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Matt Napier: monitoring the trends in pop music

Matt Napier has just returned from a six-month stint with Kylie on her Aphrodite tour. Although he began as a FOH engineer, he fell into monitors and has worked with a string of pop acts including Blue, Madonna, and The Spice Girls. Paul Watson talks to Napier about how his role has changed over the years...

Matt Napier has worked monitors for a string of major pop acts including The Spice Girls, Blue, and Madonna, and has just finished a six-month stint around the world with Kylie on her Aphrodite tour. Napier reveals how the role of the monitor engineer has changed – especially in the realms of pop music, which has become his forte over the last ten years or so. Paul Watson reports… Did you start off at FOH, or have you always been a monitor guy? Yeah, I was working FOH for quite a while actually. I then fell into monitors, really. Ray Furze got me into it. He worked FOH for Culture Club back in the day, as well as The Beautiful South, The Pixies, and Westlife, and he asked me to do monitors for Emma Bunton, as he also did FOH for The Spice Girls’ last tour, so got to do all of their solo careers. That got me into the pop world really, and that’s where I have stayed. How do you think the role of the monitor engineer has changed since you started doing it?  Well, I would say now that the job is on a par with FOH; and what’s also changed it dramatically is that artists now have a certain level of intelligence in terms of engineering. What I mean by that is they’re using the likes of Pro Tools and Logic in home studios, which has meant they now expect to hear stuff live that they wouldn’t have cared about years ago. So they want to hear the intricacies now – that must be a challenge for you? Well, it used to be that if an artist could hear themselves on stage, then that’d be fine, but yes, now they want the whole sound; it’s changed drastically in that sense. They want to hear the album, essentially – even parts they don’t need to pitch or play to; a full balanced mix, so no wedges will do the job as well as IEMs in the pop genre. I see. So do you work with digital consoles as well, then? Yes, I do now. I was always a fan of the Midas XL4 and Heritage, but analogue consoles won’t do the pop job as well, so I am now a fan of the DiGiCo SD7, and I sometimes use the Yamaha PM1D too. The reason I liked the XL4 was that it was ergonomic and nice feeling; it just felt correct, if you know what I mean? And the SD7 is very similar; it’s a nice console to mix on, and you get plenty of information back off the desk, which is vital on monitors. The problem actually with the PM1D is that there can be a bit too much information on it. Can you elaborate on that? Yeah, when you’re mixing monitors for pop bands, you’re ninety-nine-point-nine-percent of the time looking at the artist – you can’t afford to be spending time looking at the console, searching for a compressor or something. If they don’t see you looking back at them, they can get quite upset, so it’s about finding a console that works in that environment. I am the only contact between the artist and the technology. Is it more challenging than mixing a rock band, then? Well, because pop music is so produced in the studio, and often by several producers, one track might be flamenco, then the next one might be a rocky number, whereas traditionally, a live rock band has one sound and moves smoothly from song to song. That is radically different in pop; there are changes you need to make that can’t be done as well on an analogue console. Once you replicate the sound, you’re home and dry, and it can still be difficult. Pop music is so eclectic in its style, and that’s the main reason for staying digital. You’re a Sennheiser fan – and it’s not just the kit you’re a fan of… Yeah, the support is second to none at Sennheiser, and their products are also great – I use the 2000 Series. I’ve seen them work closely with new upcoming artists as well as the established acts. Basically, their customer service is spot on. Things often happen at very short notice these days, in bizarre parts of the world; and usually within three to four hours, we either receive an address where we can locate the piece of kit we need, or we get a call saying: ‘it’s in a cab on its way over’. That is phenomenal; and actually, DiGiCo is very similar. What about choosing a vocal microphone – do you have to think more about headroom when working in this genre? Well, spill into the mic really is a big problem because pop singers want it loud relative to the mix. A mic that’s too sensitive means too much spill from the band playing and it colours the mix as soon as the vocal is turned up. In terms of pop shows, I haven’t done a tour in the last four years where an artist hasn’t spent half the show 60-feet in front of the PA – and that goes against every rule of audio in terms of getting a great sound. So how do you battle that? I use the Sennheiser 5200 Series, because they have a wide range of capsules and a slim transmitter. The 5235 is a rock solid dynamic mic with loads of level. These days, many of the female pop acts look at you a bit funny if you give them anything other than a slim looking mic – bulkier mics just don’t go down as well! [Laughs] They look at you as if to say: ‘what’s this brick?’ So going with that mic means they’re happy too, which is what it’s all about.