Pro Audio at Home with Richard Brooker and Matteo Cifelli
Pro Audio at Home is a series of informal chats with our friends from across the pro audio industry. From FOH engineers to RF wizards, sound designers to production crew, we put the spotlight on some of the industry's most revered pros.
Our first guests are both at the top of their game in their respective industries, and here to lead the conversation is Shure's Peppe Mallozzi.
Richard Brooker is a celebrated theatre sound designer whose work includes a plethora of world-class shows, including Dreamgirls, West Side Story, and The Addams Family as recent credits.
Matteo Cifelli is a hugely talented sound engineer for both FOH and studio works. His credits go back to the early 90s, and include big-hitters such as Tom Jones, Will Young, and Bryan Adams to name just a few.
Both our guests operate in different worlds, but with a lot of similarities in their background and experience.
PM: For my first question, I'd like to go back to the beginning. You both started in the industry young with a passion for making great sound. If you had a time machine and could go back to those early days, is there a specific moment where you decided this was the career path for you? What was it about sound that drove you in this direction, instead of say becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or a builder?
RB: My family had always been involved in amateur theatre, and my aunt and uncle were both professional opera singers. So theatre was always central to our lives growing up. When I left school, I originally thought I wanted to be an actor, but being a somewhat lazy youth, I didn't like the idea of having to leave school and then go on to drama school. So to start with I moved around careers doing a few different jobs. I worked for an electronics company, I worked at Heathrow Airport for a while, but I still really wanted to be an actor. I eventually got myself a job in the West-End doing some follow-spot operating, which ultimately led to me getting more into lighting. Very quickly, I realised that, although I loved the lifestyle, lighting was not my thing. Eventually, a chance-event where there was an issue with the sound one night led to me being asked to help out as I knew the show very well. There was a really simple song, and I was asked to handle the desk and 'babysit' for a few minutes while they fixed something. It sounds like a cliché, but it's true, that, the moment my hands touched the faders I just knew, this is what I wanted to do. I then went on to mix shows in the West-End for about twelve years, and I am, at heart, definitely a mixer. I've gone on to be a designer, but I think, once you're a mixer, you're always a mixer. That love and passion is still there, I still love to get behind a desk, so I still mix concerts and a bit of TV when I can. For me, this also fulfilled the performance aspect of my life; I didn't actually need to be an actor, I just wanted to be doing something live.
MC: Unlike Richard, I just simply didn't like school! I was stuck between my mother on one side (a teacher of Italian, Ancient Greek, Latin and German), and my father on the otherside, a professor in mathematics. My father had this fantastic HiFi system, and I would escape with music. Plus my mother had a tape recorder from her German lessons. Very early on, I would get myself in trouble by erasing parts of her lessons and editing tape, so I caught 'the bug' for music and tech pretty quickly. I remember during the last year of high school, I was really struggling with it and just wasn't going to school. I went to work in a club in Millan called La Magia, which was the main club for live music. During my first day of work, I had no idea how to mix a show, but with some of my rudimentary skills picked up from playing around at home with the tape recorder, I worked out how to pull a basic system together with a few mics and eventually got the job. From there on in it was a learning curve. I learnt on the job as there were no audio schools back then, you could only make mistakes and learn from other engineers and musicians. Years later, and here we are!
PM: While we're on the topic of how access to information has changed, how did you keep yourself up-to-date back in those early days? Obviously these days, with the internet, news of what's new travels pretty quickly - how did you keep your ear to the floor?
MC: In some ways, things aren't as different as you might think. Back in the early days, if you worked in a good studio, the chances are it had much the same gear as you'd expect to find in another equally great studio. Or at least, we tried to buy the same gear, because word of mouth travels fast and we would all read the same specialist magazines. Actually, the regional sales managers were really important, and similarly to how it is now, you would have a good relationship with them, and they would offer advice. The internet has made it easier to be proactive, so these days, if you want to be up-to-date, it's really down to you. Manufacturers still announce new products, and we share the info among our friends in the industry. So in that sense, nothing has really changed specifically other than the possibilities are greater.
PM: And the same question to you, Richard. How did you stay up-to-date?
RB: When I first started, I was mixing shows in the West-End, and so there were designers working those shows. I didn't get to pick any equipment; I would use what was designed for the show, and some pretty standard items were common back then. Most big shows were mixed on Cadac desks, and the speaker choices (in terms of what would fit into a theatre) were much more limited. So it wasn't until I started mixing a few bands and designing some shows that I had a say in what kit was specified. But as many engineers will likely agree, you tended to stick with what you knew was safe at the beginning of your career—the tools you knew you could get a quick result from and you knew how to use. So in terms of how I discovered new stuff, it again came down to speaking to (and learning from) other engineers, reading publications (a bit), but really you'd go and sit with someone else who was mixing a show and chat about it. You'd just learn from each other. It is different now, and you often get new products sent your way. You just have to make a decision as to whether it's useful to you or just a gimmick. I would say I am probably less into gimmicks than other designers in that I like to keep the signal flow clean and simple. So I tend to add less auxiliary equipment than perhaps other sound designers might—that's just my style and choice in design.
PM: Yes, I agree with you in terms of keeping things simple. I always say that, if you can get a great microphone into a great pre-amp and a great system, that's 80% of your job done, right there.
