One day, all PA columns will be like this... Jim Betteridge checks out Simple Minds' little bash at the Milton Keynes Bowl
BAND: Simple Minds & Others
VENUE: Milton Keynes Bowl
DATE: June 21, 1986
PA: Martin Audio — ML/Texserv
It was a beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon in Milton Keynes. The air was fresh, the sky was wide and blue and life was generally in full bloom. Strange, then, that we should have so consistently found ourselves surrounded by uncouth, overweight northerners intent on shouting incoherently and forcing beer bottles down each other's underpants. One almost mythically disfavoured blighter saw fit to discard his briefs altogether, and a circle of quarantine several feet wide instantly materialised around him as the rest of us sprang back wide-eyed, trying in vain to stifle our horror. With hardly an exception he and his friends sported what I was later informed are known as footballer haircuts, with virtually nothing at the front and huge thick manes at the back. Most discomforting and certainly an insult to the FA. We averted our eyes politely and moved on.
The weekend at Milton Keynes was part of a massive six week, 12-date tour of festivals by Simple Minds spanning June 6 to July 17 and taking in venues in the UK and Europe. The whole production was handled by ML/Texserv who have now combined forces to operate as one company and who, in turn, come under the larger umbrella of Tasco. Within ML/Texserv is a trucking division, a backline division, a lighting division (which actually only involves Super-Trooper carbon arc follow spots) and a maintenance division — anything else required can be easily brought in mostly from within the Tasco organisation.
The venues for the tour varied in size and type from bull rings, through football stadiums to simple grass fields like The Milton Keynes Bowl. Thus, in each place a local promoter was called upon to supply staging, toilets, barriers, etc, but it was all co-ordinated by the Simple Minds production team on the road. For the Milton Keynes date the staging was supplied by Edwin Shirley who, incidentally, have also provided stages for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Live Aid, Sting and The Stones, Twelve 40' artics were used to put the production on the road and there were a further six from Edwin Shirley for the staging alone. The stage area itself measured 64' across by 60' deep and on either side the PA wings added a further 48' of width. There was no backstage area as such, instead there were three separate compounds with tents and caravans: one for liggers, one for the bands and people working on the show and a third for the bands' dressing rooms so that they could get some peace and quiet.
The stage structure did include setting-up areas in which each band's gear could be put together on rolling rostra to be trundled into place at the appropriate time. Each drum kit, for instance, was permanently miked-up on a separate rostrum with all the mikes going to a disconnected stage box also on the rostrum. Then, at the point of changeover, the rostrum was simply wheeled into position, the multicore feeding the FOH and monitor desks was mated with the socket on the stage box and all was ready. In the days before the concert, each band had sound checked and the settings on the desks had been noted for resetting. Bob Doyle of ML explained the strategy: "We contact each band individually and find out just what they want — their mike list, the order they want them plugged into the board, DIs etc. We have a very wide range of mikes available, but we do ask that the bands stay mainly within the models we've chosen, otherwise it gets to be impossible, and in fact we've had absolutely no problem with any engineers over that.
"We also try to keep the order in which the channels are plugged-up more or less the same for each band — channel one: bass drum, channel two: snare, etc. Then we have two clip boards for each band, one on stage and one at the control tower with everything we need to know on them, including the names of the band and their personal road crew so that we know who we're working with and we can call them by their names instead of just 'Oi'. It makes a lot of difference. After a sound check all the Eq settings are marked down on a sheet on the clip board, and here again by making sure that the bass guitar always comes up the same channel, and so on, you lessen the amount of adjustment needed and generally make sure that there aren't too many variables. Some of the changeovers have to be done in ten minutes, so it has to be streamlined.
"It's kind of a floating pool of bands on the tour and some are doing more gigs than others. Some of the routing on this tour means that there won't always be enough time for every band to get a sound check, but by the time that happens most of them will have done two or three gigs already and so things should be running pretty smoothly, and we'll know basically what the balance is. On the other hand, as far as the actual rig goes, even if we're going from one open-air gig to another, it isn't possible simply to reset the controls and expect it to be okay. There might be a hill on one side of the site, or if it's a football pitch there'll be stands to reflect and absorb the sound, and so the system has to be completely re-aligned for every gig.
"Normally, for a weekend gig, we would go in on the Tuesday by which time the stage would already be erected. The lights would go up first, then on the Wednesday the sound would be installed and on the Thursday the stage set would go in — the centre ramp, all the risers and stuff and the two huge Venetian blinds either side of the stage that are part of the Simple Minds set. On the same day we'd run a line check to make sure everything was working. Then we'd do sound checks all day Friday and the Saturday morning."
The PA system was entirely Martin and was set out in three tiers with the highest being about 40' off the ground. It consisted of 160 full-range subsystems each of which comprised:
Bass: Either 1x215 or 2x115 bass bin.
Low mid: Philishave (M600 or MH212).
High mid: JBL2441 with a variety of horns depending on throw required to provide constant coverage.
High: MLR tweeters plus JBL 2402 bullets for the nearfield.
The bass bins were all stacked together as were the mid units. This coupling meant greater efficiency and also an effectively wider horn mouth area and thus a lower bottom end roll-off. For this reason it wasn't considered necessary to have any dedicated sub-bass units. In addition, 10 RS1200 full-range all-in-one cabinets were positioned along the front at stage level to ensure that the faithful few crammed up against the railings got a good hifi earful.
There were two FOH consoles, one permanently set for Simple Minds along with its own dedicated auxiliary rack, and the other shared by the rest of the bands. The former was a 40:8:2 Midas Pro 4 built in two 20-channel sections to make it more flexible in confined spaces whilst the latter was a 32 channel Pro 4. Both desks drove into a number of KlarkTeknik DN27 graphic eqs. Nick Baker, Simple Minds' engineer, sometimes eq'd all four parts of the system separately, and sometimes he used only a single pair for the whole system, depending on how tricky he found the site. From the control tower line drivers boosted the signal down the 150m of low impedance balanced lines to the stage to ensure that the levels coming out of the desk (0VU = 4dB) was maintained at the stage end. Crown PSA2s drove the bottom end, BGW 750s drove the middle and Crown DC300As powered the high-mids and the highs.
The sound was excellent for the whole afternoon and evening that I was there. For me The Bangles were the highlight of the day — such perfect, simple Pop notwithstanding the slight and occasional flaw in technique. The weather too was almost perfect — there was a slight wind blowing about, but it was going more face-into the stacks than across them and didn't seem to cause any bad phasing. There's no doubt that for such big open-air gigs a full modular system does the job very well and you can't do better than a Martin rig. The fact that Simple Minds insisted on it has to be something of a recommendation.
Feature by Jim Betteridge
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