Live Events

Ultra Music Festival

Wed, 02 Apr 2014 15:34

Ultra’ is a pretty serious adjective second only, I presume, to ‘mega ultra’. For something to be ultra it means that it needs to traverse far beyond that which is considered merely ‘good’ or even ‘great’, and blow the mind with such devastating force that all other superlatives pale miserably in comparison.

This is why the international EDM (electronic dance music) festival – the Ultra Music Festival – is not blithely called the Good Music Festival. Nor is it called the Great Music Festival. Its goal, as its name suggests, is to shock the senses and be, in every sense of the word, ‘ultra’. From the looks of things, it was exactly that, and thousands of hip-gyrating, foot-stomping, hand gesture throwing, wide-eyed EDM fans that attended the event will certainly agree.

The Ultra Music Festival started in Miami, Florida, in 1999 and its popularity has grown so fast that 15 years later it is one of the largest international EDM touring festival brands around. Ultra Music Festivals have been organised in places like Ibiza, Spain; Buenos Aires, Argentina; São Paulo, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; Seoul, South Korea; Split and Hvar, Croatia with the latest being held right here in Cape Town and Johannesburg on 14 and 15 February 2014 respectively.

Held over two weekends, the mother festival takes place at Bayfront Park in Miami with an aggregate attendance of over 330,000. South Africa fared pretty well with an attendance of 40,000 over two days; eager fans came out in droves to see headliners Tiesto, Alesso, Afrojack and Nicky Romero rock the house.

So how do you deliver a show to a crowd of 40,000-strong and how do you do it without involving a multitude of rental companies? Apparently, you call Gearhouse Group.

Gearhouse provided all technical requirements for the event under one roof, including audio, lighting, rigging, staging and LED with the exception of pyrotechnics, which were handled by Fireworks for Africa.

A bit of background…

Gearhouse was first approached by Showtime Management in the middle of 2013 to start preliminary layouts in conjunction with Mark Daubeney of Mushroom productions, who was acting as Showtime’s production manager. In November, a meeting with Ray Steinman, Ultra Music Festival’s international production manager, was set up where the technical requirements for the main stage were discussed. Between Ray Steinman and Johan Kristensson, project manager at Gearhouse, the look and feel of the event was developed. One of the main motivating factors behind the design of the show and its resulting focus on visual elements was the fact that there were no bands or moving acts on stage to fill it with a moving presence.

“At the end of the day, there are just one or two guys or girls standing on stage playing music. There’s not too much they can do from a stage presence point of view,” says Kristensson. “So it’s all about how the effects, the video and pyrotechnics are incorporated into the music to create that visual effect.”

Another concern was not to reveal too much of the set and effects all at once, seeing they were such a large part of the show. The goal was to gradually add more effect elements as the show progressed and climaxed with the headline act.

“It’s important when you’re doing an event that is 12 or 14 hours long that you don’t reveal everything at the beginning,” says John McDermott, business development manager at Gearhouse. “So it’s one of those things that has to build-up slowly as the evening climaxes. You start off with something that’s basic and relatively centralised, and then you add to that. You simply don’t switch on all of the lights to start with so you don’t see them. Obviously, the pyros happen later as well. You might start with the central ring of lights and reveal the layers as you go.”

Concerning the design of the stage, while Ultra International had the final say on the overall layout, they worked closely with Gearhouse to come to a solution that both parties could feel good about. However, because the Johannesburg and Cape Town shows were back to back, there were logistical issues to work out.

McDermott explains: “We put a few proposals forward to Ultra, which included the half-dome structure as the potential roof structure, which they liked. They also liked that we could do a ‘U’-shaped trussing configuration to emulate their logo. Their lighting and visual show designers then worked an LED and lighting spec into that ‘wish list’, so to speak. Then there was a bit of ‘to and fro-ing’ because there was no time to move gear between the Johannesburg and Cape Town shows. So we had to do a complete duplicate rig in both cities. I don’t think we toured anything except Tiesto’s lighting desk and media server.”

Because Gearhouse had to duplicate the rig in both cities due to said logistical problems, some concessions had to be made and this had a big effect on the final layout and gear lists for the show. “Duplicating the rig brought its own challenges and it played a large part in the way we went about the spec and how we arrived at the mirror image for each city.”

