With many summer festivals having to pull the plug again this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Montreux Jazz Festival opted to adapt its usual offering and treat the event in a “completely diferent way”, according to the festival’s CEO, Mathieu Jaton. With the festival operating at a reduced capacity, organisers moved away from the normal multistage format, instead creating a programme that despite being smaller, still held true to the DNA and values of the festival, remaining agile, flexible and innovative.
To keep the essence of Montreux alive, the team relied on several long-term partners, including: Bullitt Productions, Meyer Sound, DiGiCo, Shure, Skynight and RTS. “All of our partners were on board with what we were trying to achieve,” enthused Jaton, commenting on the collective talent working tirelessly behind the scenes. “Take Marco Güntensperger from Bullitt, who has been heading the production for Montreux for many years,” he continued. “For me, he’s one of the best touring professionals in the industry, working with the likes of The Rolling Stones. He’s always able to bring the agility and flexibility, which is what we really needed this year.”
The traditional multi venue timetable was scaled back to four stages this year, with two for paying ticket holders and two for the public. Before getting into the specifics of how to safely bring people on site, organisers had to rethink the performance spaces. Prior to Christmas 2020, the hope was that they still might be able to fill their main hall with 4,000 people, but with the rise of the Delta Variant, Jaton and his team went back to the drawing board. “We didn’t want to just end up using the main performance hall at half capacity. Instead, we created a whole new stage design that would provide a new crowd experience,” the CEO stated. The result: a stage built on Lake Geneva with a grandstand on the lakeshore aptly named the Scène du Lac.
“The response we got from some of our headline acts such as Woodkid and Ibrahim Maalouf was that they would much prefer to play on this unusual stage than a traditional concert hall,” enthused Jaton.
Creating a stage on water proved a logistical challenge that required extensive negotiation with the Swiss government. “To get something like this of the ground in Switzerland you need authority from the City, the Cantons and the government – this would normally take a year,” stated the CEO. “However, we explained that this event would really help spread the name of Montreux around the world as we were producing a livestream of the show. Due to our relationship with the government, we were able to get all the paperwork sorted in two weeks.”
Getting the official green light was only half the battle as the build for this stage required quite the feat of engineering. While the stage may appear to be floating, it actually has deep foundations on the lake’s bed.
The underwater terrain was difficult to work with as the lakebed went from a depth of 2m to 17m. “We had three weeks of divers going down to work on the foundations of the stage,” commented Jaton, laughing that staff in their scuba diving kit was hardly comparable to a regular stage build.
Having successfully built the stunning structure, there was always one other potential issue. “As we are on the lake, surrounded by mountains, there was always a risk of extreme rain and wind,” he said. This fear was realised on one of the days this year, which meant that the team had to make the snap decision to move that day’s content inside, which then saw the production team build a new performance space in three hours.
Once this year’s event had closed, TPi managed to grab some time with Bullitt Productions’ Managing Director, Marco Güntensperger to discuss the company’s involvement. Having been a partner with the festival for a number of years, Bullitt was brought in during the initial planning stages to oversee audio and lighting requirements for each of the stages. “We were involved from a very early stage amid the pre-production phase, especially during creation of the new Lake Stage,” reflected Güntensperger. This was an extensive task including key staff planning, logistics, stage construction, backline planning and production budgets. Collectively, the company deployed 30 members of production staff across all four stages.
With the stage set, Güntensperger explained some of the biggest challenges of this year’s setup. “Obviously, weather implications were a key factor for this new stage,” he commented. “Health and safety scenarios in case of severe weather had to be established involving stage companies, local engineering companies and our onstage team. Furthermore, truck access to the stage was only possible via a public road along the shore meaning access was very limited and involved traffic security.”
Güntensperger continued to express what it meant to welcome back both artists and crew back to Montreux and the positive feedback from those coming onto site. “Having experienced a lot of artists’ extra ‘wishes’ in the past, it was nice to see how relieved and exstatic artists and their crews were to perform again. Some artists were overwhelmed – especially on the new Lake Stage location offering spectacular views of Lake Geneva.”
