The Sound Revolution: Unleashing the Power of Audio Tech at Festivals

Hardwell, Tomorrowland 2015, Boom, Belgium. Image courtesy of L-Acoustics.

Image courtesy of L-Acoustics.

At the heart of every memorable festival lies a potent—and often invisible—force that captivates and energizes the crowd: sound.

Over the years, advancements in pro audio technology have drastically improved how festival goers experience live music. From microphones to loudspeakers, these technologies work hard to transport listeners into an auditory wonderland.

Festivals in a Post-Pandemic World

During the height of the COVID pandemic, AV professionals and festival organizers had to drastically change how they did business. They got creative and organized drive-in concerts and incorporated live streaming technology. But how does this impact business today?

“On a macro level, festivals have 110% returned to pre-pandemic levels,” said Robert Kennedy, director of business development at Solotech. “We saw a record number of festivals being produced in 2023, and we’re booking even more in 2024.”

David Dohrmann, director of application, vertical, at L-Acoustics agrees: “We saw a phenomenal bounce-back last year with new record high demand for festival events that even exceeded pre-pandemic demand.”

The record-high demands are fantastic, but also come with a price (no pun intended). “This year, we are seeing signs that inflation and a continued increase in production costs in most regions is leading to potential saturation,” he continued. “This has weighed most on smaller festivals making it more challenging for them to achieve break even for planned events. We are monitoring the situation and its effects on our clients.”

The demand for more festivals has also impacted staffing levels. “The biggest difference I’ve noticed now versus pre-pandemic times is the availability of audio engineers—the good ones are in very high demand and can almost name their price,” said Mario Data of Ladd Sound Productions. “That is great for engineers, but it can be challenging for sound companies.”

Roskilde Festival 2023. Image Credit: Ralph Larmann. Image courtesy of Meyer Sound.

Roskilde Festival 2023 in Roskilde, Denmark. Image Credit: Ralph Larmann. Image courtesy of Meyer Sound.

Another change that pandemic brought about is the experience of festivals. “There are now multiple generations of festival-goers in the market, and producers are catering to many different demographics,” stated Kennedy. “Fifteen years ago, you might have seen a classic rock or country music festival, now we’re seeing festivals specific to 90’s hip hop, emo, reggaeton and other genres. Younger festival-goers seem to be relishing the festival experience as much as the music, while others are keen to find a lineup that includes favorite bands from their formative years.”

And the audio is most certainly a major part of that experience. Dennis Stegemerten, manager, solution development at Sennheiser, said: “We see a lot of demand at festivals for high quality audio. People are done sitting at home and want to make up for the ‘lost time’ post-pandemic. The trend of revenge spending has led concertgoers to normalize spending more than ever before for great festival experiences. That means that festival organizers must realize that the audio experience needs to be at the highest level as well.”

Pro Audio Advancements in the Festival Market

There have been a wide variety of pro audio advancements in terms of festival technology—with everything from wireless upgrades to lighter loudspeakers to immersive audio making their way onto the scene.

Immersive Audio at Festivals

“Immersive audio technologies are quickly becoming both more accessible and reliable. Their usage in different venues, including festivals, is skyrocketing,” said Katharine “Katie” Murphy Khulusi, Meyer Sound director of loudspeaker development. “Festivals are eager to add new venues showcasing media in these formats, as they add to the holistic experience of festivalgoers. Those who might be hesitant to go to an immersive audio show on their own might be happy to stop by for a set or two over a weekend. This opens up new experiences and opportunities for both those seeking it out and those looking for new ways to listen.”

Products like Meyer Sound’s Spacemap Go allow artists flexibility and the creative freedom to showcase their craft. Spacemap Go is a spatial sound design and mixing tool that leverages the processing power of Meyer Sound’s Galileo GALAXY Network Platform in an intuitive iPad app; it is available as a free app and DAW or console plugin.

Watch the video below to see a demonstration of Spacemap Go at ISE 2024.

L-Acoustics launched its immersive audio technology, L-ISA, in 2016; it was recently updated with 16 free outputs in L-ISA Studio, the integration of Mixhalo’s AI-powered translation services with L-ISA Processor II subscription model and more.

AI-powered Mixhalo Translate, integrated in L-ISA 3.2, creates inclusive and accessible experiences across multiple spaces.

AI-powered Mixhalo Translate, integrated in L-ISA 3.2, creates inclusive and accessible experiences across multiple spaces.

Event organizers and service providers can activate AI-powered Mixhalo Translate to create inclusive and accessible experiences across multiple spaces, where thousands of users can access live, simultaneous content in dozens of languages. Mixhalo Live gives the ability to stream up to 16 channels of personalized, immersive content directly to attendees’ smartphones. Mixhalo Moments allows audiences or visitors to record short videos, using professional quality audio from Mixhalo for their social stream. All features are configurable via Mixhalo Control, rendering management of multiple audio streams easy and accessible via a web-based platform.