Once a final layout of the stage, lighting, LED and effects had been agreed on, Gearhouse supplied the international teams with the relevant plots they required to program their show. In terms of the media server content for the LED screens, the same procedure was followed. However, despite a strong working relationship between Gearhouse and Ultra International in this event, it was of paramount importance to Ultra that Ultra Music Festival South Africa had its own design, spirit and vibe.

“What they (Ultra International) are doing is building their brand in South Africa so they wanted it to look different to any other EDM event that happens here,” says McDermott. “That’s why they worked on a very specific design and the result was that it did indeed look different to anything else they had done before.” In order to keep with the chosen streamlined logistics of Ultra Music Festival South Africa, the stage layout, lighting, AV and audio systems were duplicated for each event in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Stage structure

The stage structure at The Ultra Music Festival (from hereon referred to as ‘Ultrafest’) was a half-dome structure that was actually the cap-end of a 28m MAXI Dome (supplied by Gearhouse Group subsidiary In2Structures) set on a Layher 30m x 19m x 1.5m stage.

On either side of the stage, six scaffold towers (Layher ‘screen walls’) were erected in a ‘stepped’ configuration; starting with the highest at 12m and descending to 6m in 1m increments. The main audio arrays were hung from the towers closest to the stage while the following towers were where LED panels were placed and lighting fixtures were secured.

On the top-centre of the half-dome, the ‘U’-shaped logo of the Ultra Music Festival brand was attached and was surrounded by trussing to which additional lighting fixtures were secured. Inside the half-dome and hung above the DJs, a ring of truss was hung along with two arches of truss that followed the curvature of the dome and encircled the truss ring. Many of the stage lighting fixtures were hung there.

All in all, the structure measured 13m high, 59m wide and 20m deep.


The audio for Ultrafest was centred on a comprehensive and somewhat massive L’Acoustics system, combining K1, Kara and DV-Dosc elements. Remember Chaitezvi, senior sound touring engineer at Gearhouse, oversaw the system setup, optimisation and time alignment. Time alignment was achieved via Smaart 7 software and a Lake LM44 handled signal routing and system optimisation, which was controlled wirelessly on a tablet PC via the Lake Controller software application. Opticalcon fibre optic cable was used to interconnect system components.

Twelve K1 elements were rigged for both the left and right main hangs while three Kara boxes per side were configured as down-fills. For left, centre and right-fills, DV-Dosc elements were arranged in a 3-4-3 configuration, respectively. A further four K1 elements were placed as out-fills on the far ends of the stage structure. In terms of subwoofers for the main system, a total of 24 L’Acoustics SB28s were placed in two stacks of 12 in a left and right configuration.

The only loudspeakers not L’Acoustics were the delay stacks, which consisted of four Turbosound TMS3s and two Turbosound TSW-718 subwoofers per side (left and right).

For stage monitoring, four Kara elements and two SB18s were paired per side. Considering a system of this size is usually used for crowds approaching 2,000, the sheer sound level on stage can be appreciated.

Power amplifiers used at Ultrafest were exclusively L’Acoustics L8 ‘amplified controllers’. A total of 26 units were deployed and were controlled via LA Network Manager to achieve real-time control and monitoring of system gain, EQ and configuration from FOH.

The FOH console deployed was a Yamaha PM5D-RH V2 and the monitor console was a Yamaha LS9-32. An Avalon VT737 was used on the FOH master output, employing the EQ section for sweetening while a Waves Maxx BCL was used for limiting.

Since there were no bands on stage requiring microphones, a comprehensive list of DJ equipment was supplied. Six industry standard Pioneer CDJ-2000 and six CDJ-2000NXS were the playback decks of choice. A Pioneer DVJ-1000 DVD video player deck was also available if needed. Three DJM900 Nexus mixers were supplied. This made three complete systems with all system components updated with the latest firmware to ensure utmost compatibility.

For in-ear monitoring, four Sennheiser 300 series IEM systems were supplied and seven Shure UR2 Beta58 handheld wireless mics were supplied for the DJs with their respective Shure UR4D UHF dual channel receivers.


As mentioned, the visual aspect of Ultrafest was of utmost importance; therefore lighting was a large part of the event and was scaled up as the event reached its climax with Tiesto.

For FOH, two Grand MA full-size lighting consoles were supplied, paired with two Grand MA NSPs (Network Signal Processors); one system being handled by the festival lighting designer, Steve Lieberman, and the other by Afrojack’s lighting designer. Tiesto brought their own lighting console, which was a Chamsys MagicQ 70 with four playback rings. The fact that there were three different lighting systems brought logistical challenges.