To close, Güntensperger explained some of the practicalities to putting a show on while the pandemic was still a concern for those in the country. “The obvious restrictions were strictly followed and furthermore, there was a two-day testing period for all staff involved. Having said that, the additional work put in place to fulfil this was extensive. Despite these measures, it was a true relief to be back at Montreux for another year.
The history of Montreux is very much entwined with that of Meyer Sound, which has been a partner of the festival for 35 years. Despite the different setup this year, the company was enlisted to provide PA for each stage, alongside DiGiCo and Shure.
“When people come to Montreux, one of the expectations is that the sound is very good,” explained Jaton, adding that even in the challenging setting, the audio delivery was still world class.
Manning the audio for the Lake Stage was Meyer Sound Technical Support Specialist, Jose Gaudin. “Our team started getting the first plans around February, many of which were based on previous years,” he began. “These then evolved and crystallised around the Lake Stage and Palace venue.
Gaudin described the audio setup for the Lake Stage, which comprised nine LEOPARDS per side under a three by two box 900-LFC end fire array. “There were six Ultra-X40 as delay loudspeakers and a pair of 1100-LFC as delay subwoofers. There was also a single LEO-M as outfill per side that covered the entrances and the front of the terraces. The Lake Stage sent signals to both terraces on each side of the benches,” he explained. “Each terrace had four Ultra-X40s, four Ultra-X20s as delay speakers and four 750- LFCs.”
Although a LYON system would have been a more obvious choice than the LEOPARD, Gaudin explained the reason behind the decision. “The LYON system is used in Stravinski [auditorium], and we expected that there might be a chance that we would have a last-minute decision of a big show in the venue as it’s usually the main hall for the festival,” he stated.
Before assembling the rig, Gaudin examined the SPL specifications. “First, the specs had pink noise measurements that already accounted for 12.5 dB of crest factor, then Meyer Sound investigated M-Noise that in general yielded bigger yet more realistic numbers. To compare with the market, we decided to go out of the linear range and define an ultimate value.”
Aware that Swiss law would limit the maximum exposure of the audience to 100dB Laeq averaged over one hour, the audio team knew the target should be around 103 dB SPL linear range, with higher capacity available for short periods of time. “Looking at the geometry of the coverage, the very wide coverage of LEOPARD with these SPL targets allowed us to define this smaller system that was in sync with the weight requirements of the stage,” Gaudin commented.
He explained how the LEOPARD system was pointed slightly down and the last two rows got fewer high frequencies and SPL. “This meant there was less sound spilling out into the city, and that we could boost the frequency response on the last row with the Ultra X40 delays, which also enhanced intelligibility under the top plastic cover by increasing proximity,” he stated.
With the LEOPARDs in “free field” for the first rows, delays under the cover increased the direct sound to reverberated sound ratio so the system was less subject to wind interference, bringing back some of the intimacy that the festival is known for with its indoor venues. “The choice of Ultra X40 was because the dynamic response in the high frequency would match the LEOPARD the best,” he remarked.
Housed on top of the LEOPARDs were two 900-LFC and behind these two blocks of two 900-LFC building an end-fire array, that was slightly angled down, electronically. The forward focus of this array was wide enough for low-end coverage but had enough directivity to avoid much of the city, and provide a good reduction on stage, helping acoustic acts.
To help in the deeper end of the spectrum, the first choice was to add 1100-LFC on stage. Upon investigation, the team found that they could put them under the seating, with the advantage of going from six 1100-LFC (three per side) to two, since the distance travelled was shorter – the result being lower off-site low-frequency emissions for the same amount of low-end locally. A further two LEO-M outfills covered the terraces on each side, avoiding the use of a big outfill array, providing an almost perfect level ratio to the LEOPARD arrays, while maintaining enough footprint to hit the terraces at an extreme angle.
