Snake Newton is finally off a plane, and on UK soil. He’s just back from working a few shows with Duran Duran, his front-of-house mainstay for the past 10 years, though he’s also partial to churning out the odd live album or two for his New Romantic pals, thanks to a dabble in studio recording in the early ‘90s. When he’s not at the helm for Le Bon and the boys, he’s on the road with Jessie J, one of the most dynamic vocalists of the noughties. We ask him to share some of his stories, audio tips, and processing secrets...
You got into live sound by accident, really…
Oh, it was a pure fluke! I was in bands myself very early on, from 18-years-old, and I was a bassist and keyboard player, and occasional trumpet player. I wanted to get my band noticed by getting a good sound, so I built a PA, under the assumption that all bands had their own PA. I was wrong. People started noticing the band, but not for the music, just for the sound, so people began renting my PA off me. I literally didn’t know there was a rental market until it presented itself to me on a plate!
And what happened next?
Well, I got out of the live game around 1990, and dabbled in the studio realm, and then I got into a pretty bad accident in 1991, and broke my back. Around this time, I was getting bored of the studio, as I didn’t find it a very immediate place to work. You know, recording the same guitar part 50 times and deciding which was the best, or comping a solo out of 75 different bits, isn’t the greatest experience! [smiles] So I dipped in, shall we say, to the studio scene, but then got out of it again. I moved back into live sound around 1993, and that’s pretty much me today, though I do still have a studio.
Are you a kit fanatic?
Well, I bought some random things for the studio more than anything. Originally, I had a few plugins such as the Waves Renaissance, and the Waves standalone de-esser, but that’s going way back, and it was all in Native, as funnily enough, I’ve never mixed in Pro Tools in the studio, I’ve always been a Steinberg user. But it was during this time that I kind of fell in love with plugins. I bought a package, and then I ended up buying the [Waves] Mercury bundle, the Studio Classics, and I bought them on TDM as well, which is where they existed for my live shows on my console. But my love of plugins stemmed from the studio, and that led onto the thought process of, ‘how do I deal with this in a live situation without this plugin or that plugin?’ It allows me to translate to the live realm, stuff I’ve used in the studio as a workhorse.
Plugin technology has changed dramatically in recent years. What are your go-tos?
For me, there are two types of plugin that I use: one is what I consider the tools, the hammer and chisels, such as the standard EQs, and bespoke plugins that Waves have created from scratch, such as the Q EQs, which I am a big user of, as I am their de-essers. Secondly, there are the emulations, which are the new holy grail; these are the things that take a huge amount of time and resource to create, such as the PuigChild - the plugins that are modelled on hardware units. And if you’ve used these bits of kit, you’ll know how extremely close to the original they all really are. That kind of precision is quite amazing, actually. [Waves] Tape Saturation, and the Kramer Master Tape, the permutations of what those analogue bits of kit could do, and how they sounded under stress, is the really tough thing to translate. Saturation is the word, actually; that kind of detail is what a lot of the older plugins missed, but the newer ones now are really catching up on. Some of the time, I want a clean, utilitarian thing, and go to the Waves 1176 models, and I have to say, the new dbx 160 is just awesome. It’s been a long- time hardware favourite of mine, and that is seriously impressive.
All these model units have really taken shape. The Waves Fairchild is another good example: when you drive it hard, it feels like it’s being driven hard. There are plugins out there that claim to be a Fairchild, and I’ve listened and just thought, ‘what?’ Because it doesn’t sound anything like it. It might have a similar attack and release envelope, but it doesn’t do what the box does; and clearly Waves have put a great deal of time into that, and have actually figured out what the box does when you’re smashing the crap out of it, which is, of course, the way you’d use it in the studio to get the colouration. That is the secret of getting them to sound like the original units, and hats off to Waves for that.
What should an engineer never do?
[laughs] A couple of things, actually! Use your ears and don’t look at the screen. I’ve seen people that have done what’s right and because it ‘looks wrong’ on the screen, they’ve changed it. That is crazy. In the old days, on a tom, you might dig out 15dB at 250Hz, add 4dB at 80 or 100Hz, and add another 6dB in the high end, so you might have a 24dB difference between 300Hz and 6k, but you never saw it on a screen, so you never thought of it. These days, I’ve had people lean over my shoulder and said, ‘whoa, that looks like the Himalayas!’ I say, ‘well, how does it sound?’ and I always get, ‘well yeah, it sounds good’. What the hell does it matter what it looks like? You don’t listen with your eyes, do you?
Tell us about Jessie J's vocal chain… That must be quite something!
Oh, her voice is a beast! [laughs] I have a TC Electronic BBMaxx hardware unit on it, which has de-essing and dynamic EQ built in, then I have the Waves 1176, a Waves de-esser, and a C6. Basically, the channel goes into a group, so the backing vocals and lead vocals share the group, and they’re dynamically EQd together. The classic problem is, when we have live BVs, sometimes there are three of them, and Jessie, and the playback rig, which has album stems of the BVs. When they stack up tighter, that is a lot of female voices at the same time, and that can be tricky, as they don’t all happen in a perfectly constructed manner, so I have a C6 and a de-esser on the group that they all go to, to tame them as a unit, because if she stops singing, and the BVs are behind, the whole vocal mix falls away.
And you still have to keep her vocal on top, right?
Yes. The BVs have to be prominent, but her voice has to sit on top. So the C6 will basically sit on the upper mid, and it’ll be working fairly hard when she’s singing, and when she stops singing, it drops away. Great bit of kit. The BVs automatically pop up into the space she’s left. And on Jessie’s voice, there is an L1 [Ultramaximiser], too. It’s a brick wall, really! She is an extremely dynamic artist, that can go from a whisper to the most gnarly monster of a top note that will ever come out of a woman’s mouth in the space of a bar! That is not something you can control without an L1, so her chain has an L1 last in the channel.
Finally, Snake, what's been the biggest shift in live sound in the last 20 years?
Probably virtual soundcheck, or the ability to record and play back, which I developed very early on. I am totally the automation person I am today because of that, and I trust the process. I’ve spent 15 years recording the band and playing it back through the rig, developing scenes for every song, and although it doesn’t work for every band, the more you get into artists like Duran Duran, everything changes from song to song, and if you don’t do that, it’ll sound like a pub version of the band. So much of Duran Duran’s sound is due to the production; the first album was very dry, and post punk electro if you like, with pop tunes, and then you get to A View To a Kill, which was done for the James Bond film, and we moved into the era of big reverb, and the drums on that, there is more gated reverb than there is drum! [smiles] If you did that song without that effect, it’s not the same. For that, I use a Waves gate following an RVerb, which is triggered in the old school way, off the snare and off an auxiliary. So it’s the ability to cue every song, and make it happen that way. I don’t do my masters automated, but pretty much everything aside from the lead vocal is automated. I look at every song as a piece of music, and then the lead vocal goes on top of it. The ability to listen back and make decisions on a song by song basis is a huge bonus in today’s industry.