- by George Petersen
in Production Profile
Not Just Another Day at the Office for Sound on Stage
In 1986, rocker Neil Young called in some industry friends to help him create a fundraiser for The Bridge School, an innovative organization based just north of San Jose, on the San Francisco peninsula and dedicated to educating children with severe speech and physical impairments through the use of creative approaches to education and communication. The reaction to that first event was an overwhelming outpouring of support from both fans and musical performers alike, and now it continues, after three decades of success and sold-out venues.
That first show on Oct. 13, 1986 featured Crosby, Stills Nash & Young, Nils Lofgren, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Robin Williams and Bruce Springsteen, and over the years the lineup has been no less stellar, involving almost every headliner in rock music. The performers and format has changed during the ensuing decades, but has settled in as an annual two-day event during October at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, CA. (The only Bridge School Benefit not at Shoreline was in 1988, when it shifted to the nearby Oakland Coliseum that year.)
Coincidentally also celebrating its 30th birthday this year, Shoreline Amphitheatre is a large shed-style venue featuring a huge, unique tent-style roof and a capacity of 22,500 — 6,500 reserved seats and 16,000 general lawn seats. It was designed and built as a cooperative venture between the city of Mountain View and promoter Bill Graham. The venue has never had a permanent P.A., with the exception of delay towers that ring the front edge of the lawn seating.
The Sound Side
Another consistent factor in the history of the Bridge School Benefits comes from audio company Sound on Stage. Based on the east side of San Francisco Bay in Hayward, CA, Sound on Stage had provided P.A. for a majority of the events over the years, and returned in 2016 to reprise its role in the successful history of the Bridge School Benefit concerts. Founded in 1973 by Jerry Pfeffer, Sound on Stage is one of the Bay Area’s longest established and leading sound providers, with a long background in doing one-offs, festivals and corporate events throughout the region.
Pfeffer worked in a Hi-Fi store and played in bands while in college and moving into sound rentals was natural transition. He soon found himself tweaking knobs for artists in San Francisco’s burgeoning 1970’s rock scene, such as Journey, The Doobie Brothers, Jefferson Starship, Elvin Bishop, Tower of Power, Pablo Cruz and Huey Lewis.
Pfeffer continued to build the franchise, both in expanding his inventory and checking out new technologies. He was an early adopter of L-Acoustics V-DOSC speakers — the first line array system, and on first hearing them said, “it was the most coherent P.A. I had ever heard.”
So it was little surprise that Sound on Stage again returned to Shoreline to handle audio for the 2016 Bridge School Benefit and relied on an L-Acoustics rig for the job, this time based around the company’s flagship K2 line array enclosures and SB28 subwoofers.
Of course, one thing that was different about this year’s festival (held Oct. 22-23) was the rotating all-star lineup of performers, featuring Neil Young and Promise of the Real, along with (alphabetically) Cage The Elephant, Norah Jones, Nils Lofgren, Dave Matthews, Metallica, My Morning Jacket, Willie Nelson and Roger Waters, with all artists performing on both days. Also, as expected, the festival was a complete sell-out.
As if to comment on the turbulent current political climate, Neil Young kicked off the festivities with a moving solo rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and then the rest of the show continued with two solid days of amazing acoustical performances.
We spoke to lead FOH tech Dennis Deem about the P.A. system. “I was using 16 K2’s per side and six SB28 subwoofers flown per side with another four SB28’s per side, in a cardioid configuration on the deck and a pair of ARC WIDE’s for front fill,” he says, noting that the out fills used four L-Acoustics ARC on each side and that the mains system was powered via ten L-Acoustics LA-Rak amplified controllers. “It was all in stereo, so everyone in the audience got left and right.”
While it seldom happens, Deem got lucky this year. “As it turns out, I had an extra day so I had some more time in the tuning to get things more precise,” he explains. In terms of the venue system tuning, “I use [Rational Acoustics] Smaart and I use L-Acoustics’ LA Network Manager and route everything through the Yamaha DME64.”
