Every live scene relies on the seldom acknowledged sound engineers, who ensure the music from the band onstage is faithfully presented to the audience across the main PA. Here I've decided to narrow down my scope by focusing on soundies who are or were also musicians in their own right – a select few, but a very distinguished list.
Of course, this limits my list to a certain era, since soundmen were in short supply in the 1960s, as Robert Stebbing (whose family owned popular venue the Galaxie) explained to me. “In that era, live bands used vocal PAs only, no fold-back monitors, with vocals only sent through the PA system. Bands balanced their sound musically and would perfect this at rehearsals. The bandleader was usually in charge of overall sound and adjusting the dynamics of the playing. With the likes of Ray Columbus and The Invaders, Ray himself would arrange the balance of the band. Touring bands would set up in the afternoon ahead of the dance/gig that night and fine-tune their sound for that particular venue. The only people doing live sound in Auckland were Stebbing Sound (Phil Stebbing) and Magness Sound. Bruce Barton came along a little later and established Barton Sound in the early 1970s.”
This approach even extended to high profile shows like those done by The Beatles (1964) and The Rolling Stones (1965 and 1966). Simon Lynch (from The Snipes, D-Faction and co-owner of Southside Records) recalls gigs in the mid-1970s being very DIY affairs: “In bars like the Windsor Castle, the likes of Street Talk and others mixed their own sound on stage with Jansen 100 PAs. There were import restrictions, making it impossible to get JBL speakers.”
Nonetheless, the first soundie on our list was already deep into his interest in sound manipulation at this point.
1. Paul Emlyn Crowther
In May of this year, I was at the Taite Awards and spotted a familiar face behind the mixing desk: Paul Crowther. His music career stretches back to Alastair Riddell’s prog group, Orb, though Crowther followed his bandmate Eddie Rayner, joining Split Enz in 1973. Mike Chunn recalls in his book, Stranger Than Fiction, that Crowther already had “an enormous talent with electronics” at this early stage. Two years later, when Chunn was given the role of kicking Crowther out of the band in the UK, he recalls him being “surrounded by oscilloscopes, circuit boards, and rheostats.”
No surprise then, that Crowther’s biggest claim to fame was creating the Hotcake guitar pedal, which he actually started work on during his last year in Split Enz. The Hotcake would go on to be used by Noel Gallagher and Mark Knopfler, among many others, while his next well-known pedal, the Prunes and Custard, inspired The Datsuns single, ‘Harmonic generator’ (the phrase “harmonic generator/intermodulator” is written on the pedal). Crowther has now been doing live sound for over three decades, but let’s go back and remember when he was just a kick-ass drummer in New Zealand’s hottest young band. Check out his sweet fill at 1:37.
2. Rikki Morris
Richard "Rikki" Morris had an early connection to sound engineering through his older brother, Ian Morris, who got a job at Stebbing Recording Studio straight from school. However, Ian quit his job after about three years to focus on his band, Th' Dudes, and Rikki soon joined him in the musical life, becoming roadie and stage soundman for the band (before taking over the main live mixing duties for DD Smash and others in the eighties). The following television piece shows Rikki in action with Th' Dudes.
Rikki's career has recently been given the full treatment by AudioCulture, so let’s just focus on his work with Gin Wigmore. The young singer turned up at his studio in Devonport while she was still at school and his demos gained her a record deal. On RNZ's Musical Chairs show, Rikki admitted that he now gets a greater buzz out of doing live sound for artists like Gin rather than playing himself. “I prefer mixing sound to playing as a musician. I tend to really immerse myself in the moment. I never get nervous before I mix a gig, I never do when I play. If anything goes wrong, everyone looks at the sound guy. The best gig I’ve ever done was Gin Wigmore with The Cardinals at the Powerstation. I was very happy. Very seldom do I go away from mixing a live band thinking I couldn’t have done anything better, but that night I gave myself a nine out of ten. Admittedly it was The Cardinals [backing band for Ryan Adams], it’s hard to get it wrong, they pretty much mix themselves. But there was magic in the air that night ... I just knew it sounded great.”
