Behind the scenes at Wisconsin’s Summerfest

Now in its 53rd year, the massive music mêlée in Milwaukee, Wisconsin remains a showcase for AVL technology and sets the pace for music festivals in the COVID era.

Summerfest is the biggest little event you may or may not know about. Certified in 1999 by the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘The World’s Largest Music Festival,’ in 2017 it celebrated its half-century mark and in pre-COVID times routinely attracted over 750,000 concertgoers. They could see and listen to nearly 300 shows as they wandered between 11 stages peppered throughout Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Henry W. Maier Festival Park – 30 hectares on the shores of Lake Michigan 100 miles north of Chicago, which had previously served as the city’s first airport and the site of a Nike missile facility in the ’50s. This year’s attractions included Luke Bryan, Chance the Rapper, Twenty-One Pilots, Chris Stapleton, Megan Thee Stallion, Miley Cyrus, Tommy Gunn, REO Speedwagon and Guns N’ Roses.

The performance stages, named for locally based but national corporate sponsors, such as the generator giant Generac, American-Irish systems management maker, Johnson Controls, and Miller Lite, seat anywhere from 400 to 4,000 or more and are a string of shiny, noisy pearls connected by county fair-type midways and food tents, and anchored at the south end by the 23,000-seat American Family Insurance Amphitheater. Five performers per stage per day cycle through what is usually the festival’s fortnight in July, its traditional month. This year, however, after being cancelled completely in 2020, it reassembled itself as a series of three-day weekends in September.

Summerfest has also been morphing into a kind of working AV expo, where sound and lighting systems manufacturers – most notably Harman Professional’s JBL, Crown and Martin brands in recent years – see an opportunity to wave their brands’ banners before hundreds of musicians, FOH engineers, and production managers each year. Behind the music and the festivities that hundreds of thousands of concertgoers enjoy, there is a huge machine – and with 53 years’ worth of experience, a rather well-oiled one – that was ready to take on producing a massive music festival under COVID’s combat conditions.

Summerfest might be the perfect festival for the way the music market has evolved. Like the various streaming services that now dominate the industry, Summerfest puts a huge smorgasbord of styles, sounds, attitudes and aspirations in front of consumers, who can graze easily between scores of aural tastings daily for not much more than they pay for a year of Spotify. At nearly two weeks and 12 hours a day, it’s immersive, ringing another cultural-media bell, but unlike Bonnaroo or Burning Man, most people get to sleep in their own beds every night. And it’s about as egalitarian as it gets in a celebrity-soused society, with local and regional heroes mixed in with top touring acts, fattening the former’s press kits if not their bank accounts. [Summerfest is operated by a non-profit board.]

The music starts early in the afternoon, with mainly local artists though once-big names pepper the early schedule, such as Soul Asylum, best known for their 1994 GRAMMY Award-winner, Runaway Train, performing at 4pm on a Thursday. At night, however, the sun goes down, the lights come on, and the volume goes up. It’s when Summerfest hits its nightly peak, with music across all 11 stages.


Summerfest’s move to September from its usual July slot meant that lighting got a bit more exercise than in previous years, as the near-autumn sun slipped away a little earlier each day. For Sarah ‘Sparks’ Parker, LD for Kesha, who was the closer on the BMO Harris Pavilion stage on a Saturday night, it was a second time around, having directed lighting for Imagine Dragons there in 2018 – the same year she also began working with Kesha. Parker had nice words for the Martin Lighting MAC Axiom hybrid 440W fixture, a dozen of which were part of the BMO stage’s rig. “They’re really flexible; I can use them as a beam or a spot, and they’re definitely impactful as a spot. We can see them clearly in a big space like this – a high impact,” she said of the 5,000-seat venue. For Kesha’s emotional ballad Shadow, Parker said the Axiom spot, mounted down on pipes on the angled truss, gave her the effect she wanted. “It worked nicely for that moment in particular,” she said. “The Axiom’s really wide range and zoom let me dial in exactly the kind of backlit little arch around her. It was perfect.”

Most of the campus’ basic lighting grid is installed as part of the park’s permanent infrastructure and used throughout the year for a variety of other events – largely ethnic food, music, and culture festivals. The three-day Mexican Fiesta, which shares the park with annual Pride, Polish, Irish, Italian, Mexican, and German fests, had ended barely two days before Summerfest kicked off this year.

