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A-T exclusive web interview with Nigel Paul, Dream Theater FOH Engineer

A Summer Sonic 2010 interview with Nigel Paul, Dream Theater FOH Engineer

A Summer Sonic 2010 interview

Audio-Technica: How did you get your start in the pro audio industry? Are you a musician?

Nigel Paul: Shortly before finishing at university in England, I applied for a job as a camp counselor in the U.S. for the summer. Iíd never been to the States, and as Iíd be graduating broke like most students it didnít sound like a bad deal as a means to get myself there. Essentially it was a working holiday with a bit of free time at the end before the temporary work visa ran out and you were obliged to take a specified charter flight home. Two weeks later I was on a camp in upstate New York, trying to figure out what Ďwas happeningí and caring for mentally handicapped kids. Not bad preparation for the music business if you think about it. When my camp commitment was over I used my free time to drive across the country, ending up in San Francisco, which I liked on sight. Within days Iíd decided to follow my instinct to be a no-show for the flight home and explore my new surroundings.

I was working several under-the-radar jobs to earn enough money to scrape by when I was introduced to a couple of English guys who were in a local band called The Hoovers, signed to a small independent label, and with a bit of a following in the Bay Area. Being crewless they took me up on my offer to give them a hand with their equipment when they had gigs. Iíd never had any previous experience in the music business, but something about it piqued my interest, and it earned me a few much-needed bucks.

The band rehearsed at S.I.R. in San Francisco on weeknights, and Iíd always be there, my main motivation being to get my hands on the audio gear, which Iíd rapidly been developing a strong interest in. Iíd get the backline up and running before they got there, then experiment with the monitor system in the room, exploring how it all went together physically, and then how to actually operate the console and shape the sound of the monitors. After a few rehearsals I happened to hear a band member comment to another that the monitors had been sounding better than usual lately, which was a moment of great personal satisfaction, although no one said a word to me. When it came to the gigs themselves, Iíd always hang around FOH to watch what was going on, learning by observation and politely questioning the engineer if he seemed receptive. I was never satisfied until I completely understood whatever it was that was unclear to me at any particular time, and Iím the same way to this day. From the rehearsals I knew the band had the potential to sound really good, but most of the time the mixes at the shows were just dismal. I was convinced that, given the opportunity, I could do better, by using better judgment and common sense if nothing else. At this time I was quietly writing to all the audio manufacturers to get whatever brochures, photos and schematics of audio equipment theyíd send me that would help me figure it all out. After a few months of intense homework, including going to S.I.R. and successfully persuading the guys there to allow me some time in unused rehearsal rooms to hook gear up and experiment with it, I popped the question to the band. How would they feel about me mixing a show? I remember the awkward silence, and a private band discussion followed. Ultimately they consented to let me Ďhave a goí, and the next weekend I mixed my first ever show, monitors mixed from FOH, the works; in at the deep end. I was as serious about the task as I was nervous. After the gig everyone was happy, and after a Ďsuccessfulí (i.e. disaster-free) second outing a week later I was appointed their official Ďsoundmaní. I was on the ladder, albeit the bottom rung.

The Bay Area music scene was very strong at that time, and other local bands also started offering me work on a regular basis based on what theyíd heard me do with The Hoovers. Before long I was working in some club in the Bay Area literally every night of the week, on a wide variety of club level equipment, working hard to educate myself yet well aware of how much there was to know. It was a tough but excellent education because I got to compare the different types of consoles, amps, graphics, speakers, mics, etc., and learned how to get the last ounce of quality out of whatever the in-house equipment happened to be. It also gave me an appreciation of the greater potential of higher-quality equipment when I had the opportunity to get my hands on it. A couple of the bands I worked with were personal favorites of the late Bill Graham, and if a touring act that was not carrying a support act came through San Francisco weíd often end up getting put on the bill. The Kabuki Theater, The Greek Theater, The Warfield, The Fillmore. Working on shows at this level exposed me to an unfamiliar and higher level of technology that was initially quite intimidating, but I took the same approach to learning it. Iíd write to the manufacturers and get whatever printed information I could from them; get to the venue early (Iím talking headliner load-in! Ė I was keen to learn); try my hardest to ingratiate myself to the headlinerís engineer, watch like a hawk, politely ask what I hoped were intelligent questions, and try to figure out exactly what on earth a VCA did and how to use some of the outboard gear that was totally alien to me, before I had to use it that night. Some of those engineers were very gracious and helpful, and Iím mindful of that when some young hopeful comes to FOH and peppers me with questions. I sometimes recognize myself in them, and I always do my best to answer whatever questions they have. Itís all in the approach. ĎHey, dudeÖí wonít get you far.

