Mobile Stage Carries Load at SXSW Music Festival

Mobile stage technology has advanced to such a level that shows are now coming to fans faster than ever before — good news for party-goers, unless, of course, a rock festival plants itself next to your home. Case in point: the Ernie Ball Local Heroes Mobile Stage. This past March in Austin, Texas, the mobile stage made its second appearance at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival.

Music fans show up by the thousands at some 50-plus music venues around Austin during the event. The problem is that most of the venues are indoors in bars and clubs. Large crowds can't be accommodated as easily, and due to traffic, noise, set-up and tear-down times, and the production requirements of sound, light, and power, outdoor venues at SXSW are few and far between. That's where the Ernie Ball Local Heroes Mobile Stage came in.

“In order to sell musical instruments, kids need to have a place to play them, and that was basically the concept behind the idea,” says Ryan McLain, manager of the mobile stage and an event marketer for Ernie Ball. The company manufactures Music Man guitars and instrument strings and accessories.

McLain says the stage was created originally as a marketing tool to help the company promote its line of instruments.

“We designed and manufactured the stage with the idea of this being a grassroots marketing campaign, where we could take it around the country, giving up-and-coming bands an opportunity to play,” he says. “We can show up anywhere, and within two hours set up our truck and transfer it into a turnkey solution for putting on a concert. (The stage) includes sound, lighting, back-line, stage power — it has its own generator — and crew. So there's really nothing we need from a venue or provider. Two people can operate it, and in two hours you can have a full-on rock concert.”

McLain points to the SXSW Music Festival as a key example. There, the company was asked to stage a concert in the parking lot of the local Fox and Hound restaurant.

“Sometimes corporate clients get a little stressed out seeing big staging companies and tent companies and sound companies loading in all their trucks,” says Leslie Uppinghouse, production manager of the SXSW festival. “One of the issues that really sealed the deal for me with that venue specifically was they were concerned about adequate power distribution if I did bring in PA and lights. Ernie Ball comes with its own generator. It was the least amount of stress I could humanly put on the venue.”

McLain explains how the truck transforms into a stage during setup before a typical gig.

“The truck pulls into a venue, and we level the truck with a hydraulic jack,” he says. “We drop the stage door — an 8'×24' platform comes down — which makes the 16'×24' deck. The door also goes up — it's got two doors on it — which makes a 16'×24' roof, and then we attach PA wings that we designed. All the speakers — the whole sound system is on wheels.

“We custom-engineered the truck so that one person can move everything. We roll everything into place, including the front-of-house equipment,” McLain says. “All the lighting is already pre-hung on the door that goes up, and pre-hung inside the cab (of the truck) over the drum-riser. It has a drum-riser that's already welded into place, and it doesn't need to be moved. The amp racks are already installed in the attic of the truck. Everything is hard-wired. The snake is hard-wired to a toolbox underneath the truck. Everything gets pulled out. The generators on the bumper are already hard-wired with a circuit-breaker box by the truck.”

Uppinghouse is convinced this type of mobile stage has great potential for multi-venue, citywide events like SXSW.

“I love (mobile stages), and particularly the Ernie Ball stage, which is different from others that I've (seen),” says Uppinghouse. “They are completely turnkey in terms of production. They have their own power, they have their own stage, their own lighting, their own sound. Plus, they have an actual engineer driving the truck.”

Uppinghouse also liked the fact that the Ernie Ball team brought its own back-line to the festival. A large part of her job normally consists of pulling in all those back-line elements — amps, drum kits, etc. — from many different back-line companies to meet the needs of all the touring bands. “Ernie Ball already has the equipment on the truck. It's just a matter of finding a venue to park it. And the beauty of it is, it just drives right up, parks, and opens up.”

The Ernie Ball mobile stage was designed and built in-house by engineers Hans Lindaur and Dan Norton in San Luis Obispo, Calif., at a cost of approximately $400,000. They did all the computer-animated drafting themselves, and assembled the materials in a 40ft. Freightliner Straight Truck.

The technology the truck carries includes a 21,000W sound system, courtesy of Electro-Voice, Dynacord, Klark Teknik, and Midas, and Source Four lights. Its back-line is made up of DW, Zildjian, Remo, Line 6, and Hartke equipment.

“Right now, we're running the brand-new Dynacord Cobra 4 speakers that were just released into the winter NAMM show in January,” says McLain. “I went down to winter NAMM because they told me about these new speakers, and they were looking for marketing assistance with getting these speakers known in the U.S. This particular speaker fits our application because it's ground-stackable, and it doesn't have to be flown. We don't have a load-bearing roof on our stage, so we had to go with ground-stack speakers.”

The stage deck lies off the ground about 3 feet, so ground-stacking the speakers is an easy solution, offering good vertical-by-horizontal dispersion. The sound can rock a good 6,000- to 8,000-person crowd standing in an large open area, McLain says.

“We're using Electro-Voice amplifiers, Electro-Voice microphones, a Midas console, the Venice 320, and we're using Klark Teknik processing gear,” McLain adds.

“We've done a lot of customization for aesthetics. We have some sub-stakes that we have recessed in the floor. All the speaker cables roll out and connect with one connector. You don't actually have to move anything or stack any boxes. All the amp racks are hard-wired. We even have Aurelex tiling on the ceiling, so there's a really dead acoustic environment inside the truck to kill any overtones.”

So how did the stage perform in Austin?

“That was the first time we used the new speakers and it went over really well,” says McLain. “You could actually hear the stage for about four blocks. In fact, we got a lot of noise complaints because the sound almost went too far, but it sounded great. The bands were stoked to play on it.”


Darroch Greer is a documentary filmmaker and historical researcher. He writes, produces, and directs documentaries which have appeared on PBS, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and VH1. Email him at darroch@sodbusterpictures.com