Milwaukee’s annual concert extravaganza Summerfest is now in its 45th year of production and has become an American holiday tradition for the Midwest. For those of you unfamiliar with Summerfest, it is a two week festival in the heart of downtown Milwaukee, WI with more stages than you could ever fully experience within the festivals duration. The acts vary dramatically and cover almost every genre sporting acts like Sublime w/Rome, Aerosmith, Neil Diamond, Iron Maiden, Steve Aoki, Zac Brown Band, Train, and a whole host of others. For the full lineup from this year’s festival check out the Summerfest website here. There were large main stages and the festival grounds were littered with smaller homemade stages. There was a little something for everyone with kid stages, water fountains to beat the heat, magic shows, and the ever present street performers who made their own stage wherever they could. Food was never in short supply with BBQ, burgers, roasted corn, and of course lots of the Milwaukee staple: Miller Lite. Summerfest has all the tinge of an outdoor barbeque where friends gather to enjoy good company, good music, and good times. It shares a similar semblance to the annual SXSW music festival in Austin, TX with tons of bands that are off your radar but should totally be on it. The U.S. Cellular stage was aptly named the Emerging Artist stage and it was littered with everything from alternative folk to straight up metal.
The UniqueSquared Mobile Studio rolled into the festival in service of our sponsor Sennheiser who provided an array of fantastic microphones and headphones. We were also joined by Taylor Guitars who provided us with some fantastic six string bliss. The goal for the Mobile Studio was to record as many of the festival acts as possible. Most of the bands were scheduled through our varying channels of contacts but sometimes a band would just show up, ask to record, and we gladly invited them on for a quick stripped down recording. For the recordings we generally used the Sennheiser e935 for the vocals, the e914 for acoustic guitars and other instruments, and the e901 whenever an artist would bring on a cajon or when we improvised a cajon with a road case. The bands were able to monitor their sessions using the Sennheiser HD650 headphones. All of the tracks were recorded through the Presonus StudioLive 24.4.2 and the sessions were all tracked within ProTools 10.
Great things were going on in the Mobile Studio and there will be plenty of blogs and videos to come that will showcase the artists we had in our Summerfest Sessions Series. In the meantime, I thought I would give you all a perspective on Summerfest that highlights the good, the bad, and the intolerable. Let’s go from worst to best.
Truly the least enjoyable part of Summerfest for the first few days of the last week was the weather. It was hot, I mean really hot, and bands were racing towards our bus to enjoy some AC before they had to brace the heat once again. This meant we had more band members and their girlfriends on board than was always appropriate but it was a nice change of pace to get a chance to talk to the bands about their careers. Luckily as the days went on and the sun went down, the festival weather began to change for the better but the heat did take its toll on a few concert goers in the worst way possible. There were countless sloven and over heated attendees strewn across the festival to which the only remedy was to offer up our own cold bottled water.
The beer was cheap which everyone could appreciate, but the food was ludicrously expensive. It seemed more important for the festival to have a bunch of drunk, dehydrated, heat stroke victims than to have folks well fed at a reasonable cost. A bacon cheeseburger was close to $10 and anything cheaper than that was not even close to be called a meal. While this is a phenomenon common among summer festivals, for something like Summerfest which has people on the grounds all day long it would have been nice to see some healthy and affordable alternatives to the $10 cheeseburger. The general scenario was, you pay money for your general admission pass, your $50 amphitheatre pass in the cheap seats, and then spend your beer money on one meal. So you could see why EMT workers were burning the candle at both ends when it came to keeping people safe and healthy. It was always a guessing game when the EMT’s strolled through as to whether or not they were responding to heat stroke victims, or in the midst of a cheese curd induced heart attack.
While this may seem like an obvious and pedantic rant about a festival experience, it is an important part of the experience that was Summerfest. Long bathroom lines, drunken dancing on walkways, and excessive commercialism get nominations here but what festival or concert is without those staples nowadays.
One of the worst aspects of Summerfest was the front of house mix on the stages. It was not uncommon to hit the rock stage and hear nothing but plate reverbed snare drums during the day, and bright trebly guitars at night as the engineer (if I can even call him that) struggled to over and under compensate for the abortion of a mix they were putting out. This was not segregated to the rock stage but it seeped into nearly every stage across the festival. Our initial rationale was that the bottom end needed control due to multiple stages but when a big headliner would hit, the mix would suddenly sound phenomenal. Everything was in a sweet spot and the bottom end suddenly reappeared. Often times the bands brought their own crew which facilitated this dramatic shift in fidelity, but other times it seemed as if the engineers just didn’t care until they mixed the gig that could make or break their career. That is a poor attitude to have no matter what line of work you are in. It’s like the cop who only responds to the sorority house fires so he can save sexy coeds from being burned alive but shuts his radio down for the little old lady who gets robbed with a blackjack to the back of the head. Impromptu analogies aside, it was truly disappointing to hear such lackadaisical mixing during the day and sudden glamour mixing at night. But this was of course only if you were a major act. The lesser known club circuit acts that headlined got the same treatment as the day trotters. Pretty bad. My only explanation for this was the large amount of different sounding bands everyday which made it challenging to mix. To this I would say if you are anywhere close to a professional, this should not have been a problem and most bands looked like they had their own sound tech right next to the stage’s main engineer. Whatever excuse there is for the lack of professionalism here, it was no doubt a disappointment to my ears to hear the majority of acts perform their heart out with such a lack of comparable fidelity.