To answer the second part of your question, I dabble on guitar and keyboards at home, but no, I couldnít call myself a musician. Mixing is my medium of creative expression, and the hardware at FOH is my instrument. Iím far more comfortable doing what I do at FOH for real musicians than I ever would be on stage.

Audio-Technica: How did you end up working with Dream Theater? Who else have you worked with?

Nigel Paul: I believe I was recommended to them by Steve Vai. In 2002 I received a call from Dream Theaterís manager, Frank Solomon, who is one of the true gentlemen in this business, and was offered the FOH position. I accepted, and here we are eight years and hundreds of shows later.

Other clients of mine, past and present, include Avenged Sevenfold, Megadeth, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Cheap Trick, Mr. Big, Chris Isaak, Christopher Cross, Kitaro, Hiroshima, Toy Matinee and Yellowjackets.

Audio-Technica: Can you describe a typical day on the road?

Nigel Paul: Get up early and head into the venue to check in with the audio guys and see if there are any issues relevant to that particular dayís venue that need to be discussed before set-up gets underway. Take a few minutes to orientate myself in general with the place. A little breakfast, and a shower, then out to FOH.

I always set up my own FOH equipment, so thatís the next order of business. Apart from giving a bit back to the hard-working audio guys it allows me to place all the hardware and cables exactly where I want them. I like a clear and tidy work area. Iím also a great believer in labelling everything to death, as anyone who has ever worked with me would probably confirm. Itís an extra check against simple patching errors, and can be invaluable in the event of having to trouble-shoot quickly under pressure and show lighting conditions. P-Touchitis is now a recognized condition.

Next up is system tuning. My preferred way of working is for the system tech to get the system time-aligned and address the obvious eq issues, then Iíll listen to material that Iím intimately familiar with, including my own voice, and fineĖtune things to my personal taste. In practice the system tech usually gets things very close, and deliberately leaves a little wiggle room to accommodate the mixerís individual needs and preferences. Finally, Iíll walk the whole room while listening to my preferred material over the PA, and relay any thoughts, observations or suggestions to the system tech at FOH via radio.

Clichť aside, this really is a team sport, and in my experience the best working relationships and results are usually achieved when all parties feel that their contribution and opinion is valued, and are comfortable speaking their mind. Everyoneís input is of value and contributes to a good final result. An informed and knowledgeable second opinion can be a great asset, plus itís great to have an extra pair of ears that you can trust when youíre actively mixing. Sometimes just a glance between you in response to something you both just heard is enough. As the mixer you canít venture far from FOH during the show, and itís good to have someone who can walk the room, note where thereís room for improvement and come back and make the necessary suggestions or adjustments.

After that Iíll go on stage to fine-tune microphone placement, check the status of DI switches, etc., and then we do a full line-check with the backline crew to make sure that everything is working as it should be on stage, at FOH and in monitor world. After that weíre ready for the band to come in and do a sound check. That usually comprises a brief run through sounds with each individual musician, then maybe a couple of songs with the band as a whole. Sometimes itís an opportunity for the band to rehearse or kick some new ideas around as well. In that case Iíll keep a recorder running so they have a reference to listen to later if they so wish.

By now it would be about time to find catering and relax a little over dinner. Assuming weíre headlining it might be a couple of hours until showtime, and depending on where we are I might read for a while or take a walk. Iím an avid photographer so I usually have my camera on my shoulder wherever I go. Touring gives me an opportunity to visit many different parts of the world and I take full advantage with my photography.

Showtime approaches. If we have support acts I go out to FOH a few minutes before the last one finishes to take a quick listen. If itís an Ďevening withí situation as has typically been the case with Dream Theater over the years, Iíll usually go out to FOH about 45 mins or so before the scheduled start of the show. While the house music is running in the background and the audience is coming in I like to do a methodical run through my pre-flight check list, and make sure that everything is ready to go and nothingís been overlooked. We get regular time checks and a final countdown over the radio, and then weíre off to the races.

When the showís over I strike all the FOH equipment and get it to the venueís loading dock ready to be put in the trucks when itís called for. At that point my work day is over and itís off to the tour bus to get some sleep while weíre driven to the next city to start the whole process all over again.

Audio-Technica: How do you maintain the health of your ears?

Nigel Paul: In general I limit my exposure to high SPL, and when Iím mixing I pay close attention to overall levels. The audience at a rock show is certainly expecting to hear a rock show, but if you know what youíre doing, you can mix Ďbigí and exciting without having to mix at crushing volume to make your point. Thereís nothing musical or pleasing about an excessively loud mix with little-to-no dynamics. Regardless of the genre of music Iím mixing, I make every effort to mix as cleanly, articulately and smoothly as possible. I respect the audienceís hearing as much as I do my own, and listener fatigue from volume, distortion, or both, is to be avoided at all costs. Itís counter-productive on a number of levels, not the least of which is artistic.

