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Lawler’s lifelong dedication to sound – and all that jazz

Canadian born Dave Lawler is no ordinary sound engineer; he is a sound expert. He started off as a working musician, but hit a fork in the road and soon found himself mixing live shows...

Canadian born Dave Lawler is no ordinary sound engineer; he is a sound expert. He started off as a working musician, but hit a fork in the road and soon found himself mixing live shows. After that, he was hooked on live sound and never looked back. Now he commands FOH for Grammy Award winning Jazz songstress and fellow native Diana Krall, where he’s been since 2004 – and he even tunes her piano… he talks to Paul Watson about his musical journey so far… PW: So when was it that you realised you’d rather be behind the console than on the stage? DL: Probably the early 80s. I knew there were already plenty of great musicians out there, but not so many great sound engineers. In fact, I think that’s still the case; I still go to shows and can’t hear everything. So, you know, it just interested me; I’m interested in music and I’m interested in technology and this seemed to be both in one. When did you mix your first show and what did you mix it on? At a summer kick-off festival in 1979 using my band’s audio system. I got a lot of my early FOH experience by doing big Canadian festivals. I’d do about 10 each summer and would mix as many as 40 acts at each one. That’s a lot… It is! [Laughs] And on that first show I used a real classic console; a Soundcraft Series 1. And you’re using a Vi6 today; what do you like about it? Yes. I was actually involved with Soundcraft’s software development team for the Vi6 and I ended up buying one. It’s got a lot of channels in a very small space that you can get at very quickly. I tend to find that if you have two desks and a big orchestra show or something, that there’s this physical ergonomic thing that’s not working very well for you – that can be difficult. This eliminates any of those potential issues. We also sell a lot of seats because it’s only two feet deep; and as far as the equipment goes, I think it’s a great system. How many channels do you need for a typical Diana Krall show? Well it depends, because we have quartet shows, orchestra shows and big band shows. It ranges from as little as 22 inputs for the smaller ones and for orchestra shows it’s up to 62; there are a lot of returns for reverbs and the like too. Obviously the FX are all inbuilt on the Vi6 – do you still carry any rack units? Yeah, I use a TC6000 – I had it before the console – and then there’s an insert package for her [Krall’s] vocal strip which is a Focusrite unit. I also have a Tascam hard disk recorder and a Denon network CD player. To be honest, I use a hell of a lot from the desk most of the time. You’re a big advocate of Meyer Sound too aren’t you? Absolutely. Me and the monitor guy, Eric Laliberte [Krall’s monitor engineer], own a lot of the Meyer Sound gear that we use on tour. There’s a bunch of MILO, MICA and M’elodie that we got hold of from Andre Reiu when he finished his tour. Do you still run a PA company? Yeah – DoktrDave Audio Inc. Eric [Laliberte] and I run it out of Laguna Beach, California – and we still do the odd install when we get the time, though we’re kept busy with the touring. We own all the motors, the speakers and the electrical stuff. We have a giant 110v transformer because we’re not modifying anything – and we’re constantly looking for ways to improve the system. You went to Meyer Sound’s SIM (Source Independent Measurement) School – when was that and how did it come about? Now that was a serious turning point in my career. I mean, I used to mix a very long time ago with a Graphic EQ and a L/R system and thought ‘surely there’s got to be something better?’ So in the early 90s I went off to Berkeley to study SIM; and then you realise you’re getting into a whole other world! Dare I ask… what happens at SIM School? [Laughs] Well, firstly you go and learn how to use a SIM machine, but more so, you learn how audio really works – because you can’t really solve the problems until you understand the problems, right? Right. Then you realise ‘oh my god, this is way deeper than I ever thought!’ And for 10 years I just ran SIM and figured it out – no FOH mixing at all. I wanted to learn how it worked in loads of different rooms. I mean, how do you know you need 24 zones? How do you know it’s not just six? And where do you put the mic at? You know? After a while, you start realising you need more of everything to the point where you refine the hardware you’re using and the systems you’re using and the way you do it. Eventually you have to just stop! I’ll give you a crazy example. Years ago I worked on the Cirque du Soleil show in Vegas. They had 3000 speakers in the room! We were there with SIM for more than a week and they probably spent a year setting up– I think they spent $160 million before the show even opened – now that’s a whole other world, right? It sure is! So, it just depends on how much time you have. I think with Diana [Krall] we’ve kind of hit a good balance. It’s a lot of diminishing returns; it takes a lot more effort to get it a little bit better. It’s a 24 zone drive system on this gig, so in other words 24 channels of speaker zones. How long were you at SIM School? It was a week, but a very intense one; you’re dying by the end. Then I went back there and did a week alone with the machine a month or so later; and then I went to lots of other schools too as they developed just to be a part of it. I’ve been a SIM engineer since 1995. How did you get to working with Diana [Krall]? Under unfortunate circumstances actually – her previous sound guy had severe health problems so they called me to fill in for a few shows; at the time I was working heavily with Meyer Sound support and design – this was 2003 – and I was doing Pavarotti and KD Lang shows and all kinds of installations in Texas actually – and as this ramped up more and more, you just kind of clone yourself or something! A lot of my friends are working this gig, the music’s great and she’s wonderful, so I just kept going. Then we were all kind of ‘OK, how can we raise the bar?’ which is great. I know the Piano’s pretty special – and you’re a bit of a pianist yourself, aren’t you? How do you go about miking it? [Laughs] I started as a pianist and I do look after her piano – I tune it too actually. It’s a beautiful Steinway C grand, which we bought in 2009 from Oslo. There’s five items in there: two Schertler contact microphones that are puttied onto the soundboard in the holes; two Neumann KM100s with a knuckle that make the 90 degree swivel; and there’s one AMT PZM – its like a brass PZM that’s made for a piano that’s velcroed onto the plate. It’s a proven system that works well for us. What mics do you use on the band? I use a Neumann KM100 which is the same as in the piano but it has a filter on it, then I use Neumann overheads on the kit with a couple of clip on mics for the toms and two Neumann mics on the guitar: a 184 on the instrument and a 105 on the amp. I have an Avalon DI – the world’s best DI in my opinion – and I use another KM100 but with a knuckle on it. Do the Neumanns suit the style of music then? Often I see 57s and such on guitar cabs. [Laughs] Half a million dollars worth of speakers and $100 mics? Whatever floats your boat! But yeah, a lot of this is really quiet and a lot of what you’re hearing is stuff that is miked quite far away, because the gain is so huge. A lot of microphones sound decent in close proximity, but when you get away from them, well… [Smiles] I actually bought the Neumann mics in 2003 and they’re incredibly reliable. We’ve had almost no problems in lots of shows – plus they sound fabulous. We have another mic kit for the orchestra – countryman clip-ons – and about 25 Neumann KM184s for the wings and things. So all in all, you’re a man married to live sound? You know, I think articles are often written about the stage bits but rarely written about how you solve these really challenging rooms. And once you get it right, it doesn’t change very often – why would it? It’s the same mic, the same guy, the same drum. I try and get the best quality audio I can to every seat in the house with the time constraints I have; and the more time I have, the better it goes.