Clearwing Productions supplements that with moving lights and floor packages for Summerfest, depending on the stage and artists. “We’ll usually supplement with some kind of moving fixture, for flair, like Martin Axiom or Quantum,” revealed Clearwing Productions Senior Lighting Operations Manager, Ania Dankow who began working on Summerfest as a lighting tech in 2004. “We’ll also provide MA Lighting grandMA2 light consoles across the ground stages, with grandMA2 full-sizes for larger shows.”

Another aspect of Summerfest that sets it apart from other music festivals is the fact that its infrastructure is mostly permanent. Most stages are set into brick and concrete proscenia, with permanent electrical connections and installed rigging. The Harley-Davidson stage sports a fairly spacious crawl space that provides an air-conditioned amp-rack room with conduit leading up to the stage, and even a rumpled couch for visiting crew to take a break on. Backstage areas are as good as any at most arenas, boasting private dressing and rest rooms.

Most stages have common elements, such as the dozen Martin Axiom or Quantum or Viper profiles on seven of the stages. There is also a virtualisation suite on site for bands that bring MA-compatible files for their shows. And you don’t see many foggers on stage at Summerfest – the ubiquitous barbecue tents swirl plenty of smoke around the grounds that gets picked up by the stage lighting.

Individual stages will sometimes get special attention. For instance, this year the Generac stage, named for the festival’s main 2021 sponsor, had a promotional video run before the evening’s headliner performed that was synchronised, via timecode, with a light show, and Clearwing Productions also provided an upgraded lighting package across the stage that included Ayrton Perseo profiles on the wings. Other changes were more complicated: on the Miller stage’s first weekend’s Flo Rida and DJ Diesel set and the Generac stage’s third Diplo and Run the Jewels set, both of which skewed heavily towards bass-heavy shows, the entire installed PAR can rig was removed and replaced with a full moving-fixture rig.

That lighting package, developed for EDM artists but now more widely deployed for rap and related shows, includes a dozen Martin by Harman MAC Viper Performance units, 18 Viper profiles, 42 VDO Sceptron 10 1000mm linear video fixtures, 18 VDO Fatron 20 1000mm fixtures, a P3-300 system controller, and five P3 Powerport 1500 integrated power supplies and processors. “It began as an EDM rig, but it’s being used for more different [types of] artists as the music changes,” said Dankow.


Summerfest had a somewhat larger video footprint this year, benefitting from the steadily decreasing costs of the medium, allowing for more and larger screens. A combination of ROE Visual and Theatrixx LED screens were temporarily installed on three of the seven stages that had IMAG video for the event, an addition of three more LED screens in total this year than in 2019, including a large IMAG and general information screen on the campus’ Lakewalk. Mindpool Live, a locally based video systems and content provider, is the primary video producer for the event. The event used to also use some projection video for evening shows, but according to Mindpool President, Josh Adams, the event has moved to all LED screens now, in some cases using multiple IMAG screens per venue, plus a display above the FOH position at each stage that doubles as digital signage between shows.

The company also provided a combination of Sony HDC-3500 and HXC-100 cameras for the stages. These rode on a SMPTE-fibre network for signal and control, enabling the live video for at least three of the stages to be directed and managed from a central control room in a one of the permanent buildings in the park, where the production utilised Ross Carbonite switchers and Ultra routers. Four cameras per stage converged on a matrix there and were backhauled over a fibre home run to the master control, where performance video and audio could also be recorded. “It was an exciting time this year, after missing the event last year,” said Adams, who also directs video for Foo Fighters. “Everybody had to ramp up together to make this happen, and we all have a sense of pride about it. For companies like Clearwing and Mindpool Live to be able to support each other in our own backyard at an iconic festival like Summerfest, is amazing.”

Clearwing Productions supplied video walls for six stages: two each ROE Visual CB5 16ft by 9ft displays at the Generac and BMO Harris Bank stages, a 26ft by 16ft CB5 that moved between the Generac and Miller stages over the course of the festival, a 16ft by 9ft CB5 display at the US Cellular stage, in addition to the 60ft display at the amphitheater, where it was used for five of the 12 shows there: Hella Mega Tour, Chance the Rapper, Twenty One Pilots, Megan Thee Stallion, and Miley Cyrus.


Logistically, Summerfest is an immense audio show, with all of the sound systems designed and provided by Clearwing Productions, the AVL provider for several decades’ worth of Summerfests. The core box for all but one of the stages is the JBL VTX A12, with 128 of them dispersed across 10 systems, plus another 16 VTX A12W bins, which offer wider 120° of dispersion, versus the VTX A12’s standard 90°.

