It has been the strangest music festival season ever, the first after a year when virtually no live music was heard, thanks to a pandemic the country seemed unable to shake off. It was no small feat that Summerfest, the largest, longest, and most durable of all music festivals—running across three long September weekends on 11 stages along Milwaukee’s Lake Michigan waterfront—presented scores of artists in its 53rd iteration.
This year, it had to contend with artists dropping out due to COVID infections, an industry-wide crew shortage, and a technology crunch, with the availability of sound, lighting, and video gear severely reduced because of global supply chains constricted by the pandemic.
One could be forgiven for not noticing these challenges while walking through the Summerfest campus, which covers most of the 75-acre Henry Maier Festival Park. By day, it could pass for a large county fair— even more so this year as it was moved from its usual two-week-long July time slot. A meandering midway offered a Ferris wheel and other rides, and an overhead Skyglider parasol ride gave visitors a bird’s-eye view of the event, while appetites were whetted by food stalls selling Wisconsin’s three main food groups: brats, beer, and cheese curds. There was clearly pent-up demand for the live communal experience that Summerfest offered. A local television commercial, populated by videos of past attendees telling anecdotes of their “first Fest,” dared COVID—or anything else—to interfere with the fun with the tag line, “Oh, it’s on!”
The music started early in the afternoon, mainly local artists, though once-big(ger) names peppering the early schedule included Soul Asylum, best known for the 1994 Grammy Award winner “Runaway Train.” At night, however, the lights came on and the volume went up. (A bit, anyway— some owners of new condos nearby the lakeshore have occasionally groused about noise, though the shows must end by midnight.) It’s when Summerfest hit its nightly peak, with music across all 11 of its stages, with this year’s biggest names including Luke Bryan, Chance the Rapper, Twenty One Pilots, Chris Stapleton, Megan Thee Stallion, and Miley Cyrus.
Logistically, Summerfest is an immense audio show, with sound systems designed and provided by Clearwing Productions, the festival’s AVL provider for several decades. The core box for all stages but one was the JBL VTX A12, with 128 units dispersed across ten systems plus another 16 VTX A12W bins, which offer 120° of dispersion versus the VTX A12’s standard 90°. The A12, introduced in spring 2017, made its large-scale debut at Summerfest the following year when it was deployed across seven stages. Harman’s dominance of the festival’s sound continued with another 69 VTX A8 boxes, 117 VTX B18 arrayable single-18 subs, 64 VTX dual-18 B28 subs (and two more of the top-mountable B28s), and 84 M22 wedge monitors. Power for these came from 46 Crown VRack 4x3500 amps buttressed by six Crown VRack 1200HDs and two 4x3500HD amps.
One stage was primarily an L- Acoustics system, a blend of 32 K1s, 16 K2s, 36 KARAs, 10 ARCS IIs, and 16 KS1Bs, powered by 25 LA-RAK and LA-RAK-II amplified controllers, and with d&b audiotechnik M2 wedge monitors onstage.
One thing that distinguishes Summerfest from most other music festivals is that each stage’s front of house is manned by a union audio engineer—specifically, a member of IATSE Local 18. (It’s worth noting that Milwaukee was home to some of the first labor union organizing in the country, starting in the 1840s, and Wisconsin once led the nation in workers’ rights.) This, combined with the general use of a single type of PA speaker box, gives the event useful sonic and operational consistency. The transparency of the A12 was cited by several engineers, letting the individual sound of each performer come through—many bring their own front-of-house mixers, whom the house engineers work with—while letting those Summerfest house mixers move between stages as needed, knowing what to expect sonically.
Brian Miller, a Local 18 mixer, having done 22 Summerfests, was the senior mixer on-site. He eyed the curved metal roof of the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage’s seating area, one of only two venues enclosed overhead, for its potential acoustical challenges. (It featured two hangs of six VTX A-12 boxes, two A8s as front fills, and a dozen B18 subs, powered by three VRack 4x3500 amps.) “The Clearwing techs tune the systems, and [the front-of-house mixers at each stage] can give them whatever final tweaks they want,” he says. Years earlier, he notes, the shows had multiple audio vendors before Clearwing became the sole provider, which, he says, has contributed toward making the sound quality reliable and the workflows efficient: “The A12s sound great but they also can be very precisely aimed, to keep the sound off reflective surfaces.” His colleague, Craig Broemser, who also worked more than one stage, says it can be easy to overmix at this event with its various types of stage environments.
“We have to be careful of levels,” he adds. “The rule of thumb is to keep the instruments down a bit and the vocals a little bit hot.” Good advice for a stage that seemed especially partial to lyrical artists, including Liz Phair, Ani DiFranco, and Drive-By Truckers.