Although this rant should really be in the intolerable section, I put it here in the bad section because I don’t think this was a problem with every sound engineer at every hour on every stage. But it was a general consensus among myself and fellow audiophiles I was surrounded with. The live mix of nearly every stage was beyond awful.
Another thing that irked my concert going sensibility was the highly inflated egos of some of these artists. There is always a certain bit of egotism that surrounds music that has always fascinated and disheartened me in this weird cacophony of bewilderment and disdain. With every adjective I can think of to describe this feeling about egos on the table, it is always a bad look for anyone to walk around with a smug sense of self-satisfaction that entitles you to tell everyone to “F” right off. I talked to a lot of bands and while I can tell you that not every band was like this, the majority had one or two members who thought this attitude was acceptable and even worse, warranted considering their album had 50 downloads last week on iTunes. I have little patience for those that walk around wearing their sense of entitlement and kiss-assery around their neck, but I guess that’s just the nature of the scene.
It’s sad to see this and I really feel bad for them even while they would probably tell me my sympathy can take a walk. At the end of the day it’s about the music and what you bring to your genre, the scene, and how that comes across during your performance. Lucky for us, those that recorded on the Mobile Studio were nothing but fun, humble, and truly entertaining artists. I guess we got lucky.
The best part of the festival is the most obvious. The music was top notch and the lineup selection was killer. Even the homemade, grassroots, DIY erected stages were pumping out some quality music. Whether it was bands covering cool tunes like “Take on Me,” or the less than cool bands covering “Don’t Stop Believing,” the music was still performed very well on most of the stages.
The people in attendance at Summerfest were hands down some of the nicest and most accommodating folks I have ever met. Maybe it’s a Summerfest thing, maybe its a Wisconsin thing, or maybe its the fact that people got a whole week off for the Fourth of July and they are happy to be enjoying their vacation. Even when loaded up on carbs, cheese, and Milwaukee brewed beer, everyone was either friendly or apathetic which is way better than pissed off and angry when at a festival. I guess it’s because SummerFest is a family affair. Parents bring their kids from the toddler age all the way to the awkward teen years and it’s something for them to participate in together and have memories through the years. One of my favorite moments was taking the time to talk to the men and women of the United States Marine Corps. They were enthralled with the Mobile Studio and they were telling us stories of soldiers in the barracks who have their own mobile rigs set up in the bunks. They sleep and live in their studio literally which was by far one of the coolest things I heard. Hopefully we can bring the bus to a base in the near future and rock out with our service men and women. Hoorah!!
The true stars of that week were the entire Summerfest staff. Every one from the production staff, to the security, and yes even those less than stellar engineers, were all incredibly accommodating and friendly. We couldn’t have pulled off the sessions without them and are very thankful for their help and understanding. Lastly but certainly the best thing about Summerfest were the bands that dropped by the Mobile Studio to record and be interviewed. I wish I could thank all of them again personally but my hope is they will take this blog post as one of the largest, blanketed, and emphatic thank yous of my life. It was truly a pleasure working with such talented artists and it was even more of a pleasure to sit and chat with them about music, gear, and life in general.
While I had promised a rant on the rock scene in a follow up to my post from Ultra, Summerfest is really not a “rock scene” festival when considering the lineup including dance music, country, folk, bluegrass, rock, metal, and any other genre mashup you could think of. It really had every genre imaginable which was superb for the concert goer with several friends all of varying tastes in music. The people in attendance were dressed like anyone would on a Fourth of July cookout which made it less of “place to be seen” kind of festival experience. Summerfest is a backyard BBQ in every sense of the experience. The only difference is that you are doing it with close to 100,000 other people for 6 days.
Something like the Carnival of Madness Tour or the Uproar Festival deserve their own special blog in the way I described Ultra. I have every intention of attending at least one stop on each of these tours to bring you a full report. Until then get your grills out, crack open a bottle of your favorite brew, pull out your smartphone, and stay tuned for all the recordings and interviews that came from the UniqueSquared Mobile Studio at Summerfest.