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It’s all analogue in Newsham’s Underworld

John Newsham, co-founder of Turbosound and Funktion One, has been mixing Underworld for more than twenty years. He explains to Paul Watson the importance of keeping all things analogue at FOH…

John Newsham, co-founder of Turbosound and Funktion One, has been mixing Underworld for more than twenty years. He explains to Paul Watson the importance of keeping all things analogue at FH; and talks about the drum loops and chickens that could present themselves at any point when working with live dance music… PW: When did you start working with Underworld? JN: A long time ago! Back in the 1980s, when they were a rock band, in fact… And what’s the standard system you tour with? When we get the choice and we’re out on a production it’s Funktion One – obviously. We use twin 21s and Res5s; we’ve been sourcing that from Audio Plus in Chelmsford. Because you’re mixing dance music live, it must be a different beast to rock and pop? There’s a really old joke actually that fits well: you can have a couple of channels on a desk and one minute there’ll be a drum loop and the next minute there might well be chickens – and in the case of Underworld, sometimes they are chickens! [laughs] But yes, they’ve done a massive amount of work on all the samples and loops and sounds to make my life a bit easier, but the sounds do still change a lot. If you soundcheck a rock band, you might tweak your effects or EQ, but essentially you’re sounds are in the bag, whereas we have things like three different kick drum sounds on three different channels. You mentioned that the band has quite a unique set-up on stage… Yes, they actually use a Midas Heritage 1000 on stage, which is split into two sections, each running Ableton Live from an iMac. The two sides of the console operate like DJ decks; they’ve generated as many stereo channels as they can to give themselves two lots of 24, so they will run a song in Ableton on the left hand side of the console and the song that’s going to be played next is waiting on the right hand side of the console on another iMac running Ableton. Then they mix that down to 10 stereos which they give to me out front along with the three kick drums, Karl Hyde’s vocal and guitar and a vocoder. And what’s the console you’re using at FOH? While we’ve been touring I’ve been using an XL4; and when we don’t have production, my rider states ‘no digital’ because I can’t use a digital console… Why is that? A lot of this stuff is very electronic – pretty digital sounding; and the digital path is very good because they have done a lot of work with the way the stuff is played back, but if we were then to go back to digital world in a console and mash it all up again it just wouldn’t be good. Using a nice analogue console we can just warm it up. The other thing is I want to be able to jam with the console – because of this whole drums or chickens thing, I need to be leaping all over the EQ during the show and I’m doing subtle tweaks and sometimes big things pretty much throughout the show. I see. Do you also find yourself tweaking the system? I do a little bit yes. When the room is empty, I will usually do a bit of system EQ just to shut the room up; and normally when the room fills up I will get rid of that, unless something horrible happens. I will almost certainly hit as many bypass buttons as I can before the show starts; and then I am in a kind of freefall for the first tune, where I am thinking ‘was that a mistake or not?’ [laughs] but usually it’s not. On occasion I have been known to bung a graphic back in or pull something out that I don’t like, but normally by the time the show starts the graphics are out, the system’s EQ is all flat, and I am working the mixer, so if I have a problem anywhere I will fix it in the channel I find the problem in. Do you find yourself tweaking certain bits of kit you’re using because of the fact it’s Underworld? Not particularly. The only thing you might do is take a bit more bass out as it’s dance music. We have always believed that a good sounding system can do any kind of music. If you have system that’s phase coherent, flat and efficient and low distortion, it’s gonna do anything well really. The band’s taken a new direction recently – can you tell me a bit about that? What the band wanted to do was to bring in some DJs as an experiment to have some input into the tracks, so they recorded all the tracks and gave them to certain DJs and asked them to pick a track, so they got superstar DJs to help them with the way they’re mixed and with the structure of the tunes.
Which is then replicated live? Yeah – and on a lot of the tunes from the new album, you can hear a lot more top end – a bit too much in cases in my view – so I am mellowing that out when I do it live as it can be a bit aggressive. But that’s the sort of thing – a bit more modern sounding. Do you think it’s important to be a fan of the band – and does that make your job easier? Absolutely. To be a fan definitely helps the way you work.