Over at the Uline Warehouse Stage (20 A12s, 12 A8s, and 24 B18s split into two hangs powered by six VRack 4x3500 amps), which hosted Jesse McCartney, Spin Doctors, and Motley Crüe’s Vince Neil among others, mixer Joe Adam notes how the stage’s position exposed it to north winds off of Lake Michigan, which required a slight positioning adjustment to the left PA hang: “We get good, strong propagation from the A12s, which also helps offset that,” he says. “And the image and EQ stay together nicely, so the sound is nice and warm and totally consistent.”
The union mixers and Clearwing’s techs have formed into a cohesive team over the course of so many Summerfests, says Jeff Mayer, director of regional audio operations in the company’s Milwaukee office: “We make sure to treat all of the union mixers the same as we do the touring engineers.” The steadily increasing uniformity of the audio (and other systems) over time kept the sprawling event on an even operational keel.
This year, he notes, the deployment of the JBL audio systems was nearly 100% (the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, the largest of the venues, defaulted to a Clearwing-supplied L-Acoustics K1/K2 rig unless touring artists bring their own systems), as was the use of key items such as the XTA MX36 console switchers and Lake LM44 system processors. “Over the years, we’ve worked with a number of manufacturers who want to use Summerfest as a showcase for new products and systems, and JBL has been a great partner over that time,” he says. “We’ve invested heavily in the A-Series speakers, because we’ve gotten a very good response from the artists who’ve used it here.”
The touring mixers seem to agree. “I liked the A12 the first time I heard it,” says Scott “Shreddy” Edwards, production manager and front-of-house mixer for Coheed & Cambria, a mid-fest Thursday-night closer on the Miller Lite Oasis Stage, which had 20 VTX A12s, four JBL VTX A12Ws, and 10 JBL VTX A8s split between stereo hangs and bottomed out with 24 JBL VTX B28s, all powered by eight Crown VRack 4x3500HDs. “It’s a smoothsounding box,” he adds.
Summerfest’s move to September meant that lighting got a bit more exercise, as the sun slipped away a little earlier each day. For Sarah “Sparks” Parker, LD for Kesha, the closer on the BMO Harris Pavilion Stage on a Saturday night, it was the second time around at Summerfest, having directed lighting for Imagine Dragons there in 2018. Parker has nice words for the 12 Martin by Harman MAC Axiom Hybrid 440W fixtures in the BMO stage’s rig: “They’re really flexible—I can use them as beam or spot [fixtures], and they’re definitely impactful as spots—we can see them clearly in a big [5,000-seat] space like this.” Specifically, for Kesha’s emotional ballad “Shadow,” the Axioms, mounted on pipes on the angled truss, gave the effect she wanted: “The Axioms’ really wide range and zoom let me dial in exactly the kind of backlit little arch around her. It was perfect.”
Most of the campus’ basic lighting grid is part of the park’s permanent infrastructure; it is used throughout the year for other events, including ethnic food, music, and culture festivals. For Summerfest, Clearwing adds moving lights and floor packages, depending on the stage and artists. “We’ll usually supplement with some kind of moving fixture, for flair, like Martin Axiom or Quantum,” says Ania Dankow, senior lighting operations manager, who began working on Summerfest as a lighting tech in 2004. “We’ll also provide grandMA2 light consoles across the ground stages, with grandMA2 fullsize consoles for some of the larger shows.” Most stages will have common elements, such as the 12 Martin Axiom or Quantum or Viper Profiles on seven stages this year.
Individual stages will sometimes get special attention. This year, the Generac Power Stage, named for the festival’s main 2021 sponsor, had, before the evening’s headliner, a promotional video synchronized, via time code, with a light show. Clearwing also provided an upgraded lighting package that included Ayrton Perseo Profiles. Other changes were more complicated: On the Miller Lite Oasis’ first weekend (featuring Flo Rida and DJ Diesel) and the Generac Power Stage’s third (with Diplo and Run the Jewels)—both of which skewed heavily towards bass-heavy shows—the entire installed PAR can rig was removed and replaced with moving fixtures. The Martin by Harman package included a dozen Viper Performance units, 18 Viper Profiles, 42 VDO Sceptron 10s, 18 VDO Fatron 20s, a P3-300 system controller, and five P3 PowerPort 1500 integrated power supplies and processors. “It began as an EDM rig but was used for more different [types of] artists,” Dankow says.
Summerfest had a somewhat larger video footprint this year. ROE Visual and Theatrixx LED screens were temporarily installed on three of the seven stages that have IMAG video for the event, an addition of three since 2019, including a large IMAG and general information screen on the campus’ lake walk. Mindpool Live, a locally based video systems and content provider, was the primary video producer for the event. (The largest, a 60'- by-35', 270-tile display at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, was previously installed there by Clearwing.) In earlier editions, the event projected video for certain evening shows, but Mindpool president Josh Adams says it has now moved entirely to LED screens, in some cases employing multiple IMAG screens per venue, plus a display above the front-of-house position at each stage that doubles as digital signage between shows. The company also provided Sony HDC-3500 and HXC-100 cameras for the stages.
