Interview: Jon Burton on mixing his drum tracks using drumatom²
Jon describes his work as a FOH engineer and his experience with drumatom²
Jon Burton has been a sound engineer since he left school. As a monitor and front of house engineer he has worked at the highest level with acts such as Stereophonics, Pendulum and, for the last fourteen years, The Prodigy. He was excited to talk to us about Drumatom and the way he has been using it to improve his drum tracks as well as to give us insight on the life and work of a FOH engineer.
Hi, my name's Jon Burton and welcome to Mu Studios at the Laundry Rooms in Sheffield. I'd like to talk about Drumatom. I came across this plugin about six months ago, purely by accident. I was at a conference in Salford at the university there, taking part in a panel and I was watching some of the presentations during the afternoon, where I watched one by Alex from Accusonus, where he described something that I had really needed the week before. This was a plugin that could remove drums from other drum tracks, could clean up cymbal tracks, could clean up hi-hat tracks, which was exactly what I'd wanted to do. I'd been working on some live recordings and I had a hi-hat which I needed to get rid of the snare drum from, which is seemingly an impossible task.
The trouble is that microphones are inherently stupid, so because the hi-hat microphone is called a hi-hat microphone, it doesn't actually know that it's just supposed to pick up the hi-hat, it's actually picking up all the other drums and on this stage, which is particularly loud, it's picking up bits of guitar and other artifacts. And what I really wanted was the hi-hat without any snare. So I badgered him, grabbed a copy off him, took it home, stuck it on my laptop, installed it, ran it, ran all the tracks through it, processed the tracks using Drumatom, and to my amazement I got a clean hi-hat track. Not perfectly clean, but so much better than what I was working with before. And it really did solve a problem.
It's a great tool. I've, since then I've started using it to clean up other drum tracks. Not as a main track some of the time, but just as part of, as a way of improving the sounds. I've been using it on toms. It's a great way of cleaning up tom tracks, to get rid of ride cymbals in particular and other extra things, like the sound, on a floor tom you always tend to get a little bit of the bass drum in there, and it's been great. I don't particularly like using gates, so it's a way of avoiding using a noise gate and getting a really good, clean drum sound and it's been incredibly handy, so thanks Alex. Thanks for giving that presentation and thank you for sending me a demo copy and glad to buy it.
Q: What's your backround?
So my background is primarily as a live sound engineer, this is where I've earned most of my money over the years. I've been doing live sound pretty much since I left school. I do have a studio and this is my studio, this is, we're based in Sheffield and we've got quite a large analog set up here. I'm very much set in the analog world, although we've got computers obviously and I do a lot of stuff with software, I do like to mix on a large analog desk. We've got a 52 channel AMEK desk here, with 24 channels of Neve. We've got lots of DA converters, so we can run 48 tracks of digital to analog, which means you can do big analog mixes here, but there's always a role for plugins and I do have favorite plugins, it has to be said, of which Drumatom has become one of them, it has.
Q: How did you become the FOH engineer for Prodigy?
How did I get the Prodigy show? I got the Prodigy show from the way I got most of my work, which is a friend of a friend, or a personal recommendation. I was out on tour with the band Blue, the boy band Blue, when I was doing monitors with my friend Nick, Nick Warren, who was the front of house engineer and he was also front of house engineer for the Prodigy and had been for many years and that's how I had originally met him. He said he wasn't gonna be doing the next tour and would I be interested to be put in the frame for it? I said yes, of course, and I didn't actually do it to start with, another engineer did it for a couple of months, but then he wanted to do something else and I got the chance to be put up for it again and was luckily accepted for the role. I got reunited with the tour manager, who I had actually worked with about 14 years previously, John, and it was great. I stepped into it and haven't really looked back, it's been 14 years now and I've really enjoyed it, I still look forward to working with them every day. They're a great band to mix and it's a great show, there's lots going on, it's exciting, it's interesting and well worth checking out.