As is typical with most festival shows, “for the most part, everybody brought their own FOH engineers, although I mixed Metallica this year and handled the utility mixing of the emcees, video clips and so on,” Deem notes. So in addition to his Avid S3L production console, shared Avid S6L and Avid VENUE Profile boards, there was also Neil Young’s DiGiCo SD7 and an analog Midas Heritage 3000 that accompanied Willie Nelson. “I had five consoles out there at FOH. That’s why I give everybody left and right — it simplifies things when everybody mixes stereo.”
Like all venues, Shoreline Amphitheatre has it share of oddities. “It can be quirky, especially when it’s empty,” notes Deem. “While doing sound checks, if it sounds like concrete and plastic, you know you are on the right track. But once you get those 20,000 people in there, the dynamic in there changes considerably.”
Another thing about the venue is that it can be susceptible to bass buildup from its bowl seating, in some cases creating a “power alley” situation from the excessive LF energy. According to Deem, this can occur, however, “it wasn’t an issue with this show, which is why I chose to fly the subs and get them up in the air as high as the P.A. was — almost 40 feet in the air. And on the bottom deck, running the ground subs in the L-Acoustics cardioid configuration was great. The monitor crew loved it and the guitar techs loved it because they are not getting beat down at stage left and stage right. And this is not a big low-end show, because it’s mostly acoustic and there’s nothing amplified on stage to compete with. Even with Metallica — it was all acoustic stuff.”
Keeping the onstage levels under control at a show — any show — will also make things easier at front of house. “It certainly does, and this is not necessarily the loudest show. But it’s very pleasing to the ear, without having that dueling volume on stage to put up with.”
On the guest FOH side, the reaction to the L-Acoustics rig was overwhelmingly positive. “Everybody was happy to see it, and all were very pleased with the sound,” Deem says, adding that what really counts is the audience experience. “I thought it was one of the best Bridge shows we’ve done.”
The 2016 Bridge School Benefit
- Sound Company: Sound on Stage
- Lead FOH Tech: Dennis Deem
- Asst. FOH Tech: Peter Roberts
- FOH Engineers: Artist-supplied
- Lead Monitor Techs: John Neilson, Manu Goodwin
- Asst. Monitor Tech: Arica Rust
- Monitor Engineers: Artist-supplied
- Main P.A.: (32) L-Acoustics K2 (16/per side)
- Subwoofers: (12) L-Acoustics SB28 (6/side, flown); (8) L-Acoustics SB28 (4/side, deck stacked)
- Front Fills: (2) L-Acoustics ARC WIDE
- Out Fills: (8) L-Acoustics ARC (4/side)
- Drive Racks: (10) L-Acoustics LA-Rak (30 LA8 controllers)
- FOH Consoles: DiGiCo SD7 (Neil Young carried); Midas Heritage 3000 (Willie Nelson carried); Avid S6L and Avid VENUE Profile (festival consoles); Avid S3L production console (emcee, video playback, etc.)
- System Control: Yamaha DME 64, (2) Lake LM44
- Drive Software: Rational Acoustics Smaart; L-Acoustics' LA Network Manager
- Monitor Consoles: Avid Profile (festival console); Midas PRO2 (Neil Young carried); Avid Profile (Roger Waters & My Morning Jacket); Yamaha PM5D (Willie Nelson carried)
- Monitor Speakers: (16) L-Acoustics 115HiQ wedges; (14) L-Acoustics X15 (Roger Waters & My Morning Jacket)
- Fills: (4) L-Acoustics ARC 2/side flown with one L-Acoustics SB18 ground subs for side fills; (2) L-Acoustics SB18 drum fills
- Monitor Amplifiers: (4) L-Acoustics LA-Rak with 12 LA8 controllers
- IEM Hardware: Shure PSM1000; Sennheiser G3