The A12, introduced in spring 2017, made its large-scale debut at Summerfest the following year, when it was deployed across seven stages there. Harman’s dominance of the festival’s sound continues with another 69 VTX A8 boxes also deployed there this year, 117 VTX B18 arrayable single-18 subs, 64 VTX dual-18 B28 subs and two more of the top-mountable B28s, and 84 M22 wedge monitors.

Power for these came from a total of 46 Crown VRack 4×3500 amps buttressed by six CrownVRack 1200HD and two 4x3500HD amps. One stage was primarily an L-Acoustics system, a blend of 32 K1s, 16 K2s, 36 KARAs, 10 ARCS II, and 16 KS1Bs, powered by a total of 25 LA-RAK and LA-RAK-II amplified controllers, and with d&b audiotechnik M2 wedge monitors also adorning the stage.

One of the things that distinguishes Summerfest from most other music festivals is the fact that FOH at each stage is manned by a unionised audio engineer; specifically, a member of IATSE Local 18. In combination with the use of mostly a single type of PA speaker box, it gives the event useful sonic and operational consistency. The transparency of the A12 box was cited by several engineers as being a good choice, letting the individual sound of each performer through – many come with their own FOH mixers, whom the house engineers work with – while letting those Summerfest house mixers move between stages when needed knowing what to expect.

Brian Miller is one of the Local 18 mixers; in fact, he estimates, with 22 years on Summerfests, he’s the senior mixer on site. He was eyeing the curved metal roof of the Johnson Controls stage’s – two hangs of six VTX A-12 boxes, two A8s as front fills, and bottomed with a dozen B18 subs, powered by three VRack 4×3500 amps – seating area, one of only two venues enclosed overhead, for its potential acoustical challenges.

“The Clearwing techs tune the systems and the FOH mixers at each stage can give them whatever final tweaks they want,” he said, adding that years earlier the shows had multiple audio vendors before Clearwing Productions became the sole provider, which he said also contributes to making the sound quality reliable and the workflows efficient. “The A12s sound great but they also can be aimed very precisely, to keep the sound off reflective surfaces,” he commented.

His colleague, Craig Broemser, who also worked more than one stage at the festival, noted that it can be easy to overmix at this event, with its various types of stage environments. “We have to be careful of levels,” he said. “The rule of thumb is to keep the instruments down a bit and the vocals a little bit hot.” Good advice for a stage that seemed especially partial to lyrical artists, including Liz Phair, Ani DiFranco, and Drive-By Truckers.

Over at the Uline Warehouse stage – featuring 20 A12s, 12 A8s and 24 B18s split into two hangs powered by six VRack 4×3500 amps – which hosted Jesse McCartney, Spin Doctors and Motley Crüe’s Vince Neil among others, mixer Joe Adam noted how the stage’s position exposed it to north winds off of Lake Michigan, which required a slight positioning adjustment to the left PA hang. “We get good, strong propagation from the A12s, which also helps offset that,” he said. “The image and EQ stay together nicely, so the sound is consistent.”

The union mixers and Clearwing’s techs have formed a cohesive team over the course of so many Summerfests, said Jeff Mayer, Director of Regional Audio Operations in the company’s Milwaukee office. “We make sure to treat all of the union mixers the same as we do the touring engineers,” he stated.

The steadily increasing uniformity of the audio and other systems over time has helped keep the sprawling event on an even operational even keel. This year, the deployment of the JBL audio systems is nearly 100% – the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, the largest of the venues, defaults to a Clearwing-supplied L-Acoustics K1/K2 rig unless touring artists bring their own systems – as is the use of key items such as the XTA M36 console switchers and Lake LM44 system processors.

“Over the years, we’ve worked with many manufacturers who want to use Summerfest as a showcase for new products and systems, and JBL has been a great partner over that time,” he stated. “We’ve invested heavily in the A series speakers, because we’ve had a very good response from the artists who’ve used it here.” The touring mixers concur. “I liked the A12 the first time I heard it,” reported Scott ‘Shreddy’ Edwards, the Production Manager and FOH mixer for Coheed & Cambria, who were a mid-fest, Thursday-night closer on the Miller Lite Oasis stage of 20 VTX A12s, four JBL VTX A12Ws, and 10 JBL VTX A8s split between stereo hangs and bottomed out with 24 JBL VTX B28s, all powered by eight Crown VRack 4x3500HDs. “It’s a smooth-sounding box,” Shreddy said, praising the stage’s PA setup.


