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Graham Burton: the importance of being techie

Renowned FOH and monitor engineer Graham Burton reveals to Paul Watson why the modern-day live industry has led to him taking a step back to his early career as a system tech on some of his more recent work...

Graham Burton has been involved in the music industry professionally for more than fifteen years – and he’s only 34. Initially catching the music bug whilst mixing school assemblies on a Soundcraft Folio mixer at 12-years-old, he got his big break at 16 when he went out on a monster US tour with Bon Jovi as one of the system guys. Almost two decades of experience later, Burton has carved a career working for artists as varied as Turin Breaks, Hot Chocolate, Metallica, and Billy Ocean. Although much of his acclaim has come from his work at FOH and monitors, Burton says the role of a system tech has become more integral than ever in today’s industry, which might explain why that’s his current role of choice. Paul Watson reports… 
 The industry picked you really, didn’t it? [Laughs] You could say that. I was the only one who was up for doing sound during school assemblies, and after getting the hang of that, I ended up going on work experience with Concert Sound and got regular work with them including shows with Eric Clapton and Tom Jones. Not a bad place to start. Tell me about the Bon Jovi tour…
Well, when I was 16, Concert Sound asked me if I fancied working as a system tech on a US tour, and I jumped at it. I was out there for eight months with them, which was an invaluable experience. You absolutely ballooned during that time, didn’t you? [Laughs] Thanks for that. When you’re working in the USA, you end up eating like an American. I went from 16 stone to 21 stone in eight months. Christ…OK, back to music: how did you move to FOH engineer – what was the process? On the Bon Jovi tour, I was very low down on the chain, but that kind of experience was absolutely vital to get under my belt. Being a systems guy? Yes, exactly. It sets you up very nicely to gradually move onwards and upwards. The next step for me was some work on monitors. I did some ‘60s shows, then a few years on, I moved up to FOH. Once I’d got my head round the monitor position, really. So it’s like a kind of hierarchy? Well, at the time, yes. For me, it started that way: you prove yourself, and you get a grounding really. This whole industry is all about the people, and I believe working at monitors, you get more of a relationship with the people – the artists, the team – more than you do at FOH. There is a trust that you must gain from them. For me, the best place to start was at the stage end; and some people never leave that environment, of course. And you’re kind of back there again, working as a system tech – why, exactly? Basically because I now believe being a system tech is probably at least as important as working FOH. They reduce a lot of strain from the engineers – and I should know, having worked as one for so long. These days, with line arrays and digital desks, you need to have a skilled system tech. I am basing myself as one on a day-to-day basis because the challenges are far more interesting: trying to get different systems sounding the best that you can in different venues. Which you’ve recently been doing for Billy Ocean, Marina and The Diamonds, and Ellie Goulding, right?
 Yes. We’re going from groundstacking to flying boxes from one day to the next; it’s just a totally new world of challenges. This isn’t the old days of a point-and-shoot box anymore. With line arrays, you have to think in the third dimension rather than just two dimensionally. There is far more maths and sound physics involved in understanding how a speaker system actually works now. In the old days, you’d have your L/R then you’d put down your delays and try and keep the same level throughout – and now you’re doing it with L/R and maths! Safety is also a huge thing compared to 15-20 years ago: you have to work out how much you can fly on the points you’re given. So is this you for the foreseeable then? Well, for now it’s keeping me busy, and I am enjoying it. Like most that get into the music business, I can’t see myself ever leaving it. Maybe I’ll eventually get bored of being on the road, but for now everything’s going pretty well. By the way, I think you should moisturise a bit more. And perhaps lay off the bananas… Thanks…

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