Sure Sound and Light powers Sturgis Rally’s “best party anywhere”
Take one of the longest running fan club gatherings in history, an estimated 500,000 folk riding gleaming hogs around thousands of square miles of the Black Hills in South Dakota, the city of Sturgis — usual population 6,000 — and a huge natural amphitheatre, hosting some of the biggest rock’n’roll bands on the planet, and you have a true North American phenomenon. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the legendary Buffalo Chip, for 27 years the rockin’ heart of Sturgis Rally, and the campground where aficionados of the Black Hills Motor Classic come to party. For two weeks every year, it becomes the state’s third largest city.
The Black Hills Motor Classic, now in its 67th year, is arguably the classic and custom motorcycle event that outruns them all. Sturgis’ population swells from 6,000 to 20,000 for two weeks during this annual celebration of all things two-wheeled. Look around and you’ll see hogs — thousands of the gleaming beasts — some standard, some custom, some just plain outrageous. Eighty percent, it’s estimated, are Harleys, and you can certainly hear ’em coming.
Of the over 100 campgrounds scattered throughout the Black Hills, Buffalo Chip is second-closest to the city center; it’s four miles out and has been a prime driving force behind the event’s popularity among both riders and music fans. The Chip’s Web site (www.buffalochip.com) hints at the delights on offer at the campground from Domino’s pizza delivery to laser light shows and motorcycle rodeos. The Web site also points out that the biggest names in rock’n’roll rarely say no to invitations from founder/owner Rod ‘Woody’ Woodruff, who provides a great, safe, family-friendly campground.
A temporary, self-contained city in itself, everything is in place at the Chip, from ATMs to restaurants, ambulance and fire departments to vendors such as Taco Bell. Unique among the campgrounds, there are permanent mains, water and sewer utilities, along with ample parking space for the largest RVs in the land: This is the festival comfort zone, 21st-century style.
For years, the Chip’s amphitheatre, the Wolfman Jack Stage, has provided the Rally’s rock’n’roll heartbeat. Many and great have been the stars that rock out every evening after a long day’s biking, yarning, stunt riding, motor cross bike jumping (with Robby Knievel), admiring hogs and generally showing off. This year, the Chipsters were treated to another stellar line-up headlined by Toby Keith, Velvet Revolver, ZZ Top, Poison, Foreigner, Papa Roach, Edgar Winter and Grand Funk Railroad.
Sure Sound & Light is Buffalo Chip’s long-time audio provider, and for several years has supplied a large point source array system. Last year, their team began working toward an all-new line array solution for the show, in alliance with several of the artists — so times truly were a-changin’ at Sturgis for 2007.
The Big Deal
The Buffalo Chip amphitheatre measures some 400 feet from front to back and 650 feet across, backed by a low hill that screens it from both the city of Sturgis and, much closer, a smaller stage fronting one of the site’s most popular spots — a dive pool.
With such a wide and deep area on the edge of town, the audio challenge was twofold: coverage of the broad crowd plus containment. The huge audience sprawls way out to either side of the stage and back to the hill facing the stage — virtually 180 degrees of horizontal coverage — and without tight control, sound from a high-power P.A. would spill across the wide-open spaces to residents far beyond the Chip’s fringes.
Sure Sound & Light owner Larry Suhr listened to a Renkus-Heinz STLA/9 large-format line array last year and made a favorable mental note about the system’s performance. When it came to designing a system for this year’s Rally, he called Renkus-Heinz area rep Ben Shipman of AVA to find out what the California-based manufacturer could offer.
The result was the Buffalo Chip’s first-ever line array — a main system comprised of 12-cabinet left and right hangs of self-powered STLA/9s, a pair of four-box STLA/9 ground stacks as out fills, with two Renkus-Heinz PN102/LA compact line array cabinets, also self-powered, as front fills. Sure provided its own subwoofer system, using six 4x18” and six 2x18” subs per side.
Out front, a Yamaha MC7L provided mixing and onboard effects for the support acts, while the headliners brought in their own boards, including a Digidesign VENUE, Yamaha PM5D and Midas XL4. Ensuring sonic consistency, whatever the sources, Sure also equipped the rig with a Dolby Lake Processor, augmented by some visiting engineers with tablet-based Smaart systems to ensure fine-tuning to their own specific requirements.
