Martin Haskell takes a behind the scenes look at the HRM Soundstage
It’s no secret that Hospital Radio Maidstone has had a long standing and successful association with the Maidstone River Festival, and for many years we have provided the live music and the fireworks soundtrack that have become the highlights of the Saturday night finale.
But what may appear to be a casual affair with bands turning up, playing and then disappearing is the result of months of detailed behind the scenes planning.
As Stage Manager I have, along with HRM’s Fund Raising Co-ordinator Vin Judd played a key role in finding good bands and solo artists who are available on the day, and are happy to provide their services free of charge, as we don’t have a budget!
The activity starts immediately after the previous year’s River Festival. We often get a number of bands contacting us to ask if they can play on our stage. We usually ask them to re-apply the following May. A year can be a long time in the life of a band.
We then have an informal post production meeting, to discuss what we felt went well, and what we would do differently the next time.
Having recently moved the main stage from between the two bridges to two barges for safety reasons, we decided we needed to move the barges closer together, and moor them a little further downriver. The logistics of getting the barges in place and the marquees put up is somebody else’s headache, but after that the stages are ours.
The first thing we do is decide which stage will have the most audience space, and so will host the headlining band, and then work backwards from there.
We then check what time the festival will start, and what time we have to finish. We can’t run late, we have to fit in the illuminated boat display, and then arrange for the riverside roads to be safely closed in time for the firework finale at 10.30. More about the fireworks later.
Once we have sorted all that out, I draw up a skeleton schedule with the number of bands we need, and then which stage they will be playing on, while we set up the next band on the other stage.
We allow a 40 minute time slot for the daytime and evening bands, with a little longer for the penultimate and headlining band. We also have to build in 10 minutes to get the bands sound checked. This means making sure all the singers and instruments can be heard clearly without feedback or distortion, or anyone getting lost in the mix.
We’re famous for our sound quality and stage management, so we make sure we spend time getting it right. It’s important to us that the bands have a great experience as well as the audience.
This all starts happening in April, and we start accepting band CDs, emailed files and internet links to Facebook and MySpace sites from May, while we usually have some bands back from previous years it’s important to us to try new bands every year.
Usually around March or April I get a message from the River Festival Committee (I’m not a member, but Vin is) about what they want the firework music to be about, and how long the music needs to be.
2011 was movie themes, so I started listening to stuff, mostly on Youtube, getting timings, and working out what would suit fireworks, what order to play it in, and then make up a ‘rough mix’ using a computerised editing programme.
This then gets put onto a CD and sent to a committee meeting. I then usually get vague notes back about what they want changed. This usually continues for three or four CDs, until we reach an agreement. I then download quality versions from iTunes (at my own expense, like the CDs) so that it sounds good over the huge PA system, and then ‘polish up’ the mix.
This gets converted into two formats, one is an MP3 for the sound desk, and a WAV file, which is then taken to the firework makers, who convert it into a ‘click track’ which sets off the fireworks automatically to the peaks in the music. Clever stuff, and way beyond me!
With that all going on in the background (as well as a full time job, HRM events and family life) it’s usually getting well into June, we will have sent dozens of emails and texts to too many bands, two or three always drop out and usually after about five or six drafts we get a definitive line up, working out who would be good at what time of the day, and who our penultimate and headlining acts will be.
Once all that has been sorted out, I send info to local press and radio, and Vin gets busy organising our hospitality marquee, with catering facilities, cold (soft) drinks and important stuff like gaffer tape and cable ties to hand. This is also where the bands stash their cases on the day while they are playing.
We then issue the bands with parking permits, maps, and detailed instructions stating very clearly and concisely what is and isn’t acceptable on our stages. Each band’s arrival is carefully planned to utilise our limited parking facilities, and so that we don’t get stacks of guitars and drums all over the place.
On the day we usually get there from about 6.30 to do the final set up. We put lights and clocks on the stage, and then running times are put on each stage and the mixing desk. I usually have a copy in my back pocket as I do all the continuity announcing during the day.
We then rely on Hospital Radio Maidstone members to help as stage hands, helping to carry guitars, keyboards, amps and drums on and off the stage, getting the bands a can of pop or a ham roll, and generally making them feel at home. Steve Connolly deserves a special mention for his outstanding efforts at the 2011 River Festival.
The bands are without exception great, helpful and extremely professional. One band, The Wayward Travellers have journeyed all the way from Liverpool two years running to play for us.
We get some great feedback from the bands, they seem to like the organisation, professional sound engineers (Andy, Luke, Stewart and Andre from Just Sound & Light) and the chance to play on a proper stage in front of hundreds of music lovers, instead of being cramped into the corner of a pub.
The highlights for me include great responses from the crowds, hearing the bands playing live, and of course hearing the music I’ve been playing with for months booming out at the fireworks light up the night sky.
Then it’s a question of taking everything apart while the masses go off clubbing or home, we usually get home and to bed around midnight.
It is without a doubt a lot of unpaid hard work, and possibly a thankless task, but when it all goes well you can’t put a price on the buzz you get.