Total Production

Nottingham Rock City

September 2009 Issue 121

An L-Acoustics dV-DOSC system is at the heart of an installation that consolidates SSE’s 29-year history with DHP’s flagship live music venue in Nottingham. Rachel Esson reports...

As he stood on the steps of live music venue Rock City in Nottingham, admiring the newly completed installation, SSE Audio Group MD John Penn remembered the “red paisley carpets and maroon flock wallpapers” that adorned its walls on the opening night back in 1980, when The Undertones’ launch gig turned into a “complete stage invasion”.

SSE Hire was the band’s regular sound rental company so its boss, John Penn, arrived at the new venue that day along with the rest of the crew, which included Pete ‘Boot’ Ellis on monitors, who is still at SSE today.

“As a Nottingham-based company at the time, it was great to be setting up our PA in our home town,” said Penn. “The Undertones were at the height of their success at the time, performing five major tours between February and December that year. Rock City was just what was needed in the city at the time, so we were pleased to part of that opening night.”

Fast forward to 1982 and Rock City’s then managers Vincent Rice and Paul Mason approached Penn to upgrade the existing house disco system.

SSE designed and built a system using full range, mid-high packs using JBL HF and ATC mids with Cerwin Vega 18” bass bins. The system was powered by SSE’s own FanAmps and controlled by its own bespoke modular active crossover.

More than a quarter of a century later and Rock City continues to thrive while Nottingham has established itself as one of the country’s finest cities for live music.

The award-winning Rock City is independent operator DHP’s (Daybrook House Promotions) flagship venue, amongst its now six-strong estate that includes The Rig, Rescue Rooms, Stealth and The Bodega, with a total nightly capacity of 4,000 people, as well as recently-acquired Bristol-based Thekla.

Rock City is a 2,000-capacity venue that is known for its intimate atmosphere, its commitment to booking both big names, and up and coming acts within live rock music, in addition to its healthy club night programme that features Tuned, Love Shack and Distortion.
When it first opened its doors nearly 30 years ago, it brought a much-needed live venue to the East Midlands city. In the years since it has become established as one the best and most important venues for bands.

Throughout its history, the likes of Def Leppard, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cure, U2, Paul Weller, R.E.M., Blur, Madness, David Bowie, and Oasis have graced the stage. More recently The Killers, Arctic Monkeys and Linkin Park have performed there.
Stories that have emerged from the venue are the stuff of legend — whether it’s the time Axl wasn’t let in because he arrived at the front door wearing only a bath towel, or the time that Ozzy locked himself in a hotel room less than 500 yards from the main stage and inspired a riot by refusing to play, or when Bowie hired a truck to bring four couches and Persian carpets on tour with him.

So when SSE Sales was invited to pitch for the installation of a new sound system at Rock City in January 2009, it was a contract that SSE was very keen to win. DHP went through a long process of consideration before it made its final choice of an audio supplier.
Managing director David Davies explained: “One of the deciding factors was the flexibility the system gave us. We at Rock City have a wide variety of events and performers across our stage in any year, so the system will have to withstand many varied demands.

“It’s this that made us choose the solution offered by SSE Sales. We would like to thank everyone who helped us over the course of our deliberations, in particular John and Alex.”
In recent years the venue has only had a house system appropriate for club nights and DHP was keen to install a ‘live’ sound system once more.

Its promotions manager, Anton Lockwood commented: “We’d been thinking about getting a new system for quite some time. The Academy venues are our main competition and the standards of touring production are now on such a level that it made sense to upgrade.”
Considering SSE’s close relationship with the venue since that inaugural performance, the company’s origins in the city, and the fact that it beat off stiff competition to clinch the contract for the recent upgrade, Penn is well placed to comment on the significance of this latest era in the venue’s long life.

“We’ve done a lot of work here over the last 30 years and this installation really does put it up there with the best of them,” he said.
The system design was put together by Alex Penn (John’s son), who now heads up SSE’s sales operation. At the heart of the design is an L-Acoustics dV-DOSC system.

The younger Penn commented: “I first arrived here in January for our initial site meeting and it wasn’t a case of trying to sell the product to Dave McVea, Rock City’s technical manager, because he knew he wanted L-Acoustics and the Soundcraft Vi6. The main challenge was to prove what SSE could bring to it. We’re a sales, hire, installation and manufacturer so we could offer a complete service.”

“The level of detail in the quotation and the demo provided by SSE convinced all of us at Rock City that they were able to provide the level of service and results that we need from this major investment,” responded McVea.

