Something of a prodigy himself at Oxford-based rental company Tiger Hire, FOH engineer Jon Burton graduated from playing in bands to mixing by being “the stupid one who bought some speakers”, writes Phil Ward. Pro renting began at 17, then a Thatcher-era Enterprise Allowance kick-started a self-employed career that, as well as regular stints for Tiger, has taken in scores of top drawer bands who tend to hang onto him as a first-choice freelancer for several years at a time. Current long-term clients The Prodigy are in the midst of a world tour.
Let's get topical: how do you react to the news from Behringer and Midas?
“Uli Behringer is obviously an audio fanatic, and he makes gear that works at a price everyone can afford - and it's certainly better than the rubbish I started out using! He's got some money to spend, and it should be for the good as long as he keeps the core Midas team in place.”
Is that important to you?
“I'm not an adopter of the XL8, but I own an XL3. I wanted to have a good analogue console always available to me; I would have bought an XL4 if the price differential wasn't so steep. It's all about the sound, and I don't like digital desks - even though I was an early adopter with Soundcraft Spirits, Yamaha DMP7s way back and an Innovason that I used on monitors. Apart from the sound, latency is an issue - especially with any amount of outboard hardware. Meanwhile the habit of using far too many plug-ins just seems to thin out the sound, causing phasing and making it overly complicated. They sound good with one mic input, but once you get up to 25…
“With The Prodigy I have to time-align everything back to the rear fill and use that as the central sound source. If the system is too latent I'll never be able to tie it back to that point. But it's horses for courses.”
What about the much-touted increases in system control?
“The flexibility digital offers is much overrated. You very rarely use scenes; you tend to just mix the show in the way that you always used to, and that goes for most engineers I know. Maybe the next generation will do it differently, but most of us around today learned on analogue and still work that way, with a continuous surface. Of course I'm talking about live music; I've never done theatre, where snapshots and scenes come into their own. What I do is straight rock and roll or dance stuff, where you react to things rather than try to pre-ordain them.”
You bracket rock 'n' roll and sequenced dance together?
“Well, I do, yeah! I reckon most people mix in their own, singular way - and in my head pretty much every gig is a reggae gig. You have a particular way you like things to sound. We all fall into the trap of repeating what we do, but on the other hand that's how you mould your personality onto it.”
I've seen you do Pulp, James, The Prodigy… always the same approach?
“I have no fear of bottom end! I've been doing The Prodigy for five and a half years now, and it's only increased my love of bass. The search for rewarding bass goes on…”
So there's no difference between, say, open mics and DI'd sequences?
“This is the extreme, I'll admit. But it's as much a proper gig as a band with bass, drums, guitars and keyboards. The fact that we've got loads of track running as well makes no difference. Don't forget there is real drum kit, vocals and lead guitar on stage in the current Prodigy line up, and the live instruments represent a much higher percentage of the sound than people probably think. There's programmed stuff but there's a lot of played stuff as well, and things go off on one!
“There's lots of ad lib, which is the best thing about using the Ableton Live software that Liam [Howlett] has adopted. He's able to improvise a lot more freely than ever before. The great thing is: sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. That's what live gigs are all about. It's not the end of the world when it doesn't work. It just pushes him into trying something new, and we never know what's going to happen.”
How would you summarise the Prodigy live sound, and how do you get there?
“It's very bright and very loud. Well, hopefully more 'powerful' than 'loud'… Liam pre-mixes his output using a Mackie 1604, and he's standing three feet away from four stacks of d&b audiotechnik C4 and two B2s going at full pelt. We A-B'd his Mackie mixer with the send from my desk, and they're very different. He likes the way his mixer phases at the top end, creating a kind of pseudo stereo, and he's never going to change it.
“But it wouldn't work for me, using a much bigger PA. It would just get messed up in the room. That's why I like the neutrality of the XL3; I'm trying to create the same sound that he can hear, but for everybody. A digital desk would certainly make it get too 'fizzy'. On stage we've got 12 stacks of d&b C4 and six B2s - together with 14 M4 wedges, all run pretty much flat out. It's a very 'rock' sound.”
Is that the key to it?
“Put it this way: last year we played Rock Am Ring, Rock Im Park on the same stage as Slipknot, support slots for Metallica, we headlined a couple of goth festivals - as well as the usual round of dance festivals. They have this weird crossover appeal, winning Kerrang!'s single of the year award, for example! So there's your metal heads, goths, cheesy quavers [ravers], regular record buyers… plus my kids, who are 10 and 13 and big Prodigy fans. That's three generations to keep happy.”