I'm keeping these chats as brand-neutral as possible, but while we're on the topic of gear, is there any particular piece of gear that you couldn't live without, perhaps a piece that really saved the show one time, or that you find completely integral to how you work? This could be anything: a desk, some outboard gear, literally anything - including mics, of course, but this is not a trick question!
RB: It isn't easy to pick one piece of gear that I've always had as things change and move on (what with most things going digital). This might sound like a cliché answer, but I think the most import thing is your ears.
PM: Great answer.
RB: You know, that's what I rely on day-in-day-out—everything else is a tool around that. Each and every part of the signal chain is important, from the microphones to the loudspeakers, but for me, I would say the mixing console and the person behind the faders is the beating heart of the system. I could spend a long time designing the perfect system, getting it all timed perfectly, but at the end of the day, if the mix-engineer isn't in tune with me and the system, then it's challenging to get the right result. So in terms of equipment, it's the mixing console for me, but it requires the ear of myself and the team to get the right result.
PM: Very good points indeed! For the next question, I'll direct this first at Matteo. We've all had to adapt recently to the circumstance in which we find ourselves. My only hope is that it will be as short as possible and we can all get back to what we do best in terms of putting on shows. Let's say, though, hypothetically, you stop doing what you do tomorrow. What skill would you be most proud to take with you into your new career? I know, by default, for example, we have to be really good with people, whether it be artists, managers, producers, riggers and basically all walks of life across our field of work. We have to be talented people managers, whether we realise it or not. What skills from pro audio do you think would be most useful and transferable?
MC: That's a tricky question, and I could answer in many different ways. First of all, I love what I do, so here's hoping that never happens! I don't think this crisis will change much for us in the long term, at least when we consider backstage staff. Any changes will be reflected more in terms of the audience, and perhaps the artists themselves. People will still need the tech crew to run shows, no matter what the impact; they will still need us behind the desk. In terms of skills, though, our job is very complex. We need a good combination of communication skills and technical knowledge. It's difficult to say where we'll end up after all of this, but I still don't think much will change for us. The industry as a whole will have challenges. For example, the management may have to change the way they sell shows. Perhaps streaming will become more prevalent, and also pre-recorded content in general. Likely, the future looks bright for those doing studio work, but like all things, we'll likely see some balance towards the middle ground in the end. The challenge with streaming will be figuring out how to monetise the show, and this can be quite difficult. I think, eventually, we'll see an element of rebalancing after a year-or-so of disruption, but I don't see big changes for us in the longer term.
RB: I agree totally. It's difficult to say what the knock-on impact from all this will be. I think it'll be a fairly slow return to 'normal' (whatever that is). I don't think our industry is terribly 'normal' as such.
PM: What's ever been normal!?
RB: Well, yea, perhaps that's one of the reasons we all chose this industry is because we didn't want to be in something 'normal'. I think it's an interesting point about the live streaming and the streaming of concerts. The word 'concerts', though, implies there's an audience there, and so I guess you could say we'll see more cases of music being 'streamed live' to an 'at home' audience.
So where does that place all of us? Well, I do a little bit of broadcast sound, so I might get a look in there. I think, as Matteo says, there definitely needs to be engineers with the band for monitoring and PA if there is an audience. In terms of your original skill-set question, I am the same as Matteo in that, of course, I would never want to have to change careers, and quite frankly, I don't think anyone would employ me to do anything else! Ha!
PM: Ha! I'm the same. I wouldn't want to do anything else.
RB: I think what I'd take would be communication skills, which is such an important skill in our industry, as you say. Also, I think problem-solving, as we get a lot of small problems thrown our way, and being able to think outside the box (which is a very overused term), but the ability to think around issues and still get results is a beneficial skill. So that combined with communication skills are most certainly useful outside of our industry.
..... You're not announcing a career change for me, are you? Ha! Has there been a public vote? 'No more sound designs from Richard!' Haha!
PM: Ha! We've learned that you're a failed lighting designer, ha - which is a bit of a shock.
... MC: And I a failed pilot - ha! My mother and father always said I should've kept going with it, but I said - 'hey, look at all my flight instructors - they're all in distress!' haha!
RB: Perhaps we could set up an airline, Matteo? You could fly the plane, and I'll serve the refreshments. ha!
PM: So I think we can safely say we're looking forward to returning to normal! Which brings me neatly onto my last question? What are you looking forward to the most when things start to normalise?
RB: For me, I'm most looking forward to collaborating in a team again. I miss the people aspect a lot. I'm missing being creative, although we're very lucky here. My wife and I have a studio, and so we've got a few projects on the go there. But I do miss the team I work with and I admire their professional skills very much. It's difficult to re-create the whole experience of a band, the cast, and the whole production experience without actually being on-site.
PM: What about you, Matteo; and please don't say food! We don't need to encourage any more Italian stereotypes - ha!
MC: You know, the food was an issue in the first few weeks! Haha, I said to myself, I can take this for maybe a couple of weeks!? But in all seriousness, not a whole lot has changed in my life really. Because, if I'm not touring, I'm at home anyway living a pretty normal life. I've been finishing a few mixes and I have a small audio workstation setup, so in that sense, nothing has changed much. But saying that, I can't wait to get back on tour. Of course, all of that aspect is on hold, for the moment.