For processing, a Galaxy 816 processor was placed at FOH with two on stage and another one per terrace, connected via a MILAN AVB network. “The advantage of this was that audio signals could be exchanged in all directions and control could be centralised from FOH to manage where and when the signals had to be routed,” stated Gaudin.
With the Lake Stage open to the elements, Gaudin cited “weight and weather” as the two biggest challenges when working on the stage. “Weight is obvious since there are 14m of water under the stage that has 7m of clearance, so the stage was standing on the lake floor with the arrays at 21m. Going with LEOPARD and 900-LFC saved a lot of weight, for a total of 855kg per side as well as providing a lower footprint to wind,” he explained. “We knew there would be high winds and rain, and these weather challenges would cause distortion, high frequency attenuation and high background noise. All of these were mitigated by keeping the audience close to the loudspeakers. The stage was also close enough to the seating that the lake had almost no effect on sound.”
The travelling engineers were excited to find DiGiCo’s new Quantum 338 desk with its long list of features, readily available at the Scène du Lac. “I liked the fact there are three identical screens so that we can work simultaneously,” Gaudin stated, highlighting his favourite features of the new desk. “We used the Spice Rack as a mastering tool, but more importantly it was the Mustard Processing that satisfied engineers that usually travel with analogue outboards. The fact that DiGiCo is widespread and the ability to build the console to anyone’s preference was useful for visiting engineers. On a couple of shows we were able to copy the banks and work together on the console. I would mostly work on the output processing, adding the ‘mastering’ touches.”
“We also had and 4REA4 with AControl8 is used for shouts, to inject announcements and background music into the system while we work on the Q338 or guest consoles, and is redundantly powered to also allow emergency and evacuation messages to be passed either trough the PA or through the evacuation system,” explained Gaudin.
As a partner of the event, the DiGiCo brand could be found on all the other performance areas, each with a Quantum225 with Dante on each of the three stages. “It felt great,” Gaudin said, sharing his final thoughts. “Everybody was really happy on both production sides, so we had fewer petty issues to deal with and could focus on doing amazing concerts.”
One of the initial goals of the 2021 rendition of Montreux was that with lower numbers of in-person attendees, the team would do whatever they could do to share the festival experience with fans around the world.
Overseen by Montreux Media Ventures, a company formed in 2019, each day the festival streamed content to Qello. This idea of sharing content is something that has been at the heart of the festival since the beginning.
Since the event’s inception, Founder, Claude Nobs was always keen to record and film everything that happened at the festival. Over the years, this has created an archive, which has been recognised by UNESCO as the biggest archive of live music in the world.
“I guess you could say we have always been hybrid,” joked Jaton, while discussing the upward interest in this idea of events living both in the physical and digital realm. This wish to offer fans around the world the Montreux experience is what sparked the formation of Montreux Media Ventures in 2019 – an independent company to the main festival,
responsible for dealing with the distribution of the footage from the annual event. With the event being cancelled in 2020, Media Ventures released 50 legendary concerts on Qello. Due to the success of this project, Qello came on board in 2021 as an official partner of the festival.
Rather than this being a one-off incentive due to the current situation, Jaton explained that this move to the digital realm was a necessary step that more festivals need to undertake – essentially becoming digital production companies.
“This current incentive is all about spreading our focus, so we are not just living for the two weeks of the festival but pushing the brand of Montreux throughout the year,” he elaborated. “Festivals on the whole are a risky business and it only takes bad weather to derail your plans.”
It’s for this reason that over the years we’ve seen Montreux expand to have satellite events in China, Brazil and Japan. According to Jaton, this attention to streaming in partnership with the likes of Qello is part of a wider strategy, while retaining the DNA of the festival.
Like many, TPi hopes to visit the famed cultural event next year.
Although from the sounds of it, those unable to attend will be able to curate their own Montreux experience from the comfort of their home.
This article originally appeared in issue #264 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos: Lionel Flusin, Marc Ducrest and Emilien Ilim.