Since arriving in the UK from his native Belgium to study audio technology some 20 years ago, Wes Maebe has carved out an award-winning career that has seen him work with numerous international acts as an FOH mixer in the live arena and as an engineer and producer in the studio. Daniel Gumble caught up with him to reflect on his illustrious career to date and find out why he thinks Brexit could mark a “deeply depressing” period for the pro audio industry...
When perusing the CV of Wes Maebe, one could well be mistaken for thinking they were looking at a body of work belonging to someone nearing the end of a rich and impressive career, such is the sheer weight and diversity of projects attached to his name. In his capacity as a live FOH engineer, studio engineer and producer, he has worked with a sparkling array of acts from the rock and pop world, including the likes of The Buzzcocks, Cat Stevens, Celine Dion, Ellie Goulding, UB40, Plan B, Mel C, Thurston Moore, Sting, Robert Plant, Chaka Khan and a great many more.
Yet while his client list may suggest otherwise, it was only in 2006 that Maebe became a full-time engineer.
When he arrived in the UK at the age of 20 in 1998 to study audio technology, few could have predicted the kind of success Maebe would go on to achieve both in the field and in the studio.
PSNEurope spoke to Maebe to find out how he made the transition from student to award-winning audio professional, where the studio sector is headed and the threat Brexit poses to the industry...
When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in audio?
My dad suggested it. I’d had a little contretemps with the university I was attending and got very disillusioned. So my dad took me to see Herman Wilms at the AES in Belgium. He told me that if I wanted to learn, I had to go to London.
What happened when you arrived in London?
Heather at the AES UK section got me a list of all the audio engineering colleges in town and me and my folks set off on a trip to visit them all. I didn’t know anything about the business so I had to rely on my dad, who worked at Studer as an engineer, to pick the right place. At one point we walked into a room, which was filled with Revox 1/4” machines and dad asked to see the course leader immediately. The guy in charge was up the road building a studio for the college. We headed there and the man who emerged from behind a patchbay with a soldering iron was Steve Culnane. We had a great chat and the next thing I know I’m enrolled on the audio engineering and music technology course.
What was your first job as an engineer?
I was still in college when one of my teachers, Jon Klein, asked me to go along to a show he was doing on the Scilly Isles. His band was headlining the Camel Rock festival and he wanted me to do FOH for them. When we got there I was told they didn’t have anyone to rig the PA or to engineer any other bands. So, Jon and I were put on a boat to the site and we built the PA, rang it out and sound checked. I then spent the entire day on the FOH tower mixing the out front sound and monitors for every band. Baptism of fire or what?!
You’re known primarily for your work as a studio engineer and producer, but you’ve also done plenty of gigs at FOH. How did you end up doing both?
A lot of my original work was location recording-based. Initially it was mainly classical performances in churches and large halls under the mentorship of Mike Skeet. This led to recording bands live and several then asked me to stay on as their FOH engineer. Knowing the bands’ on- stage sound led to recording sessions and the mixture of studio and live sound has remained. It makes for a great balance and keeps the job interesting and challenging.
What are the biggest similarities/differences between mixing live and in the studio?
I don’t feel there’s much difference between the two. I approach them with the same work ethic: Do the best job and make the artist sound amazing. Obviously you have more time in a studio environment to move things around and experiment with different mic setups, but the end goal is the same. The artist has to sound great and we have to support and facilitate the artist’s sonic vision.
The studio sector has undergone enormous changes since you first started out. What have been the biggest you’ve seen, and how much has your job changed as a result of these changes?
The biggest change is the switch from fully analogue, recording to tape, to the digital realm. But my job hasn’t changed that much. We still need to capture the essence of the music and paint an amazing sonic picture of what’s in the artists’ minds and hearts. The main things that have changed are that budgets have got a lot smaller, so we spend a lot less time perfecting things at source. It has turned our business into a ‘fix it in the mix, or even the master’ situation. Because of the digital transformation, people have lost the ability to make creative decisions. You can record a hundred takes of something and then you can sort through it later. There’s a general vibe of ‘that’s good enough, we’ll tune it later’. To me the recording process has lost the passion and excitement of actually performing. When a band performs together there’s an energy and a unity that gives you that Gestalt principle of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
A lot of bands freak out when you ask them to play together. Everything gets played to a click and no one is actually in the room together, which makes for quite a sterile sound. In the analogue days you had to be able to play your instrument and play together. A further fallout of that is that everyone who owns a laptop and a sample bank of loops is now suddenly a producer. They don’t teach the kids people skills and bedside manner anymore. If you have some loops, you put a Lego track together and bam, you’re a producer. Don’t ask them to run a session with human beings though.
Are the digital technologies changing the sector a good or bad thing?
Digital has given us tools to make the workflow easier, but with it comes responsibility. Because digital is so freely available, suddenly everyone ‘can’ make music and that has taxed the studio sector. ‘Oh, we don’t need a studio, I’ll record everything in my bedroom and slap a reverb plugin on it, so it’ll sound big’. This is the kind of stuff that has led to labels and artists not wanting to pay for an amazing recording environment. I don’t think studio prices have gone up in over 30 years, but utilities like electricity, gas, water, business rates and staff wages have gone up every year. Add to that that record labels and independent artists are haggling with studios for even lower studio prices and it’s obvious why so many legendary sound temples have had to close. If you work in your bedroom and you have no real incentive (other than wanting to be famous overnight), no time pressure, no budgets to deal with, to me that translates in the music. If you book into a studio, you get excited, you have to make sure you get everything done within the time frame and it forces you to focus on the job in hand. These buildings were built to make music. They were tuned to sound amazing so that everything you do in there is of the highest quality right from the start.