Of course, Rikki was a chart-topping artist in his own right. His No.1 single, ‘Nobody Else’, was written off by some back in the late 1980s as a syrupy pop single, but it’s amazing to listen back to the hookiness of the song and the perfection of his brother’s production on the track – many layers of vocals and a perfectly crisp tone to each of the instruments. Ground-breaking local musician Dudley Benson recently named it as his favourite NZ pop single of all time.
3. Paul Kean
The Flying Nun stable of acts has also produced its fair share of notable sound engineer-musicians. The Clean’s early gigs featured Doug Hood as vocalist and he went on to tour as the soundman for Toy Love throughout Australasia (as well as recording many of the foundational Flying Nun releases on his 4-track tape machine). Yet it hardly seems fair to include Hood as a musician, after only three shows singing for The Clean. Therefore let’s switch our attention to Paul Kean from The Enemy, Toy Love, the Playthings (with Jay Clarkson), and The Bats.
Kean’s support of the local music scene has been unflagging for at nearly four decades. After the demise of Toy Love in Australia, Kean returned home and his Christchurch flat was used for the recording of a number of the early Flying Nun recordings and he became a regular soundie for the label’s top acts such as The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines, and Sneaky Feelings. His biggest role was as bass player for The Bats, touring internationally during the late 1980s and early 1990s (including supporting Radiohead for one tour). His partner, Kaye Woodward, plays guitar in The Bats and also joins him in their own group, Minisnap, which features another Christchurch sound engineer and musician, Marcus Winstanley.
Kean has kept up his involvement with live events, these days at an organisational level, as the Events Production Team Business Coordinator for Christchurch City Council. Here’s a music video that Kean co-directed for The Bats back in 1987.
4. Brent McLachlan
The Skeptics came at a time when samplers and the digital manipulation of sound were just beginning to take hold. The band needed a live soundman who was just eager to bend the frequencies in new directions and they found the perfect man, Brent McLachlan, previously from The Gordons [and later, Bailterspace].Of course, the Skeptics had their own sound engineer in the group from the start, Nick Roughan, so when they relocated to Wellington and started working with McLachlan, it made sense for the pair to start their own studio, Writhe. At the same time, McLachlan continued doing live sound for acts coming through the city.
Eventually, McLachlan joined the Skeptics onstage as a second drummer, helping create the mammoth sound that the band were known for. Check out the sonic creativity on this slice of Skeptics genius, ‘Agitator’.
5. Mark Petersen
If you go to a show at the King’s Arms in Auckland on any given Saturday, you’re likely to find a relaxed chap with an impressive beard standing behind the mixing desk. His nickname is Mark Petersound, but he’s also a musician of note in his own right. His own band, Cabbage Bomber, emerged at the turn of the millennium and Petersen also did a stint in Shaft [and played guitar for Jan Hellriegel, notably on her 1992 album It’s My Sin]. However, his most high profile role was taking over from Andrew Brough in Straitjacket Fits, which led to him both recording guitars for their final album and taking part in the extensive US tour that followed it.
During his time at the King’s Arms, Petersen has done sound for too many great bands to list, but the ones that spring to his mind when asked include Robyn Hitchcock (featuring Peter Buck from REM on guitar), Wire, Peaches, and Skulldom. After all this time, you’d expect him to be a bit burnt out on setting up mics while another young drummer continues to pound away next to him, regardless of how close his ear is to the kit, but he remains relaxed about it all. “If they look overenthusiastic I’ll put my ear plugs in!”
Petersen still has his own band, psychedelic rock group Seeds of Orbit – but let’s look back to his role in the final Fits line-up.
6. Tiki Taane
Tiki Taane is surely one of the most recognised and well-loved musicians on the local scene at the moment, so it’s surprising to recall that he also started as a humble soundman for drum n bass/reggae/hip hop innovators, Salmonella Dub. He ended up being one of the frontmen for the group, though he remembers it as “a very natural transition, which slowly happened over a period of about five years. At first I would mix the band and then run onto stage to play my one song at the end of the set. But as I wrote more songs and as we added them into the set, it wasn’t long before I’d be running onto stage for most of the set and eventually ended up onstage full time.”
