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Graham Burton: turning back from FOH

Acclaimed FOH engineer Graham Burton ditched the glories of standing behind a mixing desk and returned to his system technician roots some years ago. He tells PSNEurope why...

Not many engineers can say their first job was going on a US tour with Bon Jovi as system technician, but that’s exactly how Graham Burton’s career began – and he was just 16 years old. The role, Burton says, has changed dramatically over the years.

“I learned an awful lot about that job touring with Bon Jovi, though I was way down the food chain,” Burton reflects, somewhat ironically, considering he gained 40kg while on the road with the band. “It’s a very different beast now than it was back then; we’d deploy lots of big boxes, try to point them in the right direction, then hope for the best; now there’s no excuse for getting it wrong!”
After a stint at Concert Sound (now Clair UK), where he gained valuable tech experience on Eric Clapton’s annual Royal Albert Hall show rehearsals, he went on to work for audio supplier Eurohire, which is where he really started to hone his skills.
“At that time, we’d always put a lot more PA into a venue than was necessary, just to get coverage,” he reveals, “because the horizontal dispersion of a point source system doesn’t come close to that of a line array, and line arrays weren’t around at the time.”
In the late 90s it was time for a change, so Burton delved into the world of engineering, starting out on monitors, where he got up to speed with his frequencies, then at FOH, which was, he says, “all about trying to interpret what the audience wanted”.
But piloting the mixing desk was not for him. “Although I enjoyed working on the festivals and learned a lot touring with artists as diverse as Turin Brakes, Billy Ocean and The Stylistics, I noticed the industry start to change around 2005,” he says.

“Interesting things were happening in loudspeaker technology, and it was when I received a call out of the blue from [Portsmouth-based] BCS Audio offering me a one-off system tech job that I had my lightbulb moment. System teching was about to change significantly and I wanted to be a part of it; and besides, I realised I could make more money tuning PA systems than engineering gigs!” What initially fascinated Burton was the fact that he could no longer get away with thinking in two dimensions. “Suddenly I had the horizontals and the verticals to think about as well as just left and right; even now, I’m constantly working out how I get my PA onto the audience without taking their attention away from where the performance is happening,” he reveals, adding that it’s actually become quite a psychological process, getting the audience to focus on the performance.

“In venues with balconies, a good system tech will now fly the PA lower than they used to, but angle it up into the balconies to bring the spectators’ attention down to the stage; it’s a simple but clever technique, and it gets them more involved in the show.”
According to Burton, one of the other main differences in today’s role is having to deal with “the minefield that is time-alignment”. “Back in the day we’d be time-aligning stuff using an old digital delay unit in the rack, which wasn’t all that accurate anyway, but most of the speaker systems now come with their own amplifier which has its own delay circuit inside, so you can get everything absolutely spot on,” he explains. “Saying that, I don’t like anything being absolutely perfect, so as well as using [Rational Acoustics’] Smaart, I also use a laser measure. I then figure out how close the laser measurement is to the Smaart reading, which allows me to put that little bit of human element into it. “A lot of the guys I tech for think my methods are that little bit more organic; OK, it’s all going digital, but I prefer to have some imperfections in there rather than it all being bang on the numbers all the time.” Although he keeps his hand in, mixing the odd show here and there, Burton is certainly in no rush to ride the faders again.
“I get so much more out of being a system tech in today’s industry than I ever did as a FOH or monitor guy. It comes with so much more responsibility; engineers have to completely trust us because most don’t understand the science behind the sound,” he insists. “I reckon there are seven ways of doing everything as a system tech, and I know I’ll never find them all myself; I have to learn from other people. I’m always saying to other techs, ‘Why are you doing it that way?’ because I’m genuinely interested, and that didn’t used to happen when I was behind the mixing desk. In the ideal world, all system techs would share the knowledge; that way, every gig would sound perfect. We’re not there yet, but maybe someday.”

Story: Paul Watson