Summerfest came with a complicated context. Just weeks earlier, other headliner festivals had been cancelled or postponed, including Coachella, Stagecoach, the New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, and Miami’s Ultra; the nearby Country USA Rock and USA festivals, about 50 miles north of Summerfest, called it quits for the year. Bonnaroo, near Nashville, also cancelled days before Summerfest was to open, but cited rain-soaked festival grounds as the reason, a reminder that once COVID is conquered, climate change will still be waiting in the wings. Major tours, including Billie Eilish and Steve Nicks, also put themselves on hold.

On the other hand, Lollapalooza, considered by the industry a bellwether for music festivals going forward, took place as scheduled at the end of July and out of nearly 400,000 who attended the festival, barely 200 tested positive for the virus. Vaccination, pre-testing for the unvaccinated, and masking requirements were considered to have been critical to that success, and Summerfest made entry conditional on those same prerequisites. A charge of $50 for a COVID-19 test at the entry gates seemed to keep the unvaccinated largely at bay, it seems. Not that Summerfest didn’t have its challenges. Several artists, including KISS and Indigo Girls, cancelled due to positive COVID-19 tests ahead of their shows. Modern English and the Pixies, tapped as headliners on their respective stages and days, both had to cancel – appearances and entire tours – as precautions.


Clearwing Productions Director of Operations Bryan Baumgardner, reported that the festival looked quite normal from the outside. “It’s bigger than it’s ever been, in terms of the number of artists, and several of the stages have been upgraded in the past year,” he said, noting that the sudden pullback of tours in August made more marquee names available as replacements. However, closer inspection revealed some of the pandemic’s other impacts – an area that’s most noticeable when it comes to crews, who were the first affected by the suspension of touring in the spring of 2020, with many leaving the industry entirely for less tenuous careers. That dynamic has only become more intense as concerts picked up and touring seemed to be turning a corner a year later only to fall back in the face of COVID-19’s Delta mid-summer surge. According to Baumgardner, that’s mainly affected the middle tier of crews – the most necessary segment of that population because it has the most experience but hasn’t yet aged out of the road.

“They’re the ones with mortgages and car payments and young children, the ones who really need to put food on the table every day,” he reflected, adding that the smaller pool of possible crew members for tours also means replacing anyone who goes missing due to a positive COVID-19 test is that much harder. “Everyone left is doing more of the work than before,” he remarked.

That said, Clearwing’s staff have been largely stable throughout the pandemic, helped by the company’s burgeoning installed-AVL division in a sector that’s managed COVID-19 better than some others. However, other aspects are less predictable.

For instance, Clearwing’s sound and lighting product inventory is robust and able to respond quickly to surges in demand, such as when touring picked up earlier in the spring and summer. “We’re seeing more shows flying, not pulling trailers, so our rentals of audio packages and backline have been up about three times the usual level during Summerfest,” he said, noting that he had over three dozen subs lining a hallway near his office that day. However, if an amp or a fixture goes down, obtaining replacement parts can be tricky if not impossible. Truss components, for instance, now have delivery-wait times of 16 weeks or more, and at least one audio manufacturer has stopped taking orders on some products through the rest of the year. That’s all atop larger industry-wide challenges including the microchip shortage and a lumber industry that is just getting rolling again.

“No wood, no speaker boxes; no chips, no amplifiers,” he said, adding that some moving light fixtures in the inventory had to sit idle as their power supplies are back up by six months.

However, Sam Donoghue, the FOH mixer at the BMO stage, said that the high-level technology deployed at Summerfest makes it easier to manage the festival’s signature challenge: you never know what’s coming next.

“The music genres can be all over the place, even on the same stage on the same day,” he commented. Few of the bands get full sound checks due to time and logistical constraints, and even headliners are usually satisfied with just line checks. “Reliability is crucial for this,” he added, as are features like resettable work surfaces on consoles.

“That Summerfest could happen at all was practically a miracle,” wrote the music critic for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper, which reported a total attendance of 409,386 concertgoers over nine days, about 60% of 2019’s pre-pandemic gate. It was an apt sentiment, as the festival’s staff and crew pulled together what is still a huge undertaking.

Clearwing Productions’ Jeff Meyer recalled taking a walk around the event campus during a break early on in the schedule as the stages, strewn like shiny, noisy pearls along the Lake Michigan lakefront, began to come alive and crowds poured in, remarking to himself how “normal” it all looked. And not the so-called “new normal” that people are trying to parse about what a post-COVID landscape might look like. “It looked normal, the way ‘normal’ should be,” he said. “It felt really, really good.”

This article originally appeared in issue #266 of TPi, which you can read here.