It wasn’t until 2007 that he embarked on his solo career and his first official single, ‘Always On My Mind’ went to No.1 (with eventual sales over 30,000), while his album (Past, Present, Future) went to No.9. His experience with live sound mixing continues to come in handy. “Having that experience has definitely helped with my solo career and production all round, especially learning how to troubleshoot when there’s a problem with sound. And I’m still mixing Shapeshifter too, which keeps me on my toes as they’re such a powerhouse band.”
Let's rewind back to when Taane was just a soundman making his first steps to becoming the singer we now know him as. Here’s ‘For The Love Of It’ by Salmonella Dub, which reached No.12 on the local charts.
7. Gillian Craig
It’s still reasonably rare to find a female sound engineer working in this country. Nonetheless, there are some great female soundies out there. Two that come to mind are Sally Rees, who used to work at Mighty Mighty in Wellington, and Michelle Klaessens Rawstron from Rock Factory in Auckland. Finding one who is also a musician is trickier though I finally settled upon Gillian Craig, who has been doing live sound for over a decade.
Craig also owned and operated Flying Saucer studio, which recorded many Wellington bands in the early 2000s, including Batrider. She also played bass in Sugarbug, who seemed destined for great things when they first appeared in the late 90s – they played two Big Day Outs, appeared on the God Save The Clean compilation and supported many high profile bands including Pavement, Tanya Donnelly, Headless Chickens, and Garageland. However, the band were hamstrung by members moving city and their debut album wasn’t released until 2013, becoming a somewhat low-key affair in comparison to their early promise.
Here's a track off their album, Flutterbye, which has the surprising element of Craig playing the main riff on tenor horn.
8. Lee Prebble
Lee Prebble’s live mixing and effects for The Black Seeds in their early years of existence was so integral to their sound that you could almost claim he is worthy to be considered as a member of the band. Yet he is probably better known for the work that has come out of his studio The Surgery, which has led to breakthrough albums from The Phoenix Foundation, TrinityRoots and The Black Seeds.
Prebble acknowledges that his studio work eventually took him away from doing regular live sound work. “It was quite hard going away on tour and leaving the studio to sit idle for weeks on end, losing money. I also knew that the studio was where I wanted to be long term so I had to make the decision eventually. Although the two worlds of live and studio are very similar, they’re also quite different and I wanted to really focus on the studio world. I also wanted to make sure I didn’t do my ears any long term damage. I still do the odd show, ones that really interest me, like the surround shows with Spartacus R and mixing Connan Mockasin opening for Radiohead in NZ and Australia. Couldn’t turn that one down! I also did five shows with The Black Seeds over summer, which was a total blast.”
Over the years Prebble has also played lap steel for Fly My Pretties and the Woolshed Sessions. “I love not having control of the sound in those situations! If something goes wrong I just get to sit back and go, ‘well it’s not my department!’ Ha. When we did the Woolshed Sessions recordings, Age Pryor said to me I was there as a musician not as a studio engineer so if I didn’t want to get involved in that side of it I didn’t have to. Which was great, I was able to focus on my playing which to be honest was a little rusty. Age took care of the engineering and obviously I got involved here and there, but it was a nice change to sit back a bit. Makes you appreciate how important a calm and polite engineer is. Playing live was how I got into music so I really enjoy doing it. It’s great to be reminded of the energy that can be created by bunch of musicians in front of an audience. It’s something that you often try to recreate in the studio so it’s good to remind yourself of what that feeling is, otherwise I think recorded music can become stagnant, sterile and vibeless.”