Velvet Revolver engineer Toby Francis, who mixed the band on their midweek headline slot, said afterward, “I first worked with this system a year ago, and I was completely blown away by it. It’s punchy top to bottom, clear and smooth when you want it to be and incredibly responsive.”
AVA’s rep Ben Shipman, having helped the deal, remained on site from setup to load out, contributing to the deployment of two additional compact PN102/LA cabinets as high-power VIP seating area fills to deliver the coverage for all.
As the PN102/LAs deliver a reported 150 degrees in the horizontal, this was, says Buffalo Chip Production Manager Steve Owen, a good call. “Suddenly we’re able to deliver the same level and quality of sound into areas of the audience where it had been more difficult before,” he says. “The previous system, although we had done well with it over the years, took a lot longer to hang and rig than the Renkus-Heinz solution; it really was no match for the more modern solution when it came to providing the even coverage and level across the entire space we needed, because with this new solution we’ve actually got two different, but matching, types of line array — one large, one compact — that work great together to cover a big site.
Owen concludes, “Factor in that many of our headlining bands have been requesting a switch to line-array technology for a whole variety of reasons, the generic change made total sense, and this rig just sounds and works great.”
Renkus-Heinz’s National Sales Manager Dave Rahn and VP of R&D Ralph Heinz also made the trip to join the support team on site — and stayed. “We always enjoy not just supporting the customer, but really getting in there and listening to what people say about our products,” says Ralph. “And there were some great bands!”
As with any festival, being light on your feet in terms of production flexibility is essential. “As you’d expect,” says Steve Owen, “we have headline bands’ engineers coming through here with very different mixing styles and using their own boards; everything has to be just right when they walk up and plug into our system. So, a system that delivers the output, plus is very clean and uncolored and responsive to those engineers, is what you absolutely need.”
He continues, “Also, a really road-proven, self-powered solution was great because it eliminated the need to create that whole ‘amplifier world’ either beside or under the stage, with all the mass of cabling that entails and the water protection considerations of outdoors shows. It just removes a whole other level of complexity in a situation where you’re having to run fast and think on your feet anyway.”
Don Dodger, FOH for Foreigner, said, “We played Sturgis at the Buffalo Chip campground stage, and to my surprise, the new Renkus-Heinz line array was strong. I’d wanted to use it since it came out; I’ve always liked Renkus-Heinz products, but this new line array blew me away — a big open-air amphitheatre and it had no problem filling it perfectly. I was very impressed: little EQ and whole lot of punch!”
Meanwhile, Tim “Poppa Smurf” Lawrence, mixing out front for Poison, had this to say: “The Renkus-Heinz line array is very nice: compact, smooth sounding and can handle pretty much everything — all the volume and dynamics I could want without ever going into pain.”
Were there practical challenges? Of course there were; it’s a festival. One afternoon, Rahn noticed that one of the STLA/9 cabinets was producing an anomaly at a specific midfrequency. After five minutes of analysis, and after donning a pair of sturdy boots, Mr Rahn himself had lumbered up the hung array’s “hardware ladder” and hot-swapped a PM3 amplifier module from the identified cabinet, with no interruption to the day’s proceedings. “Smart road design is like insurance,” he says. “You don’t expect anything to go wrong on the road, but if it does, the crucial thing is that design is ready to cope with it.”
A final word, from Woody, who says, “The new system contained the sound very well, while at the same time ensuring excellent sound throughout the amphitheatre. Like I said,” he added, “we were trying to outdo ourselves. Our audiences come here for a good time, and over the Buffalo Chip’s two-week rally, including nine days of nationally prominent entertainment, they’ll spend hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars on getting here, ac-commodations, entertainment, food and drinks. We wanted to give them the best. I think this year we truly blew ’em away with our sound.”
Comment by GUEST on 2007-10-17 18:40:54
I was at the chip. I always go to the chip. This system blew my doors off. Clean and crisp. That's the way it needs to be for my ZZ Tip buddies.
Comment by GUEST on 2007-10-18 15:55:03
I was there at the Chip for the 4th straight year. Without a doubt the sound was superb, no matter if I was up front on the Harley or back and up on the Miller Lite Bar area. Hope to see you there next year with the sound....I've already booked my 08 tickets!!!!
Glenn - Omaha