I am not saying you can’t get amazing results in your bedroom, but it has thrown the playing field wide open to a lot of crap. And now we expect the audience to be the A&R department of the world and we just don’t have that much patience. So people get bored with middle of the road stuff, start skipping songs and suddenly the album isn’t important anymore; people stop buying music because a lot of material out there doesn’t cut the mustard. Budgets get cut, studios go out of business and producers, engineers and musicians are asked to do stuff for free.
What would be your ideal studio set up?
I’d love to have an API console, PSI and Genelec monitors. Outboard: Distressors, Manley Massive Passive, Vari Mu and Vox Box, Massenburg’s 8200, Simon Saywood’s Analogue Tube AT101, pretty much everything designed by David Hill from Cranesong, a couple of Pultecs, LA2A, some Blue Stripe 1176s, Rupert Neve’s Master Buss Processor RJR’s EQS and Compressors, three M50s for a Decca tree, a few RCA 44 and 77s, and we can’t live without some Royers. I love the sE Rupert Neve mics, a nice selection of Advanced Audio’s mics and their preamp, some DPAs, original 414s, a couple of 441s and 421s, a nice Studer 24-track with a 16-track headblock, a big ass Buchla synth, a pool table, a pin ball machine, a Wurli, Fender Rhodes, Hammond with the Leslie. I can go on for ever!
You’ve worked with some huge artists over the years. What have been some of your most enjoyable (and least enjoyable) experiences in the studio?
Two of the main highlights have been being on the road with Sting doing FOH for The Songs From The Labyrinth tour and mixing the latest UB40 (feat. Ali, Astro & Mickey) record. The least enjoyable experiences are working with bands you fully believe in, pour all your heart and soul into the project and then get screwed over by them. Maybe we should make an industry black list!
As mentioned, the studio sector has changed significantly since you first started out. Has the live industry faced similar changes and challenges?
Definitely. I was brought up on large format analogue live consoles. Even smaller venues had pretty decent analogue desks out front, which meant you had everything under your fingertips. Then everything went digital. Under the guise of a smaller footprint, venues started purchasing these little digital consoles because you can save the soundcheck of each band. To me this has lead to a decrease in live sound quality. Venues are now putting on a huge amount of acts on one night, so you get a lot of stuff rather than a solid well planned night of entertainment.
Nine out of 10 times you need to mix monitors from FOH, which in my opinion is a crime. As the engineer you have no idea what’s happening on stage because, you guessed it, you’re at the other end of the room. You have no interaction with the band because they can’t see you. The main problem for me is that digital consoles, for all their amazing features, just do not give you the ability to work the sound artistically. I want to be able to EQ something, whilst changing the compression on something else, sending something to the delay at the same time and if I want to ride the vocals during that process with my foot, that should be possible. It is, on an analogue console, not on a digital one. Whatever you want to change has to be called to the centre section or you have to flip to a separate fader bank.
To me it has taken the creativity out of FOH mixing and the quality of sound is suffering. This makes audiences appreciate live music less and that filters through to lower show income and the ridiculous situation where venue owners ask performers to pay to play. This should be made illegal. We provide a service and an art that increases the value of your venue. These artists and their crew keep you in business, so treat them with the respect they deserve.
What do you think Brexit will mean for the pro audio market?
Christ Smith, organiser of Womad Festival, founded by Peter Gabriel, has said that entering the UK has become “so difficult and humiliating” since the Brexit referendum that performers are giving up. Smith said it’s been tougher to recruit performers due to the impact the UK Visa process is having on foreign musicians. He said “we’ve had situations where, say, an African artist has been due to come who plays a particularly rare instrument, and we’ll be asked: ‘Can’t you find someone in the UK who plays that instrument?’, which is absurd”. This year artists have said they’re not going to attempt to tackle the immigration system, because it’s too difficult, too expensive and it’s humiliating. If this is the way overseas artists are going to be treated, the impact on our live music industry alone, and the engineers and technicians who work in it, will be deeply depressing.
As a Belgian national, I chose the UK because it was a global centre of excellence in professional training, equipment development and manufacture and in recording practice, as well as a thriving, multi-cultural musical hub. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of recording musicians from as far afield as India, Africa and Brunei, musicians who’ve chosen the UK because of its vibrancy and its reputation as a centre of recording excellence. What happens to that valuable business when the UK makes it “difficult, expensive and humiliating” for their clients to enter the country? Or difficult for its homegrown manufacturers to export their goods because no trade deals are in place?
And I’m not just talking about clients from more distant countries. Europeans, long a mainstay of the UK recording sector, feel unwelcome, disappointed, even angry in the face of Britain’s vote to reject the EU. I know of at least one UK manufacturer who had a valuable order cancelled by an EU client immediately after the referendum. The UK as an open, welcoming, desirable place to do business is in danger of being replaced by the UK as a diminished country, a small island that chose isolation over participation, a country that’s suddenly a lot less attractive as a place to come to work or to do business with.
As the prospect of a ‘no deal Brexit’ gets closer and closer, it’s time for the pro audio industry to join the swelling chorus of voices from all sectors of the economy warning of the negative impact and demanding that the people have the final say.
Lastly, what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on the next 10 Gauge single, which we recorded at the gorgeous Monnow Valley. That should be out in October and I’m in the middle of mixing the next Rock Goddess record. We recorded that at Tobin Jones’s The Park Studios and I’m mixing it at The Sonic Cuisine. It’s their first record in 30 years, so there are a lot of excited metal fans out there.