Big Experience Under the Big Sky

Of course, the festival was big. That’s Montana.

It was also an enormous opportunity for recent Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate Kyle Rust and MSUM Director of Audio Services Ryan Cofer.

The Under the Big Sky music festival and rodeo by Outriders Present featured performances from 35 acts and attracted nearly 20,000 fans to the Big Mountain Ranch outside Whitefish, Mont., for three days in July. Cofer and Rust were there, too, just not as fans.

The two men made the 15-hour-plus one-way drive to work the festival alongside a four-person audio crew from Pro Systems, a division of global event production and creative company Show Imaging. Show Imaging manages festivals across Outriders’ brands and provides technical and production support for nearly all of its shows.

Under the Big Sky was the first immersive, on-site experience to result from a new partnership between MSUM’s School of Entertainment Industries & Technology (EIT) and Show Imaging. The collaboration enhances classroom teaching and learning while ensuring students have the hands-on training to begin careers in the entertainment industry.

Cofer is MSUM’s director of audio services. Rust, the first in his family to graduate from college, received his bachelor of science in audio engineering and a minor in film production from EIT in the spring of 2022.

MSUM alum Kyle Rust (right) with American singer-songwriter Zach Bryan, one of the mainstage performing artists at the Under the Big Sky music festival.

Both men have audio experience as part of stage and sound crews for shows at MSUM and with Fargo-Moorhead production companies. But, Under the Big Sky was the biggest event either has ever worked, not just in terms of the number of musical acts and attendees but also the volume of audio equipment and system quality.

Cofer and Rust spent most of their time providing behind- and on-stage support. Including setup and takedown, they worked 56 hours each in just four days. The setup included two stages with 16 speakers on each side for the main line arrays, dozens of outfill and front fill speakers, four delay towers with 12 speakers in each line array and a top-of-the-line public address system to keep the jeans- and cowboy-hat-wearing throngs informed.

“Show Imaging runs the best equipment you can get,” Rust said. “It was really cool to see and work with all this pro-grade stuff and realize this is what people who do these types of events are using right now.”

The company’s responsibilities went way beyond audio production, however.

“Just the communication between teams to make sure everything was running smoothly was impressive,” Cofer said. “The way they handled so many aspects of the entire production – ticketing, video, lighting, security and I don't even know how many stagehands – it was great to see what a well-oiled machine they are even with everything they have going on.”

It was well worth the 30-plus-hour roundtrip and 14-hour workdays to learn from and support the Show Imaging crew.

“I picked up a lot,” Rust said. “Conceptually, it's easy to understand this stuff, but when it comes to applying it to a real-life, live-sound situation, that’s a lot different. It's all on the fly, and what you’re doing has to be great right away. You don't have time to sit there and deconstruct it like you do in the studio.”


He also might have found an “in” to the industry. When all was sung and done, before he and Cofer departed for their return trip, the Show Imaging audio system engineer told Rust that a job would be waiting if he ever showed up in San Diego.

As for Cofer, this first taste of what the MSUM-Show Imaging collaboration can mean has him psyched for EIT’s future.

“To be able to do things we aren’t yet able to do at MSUM but that we can scale back and offer, that was an amazing opportunity,” he said.

A better sense of the partnership’s potential came just days after his return from Montana when he bumped into three EIT students.

“I told them about the festival and how everything went and what it's going to look like in the future,” he said. “They were wide-eyed, really excited. So, yeah, that’s big.”

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