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Gary Langan: transferring skills from studio to arenas

Mark Cunningham talks to Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer Gary Langan about the alternative path he's found himself on as he makes the transition from mixing in the studio environment to the live arena...

With studios continuing to suffer from the vicissitudes of the recording industry, a veritable army of skilled and experienced engineers are finding themselves having to venture down alternative paths. While some have downscaled, choosing to market their skills through home-based set-ups, other are fine-tuning their knowledge and adapting it for the buoyant live world.

One man at the top of the industry who knows what it takes to successfully make that transition, even though it wasn’t forced by survival instincts, is Gary Langan, the Grammy Award-winning record producer and engineer, co-founder of both The Art Of Noise and Chiswick’s famous Metropolis Studios, and an occasional lecturer at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford.

Starting out as a tea boy at age 17, Langan (now 55) quickly graduated to assist Roy Thomas Baker and Gary Lyons on Queen sessions – he was in the control room for the first playback of Bohemian Rhapsody– and at SARM with Trevor Horn he helped to shape some of the best-selling hits of the ’80s. Then, more than 20 years later, he made his live mixing debut… You quite literally dived in at the deep end when you toured with Jeff Wayne’s The War Of The Worlds in 2006. How did that happen?  “I had mixed the updated, 5.1 surround version of Jeff’s 1978 album and it was felt that as it was touring for the first time ever, perhaps I would be the most informed engineer to reproduce those sounds live. So I took control of the front-of-house mix on a DiGiCo D5, sharing the duties with Richard Sharratt who handled the orchestra and guest artists on a separate D5.” Moving out of the studio comfort zone into arenas with all their inherent reverberance, was it scary?  “I’d been wrapped in cotton wool in the studios and I was definitely a ‘live virgin’ but it wasn’t as scary as I might have imagined. I was working on a huge production, and it worked because of the fantastic technicians who were supporting me, particularly Ali Viles and Richard Sharratt who was beside me all the way. The live industry has some amazing skill sets and I ended up being ring-fenced by a great team who were determined to make this tour succeed. “They knew I was a new boy and if this had been 20 or more years ago, it’s possible that they would’ve have looked down their nose at me, but attitudes in the touring world have come on so much. The level of professionalism is astonishing now. I grew to respect the qualities that a crew bring to an operation like this. To stand on my high horse and say, ‘Hey I’m the Grammy Award-winning Gary Langan’ would not have earned me any favours!” How do you compare the recent progression of live and studio technologies?  “Loudspeaker designs have reached a point where it’s varying levels of excellence, and then it’s just a question of taste. Meanwhile, studios have stood still because the investment isn’t there and neither is the creativity. It’s a tame, largely boring environment that’s just about Pro Tools rigs – the creativity is now in the live arena. There are somefantastic consoles out there and I’ve been lucky to try out a few of them. I used the DiGiCo boards, the Digidesign [Avid] Venue and Soundcraft’s Vi series, which benefits from Studer mic preamps. I recently used the latter and as soon as I raised the faders it sounded brilliant.” What were the most profound lessons you learned within your first few days as a live front-of-house engineer? “If you want to make something brighter, you don’t increase the top end; you decrease areas of the spectrum you don’t want to hear. I loved learning that lesson and it set me up for a whole new way of thinking. It made my brain tick but I’ve always been one for taking on challenges – mixing gigs definitely got my adrenalin pumping again!” Did touring with The War Of The Worlds give you a taste for further live touring work? “Oh yes, like I say, it gave me a new lease of life and I was soon back on the bus to mix ABC when they went out with a tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Lexicon Of Love, which I engineered back in 1982.” Despite all the classic hits and glory, you don’t mind getting your hands dirty on the gig front… “Not at all. I’ve been managing and mixing a young band on the London circuit. We’ve been playing gigs like Cargo in Hoxton Square and the Water Rats in Kings Cross and I look after getting the gear out of the van or taxi, help set it up and run a strict 30-minute soundcheck. I just love music and the process of making this all happen. The fact that this is in a small club and not Wembley Arena is immaterial; in fact, it’s more enjoyable. This has stopped me from pushing a mouse around a computer screen and put me back in touch with musicians.” Do you find yourself mixing with a ‘studio head’? “Interestingly, yes, because with the skill sets I’ve accumulated over the years, I can bring a lot to the table. I find that when I’m structuring the mixes at these gigs, I’m actually thinking like I would if I was producing a session, only it’s on stage. What I’ve noticed more than anything though, is that the smaller the gig, the harder it is to avoid problems like feedback, because the PA is closer to the band. 
 “Pro Tools and plug-ins make it easy but ultimately it gets to be a bit of a yawn after a while. I came into this business when it was all analogue and techniques were still being invented. You really had to develop skills to make recording sessions work and I think that small gigs for a sound engineer are today’s training ground. It’s where you learn the fundamental stuff, like how to use compression intelligently and not as a get out of jail card, and that’ll set you up for life.
 “So if you’re really looking for a challenge outside of recording, I would seriously advise turning your hand to live work because there’s a lot of it out there for people with the right skills and attitude. It’s not so much a career change as a side step.” So, ultimately, what advice would you give to a young gun looking to make a career as a live sound engineer?
 “Well, firstly I have to say that I was lucky. The War Of The Worlds gig was the kind of one-off that is unlikely to happen for the majority of people. You could invest in an industry directory and contact all the rental companies, enquiring about possible vacancies, but you’d be doing it in the sure knowledge that, if lucky, you’d be starting at the bottom. No, I suggest a different, more direct approach. If I was starting from the ground up, I’d go into A&R mode, find an up-and-coming band I really liked, embrace them and ask to become their engineer. 
 “You’ll progress alongside them, it’ll be exciting and you’ll gain a lot of valuable, practical experience that will be useful to a lot of people in the long run.”