It was a slightly chilly December morning in Pune and only a few people were working at the NH7 Weekender 2016 festival's Bacardi Arena. The previous evening, the same stage had hosted the Indian act Nucleya's performance but it looked very different now. Two bright orange central amplifiers were lying on the stage and a shiny green coloured drum kit had been set up.
Many people were busy, working to make the festival's biggest show happen. After a gap of 7 years, Steven Wilson was going to perform in India again and he insisted on a technically perfect setup.
Wilson is one of the few artists in the world to use 360-degree surround sound. The sonic quality of the performance makes the crowd feel as if it were listening to a high-fidelity audio file through headphones. It is tough to bring acts such as Wilson's to India, given the complexity and challenge of the setup.
"One of the challenges in setting up for an artist like Steven Wilson is to find a sound company who knows their stuff," Manish Chandnani of Only Much Louder (OML), the NH7 Weekender music festival organiser, told me. "We can't pick literally anyone. So we partnered with SNL Sound, who are pioneers in terms of sound technology in India."
At the centre of every gig's setup is the public announcement or the PA system, which controls the sound coming out of every instrument. The system, generally just referred to as PA, comprises mikes, speaker arrays, amplifiers and a mixing console to manipulate sound. On the stage, there are speakers facing the artists called 'monitors'. Monitors let the players listen to what they are playing and the way it sounds.
Wilson's longtime engineer Ian Bond uses the Midas Pro2C console to set up the gig. This console works on a high-fidelity sound frequency of 96 kHz with Linux based custom operating system to support it. Bond has worked with Wilson since his Porcupine Tree days. This morning during soundcheck, he was exacting — even the slightest hiccup was not acceptable. There was a slight hum in two of the mikes and everyone worked at war footing to fix the problem. Before the band arrived for the soundcheck, Bond worked with the festival sound engineers to make sure that the mikes were working well.
"Getting the setup done is not a really a challenge," Manish Mavani of SNL sound system told me. "But since there are very few global artists who come to perform in India we don't purchase certain equipment. In Wilson's case, it was the console that we had to rent from our partners abroad."
The Wilson setup was especially pricey, at a whopping 10 crore rupees. There were three arrays of speakers on the ground. The first one was placed near the stage, to the left and right. The second set was near the sound control unit and the the third was near the bar area. The unique thing about the setup were the smaller speakers facing the stage in the second and third arrays, to provide the surround sound effect to members of the audience standing in the arena. SNL was using high-quality speakers from L-acoustics.
The performing act was a five piece band. Along with Wilson on the guitars and vocals, there was Dave Kilminster on lead guitars, Adam Holzman on keyboard and synth, Craig Blundell on drums and Nick Beggs on bass guitar.
The band arrived and played a number of songs to ensure that the guitars, drum kit and the synth were in order to handle all the sound settings. In the evening, during the actual performance, the sound was much more powerful. As was Wilson's persona in the power-packed performance, a contrast from his casual, joking self during the soundcheck session earlier in the day.
From his Porcupine Tree days, Wilson's show has been highly visual. At planned moments, certain visuals flashed on the screen. While performing the song 'Index' he snapped his fingers at regular intervals in the beginning, and at every snap, the visual on the screen changed. The show was pre-programmed to the second for the visual effects. The lighting was controlled by a Hog4 console.
When bands perform at bars or smaller venues, the screen set up is not as sophisticated. Often, there is just a visual on a loop or a video in the background. Setting up a festival level sound system with multiple stages comes with its own challenges. For one thing, organisers have to ensure that sounds from two stages don't overlap.
"We need to find a ground big enough to accommodate all the stages," Chandnani said. "Then we plan out the direction of the stages so that if there are two artists playing on separate stages at the same time, there is no disturbance for the fans. Every venue is different. For example, the stage in Pune where Steven Wilson performed, the crowd area had an uneven surface. So we needed to take care of that."
"The Indian music scene has enough technical equipment but the set up and know how is a problem.," Anupam Roy, sound engineer for SkyHarbor told me. "In a lot of festivals home there is no pre-production set up and time is often short for rehearsals. So, the sound quality is not as good as the festivals abroad."
Wilson's Pune gig went off well, though Mavani later pointed out that there were many obstacles in calling artists to India, ranging from infrastructural hurdles to the bureaucracy.
"We don't have stadium filling gigs," he explained. "Also, in India, the ticket prices are low as compared to the international standards. That makes managing the costs more difficult."
Yet, companies like OML try and bring artists such as Wilson, Anoushka Shankar, Periphery, and Karivool. Coldplay performed in India last year, as did Justin Beiber earlier in 2017. Indian music fans can look forward to more international artists performing here in the coming days.