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View from the top: the FOH engineer (Jon Burton)

Can a die-hard analogue man embrace digital networking?

Can a die-hard analogue man embrace digital networking? And why small clubs and festivals are changing the world…

Who are you?

Jon Burton, jobbing sound engineer.

What do you do?

I am primarily a live sound engineer and over my career I have done about 50-50 FOH and monitors.

Where do you do it?

In the last few years I have primarily been a FOH engineer for, among others, The Prodigy and Bombay Bicycle Club. About six years ago I also built a small recording complex in Sheffield with a colleague, Dave Hadley, called The Laundry Rooms. We have five control rooms sharing a central live room. I have rediscovered recording and done a few singles and albums in the last year. Primarily I use my room to mix live recordings for DVD or YouTube release. I do have a bit of a reputation as an analogue engineer and my mix room reflects that with a big analogue desk and loads of outboard, including some of the 20 or 30 delay units that I own. I have a weird dub addiction…

Why do you do it?

I’ve always been interested in sound and have been working in music since leaving school. I played in bands but also began engineering fairly early on. I did tours in my early career where I was playing in the support band and mixing the headliner.

What’s your biggest success to date?

My biggest success to date is probably still being given the chance to do it! I love mixing and I’m lucky to have worked with some great bands. I am one of those rare people who look forward to work every day. Getting the chance to do The Prodigy has been great and it suits my style of engineering: I have a keen interest in sub bass, which the band are happy to encourage.

What’s the biggest challenge coming up?

The biggest challenge I see coming up is fighting the corner for sound over convenience. Having spent years trying to get the best sound possible I do feel pressurized into forsaking it for convenience. I was an early adopter of digital. I have no problem going forward but until it sounds, actually sounds, better mixed on digital I will try and remain on the best desk for the job – which for me is grey, made of steel and wood with a leather armrest…

I’ve always seen my job as being the band’s engineer, and my role is to get the best for the band. Being my own system tech is something I find compromising. As soon as I set up my own system I feel compromised. When faced with a difficult gig I will go for the easiest option. If you walk into a gig as a tech, you look at the most practical, easiest way to solve the problems. As an engineer I go in with a more challenging, questioning attitude. My tech will say it will be fine with eight speakers – I say why not 12? We settle on 10…

Having said that, I feel it is my responsibility to keep up to date so last year I did Martin MLA and d&b training. I always try and stay up to date. However, just because I have done all the theory I should never be let anywhere near rigging and motors.

What is the ‘issue’ that never seems to go away?

The issue that never goes away is an interesting question. Money is the most obvious thorny issue that blights any industry. Being up front about money is always a good policy. Spell out what you expect, and what they can expect from you. Judging that first bid is never easy, though, and it’s true you get what you negotiate. But if you agree too easily, don’t moan afterwards!

Do you care about digital audio networking?

I do care about digital networking, as I care about audio quality and I care about latency. Once a signal is in the digital domain I try and keep it there until the end of the chain. Latency, though, is the curse of the modern system. It ruins your mixes; it ruins your system! Why aren’t we all shouting about it? I have an issue with standards as well. Why have them if people are going to do a special ‘not compatible’ version of MADI, for example? Don’t you manufacturers ever talk to each other?

Are you finding more and more venues have their own loudspeaker systems permanently installed?

Loudspeakers in clubs are now better than ever before. I have been in 200-capacity clubs with little line arrays that sound fantastic! The equipment is better now than ever before, but maintenance is another matter.

How else is the touring scene changing, from where you’re standing?

The main change for me in recent years is the number of festivals I now do. The year before last I worked all year, but I only did seven days of traditional touring. The rest was festivals. I don’t mind, but it is a different style of mixing. Festivals can be great but the factors are not all under your control. My colleague Ray Furze summed it up nicely: for a great sound at a festival you need a good engineer, a good PA, a good band and good weather! The four very rarely come together at the same time…

What technical solutions have made your life better in the last few years?

For me the greatest advance has been the introduction of modern line arrays. I doff my cap to Christian Heil and Marcel Urban. These men – along with Paul Bauman – have done more to change my job than any others. Looking to the future, I am starting to teach more and get involved in educating the next generation of engineers. I’ve also started at University part time so I can find out how academia works, and I continue to write for magazines and lecture online for

This is #2 of 10 ‘views from the top’ appearing in PSNLive2015, PSNEurope‘s 10th annual analysis of the European live sound industry. This year, we quizzed incumbents of key industry roles on the ups and downs of the business. The result is a range of insights (views from the top, no less) from a diverse group of individuals, all of whose careers are inextricably linked to the fabric of live sound.