Disclaimer: The following interview contains references to the interviewees past work with Prince, and was conducted before his untimely death on April 21st 2016.
Cliff is a live sound, touring, and production specialist with comprehensive experience covering many well know acts, including Prince, Rebecca Ferguson, and Laura Mvula. Armed with a shiny new KSM8, a heap of expertise, and some great stories to boot, we catch up with Cliff between tours to get the low-down on life as a modern sound engineer.
As an experienced FOH engineer, it would be great to start with an overview of how you got started in the business and your first big break.
I began working with sound back when I was a student. I found a Soundcraft Powerstation, some JBL speakers, and a bunch of Shure 58s in the school music department and took it from there (with some encouragement from the school Head of Music).
During my time at the school, I ran sound for the annual school performance of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Kings Theatre in Portsmouth and later continued to run two weeks of ‘Joseph’ at the Havant Arts Centre. One year later, with driving licence in hand, I had a Martin Audio system in a van and began working with an ABBA tribute band.
I’m now lucky enough to tour with some respected artists including Laura Mvula, Leo Sayer, Andy Burrows, David Brent and the Foregone Conclusion, and many others as a live mix engineer.
Are there any stand-out moments in your career?
I think it’s always come down to that sense of cohesion that happens when artist, band, crew, and technology really fall into place. It’s about putting the right people together with the best equipment possible. Plus, of course, developing that assurance in the equipment you’re using and becoming confident enough to trying new things. People can then push the boundaries of creativity from a stable place.
Personally, when schedules are tight and with the travel involved, one day can easily roll into the next and that’s the way tours go, but on reflection, those bands and artists I met at the very beginning are just as important to me as any I meet now.
Enduring friendships — formed from working in this industry — are probably the greatest reward. Everyone has their bad days, and touring is gruelling at times, but I’m very fortunate to work with some amazing people. Each project has its own merits, and because of the strong bond of friendship formed in such intense climates we can look back and laugh at anything that went wrong. The novelty of travel does wear off but the excitement of the resulting experience endures.
What are your favourite kind of shows to work? Do you prefer mixing festivals, stadiums, or clubs?
I really do enjoy mixing at all levels. I apply the same ethos to mixing in clubs/pubs/bars etc. as I do to mixing in arenas and at festivals. I don’t make a conscious distinction between venues because it always comes down to the people and the outcome, which should be entertainment and enjoyment. We are trying to do one thing; make the performance sound the best it possibly can to the audience, regardless of constraints.
You recently beta tested our new KSM8. What are the stand-out characteristics of the mic?
Over the past few years, I’ve used several industry standard microphones with Laura Mvula, always coming back to the trusty Beta58. The main reason for this comes down to how the artist behaves, and how comfortable they are with said microphone during their performance. Again, it’s a sort of ‘tried and trusted’ thing.
That being said, it’s always important to try new things, and when I was given the chance to test out the KSM8, I was immediately intrigued. It was a no-brainer to try it with Laura, and she is always keen to try something new as we’ve worked together for many years. She knows where I’m coming from, and we often mutually decide to change things up a bit.
I noticed her using the KSM8 microphone in a very musical way; it gives her an extra edge, it enables a very solid vocal performance. This new element unquestionably enhanced an already detailed vocal construction; we were so confident in the characteristics and build of the microphone that I had no qualms in using it for Laura’s Graham Norton Show performance.
In terms of sonic characteristics, I feel the KSM8 is very similar to using a Beta58, only easier; it has a similar feel but with fewer lumps and bumps that you might normally expect from a cardioid dynamic microphone. The amazing thing is the proximity effect; Laura often sings off and on the mic in quick succession. The KSM8 has helped smooth out her performance, and the transition, importantly, was almost seamless.
The KSM8 also has a very flat response. I was able, therefore, to run a flat EQ with a little high-pass rolled in — using the EQ in a musical way rather than as a ‘trouble-shooting’ tool.
As you’ve mentioned already, you’re currently working a lot with Laura Mvula. Her vocal style is very expressive; how do you go about getting the most from her performances?
With Laura Mvula, working on FOH is a balancing act between amplification and natural performance. As a team of FOH and monitor engineers, we strive to make Laura feel as comfortable as possible — the correct equipment for our needs being the starting point. Having the opportunity to test the KSM8 on her project has offered a new layer in underpinning the performance, with the extra frisson it brings. When you have a sense of security and trust in the hardware, it gives rise to a robust performance. Her vocals are diverse and complex, so this was a great chance to showcase both her artistry and sound reproduction at once, with excellent results.
Part of your portfolio also includes some work with Prince. What was he like to work with?
He is fascinating musically, sonically, and as an individual; you couldn’t collapse the mythology surrounding him if you tried. It’s an exhilarating experience to work alongside someone you admire for their excellence, and that was something he and I bonded over in a real way. It was an absolute pleasure to work with him during the ‘Hit and Run’ tour and he is a gentleman. I learned a lot from him both technically and psychologically, and he was keen to participate fully in what I was doing because he is a master of the craft.
Do you have any engineer tips or tricks you could share for getting the best vocal performances in a live performance? (Possibly mic related or wireless)
I am a big believer in ensuring your artist is happy. You can have all the equipment in the world but you must remember the basics of sound reinforcement. Start with the best equipment you can get, and take it from there. Always push boundaries and embrace new ideas — the rest is down to teamwork and a trusting relationship between the artist and crew. The key to achieving the latter is to listen first and act second. There’s jargon and then there’s communication; we strive to assess the whole situation continually and ensure no stone is left unturned. I think it’s important to view the microphone as a tool for the singer to express themselves. The job of a sound engineer is to deliver these performances to the audience is the best way possible.
You have worked with artists from a variety of genres. From an engineering perspective, are there certain techniques that apply to all styles?
Again, choosing the right equipment is the first step. Knowing how to choose and hire this equipment is possibly a little harder to contextualise, but experiencing the best, the worst, and the new is one of the best ways to achieving excellence. It’s like having a reference in the studio — eventually, the voice becomes a point of reference.
How has your job changed in the last ten years?
Mixing and speaker technology has changed from analogue to digital and speaker systems have become more compact, but we are still running XLR cables into passive splits and using many of the same reliable microphones. Although much of the technology we encounter day-to-day will come and go, it’s good to know that some constants stick around.