The Best Festival Soundsystems in North America (B.Getz for Fest300/EverFest)
Originally published on Fest300/Everfest
The discerning festival-goer seeks stupendous sound engineering on the dance floor, to be immersed in marvelous clarity and range so they can hear and feel every rhythm, melody, and groove. This ever-evolving demand for premium sound quality has festival organizers across the globe working closely with top-tier sound engineers in research and development, heaping buckets of cash to achieve the premium sound quality that ravers and ragers alike will appreciate. By providing audio nirvana in a pop-up paradise, in a crowded and competitive marketplace, festival producers hope the fans respond accordingly with their ticket monies. The prevailing mantra on both sides of this equation is: Embrace the Bass.
As music festivals around the world continue to up the proverbial ante in what is possible, North America has been playing catch-up to many of the behemoth and technologically advanced events overseas. Yet there are more than a few funkified diamonds in the rough found over here on the Western Hemisphere. Enjoy this list of some of our favorites.
Shambhala Music Festival, Salmo, British Columbia, Canada
Among the most beloved of many stalwart Canadian music festivals, Shambhala returned for its 19th year in 2016. Spread over 500 acres in British Columbia’s Kootenay Mountains, it is a shining example of what a festival is capable of delivering, from culture to art and nature’s terrific terrain. Its spirited community of Shambhalovelies bring this vibrant festival to life, and the sound engineering and auditory experience is second to none in North America. Calgary’s PK Sound is an integral part of Shambhala’s sonic footprint, deploying 300 loudspeakers across five of the six stages. Each stage creates and maintains its immersive environs from year to year, featuring a smorgasbord of musical adventurers. Between bass music, hip-hop, live bands and vocal groups, Shambhalovelies are spoiled rotten. PK Sound production crews operate five distinct sound systems across the stages, including a TRINITY system and 3D Wavefront Control at the Village Stage.
Each Shambhala stage requires a unique system due to the environmental challenges posed by a rugged, remote setting. The Living Room and Amphitheater stages boast natural beauty alongside acoustic challenges. The Living Room Stage sits along the Salmo River where the rocks and running water provide relaxing reverberations. However, the most celebrated system at Shambhala is the Funktion One rig at the Grove stage, engineered by the amazing team at Fusebox Productions . Sound engineers across the world are in agreement that Shambs’ Grove stage is the some of the finest in the festival world.
Infrasound Music Festival, Highbridge, Wisconsin
When researching this article, several seasoned festival-goers we polled about the best in festival sound mentioned first and foremost the Midwestern magic of Infrasound Music Festival. Infrasound traces its origins back to a 2010 warehouse party in Minneapolis, but the first official Infrasound Festival took place in Houston, Minnesota in 2012. The prefix infra- means “below” and infrasound translates to frequencies that exist beneath the spectrum of audibility; audiophiles flock to Infrasound to soak up the vibes at an event where sound and artistic integrity are prioritized. Infrasound was built on the backs of a dedicated group of founders, including Taylor J. Winum, who prides himself on the intimacy of the Infra stages, and calls Croatia’s Outlook Festival their biggest production inspiration. Infrasound is powered exclusively through Funktion One, and last year’s now-legendary fest unveiled the VERO system, previously only tested at Tipper’s last Red Rocks performance, and Ultra Music Festival in Miami.
Enchanted Forest Gathering, Laytonville, California
Easily accessible off of California’s Redwood Highway 101, Enchanted Forest Gathering is a premier boutique festival experience. Beginning with the herculean bass of the Grove Stage, to the folksy flavors of the live music-focused Knoll Stage, whether rollin’ to the riddim at the Lazy River or getting hot, bothered, and soapy at the Saucy Spa, the event boasts a well-rounded roster, the picturesque setting of Black Oak Ranch, and leads the way for boutique festivals that prioritize the crunkalogic science.
The man behind the otherworldly soundscapes found all over the fest is James Spektrum, of Magnetic Sound. He was generous enough to pull back the curtain on just how they make these systems thump. His company provides the Grove Stage with a large Funktion One to cover 3,000 people, while the Saucy Spa uses their smaller, four-corner Funktion One as to keep “the intimate late night scene bumpin’.” This June, the Knoll Stage will use a L’Acoustics KUDO line array, supplied by ProFound Entertainment. Enchanted Forest Fathering is also considering a PK Sound system for its Lazy River Stage, in order to bring some local sound crews into the mix.
