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On The Right Track: A Veteran Engineer Discusses His Favorite Recording & Related Matters

Long-time front of house engineer Dave Natale on his favorite reference tracks for tuning sound systems and the history behind his choice.

Best Of Our Ability

As far as equalizing a PA, I probably have what most will think is an unorthodox method, but I’m sure that my whole approach to audio is viewed that way. And just so there’s no confusion on the topic, I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I believe that as live engineers we’re tasked with trying to reproduce the sound of “real, live” musical instruments and vocals to the best of our ability given the wide variation of acoustic environments that we play in.

Let’s face it: You’re only going to be allowed to make it sound as good as the environment allows you to make it sound. There’s no getting around that, no matter who you are.

Another thought: Unfortunately in more and more situations these days, the plague of playing tracks during live shows has overrun the need for good sounds and the musicians that can play them. But this is purely my opinion and another story for another time, so that I can alienate a whole new group of people.

State of the art home audio decades ago.

Hence, my approach is to use what is, in my opinion, the best and most natural sounding source material that I can get my hands on. Why in the world – if we’re going to mix a show with raw musical instruments and vocals as the source material – would we EQ a PA with a source that’s recorded in what I describe as a standard (or even go so far as to call it an orthopedic) fashion?

Engineers and producers spend countless hours and thousands of dollars to make sure that recordings sound perfect, even if it means dropping in each frame and EQ-ing and compressing each frame to death. Meanwhile the mastering people take it up to all 1’s (as opposed to any 0’s – that’s a digital joke) to ensure that it sounds as loud and impossibly perfect than could ever be reproduced by any human beings using any method in the known universe.

This stuff is buffed to within an inch of its life to sound great on any reproduction system (and also on telephones, which now seem to be the new audio standard reproduction system again… and why not?). Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with this. When we buy a piece of music, we want it to sound good anywhere we play it, on any playback device; however, it may not be the best source material to use for tuning a big PA system.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love a lot of recorded music that sounds this way, and I still really enjoy listening to it. I previously mentioned “Chicago 17,” for example, and also how about Gino Vannelli’s “A Pauper in Paradise”? That’s some sheer and absolute writing, performing and technical superiority, but not what I would call a natural drum sound – they sound better than drums actually sound.

It is, however, a drum sound that I like a lot, maybe not a popular one but something that I used to listen to over and over again. It has its time and place and I absolutely love it, not to mention Casey Scheuerell’s drumming. That definitely does not hurt either. Did I mention that there’s nothing but synth bass on this record? Do you see a pattern forming here?

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Knowing Your Stuff

I’m not afraid of EQ-ing things to within an inch of their life in a live situation if I determine that’s what it takes to get the sound I’m looking for. The EQ’s gain/cut controls go +/- 15 dB for a reason. You can at least start by EQ-ing a system to reproduce real instruments and then go nuts from there, if necessary and depending on the band that you’re mixing and/or your own personal taste.

One more thing that almost everyone might think is foolish with my method (remember, I don’t care what anyone else thinks) is that I only EQ for about one track’s worth (four or so minutes) of music. I know the systems that I’m mixing on, and I understand what to do to get them where they need to be, so I don’t listen for more than four to five minutes. If you can’t figure it out in that time frame, you’re going to start digging yourself a gigantic hole, wasting time, annoying everyone else on the tour, and eventually forgetting what your original intent was.

The track roster of “James Newton Howard & Friends.”

I use “James Newton Howard & Friends” because it captures the realistic, actual sound of the drums, grand piano and percussion. It’s not hyperequalized or compressed, and takes advantage of extremely expensive microphones that were painstakingly moved around the room to achieve the best, most natural sound. This recording is a true testament to the experience and professionalism of the engineering staff, musicians and all that were involved behind the scenes.

A related incident regarding this music occurred while I was out on one of the many Tina Turner tours that I worked. We were playing a place in Staffordshire, England called Alton Towers, a theme park that also hosts live concerts. I was mixing Tina, and Toto was the support act! (Wow, you don’t see bills like that anymore.)

I’d just finished EQ-ing the system and doing a line check, and was walking back to my bus when I saw David Paich (from Toto) walking toward the stage. I stopped and introduced myself to him as Tina’s front of house mixer, and he said that he’d just heard me EQ-ing the system with the CD that he played on. I told him that I ‘d been using it for years, and he laughed, and I also think that he actually was a little impressed or even flattered.

Anyway, he was nice enough to sign the insert to the CD copy that I had at the time. (That was three copies ago.) I still and will always have it, because I feel as though it’s a gigantic part of who I am professionally and helped get me to wherever anyone thinks that I am now. I still talk to David from time to time via email, as we both seem to always be busy at the same time in diametrically opposed points in the world.

After all of this long-winded verbosity, I’ll finish by saying that this is what I use to EQ as well as why I use it. But the beautiful thing about audio is there is no rule book – there’s no right or wrong, except for maybe turning off the PA in the middle of a show. If you EQ with whatever track you select and attain the result you’re looking for, then it’s the right track. It’s the result that matters.

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The author would like to thank Steve Porcaro, Joe Tarsia, and Dave Wilkerson.

 

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