TPi’s Ste Durham (along with his trusty translating pet monkey) travels to Switzerland to experience the country’s biggest outdoor music festival.
With six days and nights of musical and artistic performances, 4,700 volunteers, six stages and an attendance of 230,000, the Paléo Festival de Nyon is one of the most prominent and successful festivals in Europe. Beginning in 1976 as folk music event held on the shores of Lake Geneva, Paléo Festival de Nyon was forced to move in 1990 to a larger meadowland north of the town of Nyon due to its growing popularity. This opened up the festival’s musical horizons, eventually embracing everything from world music to rock, hip-hop, and electro.
For the 41st, or ‘40+1’, edition, the organisers booked a typically eclectic collection of artists including Iron Maiden, The Chemical Brothers, Muse, Francis Cabrel and The Lumineers. Aside from the jam-packed musical schedule, Paléo is renowned for going above and beyond to give its guests a memorable festival experience. The Village du Monde (World Village) zone showcased the food, drink and culture of a particular corner of the world, with this year’s village serving as a microcosm of all things Celtic – including an old fashioned Irish tavern complete with rowdy folk acts and Guinness on tap. For out-of-the-ordinary entertainment, La Ruche (The Hive) provided weird and wonderful street and circus performances for guests to enjoy as they explored the various ‘honeycombs’ tucked away in the woods.
Big Wheels Keep On Turning
Lyon-based technical supplier Alabama, part of the Dushow Group, has been an integral part of the success that the festival enjoys today, having been involved for 10 years (15 years for Technical Director Joël May). The company was not only responsible for the two main stages of the festival – les Arches and la Grande Scene – but also for content management. The Alabama team was responsible for broadcasting all images on the IMAG screens, managing video recording at the Arches, and ensuring that local and national TV got all the images they needed by managing and distributing audio and video signals from its dedicated control centre.
“We’ve been using video at Paléo for 15 years now,” remembered Alabama’s May. “Back in the day, people were worried that video would override the music show. We were working massive pixel pitches and we had to use a crane to install a video wall.”
For the past two years, Alabama has used state of the art 5.2mm pitch Absen X5 LED panels to make sure that the performances are visible from all over the festival area. “They are really amazing,” enthused May. “I truly believe they are the best in the market – the brightness is excellent, and even for the crowd standing 10 metres away from the stage, the image is fantastic.”
For the main stage, Alabama deployed a screen per side, each measuring seven metres x four metres, giving a total resolution of 1344 x 756 pixels. With a total of 98 panels (14 x seven), it only took two hours to build each screen, according to May. Alabama developed bespoke ladders in-house so that the structure was easier to service and also more robust to withstand harsh winds – a system they now offer in their portfolio.
“Building the screens is the easy part,” admitted May. “The X5 is lightweight and the locking system is easy to use, so the main stage was all set for video in four hours. The products are real workhorses, they are robust and reliable, which is a massive advantage as it gives us peace of mind at least enough to let us worry about something else!”
Another set of 6mm LED panels was on hand for bands such as Bastille that required an extra screen. The Absen screens also took pride of place on both sides of the Arches stage, with two 11 x six screens (making a 1056 x 648 pixel pitch).
May continued: “The festival has always been careful to separate the show from sponsorship. Although a number of videos are screened on the LED panels before the sets, only a small amount are sponsor-related. These are predominantly animations made by the HES engineering school. They are fun and offbeat, with every effort made for the benefit of the festivalgoers themselves. The organisation is regularly praised for the politeness of the staff, the high quality of food and its discreet security.”
Alabama set up a technical room with a media server, from which its team could manage all of the video feeds, including welcome signage, the broadcast signal and security messages to keep punters up to date. In case of power failure, a generator kicks in, so there’s always at least one screen in operation to display critical messages.
Making sure that the screens are always operating during the six days of the festival is of critical importance for Alabama. “And these are really subject to the most challenging weather conditions,” explained May. “It’s not rare to get temperatures of over 35 degrees and the next minute you can get torrential rain, so we have decided to fit two electronics for redundancy in case of signal failure. By doing this, we are immune to a cable cut, a bad connection, rain, wind, anything. The dual power redundancy in the Absen LED screens really gives us extra peace of mind.”
The video signal was maintained on a fibre network, along with lighting and audio, and kept on top of by Video Manager Jean-Marc Robyr, who’s also responsible on the field for the fibre optic system. He explained: “We are constantly monitoring everything and because we are working with live signals, we can’t afford to relax. We have back up lines running in parallel in case of failure, the bulk of which are underground.”
