights, 30 Parcans and some Lekos, plus a host of other theatrical lights, strobes, dry ice and smoke machines supplied by Light & Sound Design (LSD).
The state-of-the-art Icons are available on a hire-only basis from LSD, who have taken them from research and design through to manufacture, training their own operators in the process.
The Icon, which first went out with year, is like an upmarket Varilite, with full panning and tilting, a powerful light source and an inbuilt colour/pattern changer — all of which is controlled from the highly regarded Icon desk.
The rest of the lighting is controlled via a 90-way Celcoe Gold desk and a colour mag scroller to control the rolling gel screens in front of the regular lighting.
Lasers for the party are supplied by The Definitive Laser Company, who have provided two 5-watt lasers: a large-frame Krypton and a small-frame Argon. They are used a lot in Project 42 productions and Alan was impressed by the demo they provided.
"The lasers are feeding four fibre heads via fibre optic links, which gives the effect of five separate lasers," explains operator Gareth Ainge. "The total output can be split into the seven colours of the spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) and can create rotating bursts of colour and diffraction effects."
Controlled live from the front-of-house during the party, pre-programmed effects and beams are combined with scanning effects such as cones, sheets and tunnels.
Projection is handled by Halo, making use of three custom 30ft by 20ft screens built into the stage set, and lit by three projectors on scaffolding towers built into the backstage area. The projectors themselves use a combination of camera, computer and video sources. Two cameras — one static in front of the stage, and one roaming in the crowd — project massive images of stage action, as well as crowd shots, onto the screens. The computer graphics are courtesy of an Amiga 1200, including 'captions' projected onto the screens detailing the names of each band or DJ during performance. And the video sources combine seascapes, exploding planets and fast-moving flight simulation scenes.
"I also spent two days in London studios editing footage from previous Fantazia events together with library stock to produce some quite stunning footage, tailor-made for the event," reveals James.
Finally, as a unique addition to a techno event, two 3-D water fountains make a huge contribution to the visual spectacle.
All the way from France, the Aquatique system produces a staggering 180 different effects and 3-D shapes almost 40 feet high — all artistically lit and sensitive enough to be controlled in real time to music.
Amazingly, the lights, lasers, projection and fountains are all controlled and co-ordinated live for the duration of the 10-hour party. There is no central sound to light synchronisation, just an intercom linking the different operators with each other and with Alan, who cues the whole show from front-of-house. Everything is literally 'finger to button'.
"We ran through most of the effects and looks before the party and established exactly what the bands wanted for their sets," explains Alan. "The other important thing is to make the most out of each of the visual elements and build the show up over the 10-hour period, always bringing in new effects and shifting the focus of attention."
One way Alan gets the best from the people and equipment he works with is by strictly co-ordinating and controlling the use of equipment to avoid effects clashing and to prevent a 'free for all' with visuals competing with each other for attention.
No less attention is paid to sound. Logically, after James and Martin's planning meeting on Martin Audio's stand at PLASA, a Martin sound system was chosen.
"When we were talking about The Big Bang on the Martin stand, they asked us if we were using Martin gear — we said 'can we afford it?', and once they'd convinced us, put us in touch with Capital Sound," says Martin.
Four clusters of Martin F2 cabinets are suspended above the stage using the Man flying system developed specially for the F2 cabinets by Capital. These 76 cabinets are augmented by 20 sub-bass enclosures under the stage and powered by 54 Amcron MA2400 amps to create a whopping 120K rig — twice the size of the rig used by U2 at this very venue.
Onstage monitoring is via five LA400 bi-amped Martin wedges for the bands, and RS800s for the DJs. Sennheiser radio mics and headsets are used throughout the event.
The outboard gear further underlines the feeling that no element in the equation - audio, visual or theatrical - is being short changed. Six channels of Klark Teknik EQ is used to tweak the sub-bass into shape and iron out any sound problems due to the size of the venue. The EQ is accompanied in the racks by two Yamaha SPX900s for reverb, two Roland delays and a large collection of gates and compressors for overall dynamic control.
Also nestling beside the 40-channel Midas XL3 desk are three Sony DAT machines - two for playing any backing tapes the artists may use, and one to record the entire 10-hour performance.
The Midas desk handles four vocal and six keyboard inputs as well as two sets of DJ decks, the DAT machines and effects returns, Capital engineers David Pringle and Shaun O'Malley are familiar with the venue from various rock shows - Neil Young, Deacon Blue, Simple Minds, Status Quo - so they too are bringing the exacting standards of major rock concerts into the rave scene.
David finds that techno events are fundamentally the same as a rock show, and that the only hassle is the recording quality of some of the records played.
"Some records need a bit of tweaking at the bottom end because they haven't been that well produced. The problems usually arise with stuff that's been mixed at home on small monitors which don't have a particularly good bass response. These records usually sound a bit woolly and muffled at the bass end rather than giving a good thump..."
The audience, bands and DJs all give the sound a big thumbs up, nonetheless. Scottish opening act, Colorscheme, had their reservations about using such a huge PA - and playing to such a huge crowd. Before going on stage, lead vocalist Kid Ivory sums up the trepidation. "We're bloody nervous. 120K might be a bit on the loud side - we normally use just 10-20K!"
Colorscheme open the show with a Scottish flavour courtesy of a full Scottish drum corp with 16 drummers and eight pipers — an idea which got them a place on the bill.
"When Colorscheme got in touch, we'd already arranged the bands," explains James. "Initially I wasn't that impressed with their material, but they came with this great idea of using a pipe band alongside techno music and that swung me."
Other bands include Fantazia stalwarts Rat Pack and PSI along with Akki (the 'Archbishop of Techno'), Ultrasonic, Terrorise, Nicky Mac and Scottish favourites Q-Tex and Shades Of Rhythm. All the acts, plus the DJs, are accepted with equal enthusiasm by the enormous crowd, and the entertainment is seamless.
"The live acts were all chosen because they are very visual, which, for me, is very important," comments James. "Someone standing alone behind a keyboard miming to DAT is just taking the piss out of the punters as far as I'm concerned — I'd rather spend three quid on the 12" and stick that on."
Carl Cox, DJ Seduction, Bass Generator and Mikey B are just some of the big DJ names at The Big Bang, joined by Tom Wilson of Radio Forth, Dave Calikes and a host of other well-known DJs.
Add to this discreet security from Rock Steady (who had 150 people on duty); teams of first-aiders; a funfair with stomach churning rides and state-of-the art simulators; reasonable food and drink prices... and you have an event which combines the best - if not the better - of traditional large-scale entertainment facilities in an exciting new format. Afterwards, James sums up the mood.
"We're looking to the future. All the people that worked together on this project know this is the future, and that's what the dance party is all about."
Feature by Dave Arcari
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