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Max Headroom: Building The Biggest PA In The Galaxy

From the January 1989 issue of Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, looking at the record-breaking, 500 kW system deployed for Iron Maiden in 1988.

Editor’s Note: This article was published in the January 1989 issue of Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, which also published the first issues of Live Sound International as a quarterly supplement, beginning in the late 1980s. It provides an interesting “snapshot” into thoughts and practices in sound reinforcement at the time.

The motorsport racetrack at Castle Donington in the English Midlands has been the location for a nine-year series of annual heavy metal, one-day outdoor concerts. At the last festival, on August 20, 1988, eight bands played, headlined by Iron Maiden using the biggest single-source PA system ever constructed. Rated to be driven by audio power in excess of 500 kW, it’s won an entry in this year’s “Guinness Book of Records.”

Throughout the 1980s, UK touring bands have had to weather (for diverse reasons) tough economics. Most of the 1970s headline bands that owned their own PA systems have long ago “realized their assets.”

Iron Maiden is an exception. In 1983, after two years of successful touring with Turbosound’s own PA rental company, the band decided to buy the rig they were then using, including 24 TMS-3 boxes for the main house system. At the time, the idea of investing in such a huge (and partly “second owner”) PA would have looked outrageous to record company accountants.

However, Iron Maiden’s management had some massive world tours planned. The decision has paid off because, over the past six years, the band has averaged seven out of every 12 months on the road — including a two-year period in which they toured continuously for 13 months! Since then, the original PA has grown substantially to include 100 TMS-3s and 24 TSW-124 subwoofers.

Iron Maiden house engineer Don Hall at his Soundcraft console joined by a whole lot of outboard gear.

Doug Hall, Iron Maiden’s house engineer, saw at Donington the opportunity to use the PA for the whole event, but he knew they’d need more equipment. “I like a system to exhibit comfortable headroom, about three-quarters of its total output,” he explained.


Dick Bell, Iron Maiden’s production manager, then contacted Mike Low at Britannia Row, a major UK PA rental company, who was coordinating the sound at Donington. Low set about arranging a further 400 kW-powered array with the help of Samuelson’s Concert Productions (another UK rental company that, incidentally, was bought by Britannia Row the week after the concert).

Extra cabinets and amplifier racks were brought in from Regiscène in France and Ampco in Holland. Meanwhile, in Brit Row’s warehouse, a section of the planned array was evaluated to simulate the intended coverage two months beforehand.

The Setup

Onsite setup took five days. Monday was spent erecting the main loudspeaker array. The consoles, stage monitoring and the single delay tower array were rigged on Tuesday. Wednesday was “tech day” — the system was fired up, hums were exorcised, the polarity of more than 1,700 individual components was checked, and the cabinet array in the PA wings’ upper tier was adjusted.

Thursday and Friday were reserved for sound checking for Iron Maiden and the support bands. This meant the instrument backline could be left in place backstage, positioned in order of appearance.

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Before 1986, Iron Maiden guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith had used the traditional Marshall amp stack (the kind that’s permanently cranked up to maximum), together with daisy-chained FX pedals. The sound was neither clean nor quiet enough, so Hall generally used a clean feed from the two guitarists by miking individual cabinets backstage.

At Donington, however, stacks of Galen-Kruger amps and a rack of TC Electronic guitar FX cleaned up the sound sufficiently for Hall to mic the onstage amps directly. The mics used for Iron Maiden included a Shure SM7 on bass guitar, SM57s for the two guitars, an SM98 on the hi-hat and another on the tubular bells, an AKG D112 on the kick drum, Neumann KM 84s over the kit, together with SM57s for the remainder. Sony diversity wireless mics were used for the vocals.

Just some of the gear beneath one of the 72-foot stage wings.

All mic lines were fed into BSS MSR-604 active microphone splitters, which provided buffered feeds for the three house and three stage monitor consoles, as well as an isolated feed for the BBC’s recording truck.

A multicore was also laid from the house consoles to provide effects returns for the BBC. From the splitter rack to the house consoles were three snakes apiece, each with 19 pairs, supplying 3 x 40-channel capability, with spare pairs.

As usual, the aim was to keep show downtime to a minimum, with each successive instrument/amp array and drum riser fully miked and waiting behind the backdrop. In theory, it was only necessary to plug the multicore into the next stage box.

The actual duration of the seven changeovers ranged between 20 and 25 minutes. To achieve the rapid changeover while keeping Iron Maiden’s own control gear intact required an onstage crew of 24 as well as three substantial independent monitor systems. The support bands’ monitoring alternated between a pair of Soundcraft Series 4, 40/16 consoles (supplied by Samuelson’s) with their own EQ racks, and Carver PM 1.5 amps.

John Shearman and Ed Wilson from Samuelson’s did alternate duty on the support bands’ monitor mixes. Alongside was Iron Maiden’s own 24/10 Midas, with a third set of control gear. The power amplifiers were mostly QSC 3800s (low + mid), with a few Turbosound Fan Amps and Turner B502s (on the vocal wedges).

The support bands “A/B-d” between two sets of custom stage monitor wedges, designed by Pete Brotzman when he worked at Turbosound Rentals. They all used TMS-3 side and drum fills from Iron Maiden’s 40 kW monitor system. Maiden used its own Turbosound vocal wedges along with vocalist Bruce Dickinson’s side fills, which are rated at 12 kW and combine a pair of Martin 215 bins with Community’s M4, a 4-inch-exit mid-range compression driver noted for its ability to deliver crushing SPL.

House Control

In the mix tower were three consoles, each with its own outboard gear. Iron Maiden used its own Amek M1000 48/8/2, with custom modifications and a 16-input add-on stretch-frame for the drums. The support bands alternated between two Soundcraft Series 4, 40/16/2.

Hall’s extensive FX racks contained an Eventide SP2016 (used on the drums), Eventide 949 and 969 Harmonizers, dbx 160 and 165 compressors, two ADR Compex limiters; two UREI 1176 compressor/limiters, an Aphex C, an AMS RMX-16, an ADR Vocal Stresser and a dbx RTA-1 analyzer. He also used a Revox B77 for intro sequences and voiceovers.

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Hall says, “Iron Maiden does a lot of their own FX on stage. Being outdoors, I’m using some general ‘small room’ ambience to add some lushness. I compress the bass with the UREI 1176, followed by the ADR Compex and some post EQ. I compress the vocals by 5 dB, so that when Bruce goes berserk on the mic, he doesn’t kill people!”

After eight years of touring, Hall knows the cues well enough to mute all the unused mics in a flash. This minimizes spillage from Maiden’s enormous monitoring and onstage amp array.

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