Perhaps unusually, the majority of the network cables remain a metre under the earth year round, having been permanently installed two years ago. Although a number of connections have to be made to get everything up and running, the job is considerably less labour-intensive than usual. Robyr continued: “We need to service everything throughout the year as the cables are not being used, but it makes the job so much quicker once we arrive on site for the load-in. I’ve never seen cables installed permanently, to this extent at least, at any other festivals. Although the rust is a concern, we have a lot of lines down there that are not being used, so we can switch in case of failures.”
Fail To Prepare, Prepare To Fail
Another member of the Dushow Group, Dushow SAS, was on site to supply lighting for the two main stages and the Dome stage, while Geneva-based Skynight supplied the rigging and motors. Lighting Designer for the event, Franck Bonnier from Troisième Bureau, who is also responsible for la Grande Scène design, explained: “We designed the rig to be adaptive, although there were constraints depending on the size of the stage. The big issue on la Grande Scene was building a system of trusses that can be moved up and down as they were needed in order to accommodate some of the heavier incoming rigs, like Massive Attack’s.
“We had to make sure the structure was efficient, so we built a movable bridge system that split into three, allowing us to move each section independently as and when it was necessary. The 10 motors stay on the truss, which lets us move the light and the truss at same time.”
While the truss system aided the crew to an extent, they still had to be extremely light on their feet given the tight turnarounds overnight. Bonnier continued: “We finished at 1am last night and had to remove more or less all of the previous headliner’s fixtures in time for Massive Attack’s arrival at 6am. They added two tailor-made trusses with very specific gear, it would have been very complicated to do it any other way.”
Bonnier used a variety of fixtures that he felt would be familiar to touring LDs, many of which were changed from the previous year. He said: “We kept the Martin by Harman MAC Viper, but changed the MAC 2000 Wash to the Robe BMFL WashBeam. It’s very powerful and has great quality gobos. We also changed to the LED version of the Martin by Harman MAC Atomic 3000 Strobe, which worked in extended mode, allowing us to be able to flash and work in colour.”
As is the case with most festivals, daylight played its part in Bonnier’s considerations. “It’s interesting as the festival is being shown on TV, so we have to make sure the show is looking good at the time and on camera. Designers need colours and effects – spot and wash fixtures are not enough in daylight, which is why the LED fixtures are so useful to us. We also provided Martin by Harman MAC Auras for the LDs to create some great eye candy looks.”
Due to its popularity, the MA Lighting grandMA2 was chosen as the house console, with a main and backup for use during the shows as well as the WYSIWYG suite that was situated at the back of the lighting level of the FOH structure. Although this allowed the designers to prepare and account for the levels of daylight, the weather around Nyon is notoriously unpredictable. “The sun can be blazing here one minute, but when the clouds roll in and thunderstorms begin it gets considerably darker. We can’t fix the weather, so we just warn the LDs in advance and give advice at the time regarding the use of followspots and so on,” Bonnier said.
The lighting rig also used the subterranean fibre optic network, using MA-Net2 as the basic system. “We also offer a Luminex GigaCore system, which allows LDs to use a separate DVLAN if the prefer,” Bonnier said. “Essentially it’s one of two options: ArtNet into MA-Net2, then straight to the NPU, or to the Luminex node from ArtNet.”
As well as supplying la Grande Scene, the company also designed les Arches with a different setup. Bonnier added: “We have mostly the same kit there all week, though we sometimes have to alter the height of trusses or fixtures. It’s quite different to la Grande Scene in that we use the area itself and the bands to help us with our design. We understand the music and needs of the artists and plan ahead so they don’t have to do too much once they arrive.”
The Letter Of The Law
Dushow SAS also supplied audio for the festival, basing the main stage rig around a Meyer Sound LEO system. Auio Crew Chief François Soutenet explained the choice: “I love the LEO as it as its small, light, and very powerful. We use the same system at Download as it’s capable flexible, and meets any request you make of it. Despite the power, the sound retains a lot of colour and is still refined.”
The crew hung 16 boxes of the LEO system per side, with more for side fills and a vertical chain of flown subs. While this is not the conventional setup for the system, Soutenet maintained that it was to ensure that a smooth and even coverage was achieved in the sloping infield area of the festival. He said: “Outside of the quality we need to maintain, we have to make sure that we achieve even coverage, as every member of the audience deserves the same quality of sound. We modelled the area using Meyer Sound’s MapOnline software to make sure we can strike a balance between power, clarity and coverage.”
At Paléo, noise pollution between stages is as much of a concern as bleed between stages, with les Arches and la Grande Scene in particular being relatively close in proximity. This factor, along with the strong and unpredictable gusts that sweep through the festival, meant the team had to do as much as they could to stay on top of the volume.
