by Clive Young
New York, NY (September 15, 2006)–Thomas Dolby has lived a number of musical lives beyond his string of New Wave classics like “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive” from the early ’80s. After stints producing and doing soundtrack work, Dolby took his musical mad-scientist image, dropped the “mad” part and founded Beatnik, a software company that aimed to sell music via the internet back in the early days of the web. While that idea was ahead of its time, Beatnik survived just fine, creating audio software now used in two-thirds of all cell phones–a comfy situation that allowed Dolby to retire from the company’s day-to-day life.
Thomas DolbySo what’s a man of the world to do with all his sudden free time? Why, tour that world, of course, as a one-man show. With a Northeast swing slated for the end of September– including a buzzed-about gig at New York City’s Canal Room on the 29th–Dolby will be keeping costs low by using clubs’ house PA systems and engineers, handling most of his own house and monitor mixing onstage: “I pretty much mix myself as I perform; I’m able to set up sort of an automated mix, so that as I add tracks, they slide into the mix.”
And the rig then? “Well it’s based around Logic Pro 7.2, running on a Mac G5–and hopefully soon, running on a Mac Book Pro, which will be definitely lighter and easier to update on the bus or in my hotel room.” Logic acts as his MIDI host for the three keyboard controllers (CME Pro 7, Novation ReMote SL25, and a Virus TI Polar, which is the only sound source) and a variety of plug-ins, both built-in ones and others such as Stylus-RMX; Arturia’s MiniMoog; RMIV drums; Slayer2 guitars; UltraFocus; Camelspace gating effect and T-racks mastering. A Nord 3 rack unit shares rack space with a PreSonus Firepod FireWire audio interface, MOTU Express 128 MIDI interface, Shure P4M keyboard mixer, ART DTS II mic preamp, Roland JV-1080 synth, QSC amp, Juice Goose power conditioner, APC uninterruptible power supply and a Muse Receptor.
The Receptor hosts plug-ins used for processing vocals. “That enables me to add chorus, repeats, reverb, EQ, compression–everything on a per section basis. The vocals are obviously all live but I do some vocoded background vocals and basically I have the Muse sort of switch over between effects on the vocals.”
All those vocals are captured via a Crown CM-311 headworn microphone (“You can’t use a lot of distancing and mic technique, but on the plus side, I’m definitely into the mobility that I get with the Crown”), but it vies for headspace–literally–as he also wears Sensaphonics personal monitors and a head-mounted camera originally designed for the military to wear during synchronized building entries. “I’m putting it to more peaceable purposes,” he laughed. “I project what I’m doing behind me on a giant screen; I have a live VJ and he’s got various cams around my rig so he can do a live mix of them.”
When Dolby last toured in the early Nineties, personal monitors were in their infancy, so the opportunity to move into the now-matured technology has been a welcome one. “They cue me for clicks in some sections where there’s no drums playing and things like that,” he said. “I like the fact that the mix is dependable and I don’t have to blast my ears with bad monitoring in old theaters now. The downside is that it cuts you off a little bit from the audience, so I have an ambient mic that I’ll just tweak up if I need a little more audience response. Sometimes you pick up the conversation in the third row between a couple of secretaries.”
Occasionally the ambient mic does more than just pick up idle chatter–it can give him a good scare as well. “I got a bit of a shock the other day,” Dolby said with a laugh. “I was on the same bill as George Clinton; I saw him briefly in the dressing room before the show and I mentioned that for my encore, I was doing a song, ‘Hot Sauce,’ which I co-wrote with him. So later on, I was playing it, and suddenly I heard this very strange sound; it turned out that George had wandered on stage, spotted my ambient mic which is just an SM58, picked it up and started wailing into it! I was hearing him very loud and the audience couldn’t hear him at all, so I had to quickly sweep that away from him and replace it with a radio mic.”
Blinded by science, nearly deafened by Clinton–it’s all in a day’s work.
A complete version of this article will appear in the next issue of Pro Sound News.