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Dave Swallow: audio think-tanks and sonic morality

Dave Swallow has worked FOH for a number of major artists, perhaps more notably the late Amy Winehouse, who he also tour managed. Paul Watson talks to Swallow about live mixing, PA systems, and his recent think-tank seminars at PLASA 2011...

Dave Swallow has been in the music industry for 15 years, and has come a long way since he got his first break through a chance meeting in South Wales. That opened up a whole career which continues to blossom. Swallow has worked FOH for a string of major artists including Underworld, Sea Sick Steve, and most famously, perhaps, the late Amy Winehouse, who he also tour managed. Swallow talks to Paul Watson about live mixing, the ongoing analogue vs digital argument, and his recent ‘think-tank’ seminars at PLASA… So you’ve come a long way since South Wales…  [Laughs] Well, it started a little earlier than that even. Fifteen years ago I was working at a local venue in Southend-On-Sea – I was there for maybe six or seven years – but then it got to the point where I couldn’t learn any more. Luckily for me, some of the local bands who had gone through the venue started getting deals and touring with bands, so I borrowed 20 quid off my Mum and off on tour I went… I see. Who with? First of all, Engerica – as in ‘England meets America’; I have no idea why they were called that because none of them were American [Laughs]. Then I went on tour with a band called This Girl. It was when I met a guy called Paul McHart in South Wales that I got my real break. He got me out of the toilet venues and offered me the monitors gig with Goldie Looking Chain. So within a year, I found myself doing the main stage at Leeds! Not a bad start… And you were soon making the transition to working FOH…  Yes. The [Midas] XL4 is still the console of choice still for me – and in the think-tanks I have been doing there has been so many questions when it comes to the old analogue-versus-digital thing; and a lot of the time it isn’t about the sonic quality of it, it’s about the usability of the console. These think-tanks were the ones you recently held at PLASA, right? Yes, that’s right. During one, I was explaining how many pairs of headphones I have broken because I haven’t been able to find the FX rack on the [digital] console, buried within the menus! And really, it shouldn’t be like that. Mixing is about using your instincts and your intuition; and being able to mix a show without having to think: ‘oh hang on a minute, where’s that channel gone?’ Maybe it’s just me, coming from a very old school mentality, but mixing is supposed to be an art form in itself and that’s what I talk about: the art of mixing a show. So you’re more of an analogue fan? It depends. If you give a painter a load of colours and keep swapping the palette, it’s like, ‘hang on a minute, where’s red gone?’; and I am sure it’s not a problem for painters because they’re doing it slowly and it’s evolving, but when it’s a spur of the moment bish-bash-bosh, the moment’s soon over. I think sometimes you can get a little lazy using digital. You might normally do something at a certain bit of a song, and because your attention’s being taken away someone else, you end up missing things, and think: ‘oh well, it doesn’t matter’, but really it does… That’s an interesting way of looking at it… This year was the first time Reading and Leeds made the transition from analogue to digital consoles, part of the reason being that many of the younger engineers were turning up and saying: ‘hold on, where are my snapshots, how am I going to mix on this?’ That’s a bit of a role reversal, don’t you think…? Absolutely. And Rat Sound did it at Coachella. Like Reading and Leeds, all consoles at FOH were [Avid] Profiles; and Dave Rat recently wrote an article about how bad the usability is on digital consoles, so on his commercial hand he’s saying this makes sense, and on his creative hand he’s saying: ‘I don’t like it’. So he’s giving a very confused message. But he has his company to look after, and that’s fine. You’re impressed by the new Midas PRO2… Yes. Actually it’s funny, there are certain things that sound good in the digital realm and that’s the same for the analogue realm. I was talking to Midas about the PRO2 and PRO2C, as I love the PRO6 – I would even say its sonic quality is H3000-quality if not a bit better as you don’t have the analogue circuitry, so it’s a lot cleaner sounding, and still has the very good Midas pre-amps. Anyway, I said to them: ‘that PRO2 will probably be an amazing console, and it’s affordable. How easily can I plug one of your new Venices into it so I can have a load of channels on the analogue bit and the rest on digital?’ And they said: ‘very!’ So I’m now thinking to myself: ‘hmm… a 16-channel Venice and a PRO2? Hello…’ The best of both worlds… Yeah, exactly. You know, kick drum and bass guitar in the analogue realm – brilliant; and guitar in the digital realm works for me quite well; and it gives you the choice. Then you also have the choice of: ‘do I run the outputs of the PRO2 into the analogue realm there, or do I put it back into digital and then send it back?’ So you suddenly have a hell of a lot of options? Yeah. I actually got quite excited about that prospect. I was recently thinking about going on some of these gear websites to see if I could pick up an XL3 or XL4 channel strip and bosh together an analogue board from the best bits of the old boards that I can find; and you can actually pick them up for next to nothing. I saw an XL4 for $10,000, just because it was taking up space in warehouse. It is a completely changing world now; you can pick up bargains in the analogue world, but it’s difficult to ship it. It’s actually a very confused time for a lot of people. It’s as if we are being forced down a road that isn’t necessarily the best sonically for a lot of people Is this something you cover in your PLASA think tanks – and how did they come about? I actually came up with the idea a few months ago when I was talking at Entec in Sydney. I get quite a few questions after seminars and I like to take time and think about things – to motivate people in the room to think about stuff too. But of course they then need answers [Laughs] so the seminars were tending to drag a bit; and of course there were inevitably questions I wanted to ask them too, so that’s when I thought of the audio think-tank, which is basically a discussion group. 
I have designed them for engineers to come and talk about audio, be it their concerns, worries, interesting ideas – anything, really; and once you open people up like that, you find out a lot. I have been finding that my concerns about what’s missing in many PA systems, for example, are shared by many people… Can you elaborate on that?  Well, Funktion-One, for me, is an amazing company. They haven’t got shareholders and they can do what they want to do. They are the only PA manufacturer that I know that have their names on flyers to clubs. Tony Andrews and John Newsham are two wonderful people who I know very well and their sonic morality is second to none; and they have really influenced me and shown me a lot of interesting stuff. The first time I ever used one of their systems was mixing Amy Winehouse on the main stage at Glastonbury. It was best gig I had ever done at the time; and all I knew was that I had a sound I had never heard before. I had the best gig ever on that system – vocals in your face: brilliant; and I found I could place things in the air. That’s what I want to be able to do! Since then, I now know what I like sound to be like. I’m not saying all people have to be after the same, because mixing is an art form, of course. All I am saying is there are options. You were also pretty impressed with the new Flare system shown at PLASA – once you’d tweaked it… [Smiles] Yes. I had a demo with Flare, and on one listen, it sounded OK, but then we tweaked a handful of bits; we raised the crossover point on the subs, removed a couple of things that were running the low mids, did a bit to the high end, and then I put all the low mid back in that he had taken out. Then I thought: ‘actually, that sounds great’. I was also really impressed with the guy’s attention to detail. Simple as that, then..?! [Laughs] A good engineer can make any system sound great; a bad one can’t! But yes, that system was very impressive when set up correctly. If you look at Funktion-One’s kit, it is completely transparent – and that’s why it’s also a bit of a problem. What I mean is, we’re so used to hearing colouration, that when we don’t have it, it seems very alien to us, so people end up trying to force a line array sound out of it, then wonder why it doesn’t sound right…