“It’s rare that we have problems, although the Swiss law means that the threshold for volume is limited to 100dBA over one hour, but we’re used to it. The Meyer system is well-balanced so that it’s only 1dB lower at the barriers that it is at FOH 64 metres away. That’s why we had the chained subs hung that way, so we can have an array that helps with even coverage and stay below the threshold. It allows us to reduce the amplitude between front and back, still projecting very far and avoiding certain areas. The space in front of la Grande Scene isn’t flat but we can still achieve a very well-balanced coverage.”
Although Soutenet stressed that problems with the gear were rare, the crew was still on site for a week, far from their warehouse, and so made sure they were amply stocked with backup gear. He said: “We always bring spares of the critical gear, though it is unlikely we will use them. The Meyer speakers are active so we don’t have to worry about carrying or setting up amplifiers. The signal transmission is immediate and for complex installations there’s no loss of signal. The system also allows us to monitor the speaker directly from the RMS system at FOH – we can see live, amp by amp, how they are working. We can pinpoint problems easier, even instantly muting any that are faulty, although it never breaks anyway!”
Dushow SAS was also charged with looking after the Club Tent, opting for a Meyer Sound LEOPARD and LFC900-based system, allowing the crew to better manage infra-sub levels, therefore limiting the overall noise pollution on site.
Soutenet commented: “As this stage is more centred around electronic music than the others, they need more low end power. Physically it’s not far from both of the main outdoor stages so we have to be mindful of that throughout the festival.”
It is this level of familiarity with both the festival and the speakers, having been a Meyer Sound user for 25 years, that allowed the Dispatch team to run such a tight ship at Paléo. The company had two crew at FOH to babysit incoming engineers, as well as a team on stage to react to any problems. Out of the 17 sets during the festival, Dispatch provided a console just once.
The crew had a Soundcraft Vi5000 as the house audio console, marking the first year the festival has provided a digital desk. Soutenet explained: “This was mainly because we matched the desk of the one engineer that wasn’t bringing their own. Usually we use a Midas XL4, so it’s something of a transition moving from analogue to digital. That said, our job is to make sure that both the engineers and audience are happy – we will use whatever gear we can to make that happen.”
Nick Sandoz came into the fold at Paléo in 2001, eventually working his way up the production ladder to the position of Technical Director for the festival. During this time he cultivated a distinct idea of what Paléo represents – an ethos that is one of the main strengths of the event itself. He explained: “Basically I see the tech aspect as being only the tools we use, it is the people that are the main difference on a festival. Things like talking together to find solutions are so important. We also work with a lot of volunteers who are here to have fun as well as work – if they don’t, then that doesn’t happen.”
Sandoz continued: “I try to be general but listen to the specialists so I can give a different perspective and, hopefully, offer a global solution. Quite often, each tech only sees his own problems – he gives me his solutions and ideas and I have to integrate that into the bigger picture and convince them to compromise. It’s good to know certain things but not too much in one area. Working together is the key – if that clicks, you can move mountains.”
It must be said that this philosophy does seem to trickle down right from the top to each and every member of staff, whether they are greeting guests on the gates, serving them food and drinks in the Village du Monde or keeping the crowd safe during the performances.
Sandoz continued: “It’s hard to implement change when it’s working so well but you have to because otherwise you will rest on your laurels and not maintain such a high standard. It’s all about friendly competition, even sometimes with yourself. For example, three years ago we had a large tent instead of les Arches. We changed this because it was too small but that created sound bleed problems for any audience members that stood in the middle of les Arches and la Grande Scene. We tried to overcome it, and it’s getting there, particularly as the technology improves year-on-year.”
Swiss-based structural supplier Nussli has been in charge of the staging and structures at Paléo for over 10 years. This year, the company had between 10 and 15 people on site for a two-week build, supplying the main stage structures as well as additional buildings such as FOH and the VIP platforms. Nussli’s Christian Stadler commented: “It certainly was a mixed bag in terms of weather during the build, but our stages are calculated to meet international standards so we weren’t adversely affected. We have a lot of experience here so we know what to expect. In general this French-speaking Swiss region is really easy going and the festival is a great example of that – it’s definitely one of the events that we look forward to being be a part of.”
Perks Of The Job
It must be said that my French was non-existent before I arrived at Paléo and it hasn’t improved much (aside from one or two unprintable essentials to my vocabulary) since I returned. That said, with the help of my trusted guide and translator, I saw a great deal of what is surely one of the most positive and friendly festivals of the summer. The proactive and enthusiastic philosophy embodied by those at the forefront of the event is easily seen around every turn, from the crew chiefs to the welcome staff. To be brutally honest, being able to enjoy an après-festival drink next to Lake Geneva didn’t hurt either. Until next year Paléo, Santé.
Photos: Pierre Descombes, Eddy Mottaz, Anne Colliard, Jacques Rattaz, Boris Soula, Lionel Flusin