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Sound engineer Jon Lemon on touring and time in the studio

The sound engineer who is in demand for major tours around the world for the likes of Beck, Depeche Mode and Seal reflects on working in live sound and his new mixing room

You were in the UK in the summer – what brought you here?

Three reasons. One was for the 40th birthday celebrations of HHB Communications; the second, a friend’s wedding; thirdly, to catch up with all at Britannia Row.

Then you went home to your nice new mixing room?

I didn’t go directly home. First, I did a festival run with Lana Del Ray in Europe, before jumping on a few shows for Sia in the US. Then I went back to my new house down near McLaren Vale, on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, where I’ve built a dedicated mixing room for various projects. I’m trying to spend the summer months down in Australia and head back to San Francisco in March when the touring season starts.

I’ve started mixing singles and albums for young Aussie acts and have had some mild success with that. I want to hone that more over time and I thought the best way to achieve that was to have an acoustically solid space to do it in.

How did you get started in live sound, Jon?

That all started in South Australia when I was about 14 and had to go to a YMCA event where my sister helped run a nightclub for under eighteens. I helped the guy with the two columns of PA load in up the stairs. He was a professor of electronics at Adelaide University, named Trevor Marshall – who, incidentally, went on to invent certain filters for ARP synthesisers. But he got me firmly interested in the whole PA thing and I started working for him on weekends.

Then my intention was to go to law school, but as that started to happen I was diagnosed with a rare eye condition called Stargardt disease [which causes macular degeneration], so that was sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll for me! I worked around Australia for several years with different bands and got very serious about the audio thing. I ended up working at [retailer] Jands, before moving to the UK in 1984 to do a tour with John Williams and Sky, and from there I never really looked back.

Which three artists have you enjoyed working with the most?

Mark King from Level 42 taught me so much about the value of rhythm. Then Robert Smith from The Cure because he made me understand the value of a really well written song. Finally, NIN’s Trent Reznor because he was a hard taskmaster who pulled the best out of me and made me really reflect on how I mix.

You have earned tremendous respect in the live community, and have won, or been nominated for, many awards over the years. Why do you think that is?

I’m good at buying people drinks! No, I’m being flippant. I don’t know why, but another thing Mark King taught me was to be nice to people in the industry and they will always look after you. I’ve always tried to do that and to build teams around me, because nothing in this wonderful world of audio happens without a big team effort and collaboration.

You’ve been a big DiGiCo user for many years: what was your main desk before that, and why the love of DiGiCo?

I was always a Midas guy, the XL3 and the iconic XL4 of course and so on. But in 2003, [ex-Midas] Bob Doyle and Dave Webster got involved with Soundtracs and the D5 Live was born. Once I saw that and understood the implications for my work, I immediately got involved. I had one of the first prototypes and I can honestly say I’ve never looked back.

The guys at DiGiCo – John Stadius, James Gordon and the team – were always so responsive in the early days to the needs of the sound engineer. Consequently, along with many others, I had input, which started appearing in various versions of the software. The upshot of that is it always feels familiar to use – it’s comfortable like an armchair in front of your fireplace at home. Not to mention their consoles just sound great!

What’s your approach to preparing for a gig?

Number one for me is being familiar as possible with an artist’s music, so listening to their albums, remixes and YouTube clips.

I usually try to talk with the artist to find out what they want out of their live show, rather than just imposing my thoughts and ideas. If you can get to a point where it just becomes a great collaboration, that’s when things get more special and you’re fully invested in their vision.

I always arrive with the basic session and the tools I suspect I’ll need, but I’m happy to change it up as rehearsals and early shows change.

What are the essential plug-ins/outboard you couldn’t do with out? (Up to three items)

Number one: Waves MaxxBass outboard box. I haven’t done a gig without one in over 10 years. Number two: Waves SSL bus compressor. Number three is the Waves C6 multiband compressor and I have to include the Rvox vocal compressor in that chain. Give me one more? The Waves NLS summing plug-in, which has become essential.

What is your involvement with Adelaide University?

When I’m spending the summer months – your winter! – in Australia, I am involved with the new Sia Furler Institute of Modern Music and Media Studies as their first artist in residence. Essentially, I’m there to talk to the kids when they are ending their respective courses and to let them know about the real world, how difficult it can be and how hard you have to work to get anywhere in this business.

…and the South Australia Music Development Office?

The Music Development Office is a great programme by the SA government to encourage and promote all aspects of the music biz, from management through to publishing, songwriting, producing and engineering.

I recently helped them spec out a couple of writing rooms; I called in favours from companies like Røde mics to help equip them.

The Office has recently announced the first ‘Jon Lemon, artist in residence’ programme, where young songwriters, producers and engineers submit applications to spend time in the studio and I whelp them where possible.

What one thing would you like to see improve in the live/touring world?

I’d still like to see more real world education for all the technical disciplines across the board. I also notice there is a general lack of respect towards crew from many people.

I would like the ‘higher-ups’ in our industry to realise that artistic endeavours are not just a vehicle to make money, but the focus should be on delivering the best show possible to fans.

We want to see a band in your home city Adelaide: where should we go, and what’s great about that venue?

Weirdly, I have never really liked going to gigs when I’m not working, whether in San Francisco or Adelaide. However, last year in the Aussie summer I had my friend Dave Kob come down to Adelaide and he was mixing Fleetwood Mac at the smaller (25,000 capacity) stadium and I enjoyed it so much. I decided right then and there that I had better go to more shows – mind you, he’s an incredible engineer!

Also last summer, Pablo Boothroyd was down there with AC/DC and we saw that and had a ball. It appears my summers in Adelaide offer the chance for me to catch up with friends, have them stay with me and then we can go and see some great shows as a relaxed punter… who’d have ever thought that would happen!

Pictures: First: Jon Lemon on the recent tour in North America. Credit: Vic Wagner. Second: Lemon and company founder Ian Jones at the 40th anniversary part for HHB Communications. Credit: Chris Tayor