Gearhouse’s lighting designer on the ground was Robert Grobler. “In terms of lighting it was pretty straight forward overall”, says Grobler. “However, the greatest challenge was that we had three different consoles that we had to integrate seamlessly into one lighting group without anything going wrong. We used this problem as motivation to find a solution in the form of DMX switches that enabled us to seamlessly switch between the different platforms and double up with redundancy. Because of this, we are now the only company in the country that can supply full 16 universe redundancy.”

The unit Grobler is talking about is Rock Solid Technologies’ RockSwitch; a passive RDM compatible DMX A/B switch that is Art-Net compatible.

The following lighting fixtures were supplied to Ultrafest:

• 32 x Philips SL Nitro 510

• 20 x Philips SL Nitro 510 LED strobe luminaires

• 4 x Philips SL Nitro 510 LED strobes

• 20 x Robe Robin 600 LED

• 42 x Robe LED Force 18 RGBW

• 16 x Martin Mac 2000e Profile

• 20 x Martin Mac 2000e Wash

• 8 x Robe ColorSpot 700e

• 6 x Robe ColorWash 700e

• 26 x Molefay Frames

• 4 x Bar of six Par 64 (black)

• 4 x Spazio 150W metal halide flood

• 4 x Philips 400W metal halide flood

• 38 x Robe Pointe

To supply haze and fog, MDG was the preferred brand. An MDG Max3000 APS fog generator and an MDG Atmosphere haze generator were supplied.


The LED system for Ultrafest was arguably the most striking feature of the event. As mentioned, the stepped towers (Layher screen walls) that flanked either side of the stage were the structures to which a number of LED panels were affixed. A total of 70 Lighthouse R16 panels (35 per side) were hung on each tower – starting from the inside of the stage and moving outwards – in a 9-8-6-5-4-3 configuration. This created the effect of LED columns that followed the stepped nature of the scaffold towers. A further 26 Lighthouse R16s were arranged in a 2 x 13 configuration to form a cohesive convex wall in front of the DJs.

However, the largest LED drawcard was the wall behind the DJs, which followed the inside curvature of the dome. A total of 150 Lighthouse DuoLED 18 panels were arranged in this curved configuration.

To run the system, a variety of AV equipment was supplied. This included a Vista Spyder X20-1608 video processing and video matrix switching system, a Black Magic analogue to SDI converter, a Folsom ImagePRO-HD multi-format video processor, a Roland V1600HD multi-format live video switcher, and a 21.5” Apple iMac to run the content. The entire system was distributed via fibre optic cable.


Something we have never spoken about in Pro Systems are pyrotechnics, which were a large part of Ultrafest and are beginning to show up at a growing number of major events in South Africa. One company that has been popping up almost exclusively where pyrotechnics are concerned is the award-winning Fireworks for Africa. Personnel from Fireworks for Africa who were involved at Ultrafest include Nick Mitri, explosive pyrotechnics operator; Travis Yeatman, special effects operator; and system management technicians Brent Joseph and Dominic Vermaak.

Since we’re all a bit green when it comes to the ins and outs of pyrotechnics, special effects operator Travis Yeatman explains how the system works:

“All the pyrotechnics are triggered via the Galaxis Pyrotechnic system. There were four stage positions and six roof positions located on the PA and LED towers either side of the stage. In addition to this, there were two separate waterfall cascades rigged off a 12m truss flown downstage. The entire system is wireless on a locked frequency and the configuration is customisable for every venue and event.”

He goes on: “The loading and wiring of these products is time-consuming and tedious work that requires high attention to detail. There are no second chances when it comes to pyrotechnics so they need to function correctly every time, the first time. An Avolites Tiger Touch is used to control a DMX system, which operates a dimmer rack for programmable hot power channels that trigger the CO2 jets and stadium shots. The Flamaniac units have integrated DMX. The confetti blowers are operated manually for easy adjustment of speed and flow of confetti.”

The wrap

What can be said? The Ultra Music Festival South Africa was indeed ‘ultra’. It was not just good. It was not just great. It totally exceeded expectations on all fronts and showed the world once again that South Africa can stand up with the best when it comes to hosting an event of this size. From staging, to audio, to lighting, to video to even pyrotechnics, the benchmark has once again been raised.

Knowing South Africa, I’m sure the next ‘mega ultra’ event is coming soon.