I often get asked whilst doing the rounds: how did you end up doing what you do? This, the first in a series of blog posts on my adventures in audio—with the odd sojourn down random rabbit holes—will attempt an explanation. What I do is twofold: I work for Avid as part of the Live Sound team and I mix bands.
For the last four years, much of my energies have been spent on the development of the new and revolutionary Avid S3L System. This summer I’m going to take it out on tour to mix FOH for my favorite band in the whole world, Massive Attack, thereby combining my two worlds. I plan on writing about the equipment I use, production rehearsals, building my show file for Massive Attack, plug-ins, virtual soundchecks, collaboration and my general philosophy of sound. There may be the odd indiscreet anecdote from my checkered past as we go along as well.
In the Beginning
I did my first tour in 1975. The PA was gas powered and we traveled in a horse and cart, but I knew then that I wanted to spend my life on the road.
At that time I was an aspiring musician—the guitarist in the world’s least successful boy band. One critic said we had looks only a mother could love. By the time the ravages of adolescence had faded I was a punk rocker and spat in the face of pop music. We all know that sound engineers are usually musicians that didn’t practice hard enough, and yep, guilty.
I played in a whole series of bands, but by my mid-twenties I realized that for a guitarist my future lay in sound engineering. I’d picked up a little technical knowledge along the way. I spent a couple of years at Art College. In my era artists had eschewed painting and drawing and stuff as old hat—everyone was into video and sound installations, happenings, performance art. While there I learned to edit audio using tape machines and razor blades. We had a state-of-the-art four track studio, VCS3 synths and endless enthusiasm. I should probably explain to younger readers that before the company I now work for invented hard disc recording and editing we used to use this thin plastic stuff coated in ferrous oxide that we used to keep on spools and dragged over magnets. I know right!! I blew my degree by spending my last year on tour in an experimental Electronica/New Romantic group. Strangely the authorities said this couldn’t count as a final year project even after I’d pointed out that I painted my face every night.
Working the ‘Fiddler’
I got my first sound gig from a chance meeting with Vince Power, yes the legendary Vince Power that in the Nineties seemed to own all the gigs in London and all the festivals in England! At that time he owned just one club in Harlesden NW London called The Mean Fiddler.
Vince was a Waterford man who had a love of Country and traditional Irish music. The Mean Fiddler changed when Vince promoted Dave-id Phillips from cellar man to band booker. Dave-id booked loads of great indie/rock bands and put the venue on the map as a gig to see the newest and coolest bands. Dave-id was a mate and he’d mentioned that there might be some bar work there but somehow Vince gave me a sound job and I started mixing that same night, thanks Vince! The Mean Fiddler later became a ‘group’ owning loads of gigs and running many of the festivals in the UK. Vince and his team modernized them and made them ‘hip’ again. It was the start of festivals becoming such a hugely popular part of UK youth culture.
The ‘Fiddler’ was a strange gig open 365 nights a year and designed to look like a Texan Honkytonk. It even sold Texmex food. Its schedule was a mix of country music and serious ‘Indie rock’. We could have Johnny Cash on one night and The Pixies the next. Radiohead, Steve Earle, Van Morrison, Butthole Surfers, Paul McCartney, Swans, Sun Ra, and Dwight Yoakum played there in my time. I saw some extraordinary artists there and stalked their engineers, stealing their secrets and soaking up all the info I could. We’d also have raucous Irish nights and Sunday lunchtime sessions for the huge NW London Irish community.
“Paddies Night” or St. Patrick’s Festival were the loudest craziest parties I’ve ever seen. The Fiddler held 1,200 but on Paddies Night somehow they’d squeeze in more then 2,000. I was stuck in my sound booth all night unable to fight my way to the stage, or anywhere else for that matter. The crowd was so squashed that you could take both your feet off the ground and not move. The amount of Guinness drunk was legendary, with huge stocks being brought in all week in preparation. The problem was getting it from the bar back to your group of friends in such a crowd. Most seemed to get spilled and the place was literally ankle deep in spilled beer. Some incredible Irish artists played those nights—The Dubliners, The Chieftains, Mary Coughlan, the Pogues, and Planxty all graced the stage.
Between the international acts we would have ‘new band nights’ with six or seven bands, four or five times a week. I couldn’t have had a better place to practice. Hours and hours behind the desk trying to make all these aspiring rock stars from the suburbs sound like U2 or Nirvana or whoever was in vogue that week. I’d now like to formally apologize to them for the dreadful job I must have done as I was learning my trade. I learned as I went along by experimentation and failure. No audio schools in those days, just the odd bit of grudging advise from the genius ‘Naff Dave’ who’d been working sound there since the middle ages. He had a strong cockney accent and was so cynical it was actually funny. It wasn’t hard to tell the difference between Naff and a sunbeam. He’d often say after beginning to sound check the drums “call that a fughin drum kit?” Or ask the band to play a song with “go on then, bore me.” His grumpy obnoxious persona fooled no one and many successful engineers began their careers passing through the hard knocks school of ‘Naff Dave’ and owe him a lot. We had homemade, passive, three way, front loaded speakers; a 32-channel Soundtraks analogue desk, huge to me at that time; six channels of Drawmer 901 gates; eight channels of dbx160x compressors; a Yamaha SPX90; a lexicon PCM 60; and a Roland SDE 1000. Happy days!