Q: How long does it take you to mix a live show?
People often ask how long do you get to mix live tracks and the answer is nowhere near long enough. We usually get a day or two days at the best. I have been expected to do stuff, and I have done stuff, overnight. I've actually finished a show, gone straight to the hotel, sat there with my laptop doing a mix and had it out the next morning. This has happened on more than one occasions, but usually I get maybe two or three days. The thing about live recordings, you want it to be relevant, you want it to be released during the tour a lot of the time, particularly if you're going from one territory to another, you wanna get shows from the beginning of the tour out so that it increases interest in dates further along the line. So it's usually a really quick turnaround and quite often we'll have, it'll be filmed, audio recorded and mixed within a day, that's not unusual. A day or two days is, to have a rough mix, and sometimes it's even out within 36 hours, sometimes.Once we managed it in 24 hours, which is way too fast. You don't get enough time to work on things. So I have to work fast. I usually work on my laptop and usually it's in a hotel or on airplane or a tour bus or a train, so lots of stuff on the use. I have a big studio which I very rarely get to use for this thing, 'cause it's always done too quickly, so I rely on my laptop, a good suite of plugins, and my trusty Sennheiser headphones.
Q: What's been the trickiest live sound or studio situation you have witnessed?
What's the trickiest situation? Trickiest thing, it usually comes down to that same thing of the stupidity of microphones, where you've got the sounds coming down the microphone aren't the ones you expect. Which is quite often with my bands, well with the Prodigy, is when Keith has decided to go wandering and he goes up and stands on the drum kit and he's actually closer to the snare drum and is still supposedly singing, but is actually really more interested in climbing about the drum kit. Which looks great and doesn't really help me at all and doesn't really convey to the audio soundtrack particularly well, but it looks great on the visuals and to be honest in situations like that, that's all that really matters. Can I clean up the track with Drumatom? I think it's still a bit too far fetched for even Drumatom to manage that, but it's always worth a go, so maybe I'll try that when we get home.
Q: What advice would you give to bands and live acts that are publishing their live shows to the web?
Advice I'd give to people doing live recordings on the web. I think the most important thing about a live recording is it is a live recording and you've got to capture as much of the atmosphere of the show as possible. And this requires ambient mics. You've got to get as many ambient mics as you've got channels for, just 'cause it's really hard to mic up a crowd. You always think you can do it with one microphone, but it takes, four is a great number. You need two at least, if you've got four, six, eight, as many as you can and mix them together, and do a good blend and try and capture as much sound of the room as possible, and sound of people applauding. It's a really difficult thing to mic up. Good audience mics are a struggle to achieve, it has to be said. Because all you need is some person whistling, we had one on a Prodigy recording when we did the Milton Keynes show, we had two microphones which were placed quite close together and the tracks were ruined by a girl who enthusiastically whistled after each song and it just made this horrible piercing noise over the mics, so we couldn't actually use those channels. So you have to try and capture as much as possible and blend it in, bring it in for the beginning of the track then fade it out while the track's playing, then bring it back in and try and follow the response of the audience. And make it sound full, make it sound like you're there, make it sound exciting and I think that's the key to a good live recording.
Q: Have you been using or are you planning to use any other Accusonus plugins?
Having met the guys from Accusonus. It was interesting to see some of the other products It's really good for people like myself, who are jobbing engineers, people who do this for a living to actually meet the software designers and try to build up a relationship so I can sort of feed them the things we need, things, the tools that we actually need to do the job. Some of which I can't even imagine, you know, I didn't imagine something like Drumatom could ever exist. It's beyond my comprehension, I'm just really glad it does. as well, which I haven't really had the chance to play with yet, but I'm quite interested in sort of the dereverberation, the whole concept behind it, the algorithms behind it, I find it really interesting, the way you can remove sounds in this way. And there's so much more work to be done and I think it's gonna be really interesting in the future to see what they come up with.