A company originally rooted in rave, Colour Sound Experiment has grown and developed for over three decades to become a familiar presence in the festival and touring production industry. What began cautiously in the distant days of 1989 has become a serious force in live music production, now employing an incredible 60 full-time staff, servicing clients in the UK and – increasingly – on the global stage. Ambersphere spoke to the company’s Founder and Managing Director Haydn Cruickshank and Director of Concert Touring Alex Ryan to find out more…
On the Colour Sound Experiment website, a photo-wall shows snaps of its staff in various locations (at both work and play), giving a flavour of the fun, people-centred side of the business.
At the top, it says, “Some of the faces below have been with us since the beginning (and have the glow sticks to prove it)…”.
It’s a detail that proudly places the company’s origins in the race culture of the late 90s and early 90s. It was in 1989, to be more precise, that Haydn Cruickshank formally turned his ‘hobby’ – of providing lights for a few friends – into a business. In the early days, Colour Sound Experiment was the lighting design provider of choice for the booming dance scene. Among its clients back then were Megadog, with its legendary Club Dog nights which rode the psychedelic wave of the time. This opened up contacts and opportunities that led to supporting tours with the big dance dance acts of the time – Orbital, Underworld, The Prodigy and more.
The company name is revealing too: it was an experiment, about sound, and colour – and it’s probably still the best name there is for a lighting supplier.
It says a lot for Cruickshank that today – despite all the comings and goings, the changes, consolidations and crises that have filled the industry in the 34 years since – he still privately owns one of the best-known suppliers of visual technology to the entertainment business.
Today’s Colour Sound CV included tours with music artists including Muse, Louis Tomlinson, Placebo, Soft Cell, Hybrid Minds, James, David Gray, Underworld, Orbital, Feeder, Aitch, Loyle Carner and many more. It remains a big player in festival circles, supplying for renowned events including Glastonbury, Reading, Leeds, All Points East, Creamfields, Electric Picnic, British Summer Time, Latitude, Wilderness and Berlin’s Lollapalooza. Outside of music, the team applies its skills to corporate events, fashion shows, venue contract hires and exhibits of all kinds.
“We’re focused on bespoke delivery, particularly for touring; on custom solutions with smooth, fast delivery,” says Cruickshank, by way of introduction.
“We’re about delivering big productions well,” adds Director of Concert Touring, Alex Ryan. “Whether corporate, rock and roll, or a big one-off TV show. That’s what we do.”
Another characteristic is noted when it comes to hardware: a willingness to push boundaries. “Investment-wise, we try to be as aggressive as possible,” says Cruickshank. “We do buy all the new toys and things that everyone wants, but we also try to be brave, and take a punt on something, to drive the take-up of new products and new ideas. We like to take a slightly different angle occassionally.”
Another focus is on staff development, and in supporting organisations like Production Futures, which actively encourage the next generation of industry employees. “We’ve engaged with them a lot in recent years,” says Cruickshank. Colour Sound also supports ReBalance, an organisation led by Alice James, Head of Production for AEG Presents UK and occasional lecturer at educations establishments including BIMM. ReBalance supports a female-identified band or artist with studio time each month, as well as a festival slot each year. It also supports women who want to work in event production by offering apprenticeships.
“We’ve always had great success bringing people up in-house, from no experience, all the way to being fully-fledged roadies. It’s ultimately better to train them over a long period of time,” Cruickshank says.
One such example is Alex Ryan himself, who joined the company aged just 16 on a placement from Elstree University Technical College, and has since risen through a range of roles to his current position as Director of Concert Touring.
As with many such companies, Colour Sound Experiment used the enforced downtime of the pandemic to look at new opportunities. “We were bored and looking for some excitment,” says Cruickshank. “Under normal circumstances, we probably would never have found the time of inclination to open another branch.” That new office is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “Saudi is very much an emerging market,” says Cruickshank. “They’re doing exciting gigs, including the biggest rave in the world – Soundstorm – and rave is our heritage. And they’re bringing in live music.”
It’s a serious opportunity. In 2020, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia acquired a $500 million stake in live entertainment giant Live Nation.
“There’s a strong government initiative to drive the culture that they’ve been deprived of for years,” says Ryan, “live music, sport, restuarants, cinemas – everything. They’re pushing really hard.”
With established Middle East service providers largely based in the UAE – particularly Dubai – few have an actual presence on the sand in Saudi. “A lot of them don’t have a facility out there,” says Ryan. “So we’ve stationed project staff, people who are experienced and have the skills and abilities needed.”
Cruickshank adds, “Traditionally, the bigger European and American companies have used their older equipment in these emerging markets and kept the new shiny stuff at home. We tried not to do that. We bought new: we’ve got premium product out there.”
One of the cores of CSE’s operation in the UK is MA3 control systems from MA Lighting, purchased through Ambersphere, and Jeddah will be similarly equipped.
The company has always prioritised investment in infrastructure and, when it comes to lighting control, that infrastructure is based around MA3. “We only stock and support MA3 hardware on any of our shows,” says Ryan. “So that’s something that we’ve invested heavily in, and that’s where Ambersphere have played a really big part.”
Also through Ambersphere, they hold an extensive stock of Ayrton moving heads in the UK, although they have yet to invest in Ayrton’s IP-rated products. “We were early with Ayrton,” says Cruickshank. “I like to say we were brave, coming out of the pandemic.” Indeed, the company invested in its Ayrton stock before its popular IP versions became available – but, he adds “Ayrton’s got a fantastic brand image at the moment – for lighting designers it’s viewed as very, very premium.
Referring back to their substantial post-pandemic investment, he says, “Ayrton and Ambersphere made it very easy working between them and the manufacturer was seamless, which is not the case with all distributors. We could talk to either party, about product numbers, delivery time – there were no unnecessary barriers.”
Now well into its fourth decade of operation, it seems that this particular experiment into colour and sound can be declared a success.