Written by 5:00 am Audiophile Music

Desert Trip : A Journey For Music Fans and Audiophiles!

Mark Smotroff digs desert soundscapes

So, by now you have probably heard about the super-duper, mega-uber concert experience that was called Desert Trip held over two weekends in October this year. Both sets of shows featured wonderful performances by Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Neil Young and Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd). 

AR-DesertTripPoster225.jpgI went to the second weekend of shows and can attest to the event being not only a spectacular assemblage, but also a fantastic demonstration of what a big concert experience could be. More like a gigantic state fair than just a wham-bam concert experience, Desert Trip presented attendees with loads of different food and drink options as well as an incredible photo museum (with more than 200 images by famous rock photographers featuring the artists performing).  Some amazing sights to complement the sounds we were hearing live those three days…

Some of us were also buying some amazing sounds… 

You see, there was a much anticipated …. lets call it an “activity” …  for music collectors, and it turned out to be one which exceeded expectations.  When the Desert Trip folks announced that there would be an actual “pop up” record store on the grounds of the event, most collectors I spoke with anticipated it to be an overpriced money grab geared toward the uber-wealthy.  

I went into it expecting exactly that…

The pleasant surprise was that the store was actually pretty great and the complete opposite of what we all expected! The store contained lots of fairly priced, mostly excellent condition gems.While I bought a few albums, my downfall (if you will) was getting lost in the rows and rows of rare and obscure 45s — there must have been about 10,000 singles there! — which were selling for $1 a disc! 

I had so many that at one point I had to text my music buddy Frank to rush over to the store to help me figure out which ones to keep and what to put back. He came to the rescue along with two other new music friends we met during the show (thanks Kevin and Jerry!) and together they helped me pare back my stack-o-tracks to a mere forty discs.  

Yeah, I bought forty 45s… with no regrets… 

Vinyl… it is an addiction for many of us .. 

So many of us were there that frequently a long line of crate diggers would form outside in the hot desert heat waiting to get into the space-limited, air-conditioned pop-up record store building. The management of the store also wisely offered disc lay-away holding services for those who didn’t want to risk carrying their purchases out into the scorching sun or risk damage holding them around the maddening crowds. You could just pick up your goodies at the end of the day or the end of the festival! 

Some very smart people organized this event, clearly… 

Moving on… the other really cool part about Desert Trip, was simply the sound system. 

While I don’t have extreme technical details — and besides that sort of thing is beyond the scope of this publication — I will say that the audio during the three days of the festival is among the best I have ever heard during a large scale live music event. 

AR-DesertTripPrisma225.jpgNow, on general live sound in an out-of-doors venue will sound better to the listener (or at least, let’s call it “different” than what is heard a traditional indoor venue) simply because of the lack of reflection surfaces – – the music is not bouncing around off the walls and ceilings of a traditional concert hall

So, the music tends to sound clearer at those kinds of shows….

Now, in my experience, even when you are in a outdoor stadium, while the sound it does not reflect upwards there are sometimes reflections going on within the physical walls of the venue. However at Desert Trip, you are literally on an enormous flat plain in the desert. Yes, it was a polo stadium so there were side bleachers on either side of the front sections, but in general the music just kind of went out and back into the atmosphere. Apart from some tents in the back, the nearest large “wall” were mountains at the edges of the Coachella Valley, miles away on either side of the venue.

As it happened we had general admission seats and for the most part I was with friends who appreciate good sound, so we ended up finding a place to set up our folding stadium chairs pretty much dead center to the whole venue.  We were particularly keen to have a good sonic vantage point for the sound for Roger Waters set on Sunday night, as we had heard that he was performing in multi-channel surround sound.

Borrowing fan parlance from my Grateful Dead head days, I even heard an “ugly rumor” from another concert goer that Roger might have had special subwoofers installed into the desert floor beneath the audience. Sounds a bit ultra-fantastic, I must say — and I have not been able to find anything on the Interwebs to confirm or deny this notion — but I will admit that at least once during the show I got down on my hands and knees and put my head to the ground to see if I could hear or feel anything!  

