When you're in the audience looking forwards at the stage and listening to the magic that emanates from the musicians, it is easy to forget that there is something crucial going on behind you – the sound engineering. The musicians may be good, but they are nothing in a concert venue without a skilled technician making sure they sound great. Vanessa Bonnin investigates
In the case of the Fes Sacred Music Festival, the man behind the mixing desk is 39-year-old Erik Loots from Antwerp, Belgium. Loots is head of sound which involves the engineering, and unofficially, production, and this is his fifteenth successive year in Fes.
“The Fes Festival is an interesting musical encounter,” he said. “I love doing festivals and discovering new music. Also I like the weather, I often say ‘I’m paid in sunshine!’”
Loots started out as a musician and came from a classical background, going to music school and playing German flute from the age of five and then moving to electric bass at the age of 14, playing in bands and writing songs.
“One day, when I was 17, one of the bands I was playing in won a contest and we were able to play for two full days using a complete sound system,” he said. “But the sound engineer was rubbish, he didn’t have a clue, so I said to my mate ‘you play bass tonight and I’ll do sound’, so that’s how I mixed my first band.”
After taking a university course in film at the insistence of his mother “she said I had to get a proper degree first” he went straight back to music and two years later was the sound engineer for the musical ‘Cats’ when it toured to Antwerp.
That put him in touch with Autograph Sound Recording, a London-based sound company who do all the big West End shows. He moved to London for six years to work with them, which led him to Chris Ekers. “He invited me to help him with the festival in Fes and we then worked together for 12 years,” Loots said. “Last year and this year I’ve been doing it on my own as he is contracted to the Olympics.”
The rest of the year Loots is kept busy as the sound engineer for acts like Anastacia and Belgian band Vaya Con Dios, as well as doing sound design for musical theatre, working for festivals and teaching sound engineering at Phl Music Hasselt in Belgium.
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But it is Fes that keeps him coming back due to its unique musical encounters.
“About seven or eight years ago we were at the Batha Museum stage doing a sound check for a band from Armenia,” Loots said. “There was this guy dressed in traditional Armenian clothing and he had a crappy old, nylon-string acoustic guitar – the sort of thing we’d throw away back home. “Anyway, he started playing a song – apparently it was about the war they had just experienced – and the emotion on his face and the intensity you could hear in his voice, it was amazing. That’s something I’ve never forgotten.”
The unique cultural experience on stage is also mirrored by unique cultural challenges, and Loots said the biggest challenges are the “chaotic working ethic” in Fes and understanding foreign music. “The way things are organised is different than the way Europeans work,” he said. “My pass says ‘organisation’ but I’ve added ‘dis’ to the front of it!”
“Also it’s not every evident for me to get the same feel into the music because we’re used to hearing Western music – for example, mixing Anastacia is easy for me. But the music here, to amplify it, get the right balance and make it sound like it should is a challenge. You have to get into the musical mind of those people.”
But Loots expects the challenges and is prepared for them.
“The challenges make it interesting, I learn a lot. That’s one of the reasons I do this Festival.”
And when the Festival is over, what music does he choose to listen to? Everything from classical to the Foo Fighters. “I’m just a fan of good music.”
Reporter: Vanessa Bonnin
Photographs: Vanessa Bonnin, Sandy McCutcheon