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Dickerson’s the real deal at FOH

After accidentally landing a gig whilst making some sandwiches, Richard Dickerson soon discovered he could mix live sound. Thirty years later, Dickerson reveals to Paul Watson why he's still in the game...

After accidentally landing a gig whilst making some sandwiches, Richard Dickerson soon discovered he could mix live sound. Weeks later, he was working with the then up-and-coming young band Del Amitri; and soon after, he found himself working FOH for Les Enfants on Paul Young’s arena tour. That was 1984. This week, Dickerson tells Paul Watson what keeps him in the business, and wonders why the youth of today can’t fold cable correctly… So how did life begin on the FOH side of things? I was in a number of bands in the early 80s; and in those days, rigging a system really meant making a vocal PA loud enough to be heard above a guitar stack. I had a Hill PA actually, which my bands often used to rehearse, so I was asked to do the sound side of things because of that I guess… You worked in a rehearsal studio early on, didn’t you? Yeah, I used to make sandwiches and set up sound systems at Clink Street Studios in Southwark; that was on-and-off in and around the early 80s. That’s actually how I got my first paid sound gig; the tour manager of a band who rehearsed there regularly said to me ‘can you do a gig for us tonight at ULU?’ and I said ‘why? I don’t know much about it other than how to turn the system on’. But for some reason, the band thought that when I was working there the PA sounded great and when anybody else set it up, it squealed all day and they got nothing done and went home miserable. [laughs] Quite a compliment…. That’s when I decided that even if you don’t know what you’re doing, just hang around with people that do and play the part, because they love you for it, and that’s half the battle! I told the engineer on the night that I knew nothing about it and he said to me ‘stand at the desk and shout kick’ – so I did, and that’s how it started! [laughs] Don’t tell anyone that by the way… I won’t… So what happened next? Well he set the desk up for me; and to be honest, once you understand what one channel does, it isn’t rocket science to find your way around a board. It’s not that it was daunting as such – it was just the fact somebody was paying me for doing something I didn’t believe I was qualified to do. And now you are, of course… [laughs] Well, from there I went on to work with Del Amitri – who I loved; they were signed to Chrysalis at the time, and we were doing the University scene basically. Once I got the bug of going on tour, I started doing backline work too; then I found myself doing sound for Les Enfants on the Paul Young tour, so within a few months of doing that first gig, bizarrely enough I was out on tour doing arenas. It started off at Edinburgh Playhouse, where I had no soundcheck; and finished up at Wembley Arena. It all seemed to go very well; Concert Sound provided the PA on that tour, so we had a great Martin Audio system with a couple of big Midas consoles. You worked for a spell at John Henry’s too… Yes, I was working a lot of backline too. I went out with a band called Hunter on the Tina Turner tour, did a bit of work with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour – and on Mick Jagger’s solo projects, then a bit with Gary Moore. It was all sorts, really. But come 1990 – and the birth of my first child, Tom – I was persuaded that I had to take a break from the touring lifestyle… parts of the 80s are still a little sketchy, you see… [laughs] Then you came back to work as one of the engineers at The Orange, which later went on to become West One Four in Kensington… Yeah, it was through my friend Tom Larkin, who was promoter at The Orange. He asked me if I could do a few shows, and although I didn’t really have the time, I made the time, because it was something I’d grown passionate about over the years. We had Jamiroquai play there, Hawkwind, Average White Band – lots of big acts; and I worked under Steve Smith, who was then the chief engineer – although I have to say I was the more technically minded of the two of us, and a little more brave when it comes to electronics, shall we say… You mean you were the bloke that was always tweaking the system and tearing everything apart? [laughs] Well, the PA was a bit of a mis-match funnily enough; but one of the things it did have that I liked was the old Stage A Company box, which had a ribbon driver in the top end which created a lot of sparkle and detail in the rig. We had a nice Soundtracs console too, which sadly I had to throw away because of water damage, but that’s another story… You’re a big Opus Audio Technologies fan aren’t you? Yeah, a guy called James Stone tried to sell us an Opus rig at The Orange and I told him if he wanted to show us what it could do, then he could install it for a few weeks into the club, because we had a problem with ours – which of course I didn’t tell him at the time – and that’s how I came across it. I have always liked Meyer kit too – anything with decent clarity in it that’s fairly transparent. I think you’re more a fan of sound than anything else… Well I am I suppose – and my philosophy really is that we as engineers are there to make it louder; we’re not there to be clever. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Kit should be there to improve the situation; and I think today the key is not to use compressors and gates and bits of kit as a matter of course, because in fact taking them out of the signal path actually makes things better. The point I am making is that unless there is a need for it, it’s often very detrimental to keep putting processing in a signal path. We’re not there to be slick producers. I know some engineers do this occasionally because they need to get a specific sound, but on the whole, the reality is that we’re there to make things audible to hundreds or thousands of people. To my mind, the more faithfully and accurately you reproduce what the band produces, the better you’re doing your job. And a high quality sound when you put a meter up against it is actually quite loud, but in reality it doesn’t sound loud if it’s well mixed and well put together; if the rig is clean and beautiful, it’ll be loud, but distortion-free. That is the key. Tell me about the Opus gear – you still use that on a regular basis in your job at CS Audio, don’t you? Yes, it’s pretty specialist equipment in my opinion. It really took off in the dance field in a lot of respects; and for a certain time, the GateCrashers group used exclusively Opus equipment on the basis that it was the closest they could get to a big HiFi in a huge room. I like CS Audio’s philosophy, and Paul Hatt (owner of CS Audio) and I are both big fans of the rig’s capabilities. We also have some KV2 equipment which we really like; it has a nice sparkly top end to it and a nice overall sound. The self-powered boxes work very well; we use them for all the corporate stuff, and shows where size and weight is an issue. For everything else, we use the Opus rig. So that’s what you’re touring with at the moment? Ironically enough, the tour I am now on, which is with Blake – a kind of El Divo type act – is the first tour of my life where I have been using mostly house rigs; but having to deal with so many systems just shows that if you know what you’re doing you’ll be OK. I have turned up at shows and there’s been various bits of cheap kit which I have taken one look at and immediately ripped out; and I find I get a much better sound from removing these crap components and finding the quickest way to get the audio signal to the speakers. It actually sounds better, believe it or not; and even if you have any major peaks and troughs to deal with in a rig, you can normally take them out with a good little desk, even the old boards. Any reasonable analogue board can do the job – the really old Soundcraft or Allen & Heath models that often crop up at these venues do the job just fine. The Opus rig we used at the end of the tour on some of Blake’s cathedral shows. Do you think there is now a common tendency for engineers to overcomplicate live mixing then? Well, my philosophy is quite simple really: if you put the right mic in the right place, then you shouldn’t need to do anything else. That should produce the right sound, which you should be able to send through a channel with no EQ and mix straight into the output buss without any groups, VCAs, or fancy toys – providing, of course, that your musicians are good in the first place, which they tend to be these days. That is definitely something that’s overlooked in this day and age. There are kids that go to college and are taught how to use all the top end kit, but they’re not even taught how to fold cable correctly – now that is bizarre… And I had a kid work for me recently that decided to go and zero my desk after the show – and we had another gig the following night. I wasn’t happy… But you’re still doing it… [laughs] The reason people stay in this business is because people want to use them, so you need to have been in the right place at the right time at some stage in your career to show them you can do the job properly. That’s what’s kept me in a job all these years.