by Hamish Barwick

The IT rigs behind the biggest gigs

Dec 07, 20127 mins
Big Data

Live music has evolved a long way from roadies with mikes, amps and electric instruments. The introduction in the 1960s of mixing desks for multitracking bands was fine in the studio, but dragging delicate gear into live venues became a more complex operation. And when that live venue is outdoors, then the potential damage is even greater.

But on-site music is more than mixing desks and recording equipment. These days, IT plays an increasingly important – and sometimes hazardous – role for the people behind the consoles. And opportunities to bathe at least indirectly in the light of some of the world’s best known performers.

Few people in the Australian IT industry can boast ownership of routers signed by Coldplay and Pink unless they go by the name Michael Devitt.

That’s because the managing director of Perth-based company, EventNet Systems, heads up a crew responsible for rolling out IP networking and IT services to some of the biggest summer music festivals in Australia including heavy metal/hard rock series, Soundwave, and tours by solo artists such as Pink, who Devitt admits had the best stage performance he has even seen.

“Each band you see is great for their different genre. [Former Pink Floyd singer/songwriter] Roger Waters was absolutely brilliant with his show but, dare I say it, my all-time favourite stage performance would have to be Pink.”

While Devitt does indeed own a router signed by the female star, he did not get the opportunity to meet her or Coldplay due to the “unwritten rule” with performers on tour.

“If they come and talk to you it’s fine but we have to respect that they’re performing and you’re there to do a job,” he said.

When the EventNet crew turns up to a concert or festival venue, the IP networking system is set up, tested and made operational before the bands and tour party arrive. For example, at the Southbound festival in Western Australia, which the company has supported for the past eight years, it installed copper cabling in 2007.

The copper cabling goes from one end of the Australian Football League area to the hockey field where most of the festival activity takes place with the cabling terminating at the back of the site.

“We have built a massive control room to take on the road containing servers and other hardware.

Within that room we bring in the ADSL from the ISP and distribute that using Allied Telesis DSLAM down the copper towards the various site locations,” he said.

Devitt explains that for SouthBound it manages a number of different networks.

“We have one network for the media who are covering the festival, another event management portal that reports back to our office in Perth and a network for the WA police so they are able to use their database on site,” he said.

At a recent AC/DC concert, the company created a network that supported more than 300 devices with 120 gigabytes of data downloaded in one day over ADSL by the hard rock band’s crew members. Emails and Skype sessions generated the bulk of it.

“Because most of the crew are away from their families for so long, Skype sessions are very popular,” he said.

As any roadie will tell you, equipment whether it is amplifiers or networking hardware, comes in for some tough treatment when moving from one venue to the next.

Devitt cringes at the memory of EventNet’s control room being dropped from a 40 foot height during Southbound 2012.

“It damaged the printers and toners inside but the network equipment didn’t fail,” he said.

“It can also be heart breaking to see one of the road cases packed full of equipment fall off the back of the truck and you almost cry when you see the hole in the case.” However, Devitt reports that his crew has not lost any networking equipment as yet.

Another issue for hardware at summer music festivals is, not surprisingly, extreme heat, dust and dirt. To ensure there are no failures, the equipment is regularly vacuumed and cleaned.

On the other hand, summer festivals, even in Australia, are not immune to the rain god. “If there is a sudden downpour of rain, the networking equipment is located underneath the stage and plastic tarpaulins are put over the top to prevent any moisture damage,” he said.

“When we did the Soundwave tour this year, at one city it rained from the day we arrived to the day we left. The gear was located under the stage and subjected to high humidity.”

Just like musicians have their preferred choice of guitar, Devitt works exclusively with one networking partner, Allied Telesis. According to Devitt, the equipment has stood up to wear and tear since 2004. Nonetheless, when some technical issues did occur at a recent concert in Melbourne, Devitt’s call for help was answered with support staff arriving at the venue within 15 minutes. After all, the show must go on.

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The streaming side of music

Musically a world away from the hard rock of Waters and Pink, WOMADelaide is a festival of what was once called traditional, folk or ethnic, but now world, music.

In March 2013, this means artists from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe, such as Jamaican Jimmy Cliff, South Africans Hugh Masekela and the Soweto Gospel Choir, Spanish viola de gamba player Jordi Savallis and Tunisian oud player Dhafer Youssef.

A long way from strident electric guitars and amplifiers turned up to 11.

WOMAD – the World of Music, Arts Dance – was founded by musician and ex-Genesis singer Peter Gabriel in 1982, with WOMADelaide, the Australian WOMAD festival, kicking off ten years later.

But while the festival music might draw on traditional forms of music, the IT behind it is as cutting edge as its louder brethren in Perth.

While festival organisers around Australia survive on paying punters turning up on the day to enjoy the music and the atmosphere, World of Music Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Adelaide has recognised that not everyone can attend the festival in South Australia and has decided to live stream selected performances in 2013.

“The live streaming is a way to further the reach of the festival and open up accessibility to those who usually would not be able to attend the festival,” A WOMADelaide spokesperson says. “It allows WOMADelaide to stream into houses across the country and the world, giving people access to a plethora of amazing music and dance from around the world.”

The live streaming will be provided by ISP Internode, which sponsors the Adelaide leg of the global festival.

Internode plans to live stream selected performances in high definition via its content delivery network (CDN) in March next year. The CDN is a network of servers spread across multiple locations designed to deliver content where high performance or high reliability are required.

Live streaming was first offered during the 2012 festival. According to Internode founder Simon Hackett, the streamed performances are fully rights-cleared, properly negotiated live performance recordings from, and in support of, the artists concerned.

“It’s a win-win in terms of exposure for the artists and the creation of content available online, both during and after the event, through the CDN,” he says.

However, WOMADelaide organisers say there are no plans to offer `at festival’ exclusive content on their smartphone for attendees as yet.

According to a WOMADelaide spokesperson, the company has a range of technology in place to interact and attract patrons to the festival and further extending their access to the event. This includes the development of a new website every year for the festival, which ensures that the content is always up-to-date and easily accessible.

“The website is also smartphone enabled for best viewing resolution on devices,” they say.

“We put out a smartphone app each year which is free to download and offers user access to timetables, tickets and artist information.”

In addition, festival organisers say that social media campaigns are a highly effective way of communicating with patrons. “We use a range of platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and electronic newsletters.” On Twitter, the festival has 3408 followers while on Facebook it has 10,732 ‘likes’.

When head-banging fans morph into followers and likers, the age of a four-piece band singing and playing their hearts out on a minute sweaty stage in Hamburg has definitely come a long way.