Enquire within the live circuit about ‘Patto’ and everyone will know to whom you are referring. For at least 15 years now Steve Pattison – self-styled ‘sound engineer to the stars and bands you’ve never heard of’ – has been mixing either monitors or FOH for an impressive array of modern talent, from early outings with My Chemical Romance and Maximo Park through formative years with Amy Winehouse and now regular call-ups by Röyksopp, Wet Wet Wet, Ellie Goulding and Glasvegas.
PSNLive caught up with Pattison backstage on the current Freedom Child world tour to promote the eponymous fifth studio album by Irish rockers The Script.
Looks like you’ve come a long way in your career, but where from?
The North-West, Widnes to be exact, but we’ve just moved to – d’you know, I can’t remember…
You spend that much time on the road?!
Well, I’ve never had a proper job. I was originally a guitar player, and I did loads of studio sessions around the area. You always notice the guy behind the desk, and he’s always got a job. It struck me that when we leave, someone else will come in and he’ll still be working. So I began to say call me anyway even if you don’t need a guitar player, and I’ll sit in and make coffee and find out how it works. Eventually you become tape op, and then recording engineer – it took about two years. But touring looked like more fun, so one day I called Andy Dockerty at Adlib in Liverpool.
I think if they see you’re the right person, not so much how good or bad you are at stuff at that stage, they’ll give you all the help they can. If you learn quickly, you’re fun and not an egomaniac, you’ll get a grounding. You need realism! You also need to keep rock stars’ feet on the ground and not grant them their every PA whim. I believe in coverage rather than running at 115dB all day long – in-fills, out-fills, delays. As long there’s enough headroom to get some transients in there and get it punchy, that’s great, but I want it to be the same everywhere. People have bought tickets and they shouldn’t be left out of the picture.
If I can’t cover a given area because the sponsor insists on placing advertising where I need to place some speakers, I’ll suggest refunding everyone gathered there. They’ll ask me to turn it up, but that won’t make any difference. They can block the sound wherever they like as long as they’re happy to field the complaints and give money back, so that’s the advice I always give. It is a team thing, and I’m always discussing plans with the lighting and video crews to get the best possible dispersion.
Beyond that, what are the perennial issues within the system itself?
The PA will have certain frequencies it just ‘likes’ on any given day, and these will be more prominent. You have to tune the PA to find out what its favourite resonant frequency is. The room will react at different points, as will the instruments – especially something like a bass guitar. It will naturally have one note that is louder then everything else: it doesn’t matter how good a bass player you are, one note on a scale will simply jump out. That pickup setting, on that day, makes A louder than B. So you make that adjustment to give yourself a level playing field.
What do you like so much about the Allen & Heath console on this Script tour?
“The dLive is clear and transparent, and doesn’t have a character that imposes upon everything. You always knew a Yamaha or a Midas by its innate sound, which is great, but sometimes you want to be able to paint the picture yourself. You don’t want those particular shades. With the dLive all you hear is the PA and the room, which is something I’ve always noticed about Soundcraft as well. You can pick your own palette, and make the instruments fill certain spaces. You might not want the kick drum to be the bottom end of the scale; you might want the bass to fit underneath it, so that the kick is punchy without being the thing that shakes the room.”
We once got to a point where we described the studio as an instrument in itself; is the PA reaching that point?
Totally. It really is another instrument, perhaps more so. One of the tunes in The Script’s set has a big sub-drop, a real downward boom, and we were looking at the SMAART reference screen one day and saw that it tails off at 50Hz. In the studio on the recording, you’d leave it at that because you won’t hear any more after mastering. But we’ve got a world of subs at our disposal with a lot more headroom, so we were able to fill that out: using the tone generator on the desk, I take a sine wave and sweep it down so it doesn’t stop at 50Hz any more – I manually carry it on and dial in a much deeper tone. It’s very much a production rather than simply reinforcement. In theory I would be just making things louder, but that’s never going to happen. Everything’s different every day; everybody plays differently every day; the drummer hits harder or softer; the guitar player has adjusted his sound; Danny [O’Donoghue] can sing very differently. Nothing is identical. It’s not a controlled environment like a studio; even the backing tracks come out differently. You can play the system to suit the location. If it’s a really dead room you can do a lot more with the effects. If it’s a reverberant space like The Albert Hall, with reverb for days on everything, you won’t notice them so you leave them out to clean it all up and, maybe, bring something in now and then. I’ll never do the same thing twice, like playing an instrument except it’s a mixing desk.
Do the bands get this?
For sure. You build up a trust. The Script are really good. Often when a band starts rehearsing before a tour it’s just the monitor guy in there, sorting out the in-ears. But with the Script, I’m in there from Day One. What we do is map out the space, placing vocals and instruments, and making sure that when I look at the stage I can hear every single thing that I can see. I don’t want to see a musical action and not hear it, but it also has to sit in the right place. It’s not like everything’s louder than everything else! There’s a slot, a hole, a shelf for everything to fit in. That sense of space, of room… that what I really felt when the dLive came out with its 96kHz resolution. You could tweak something by one single increment and really notice it.
No problem. Hang on – Great Budworth! That’s it; we’ve moved to Great Budworth in Cheshire. Nice place.