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For the past five years, I have been fortunate enough to work at the amazing Shetland Folk Festival as a sound technician. It’s an intense, tiring but nonetheless hugely fun weekend, and it is my favourite festival to work at. Shetland is a very special place, with beautiful landscape and most importantly some of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with.
I work as part of a team of 6 sound engineers, led by the the boss-man Jake Loveday. Each night, cover three venues in various locations all over Shetland. There’s always two of us working on each gig. Each team has a van full of PA, and for three days we take the equipment to village halls, set it all up, soundcheck 6 acts, run the concert, pack up everything up and head back to Lerwick. The next day, we do it all over again. I’ll be working with sound engineer extraordinaire Tim Matthews this weekend.
During soundcheck and the show, one engineer, in this case that’ll be Tim, is based at the mixing desk and works with the bands during soundcheck and mixes the concert. The other one looks after the stage, makes sure musicians have everything they need, are plugged into the correct channels and carries out the changeover between acts. That’s what I do at Shetland Folk Festival.
The festival weekend starts on Wednesday, when most of the sound and lighting engineers as well as many of the artists get the boat from Aberdeen to Lerwick. The festival committee are already waiting for us at the ferry terminal and hand out everyone’s boarding passes. All of our sound and lighting equipment is on a big truck that’s also going on the boat. The equipment belongs to the other company doing sound at Shetland Folk Festival, Black Box Pro Audio.
On the boat, I check into my cabin, which I usually share with three other female technicians or musicians (only one time was I lucky enough to get a two-bed cabin WITH A WINDOW!) and then head upstairs to the lounge to meet the other technicians and engineers. Some of them I only see once a year for the festival, so it’s lovely to catch up!
I’d love to tell you that I then joined in with the many sessions that are going on on the boat and played tunes all night, but truth is I probably went to bed at around 9pm because I know Thursday is going to be a long long day. Rock’n’Roll! What can I say, I love a good nights sleep.
As soon as the boat arrives in Lerwick at 7am the next morning, we make our way to the Islesbourgh aka the festival club. Here, we not only get a cup of tea and a roll but we also get to meet our hosts, the kind people who put us up for the weekend. I’m staying with Frankie this year, and I only have time to drop off my bags and get a quick shower at the house before I have to make my way to the Clickimin, the biggest venue of the festival, where the truck full of equipment is parked.
Dave Town from Black Box Pro Audio has already loaded most of my equipment into the big van I will be driving for the next few days. It’s now 12pm, and I should be getting ready to leave for my first gig. Just as I’m about to leave Lerwick to meet Tim, I get a text from Dave: my front of house speakers are still at the Clickimin! Oops. Just as well he noticed before I was halfway across the mainland. Ok, got everything now, and I’m off to the first gig in a place called Whiteness.
At the venue, Tim and I are getting the sound system set up fairy quickly, which leaves us with about an hour of spare time before the bands arrive for soundcheck. Time for a cup of coffee and some cookies! This is also when we look at the tech specs the bands have sent through, and make up a rough “patch - plan”. That means we decide beforehand which instrument or microphone should be plugged into which channel to make change-overs as smooth as possible.
This is the calm before the storm, and it’s good to get a bit of a break before the musicians arrive at 3pm.
When the bands arrive, we soundcheck them in reverse order, so the band that goes on last will be the first to soundcheck. Today, that’s The Fretless from Canada. I’m going over the tech spec with them to make sure there are no changes or extra instruments, and as soon as the band is all set up and plugged in on stage, Tim can work his magic on the mixing desk. And just like that, we work our way through all the bands. For each band, I write down an exact “patch sheet” to make sure I’m plugging their instruments back into the correct channels during the changeovers later on in the show. We only have 10 minutes changeover time between bands, so note-taking is key here! I also make sure my stage is very tidy and all the cables are clearly labelled - being organised and knowing exactly where everything is makes soundchecks and changeovers so much less stressful.
Once we have sound checked all the bands, we finally get to have our dinner. The ladies from the hall in Whiteness are serving us the best macaroni and cheese I have ever had (sorry, CalMac) and we even get a selection of cakes and fancies for our pudding. This is how you keep your tech staff happy!
And now it’s showtime! First up are Beltane Ree, a local band, followed by the amazing Daoiri Farrell, Ross Couper & Tom Oakes, Calan and of course The Fretless. The gig goes smoothly, the changeovers are quick and seamless, and the audience are having a great time. A good start to the festival!
After the last band finishes, Tim and I start packing up. It’s half past 11 now and we’re both keen to get the PA into the van as quickly as possible! It takes us about an hour to coil all the cables, put the monitors, speakers, mixing desk, stage box and microphones back into their boxes and load everything into the van. At 1am, Tim and I part ways for the night: he gets to go home to his own bed, while I am making my way back to Lerwick.
It’s been a long day, but I’m still going to pop my head into the festival club to catch up with the other sound techs and hear how their first day went over maybe one pint (no more!). Then it’s off to bed for me, for a few hours of sleep before I’m off to the next venue to do it all over again!
Photos - Shetland Folk Festival by Lieve Boussauw