A few years later I was working the Underworld in Camden. As the name would suggest, it was a grungy basement rock club. We had Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam—all kinds of bands that went on to be huge would have their first London show there.
One night we had a heavenly records party with several of their bands playing St Etienne, Flowered Up, etc., and first on the bill was a young Welsh band. They had no engineer so I was going to mix them. They had on really tight white jeans like the Clash, Panda like eye make-up, and situationist slogans on their shirts. They plugged in and started bashing away. I stopped them after a few seconds and said “don’t those amps go any louder?”
Roadie rule no.1: Always be nice to the support band. You never know.
They looked surprised turned them up and started playing. I was blown away at the ferocity of their music and lyrics. After the soundcheck we were chatting and they told me that no one had ever told them to turn their amps up, in fact they were normally told to turn them down. They were so happy that they asked me to join their tour that started the next day. They hadn’t even heard me mix. I handed in my notice and started touring with Manic Street Preachers. I worked with them on and off for nearly twenty years. We started with just the five of us in a transit van playing to fifty people and ended up headlining Glastonbury and doing stadium gigs.
In fact it was at a Manics Production rehearsal that I first encountered the VENUE D-Show console for the first time. A close friend of mine, Mike Case, had just got a job to launch a new live console from the people who made Pro Tools, then called Digidesign but now known as Avid.
I was a huge analogue head and had a massive English desk with an extension and several racks of effects. Mike asked me try out this new console. It ran plug-ins live and they had invented this thing called ‘Virtual Soundcheck.’ I was intrigued and got them to set it up next to my regular desk. I ran them both in parallel so I could jump from one to the other. We had a few days of production rehearsals at the SEC in Glasgow and I would try it out every day doing an A/B test, digital versus analogue.
The first thing that got my attention was Virtual Soundcheck. Whilst the band was on stage we could record at the point of A to D conversion directly to Pro Tools. After the band had left I could bring the recording back into the desk and keep working on the sound of each song and save them as a snapshot. This meant I could mix and produce a live concert as if I was producing an album. I was blown away. Then the plug-ins. The fact that I could have all these amazing effects running straight from the DSP of the console was stunning. I couldn’t believe how amazing these digital simulations of analogue kit sounded.
I had some beautiful (and hugely expensive) analogue compressors in my racks, tape delays, high-end digital reverbs—the best that they had in the Britannia Row warehouse. I experimented and experimented.
Comparing the plug-ins to my old racks, trying new sounds, new possibilities. I stayed there all night by myself in this huge arena because I was so excited. I did the first show of the tour with both desks set up in case I had a panic during the show, but mixed the entire gig on the D-Show. It went really well and I was surprised at how comfortable I had felt. By the third show of the tour the analogue desk stayed on the truck, and by the end of the first week I’d sent it all back to the Brit Row warehouse. I’ve never mixed a gig on anything other than an Avid desk since (actually there was one exception to that, Live8, but that’s for another blog).
Joining the VENUE Team
I was such a fan that Avid asked me to help out with the odd seminar or show engineers how to set up their mix the first time they worked with a D-Show. By 2006 I was working full time for Avid. For the first time in my life I had a ‘proper job.’ I’ve had a few roles over the last couple of years, but my work at Avid is now within the Product team. The S3L is the first console that Avid have produced that I’ve had a part in since its conception. There is a team of brilliant engineers designing and making the hardware, writing the code, etc. Al McKinna manages the team, and his job is to keep everyone swinging on the same branch. My esteemed colleague Robert Scovill and I help with human interface, or workflow. Rob is such an award-winning, fabulous, and successful sound Jedi that bands audition to do the music for him to mix. There is a young Canadian singer, allegedly so disappointed with his refusal that he went completely off the rails. Me, I’m more your roadie journeyman. I looked up the official title of what we do, it’s: User Operation & Product Design Consulting. We try between us to make sure that however innovative and radical the design concepts become the desk is something that our peers feel comfortable with and can work on.
That’s why I’m so excited to be taking S3L out on tour. We’ve spent years working on the concept, arguing over minutiae, trying to think of everything. I’ve also spent the last six month with my colleague Chris Lambrechts doing hands on training, for what felt like, nearly every sound engineer in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. More than 1,200 of our audio brothers and sisters have attended our training sessions.
BTW, there have been so many great ideas fed back to us from these sessions, many of which will be included in future updates. Thanks to everyone who attended—I totally stole all your ideas and pretended they were mine! The S3L training tour is next in Dubai, then France, and will continue after the summer; watch out for dates close to you. So now I get to stop talking about mixing on S3L and just get on with, well, doing it… apart from this blog series which I’ll keep going throughout the Massive Attack tour. We’re playing some interesting places, including Glastonbury, Iceland, Lebanon, and the brilliant Montreux Jazz Festival. I’ll try to remember all that happens and talk about the PA systems, the crowds, the bands, and especially how it is to take the world’s coolest small console on tour.