Aside from the afore-mentioned, a healthy diet and plenty of rest can only benefit oneís overall health, although both are frequently in short supply on a typical tour.

Audio-Technica: Sitting around at home ... what albums do you listen to?

Nigel Paul: Peter Gabriel, Sting, Annie Lennox, K.D. Lang, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Mozart, a lot of Ďworldí music.

Audio-Technica: How do you like Japan? Are you enjoying the experience here at Summer Sonic?

Nigel Paul: This is my 52nd trip to Japan, and I will never tire of coming here. I find the culture fascinating, and always spend my time off walking the streets taking it all in. Some aspects of Japanese life are a little too controlled and regimented for my comfort, but there is so much to admire and respect about the way life operates here that one has to look at the bigger picture. No visit is ever long enough for me.

I have worked at Summer Sonic numerous times, and every aspect of it has always been extremely well organized and well run. This yearís event is no exception. Itís always a thoroughly enjoyable and positive experience for all the visiting bands and crews. There are a few promoters from other parts of the world that Iíd like to bring over here to show them how an event can and should be run.

Audio-Technica: Whatís the biggest challenge on this tour?

Nigel Paul: Consistently delivering a clean, clear and articulate mix, no matter how dense and intense the material gets, or how challenging a venueís acoustics may be. These guys are all virtuosi on their chosen instruments, and the many musicians in every Dream Theater audience want to hear and savor every note, beat and nuance. Doing justice to such phenomenal musicianship, particularly across the wide gamut of venue acoustics that we encounter around the world can certainly be a challenge, but itís very satisfying when you know youíre pulling it off. Once in a while we come up against a venue where we know itís going to be an uphill struggle all the way, but then you just have to do your very best, try not to get too frustrated, and remind yourself that thereís really not much more you can do. Sometimes thatís easier said than done though.

Audio-Technica: Whatís the most difficult/stressful time before or during a show?

Nigel Paul: As an audio crew we prepare for every show very carefully and thoroughly in order to minimize the chances of encountering problems and potentially stressful situations. Inevitably something unexpected and unwelcome will happen once in a while, itís the nature of the beast, but itís a measure of the crewís experience and professionalism that when problems do occur they usually get solved quickly and quietly. That said, when the power supply for my console suddenly erupted in flames in the middle of a sound check at the Spectrum Arena in Oslo I will admit to having an adrenalin Ďmoment.í Fortunately there was a dry powder extinguisher directly behind me and a spare PSU. Rare, but definitely an attention getter. Otherwise, itís normal for me to get very focused before and during a show, which is actually necessary mixing a show like this, but not stressed. Thorough preparation inspires trust and confidence, and helps keep things relaxed; not complacent, but relaxed.

Audio-Technica: Are there any particular pieces of gear that you feel are indispensable to your sound (ie: certain mic(s), particular reverb unit, comp unit, etc)?

Nigel Paul: If I had to identify one particular piece of audio equipment that helps me best achieve an overall sonic character and quality that Iím looking to achieve in a mix, across all music genres, Iíd have to say a high-end Midas console, either analogue or digital. Things just seem to sonically fall into place for me when Iím mixing on one. Over the years a unique and consistent sonic thread has run through their line of consoles, and itís one that feels instinctively Ďrightí to me. Just one manís taste and opinion, but there you are. That they have managed to continue, and arguably even improve upon that with the digital consoles is quite a remarkable achievement. If Iíve got a high-end Midas console I can pretty much get by with anything else in the signal chain, within reason of course, for most artists, most of the time, on most good-quality PA systems.

Over and above that, thereís usually a TC 6000 or Lexicon 480/960 in my rack for reverb, and a TC 2290 or D-Two for delay. I usually put my WavesMaxxBCL across the main L-R output for a little very low-ratio compression of the overall mix. Like everyone else I have my particular mic preferences, but at the end of the day Iíll base my choice on what I think will best complement what Iím hearing at the source. For DIs I like Radialís product line. If Iím working in the analogue domain my first choices of noise gate would be the XTA G2 or Aphex 622. For compression I like the XTA C2, Smart C2, Tube Tech, Summit, Avalon, but choice would of course be application-dependent.

Audio-Technica: How many people does it take to put on a Dream Theater show?

Nigel Paul: Aside from the band members themselves, the core travelling crew comprises the following personnel:

Tour Manager, Production Manager, Production Assistant, FOH Engineer, Monitor Engineer, Lighting Director, Video Director, four backline techs, Merchandiser, bus drivers and truck drivers.