People around me must’ve thought I was getting down on my knees to pray during Roger’s set. 

All hail the gods of sonic bliss!

Again I don’t have the specifics on exactly how many surround channels and what the type of system used was technically about – – we are not a sound reinforcement publication here at Audiophile review – – but I can tell you that the surround sound during Waters’ show was especially awesome.  


]]>The mixing engineers kept most of music happening from the stage, so audio purists should’ve been happy about that. But it was the tasteful and effective use of the surround channels that made it a very exciting listening experience, mostly with special-effects and dialogue during some of the songs, and also the occasional synthesizer swirl that would float above your head or around you like some sort of other worldly sonic dust devil.

For those in the know, it shouldn’t be a surprise to read about a Pink Floyd member performing in surround sound; that band had pioneered multi channel live music since the early 1970s, coincident with the rise of early quadraphonic technology.

AR-RogerWatersDesertTrip225.jpgOne of the most dramatic moments during the concert came early in the set when Roger broke out “Fearless” from Pink Floyd’s pre-Dark Side of the Moon album Meddle. Largely an acoustic-guitar driven mood piece of a rock song, it was a brilliant use of the of the wide desert concert space  giving listeners a lot of time to take in the lush vocals and big acoustic guitar tones. 

Aat the end of the song, for those of you not familiar with it, the music morphs from the rich acoustic flavor to a pre-recorded live chorus singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (from the broadway show Carousel; according to the Wiki it is The Liverpool Football Club Kop Choir, which has apparently sung the song at games since the early 1960s!).

And it was at this point that the sounds — which devolve into hyper-reverberated madness on the record — began swirling around us listeners. The impact been quite mind blowing.  

Again, the best description I can give you what it was like is to try and imagine a virtual “dust devil” – – a miniature tornado which commonly pops up in the barren desert — made of sound, dancing in swirling around the crowd. It’s impact is not to be understated… It made it already powerful moment in the song extremely dynamic and engaging.

My friends and I were all looking around at each other at that moment with dropped jaws, mouthing an ecstatic “wow!”

And that folks, is what the Desert Trip festival was all about: a big wow! 

It was an event engaging music fans in listening and being at one with the music — you HAD to be into music to want to hang around in a hot and sometimes dusty desert for 15 hours a day! It was really encouraging to be around nearly 100,000 people each day who were genuinely and passionately into the music. 

“You’ll never walk alone,” indeed…

AR-macca@DesertTrip1200.jpgMaybe it was the older nature of the crowd, or the fact that we were dealing with desert heat, but in general I didn’t see the typical festival phenomena of people getting wasted and not paying attention to the music during Desert Trip. I for one had no desire to drink anything but water the whole three days. Keeping hydrated was super important out there.

Sure people were having fun, and sure people were dancing and partying having good times with their friends, but in general everyone was there for the music, not to get completely blasted. Not judging, but it was kind of refreshing, actually, to see that happening…

Between sets I talked about this phenomenon with a number of different people over the course of three days and in general everyone had the same response: ‘we are older and wiser now, so we’ve been there and done that when it comes to concert partying.’ 

Indeed, both on the stage from the artists in the audience I got the sense that everyone was just really really happy to have made it this far on their life journeys so they could be present for an event like this. 

Most of the artists performing stepped up to the bar to deliver outstanding performances.

I really hope that there will be an official release of the Desert Trip concerts in a high-resolution format such as Blu-ray disc with a great surround sound track. That would be the ultimate concert memento for those of us who attended as well as for those who could not make it. But for now, these memories are forever etched in my mind as some of the happiest, best sounding live concert experiences I have had thus far…

And that is saying something as I have been to many, many, many concerts in my lifetime.

Can’t wait to find out what the Desert Trip festival will be like next year… 

Stay tuned, same desert time, same desert channel…

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