This compact line array system was considered ideal for the venue, where headroom is limited. To enable the system to be flown safely, SSE arranged for extra steels to be installed in the roof and used a hoist arrangement that makes it impossible to hang the system incorrectly.
This was no easy task for SSE’s Steve Dando, who was faced with a diagonally curved roof, where both sides of the roof were completely different, thus custom designed rigging points had to be implemented.
McVea was enthusiastic about using L-Acoustics, based on his own experience with the touring systems passing through the venue by visiting bands. “I have stood here and watched (and listened to) all kinds of PA systems coming through this room for the last 10 years, and the dV-DOSC has consistently stood out from the rest providing outstanding results — very high quality sound indeed.

“The room itself is a rather odd shape and the stage is ‘side on’ rather than ‘end on’, so the 120° horizontal dispersion of the dV-DOSC really helps get the sound where it is needed most without cluttering the stage with tons of speakers. The sound gets into the nooks and crannies below the balcony and is also angled at 15° to keep the noise away from the bar staff.”

The system comprises 16 dV-DOSC in two arrays (eight per side), plus four flown dV-Subs two per side. Six SB28 subs are ground stacked with three on each side of the stage located in custom enclosures built by the venue.

McVea commented: “Most of the dV-DOSC systems we’ve had in here have been configured six per side, but we’ve put it up to eight per side for added boost.”

The FOH mixer is a Soundcraft Vi6 digital console, with the LA8 amplification remotely monitored and controlled from FOH with a rackmount PC using the network capabilities of the LA8. Master system control and routing is all managed by a Yamaha DME 24N digital mixing engine, which allows easy transition to club nights, whereby the FOH and monitor consoles don’t need to be fired up.

SSE Sales has also provided a complete monitor system, with SSE’s own MB4 wedge monitors, plus Nexo Alpha-Es are used for side and drum fills. A Soundcraft Vi4 runs monitor mixes, supported by a custom three-bay rack, containing all amplification and processing for the monitor system — built by SSE’s in-house manufacturing operation, Sigma Fabrications.

A complete analogue line system has also been incorporated into the installation, so any touring acts can bring in their own boards. All permanent cabling was installed using cable management systems. SSE Sales also included its own microphone storage system and quick clips for all mics, SSE stage mains distribution boxes and mic stand storage, which are all designed to maximise ease of use and space in the venue.
The system was installed with full packaging, service and support this June and July, without any disruption to the in-house events, which run from Thursday to Saturday. It was first used for live sound on August 1 when Buckcherry performed, whose FOH engineer/TM Stephen Shaw was very impressed with the sound.

McVea said: “The standard of workmanship is extremely high from the cabling to the rigging — everything right up to the commissioning. Everyone worked extremely hard to reach the targets that were set and did it all with a smile.

“My staff and I were trained on the general operation of PA systems and the specifics of dv-DOSC, including maintenance and amp set-up. The training also covered the Soundcraft Vi series digital live sound consoles and the SSE monitor system. Thanks are due to Gert Sanner and Steven Dando for those excellent and very professional training sessions.”
With the first live gig with the new system successfully completed, Dave McVea is looking to the future. “I’m sure that the reputation of Rock City will continue to grow as word gets around the industry as to just how good a sound we can now consistently achieve here.”


With a fully operational live system now in place, and a stripped-back contemporary interior, Rock City is ready to cater for the expectations of modern bands and discerning customers.

The venue already has several sell-out gigs lined up, with Paolo Nutini, Biffy Clyro, Editors and La Roux to name but a few.
Anton Lockwood explained that Rock City is a jumping off point for the company, which aims to develop its tour promotions using its estate as a springboard.

DHP has recently promoted national tours from artists such as Dropkick Murphys, The Human League, The Gaslight Anthem, Fat Freddy’s Drop, and is the major regional promoter in the East Midlands, placing shows in Nottingham Arena, Royal Concert Hall, Leicester University and Lincoln Engine Shed, as well as Bristol’s O2 Academy, Anson Rooms and Trinity.

Meanwhile, the flexibility and customisation of Rock City’s sound system and its components means that touring productions are less likely to need their own kit, but are able to add it quickly and easily if needed.
On the pinnacle of a new era, the venue is ready to live up to its name.


Nottingham Rock City
  • Nottingham Rock City
  • Nottingham Rock City
  • Nottingham Rock City
Related Articles