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“The benefits for festivalgoers are the same as for any live music show: effortless sonic perception, increase of definition and depth, better intelligibility for lyrics and lesser listening fatigue overall,” said L-Acoustic’s Dohrmann. “It enables the artist to better connect with their audience and create a more impactful emotional experience. L-ISA technology achieves this hyperrealism and a tangible amount of immersion with just a frontal system, without the necessity for surround speakers.  We are confident this will not go unnoticed.”

In addition to traditional immersive audio technologies, festival designers are getting creative with ways to create these immersive experiences. “There are a couple of interesting immersive audio designs that we’ve seen festivals propose this season,” said Solotech’s Kennedy. “Many festivals in urban settings have audio curfew times dictated by local regulators. Producers are considering an updated twist on the silent disco, leveraging streaming apps to allow the audience to wear their own Bluetooth headphones during a late night DJ set.”

Ladd added: “[Immersive audio is] very exciting to me as an audio engineer. My perfect world would be one where every audience member is fully immersed in sound and hears the exact same mix.”

The Wireless Factor

Many musicians are cutting the cord for performances and using wireless microphones and in-ear monitoring systems so they have greater freedom of movements on stage.

“These technologies enhance the overall experience for the artist, and, in turn, allow them to give even more back to the audience,” said Sennheiser’s Stegemerten. “Wireless microphones and in-ear monitoring systems are getting easier to set up, increasingly reliable and even more feature-rich.”

With a reduction in the available wireless spectrum, manufacturers have had to pivot their plans and develop digital wireless solutions that “use a fraction of the spectrum they used to,” says Kennedy. “Major festivals have hired dedicated RF engineers to manage the available spectrum and coordinate hundreds of frequencies in a given day. This role is even more essential than it has been before,” he added.

Another consideration when thinking about a reduction in the spectrum, according to Stegemerten, is the fact that LED screens and metal structures on the stage can have a significant impact on the available frequencies for wireless mics and in-ear monitoring systems.

“The presence of add-ons and structures on stage can considerably impact the range of a wireless system,” he said. “With this, it’s crucial that wireless audio systems are designed to be as robust as possible to support the engineer in mastering these challenges – this is something we prioritize at Sennheiser when developing our wireless solutions.”

In the near future, Sennheiser will be releasing its FCC-approved Wireless Multi-Channel Audio Systems (WMAS) technology, which the company believes will “revolutionize wireless audio at concerts and festivals.”

WMAS features bidirectional bodypacks, a space-saving central unit that can handle up to 32 inputs and 32 outputs, the promise of easy range and system extension, spectrum-saving workflows and easier re-use of frequencies.

Working with in Tandem with Non-Audio Technologies at Festivals

Audio has been – and will continue to be – the star of the show at festivals, but the use of lights and LED displays are also becoming festival tech must-haves.

“A growing desire for video mapping real estate on festival stages requires suppliers to adapt the audio designs,” said Dohrmann. “We’ve seen this trend at the world’s largest music festival, Coachella, where our partner Rat Sound came up with a brilliant design solution that works perfectly within the video landscape.”

L-Acoustics' next-gen line array L Series was first deployed at Coachella 2023 (pictured) during a pilot phase and is now shipping.

L-Acoustics’ next-gen line array L Series was first deployed at Coachella 2023 (pictured) during a pilot phase and is now shipping.

Kennedy agrees: “At times, the need for audio clarity wins the day and, at times, the design aesthetic wins. The objective is always to collaborate with a production designer, not to conflict with them. We want to provide the best possible sonic and visual experience to a festival-goer and have them return year after year.” He added that the company has recently co-developed a linear LED product that can attach to the outline of a flown line array to include that element in the design.

Meyer Sound PANTHER

Meyer Sound’s PANTHER features an output of over 150 dB in a compact cabinet.

Meyer Sound’s Khulusi cautions that the power output to size/weight ratios need to be thoroughly considered for the audio/video mix at festivals. “When put next to a huge video screen, a line array of speakers can seem tiny! An easily maneuvered, smaller, but more powerful hang that can fit in between visual elements allows for more flexibility for the artists, without compromising on sound quality,” she said.

Khulusi added that Meyer Sound’s PANTHER large-format linear line array loudspeaker is a solid option for festival sound systems because it is 150 lbs and produces a maximum acoustic output of 150 dB SPL.

The Future of Festival Audio

The future of festival audio is TBD but promises to be a convergence of cutting-edge technologies and immersive experiences. As audio engineers continue to push the boundaries, the integration of advanced technologies like spatial sound will redefine how audiences experience live music, making each festival a unique auditory adventure.