Electric Daisy Carnival, Las Vegas, Nevada
With something for everyone, no matter your flavor of dance music or debauchery, Insomniac’s flagship Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas is undeniably at the forefront of high-end, large-scale festival sound. EDC 20’s organizers reported that three-day attendance broke the 400,000 mark for the second time in the festival’s history. Calgary-based PK Sound ushered in a new era of bass dynamics for the huge festival audience, with the revelation of the Trinity sound system, giving EDC’s headliners the first chance to experience its three-dimensional sound. Whereas traditional speakers transmit sound waves in two dimensions, the Trinity rig employs technology allowing engineers to manipulate sound to reach where it is intended to travel, engrossing listeners and dancers in auditory ecstasy, all the while pulverizing the throbbing low-end deep into their souls. Despite being designed with electronic dance music specifically in mind, the Trinity system got the party so turnt that the aptly monikered Basspod Stage was rendered out of commission for a brief time.
Bass Coast, Merritt, British Columbia, Canada
British Columbia’s underground champion Bass Coast was born from its creators’ (The Librarian, Angela Graham, and co-founder Liz Thomson) shared love of sound system culture. As a performing artist and a fan, Graham experienced many different festivals and underground events, inspiring her and Liz to combine their visual and auditory aesthetics to create immersive environments of sonic wonder, from the music curated to the speakers through which it is delivered. After using a number of different systems including Funktion One for its earlier incarnations, Bass Coast transitioned to PK Sound a few years ago, and last summer the stalwart Canadian company brought their Trinity rig to Bass Coast’s Main Stage. The technicians set about elevating the experience by blanketing the entire dance floor with precise sound, both powerful, and gentle, across genres that ranged from R&B to drum n’ bass, techno to grime, and all points between.
“Electronic music is designed to be felt. It is a full-body experience that expands beyond just ‘hearing’ the music. We work closely with PK to design and adjust the stages and sound each year in order to create the best experience possible for everyone on the dance floor,” Graham told us.
Coachella, Indio, California
The world-famous Coachella remains one of America’s largest and most celebrated music festivals, attended by over half a million people each year. With a complex, detailed directory of music stages and live performance areas, there is also a huge array of sound technology behind the gathering. While the Sahara Tent is conceived for mind-numbing EDM, and the Yuma Tent for hypnotizing, four-on-the-floor techno, the already legendary Descpacio is intended for a completely different environment. Created by 2manyDJs and LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, it’s inspired by Paradise Garage’s legendary system, perfect for large-audience vinyl sets, and hits all the same joyful notes as its spiritual predecessors. Back in 2009, it was L’Acoustics that debuted at the then largest K1 loudspeaker (40 feet tall!) in the world on Coachella’s main stage. In 2016, it was the polar opposite, with the debut of Despacio’s 50,000-watt, 11.5-foot-tall speaker system inside the festival’s smallest tent. With a DJ booth set up behind the audience, the idea is for the focus to be on excellent sound quality rather than watching the DJ move a mouse, twist knobs and press keys.
Suwannee Hulaween, Live Oak, Florida
At the end of every October, The String Cheese Incident teams with Silver Wrapper and Purple Hat Productions to throw what might be the most complete festival experience east of the Rockies, the fantastic Suwannee Hulaween. Hosted at the magnificent Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida, Hulaween is the premier jam/electronic crossover event on the East Coast. Spirit of Suwannee Music Park mainstays Pyramid Productions developed a setup that relies on the best gear from DigiDesign, L’Acoustics, and Meyer, coupled with a veteran staff that knows its way around this forest of illumination. The natural amphitheater is filled with towering oak trees, dripping in Spanish moss, and provides a perfect setting where ninety-eight percent of what you hear is true source without any delay. The live music experience at Hulaween’s Amphitheater Stage is nothing short of magical, and it extends to electronic artists as well, like Odesza, who set a new standard for that hallowed stage in 2015.
What The Festival, Dufur, Oregon
Approaching its sixth year, What The Festival is rewriting the playbook on how to bring top-flight sound to boutique festival setups. Located at the majestic and accessible Wolf Run Ranch, ninety miles east of Portland, Oregon, WTF is a magnet for dope artists, conscious festival-goers, and the crème de la crème in contemporary soundsystem culture. Raging pool parties, fire-breathing dragons, and a gargantuan LED “Groove Qube,” the 360-degree matrix nightclub deep in the forest, are only some of the fantastic festival trappings available at WTF. This year, What the Festival will again be the only North American event to offer exclusively Funktion One sound at all (seven) unique stages. Everfest caught up with the event’s sound guru Darin Gardner, of the venerable Fusebox Productions, a West Coast based Funktion One rental company.
“Our collaboration with What The Festival is unique because they are fully committed to bringing the very best in audio quality to each of their many stages,” said Gardner. “This commitment continues in the festival’s sixth year. It really is something special when you can move from stage to stage and have such a consistent auditory experience. The festival-goers revel at the difference this makes. It really changes their experience and we receive incredible feedback from attendees.”