Society of Sound: WOMAD Live 2015

There were highlights galore at last year’s WOMAD, that summertime music bonanza held in the leafy surrounds of Wiltshire’s Charlton Park. But the standout that concerns us here could be found, looming majestically, inside a domed silver tent with undulating curves and a vibe both futuristic and inviting. The Bowers & Wilkins Sound System.

For audiophiles, this was hi-fi heaven. Four towering speakers packing a combined 135,000-watt wallop, delivering the sort of wraparound sound more likely to be found in a state-of-the art concert hall and not an increasingly muddy music festival. Festival goers long used to juddering bass bins and big old PA systems couldn’t believe their ears. To be standing – or sitting, or lying – on the grass in the middle of a field in rural England, immersed in a palette of aural wonders, was awe inspiring.

A bespoke line-up of musical talent showcased the Sound System’s versatility and range. From singer/songwriters to leftfield bluesmen, Moog synth players to trance pop maestros, experimental pianists to composers/sound manipulators, the music that flowed through those genre-defining speakers inevitably sounded crisp and clean, powerful and detailed. Built to cater to up to 1000 people, aided by stellar performances and an up-for-it crowd, this mighty leviathan set about revolutionising the art of listening.

Sure, there were bigger names on bigger stages. But over the course of a packed three-day weekend the Bowers & Wilkins tent became the place to be. Nowhere else had this sort of sound, not on-site, not off-site. While the Sound System had premiered at Spain’s Primavera Festival before making its only UK 2014 appearance at WOMAD at the Society of Sound stage, this was its first appearance in Britain for a year. The sense of occasion was palpable.

Listen, and you’ll see.

Hannah Peel by York Tillyer

The first event blew everybody’s hair back. Before a wall of analogue synths known as the Moog Sound Lab, electronica wizard Richard ‘The Grid’ Norris and his tech-savvy sidekick Finlay Shakespeare conjured a set of sonic delights including Switch Bounce, the track they’ve chosen here. An audacious and joyous improvisation in the spirit of the weekend, its high-res stylings testified to the genius of the Sound System and the Moog – a theme of the weekend – and had a capacity crowd punching the air.

Known and loved in the electronic and techno worlds, hailed for their production with everyone from Bjork to Indonesian gamelan ensembles, Warp mainstays Plaid delighted in pushing the boundaries of sound. As indeed did analogue synth expert Will Gregory – composer, keyboardist, woodwind player and one half of Goldfrapp – whose handpicked Moog Ensemble reimagined old synth classics (“I wondered why no one had attempted to assemble a group of keyboardists to reproduce this effect in a live performance rather than as a studio multi-track,” he’s said) and redefined what an ensemble can be.

The accomplished Real World artist John Metcalfe (a composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and sound manipulator) gifted us an inspired mix of orchestral/chamber music and electronica; ethereal singer and composer Hannah Peel mesmerised with wonky folk pop fuelled by analogue synths and homemade music boxes, with electronic soundscapes deployed alongside Eighties hits and fragile torch songs.

Canadian-born, London-based bluesman Son of Dave brought his lightning fingers and good-natured quirkiness to bear on covers of rap tunes and blues classics alike, while experimental pianist Klavikon – aka the classically trained Leon Michener – played electronic rave music completely live, free of prerecorded loops and overdubs. The Lake Poets turned out to be Martin Longstaff, a Sunderland singer/songwriter and award-winning writer with a thing for everyone from Warren Zevon to Wordsworth; his finely crafted songs came into their own through those phenomenal four-way speakers.

“It is every singer’s dream to sing through that system,” said Cara Dillon, a traditional Irish artist whose crystalline vocals went lent added intimacy and resonance by Bowers & Wilkins and lifted by an audience who listened, rapt, between singing along. There Were Roses, the track she’s chosen here, deftly captures that precious artist-audience interaction, just as it underscores what Q Magazine declared ‘quite possibly the world’s most beautiful female voice’.

The Bowers & Wilkins Sound System was created with the aim of offering festival attendees a more rewarding sound experience. And at WOMAD in 2015 that’s exactly what it did. Over the weekend, as the weather turned challenging and the green fields lost their hue, the B&W tent increasingly became a place of sanctuary. Sunday evening audiences revelled in the upbeat shenanigans of Middle Eastern party outfit The Apples, whose infectious, genre-melting grooves mixed the composition of a DJ set with the fireworks of a jam session.

By bringing us closer to the music, by wrapping us in sound, Bowers & Wilkins allowed us a glimpse of the future of festivals, gave us a taster of what can be achieved with know how and imagination, without limits.

A 21stcentury Sound System, then – with a 22ndcentury vibe.

Oli Jacobs production notes… Bowers and Wilkins at WOMAD 2015

Rain. That was the theme of WOMAD UK last year, Peter Gabriel’s world music festival set in the South West of England. This, however, did nothing to dampen the spirits of festivalgoers who despite the weather, were still up for a party. With their remarkable sound system and a superb line up of musicians, the Bowers & Wilkins’ Stage was one of the highlights (and it was away from the rain under a tent!). Thanks to the easy integration with Solid State Logic’s live consoles, recording the show was fairly straight forward, with engineers Oscar Eriksen , Gavin Tempany, Jack Mills and Dickie Chappell taking charge of the tent’s sound system and recording.

The B&W stage is a bit different from other stages at WOMAD in that the custom built sound system is quadrophonic – there are two speakers in the traditional position either side of the stage, and two speakers behind the audience.  This allows for a truly immersive experience with music coming from all around you through a sound system like no other – described as hifi sound on a festival scale. In keeping with this, I was keen for listeners with surround sound systems to be able to experience this same feeling of sonic envelopment – as if they were actually in the tent (but without the mud), while also having a captivating stereo mix for those listening on headphones or two speakers.

Mixing in surround
Like most engineers, I prefer to mix surround sound in a ‘natural’ way, as if you are standing in the middle of the audience facing the stage – in prime listening position. This means that the musicians are spaced in front of you and the ambience from the audience (applause etc) comes from all around. I must confess on this project I did have a bit of fun panning elements around – the odd synthesiser etc, it’s hard to resist having a bit of fun! Mike Large (Real World director of operations and audio guru) and I agreed that rather than mix in the more common 5.1 surround format, we would go for quadrophonic as this is what the B&W sound system is. With some help from our friends at Dolby, we have delivered the surround sound in several formats, in the hope that as many people can enjoy the surround mix as possible.

The stereo mix
Of course, for the majority of people (for example, those listening on headphones) the stereo mix of is of great importance. This mix is achieved through a fold-down of the surround mix; so the ambient microphones from the show itself are still very present. I always do the final mix-down on the stereo version, as any imperfections are far easier to hear.

By Jane Cornwell

Renowned for her informed, engaging writing and copywriting on music, arts, culture and travel, Jane Cornwell is the jazz critic, and a world music critic, for the London Evening Standard and writes for major newspapers and online platforms in the UK and Australia. She is also a compere at WOMAD, a contributing editor of Songlines magazine and a writer of books, press releases and programme notes.

Published on Fri, 24 June 16

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Society of Sound: The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble

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