9. James Dansey
Over the last decade, there has been an increased use of digital set-ups for venue sound and these days you’ll often find engineers remotely controlling the desk with an iPad. James Dansey is one soundman who has adapted to this new world. “At one level I don’t think it’s changed at all. Small shows still have every instrument trying to squirt through vocal PAs, a mixer with four channels, two of which are broken, and are in rooms that make amplified music sound like a mudbath. At the other end, the move to digital desks has been huge. It used to be that even at the most gear-heavy shows you needed to make choices based on limited FX or processors but that restriction no longer exists. I found the hardest part of the transition to be trusting that everything was going to be fine with all the show’s info being transmitted as 1s and 0s through one data cable. Once I accepted swimming in the data stream though, the versatility and power it offers a makes it odd mixing on less. Now I can compress hi-hats all I want, which is of course of the utmost importance and benefit to any live show!”
Dansey’s own music career began as singer-guitarist in poppy punk group The Sneaks, but he was thrown into professional sound work when he was asked to be soundman for a US tour by The Brunettes in 2007. “Previously I was mixing eight-channel shows at the Odeon Lounge, so to be crash-mixing a 24-channel show in front of 2,000 people at the venue Prince filmed Purple Rain at, was a pretty big step-up! I was terrified the entire tour, but The Shins’ soundperson Evan was really helpful, offering me suggestions after shows when he could have been a total dick and just let me drown in all my rookie moves. Like at one show when I muted the master in the middle of a song by accident. Unintended silence is really quite shit! Funny though, a second later when I realised what I’d done and brought it all back to life the audience cheered as if it was some odd rehearsed part of the show!”
Dansey went on to do sound for The Ruby Suns when they toured the USA and UK/Europe, then briefly became the guitarist for Lawrence Arabia in the UK (which included supporting a sold out show by Feist at the Royal Albert Hall). After years being the regular soundman at Cassette Number Nine, he now oversees the studios at SAE (“So many impressionable minds to foist my horrible opinions on!”) and occasionally does live sound for Lawrence Arabia, though evidence of his time as the lead singer of his own band is still available.
10. Tom Bell
When I was thinking of soundmen associated with a particular venue, I immediately thought of Rohan Evans (Recuerde) from Wine Cellar and Tom Anderson (PCP Eagles) from Whammy Bar, but figured that I’d already covered them enough in my piece on those two bars. Angel from Dog’s Bollix also sprang to mind, but in the end it seemed better to look outside Auckland for my final candidate. So I turned my attention to Dunedin and the two soundmen musicians who until recently were part owners of Chick’s Hotel, Michael McLeod and Tom Bell. McLeod plays in both Shifting Sands and Bad Sav, though Bell trumps him as a soundman with a career in the Dunedin scene that stretches back to legendary venue, Arc Cafe. Bell also recorded the compilation put out by Arc, as well as recording The Clean, David Kilgour, Ghost Wave and Robert Scott.
Bell’s main musical role over the past decade has been as bass player in David Kilgour’s group The Heavy Eights. Kilgour admits that it’s a great help to have a bass player with so much engineering experience.
“On tour it’s very handy when it comes to problems at venues with sound etc, and also very helpful in the studio of course. The last few LPs and tours we have had Tex [Houston] and Tom working on them so we’re horribly spoilt really! It is intense for Tom when he’s performing and acting as the main engineer but he’s up for it. Not only is he helpful when it comes to live sound and recording but Tom can do running repairs on most minor equipment breakdowns, tune guitars, play guitar/bass, a little keyboard, engineer sound at small venues right up to stadiums, and when he’s in the mood he cooks amazing food!”
+1 Greg Locke
I couldn’t finish this list without mentioning Greg Locke, who has achieved the ultimate sound engineer dream of creating a band whose sound he has complete control over: robot band, The Trons.
Locke himself does fit the criteria for this list, since he was one of the mainstays of the Hamilton music scene during the 1990s doing sound at the Ward Lane Tavern (as well as being touring soundman for the Book of Martyrs), running Orange Recordings and appearing in half a dozen bands, most notably the Hollow Grinders. Yet his most impressive feat was creating the Trons: four robots that play (respectively) vocal loops, guitar (though only four chords), drums and keyboards. The band name came from his hometown nickname of “Hamiltron”, the video went viral on the internet and racked up 1.5 million views. They’ve toured overseas and played the main stage of the Camp A Low Hum festival, backing Bachelorette. Here’s the video that originally made them famous.