These rode on a SMPTE-fiber network for signal and control, enabling live video for at least three stages to be directed and managed from a central control room in one of the park’s permanent buildings, where the production utilized Ross Carbonite switchers and Ultra routers. Four cameras per stage converged on a matrix there and were backhauled over a fiber home run to the master control, where performance video and audio could also be recorded. “It was an exciting time, after missing the event last year,” says Adams, who also directs video for the Foo Fighters. “Everybody had to ramp up together to make this happen, and we all have a sense of pride about it.
“For companies like Clearwing and Mindpool Live to be able to support each other in our own backyard at an iconic festival like Summerfest is pretty amazing.”
Clearwing supplied video screens for six stages: two Roe CB5 16'-by-9' displays each at the Generac Power and BMO Harris Bank Stages, a 26'- by-16' Roe CB5 that moved between the Generac and Miller Stages over the course of the festival, a CB5 16'- by-9' display at the UScellular Connection Stage, in addition to the 60-footer at the amphitheater used for the Hella Mega Tour, Chance the Rapper, Twenty One Pilots, Megan Thee Stallion, and Miley Cyrus.
Summerfest came with a complicated context. Just weeks earlier, other headliner festivals had cancelled or postponed, including Coachella, Stagecoach, New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Miami’s Ultra; the nearby Country USA and Rock USA Festivals, about 50 miles north of Summerfest, called it quits for the year. (Bonnaroo, near Nashville, also canceled, days before Summerfest was to open, but cited rain-soaked festival grounds as the reason, a reminder that once COVID is conquered, climate change will be waiting in the wings.) Major tours, including Billie Eilish and Steve Nicks, also put themselves on hold.
On the other hand, Lollapalooza, considered by the industry a bellwether for music festivals going forward, took place as scheduled at the end of July and, out of nearly 400,000 who attended the festival, barely 200 tested positive for the virus.
Vaccination, pre-testing for the unvaccinated, and masking requirements were critical to that success, and Summerfest made entry conditional on those same prerequisites. A charge of $50 for a COVID test at the entry gates seemed to keep the unvaccinated largely at bay.
Not that Summerfest didn’t have its challenges. Several artists, including KISS and Indigo Girls, canceled due to positive COVID tests ahead of their shows. Modern English and the Pixies, headliners on their respective stages and days, both canceled appearances—and entire tours—as precautions.
Behind the scenes
Bryan Baumgardner, director of operations for Clearwing, says the festival itself looked quite normal from the outside. “It was actually bigger than it’s ever been, in terms of the number of artists, and several of the stages have been upgraded in the last year,” he notes, adding that the sudden pullback of tours in August made more marquee names available as replacements.
Closer inspection revealed some of the pandemic’s other impacts, most noticeably when it came to crews, many of whom were affected by the suspension of touring in the spring of 2020, leaving the industry for less tenuous careers. That dynamic has only become more intense as the return of touring was challenged by COVID’s mid-summer Delta surge. This has mainly affected the middle tier of crews, the segment with the most experience: “They’re the ones with mortgages and car payments and young children, the ones who really need to put food on the table every day,” Baumgardner says, adding that the smaller pool also meant making it harder to replace anyone who went missing due to a positive COVID test: “Everyone left was doing more of the work than before.”
That said, Baumgardner noted that Clearwing’s staff has been largely stable throughout the pandemic, helped by the company’s burgeoning installed-AVL division, a sector that has managed COVID better than some others. But other aspects are less predictable.
Clearwing’s sound and lighting product inventory is robust. But if an amp or fixture goes down, obtaining replacement parts can be tricky if not impossible. Truss components, for instance, now have delivery wait times of 16 weeks or more, and at least one audio manufacturer stopped taking orders on some products through the rest of the year. That’s on top of industry-wide challenges including the microchip shortage and a lumber industry that was, just then, getting rolling again. “No wood, no speaker boxes; no chips, no amplifiers,” he says, adding that some moving light fixtures have to sit idle as their power supplies are backed up by six months.
Even if all that was on the minds of those who managed Summerfest’s sound and lights, they were delighted to see how well it turned out.
Clearwing’s Mayer recalled taking a walk around the event campus as the stages, strewn like shiny, noisy pearls along the lakefront, began to come alive and crowds poured in; he remarking to himself how “normal” it all looked. “It looked normal, the way ‘normal’ should be,” he says. “It felt really, really good.”
Article By Dan Daley
Photos By Jay Baumgardner
- 503 JBL Professional Speakers
- 172 L-Acoustics Speakers
- 19 DiGiCo Audio Consoles
- 11 MA Lighting International Consoles
- 182 Martin Professional Fixtures
- 70 ROBE lighting Fixtures
- 40 GLP - German Light Products Fixtures
- 24 Ayrton Fixtures
- 18 Vari-Lite Fixtures
- 16 Claypaky Fixtures
- 24 Phillips Fixtures
- 286 ROE Visual CB8 Video Tiles
- 116 ROE CB5 Video Tiles
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