In addition, we are assisted daily by a sizeable local crew provided by the promoter, which would typically include 12-16 stage-hands to assist the sound, lighting and video crews and the backline techs, 6-8 truck loaders, 2-3 riggers, 2-3 caterers, and the numerous venue security personnel.

Audio-Technica: How much influence does the artist have on the mix or do they let you do your own thing?

Nigel Paul: The answer to that question varies somewhat from one artist to the next, but broadly speaking Iím pretty much given a free rein, typically with some pointers or suggestions here and there as regards certain songs or specific parts of a song. This usually happens in a spirit of cooperation and is all part of the getting-to-know-you and trust-building process between the engineer and the artist. I see that as perfectly normal and understandable, and nothing but positive.

Iíve rarely been hired sight unseen, so if Iím hired to mix a particular artist I can be pretty sure that the artist, or someone they trust with these matters, already has a positive opinion of my abilities otherwise I wouldnít have been offered the job in the first place. Theyíd also know, or see very quickly, that I do my homework and come into a project very well prepared in terms of familiarity with the artistís material. While thereís a lot to be said for hiring good people and letting them get on with what they do, in an artistic endeavor things are usually a little more complicated than that, and most artists will have certain ideas or suggestions they want to get across to you. Good people skills go a long way. At the end of the day Iím there to help them present their musical vision, so to speak, and while a certain amount of that process is instinctive to me, of course Iím going to listen to, and take to heart, any suggestions or guidance the artist puts forward. While most artists will appreciate and respond positively to considered and informed feedback on their suggestions, their reaction to someone who is overly opinionated or dismissive will most likely not be good for employment longevity.

Audio-Technica: Are there any engineers whose work you especially admire?

Nigel Paul: The last mix I heard that really impressed me was Dan Green mixing Coldplay. A company had flown me to Seattle to listen to a system at a festival-type show and Coldplay was just one of the acts on the bill. Everyone else sounded very mediocre, but Danís mix was first-class. So, weíve never met, but hatís off Dan.

Audio-Technica: What problems do you see inexperienced sound people making?

Nigel Paul: Excessive volume, but in fairness that applies to some experienced engineers who should know better too. Also, the whole vision-distorting, kick drum-centric school of mixing is really tiresome. Itís like someone who tries to impress by driving fast in a straight line. Thereís nothing skilful about it. Letís see how you do on the curves.

Too much mixing and system set-up by eye and not enough use of the ears.

Audio-Technica: Do you have any miking tips or tricks to share?

Nigel Paul: When it comes to selecting a mic for a given application, keep an open mind. If you have the opportunity, try a variety of mics and go with what sounds best to your ears, and what works best for your particular set of circumstances. Trust your own judgment/instincts and donít be swayed by what everyone else is using. Great discoveries can be made that way.

Otherwise, treat your mics with respect and youíll get many years of reliable use from them. Donít just sling them into an empty drawer at the end of the night.

Audio-Technica: What Audio-Technica microphones are you using? Can you tell us why you chose those mics and how theyíre working out for you?

Nigel Paul: 3 x 350 for smaller toms, and timbalito
5 x 3000 for larger toms
2 x 3000 for chime bars
4 x 4060 for overheads
2 x 450 for snare under

Iíve been a longtime user of Audio-Technica mics on drums, and as you can see from the above, the A-T mics we have out here are all used on Mike Portnoyís kit. Not only is the kit huge, comprising a lot of elements, but a lot of the toms have cymbals either partially covering them or in very close proximity, leaving very little room to actually get mics where I want them. In the case of the smaller toms in particular this necessitated using a mic with a small profile but a full frequency response and tight pick-up pattern. The 350 was the obvious choice.

Thereís a little more latitude for mic placement with the larger toms, and for these I chose the 3000. They provide a very full-bodied sound while again remaining very controlled in their pick-up pattern. We tried a few different mics on the chimes, but found that the 3000, with its larger diaphragm, gave us an even and smooth sound across the chime bar while its pick-up pattern also suited the location of the chimes in relation to the rest of the kit as regards rejection of unwanted input.

The 450ís were chosen for their excellent transient response, and the fact that their small size and side-address design made them ideal for the snare under application, where again access is somewhat restricted on this kit.

The 4060ís were recommended to me by an engineer friend who had used them as overheads and thought I might like them. He was right.

Audio-Technica: Can you tell us about the reliability of Audio-Technica products? You have some grueling tours. How have our products held up?

Nigel Paul: I have used most models of Audio-Technica mics on tour worldwide for years and never experienced a single failure that wasnít the result of some kind of negligence or user abuse. I think that says it all.