Welcome to the latest edition of Tech Talks. Today, we’re speaking with Dan Ungaretti, a London-based monitor engineer and tour tech with years of on-the-road experience with artists like Peter Gabriel, Jamiroquai and Simple Minds. We were interested in speaking with Dan about the technological advances he has seen in his years of touring and discuss his recommendations for successful monitor engineering in the digital age.
Dan’s passion for music took root while studying physics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he learned to set up a PA and mix sound for student events and band nights. During summer breaks, he freelanced for a local PA company and, by the time he graduated, was working full-time on sound crews at venues like the Royal Albert Hall and various London museums. Dan began mixing monitors at local clubs and was soon hired by a large UK rental company. One of his earliest tours was as a monitor tech for Peter Gabriel, who Dan has recently been on the road with as a monitor mix engineer.
[MM] What do you feel has been the biggest technical game changer during your tenure as a tech and monitor mixer?
[DU] I would say the shift from analog to digital consoles. I learned on analog consoles, and most venues were using them when I started out. Not long after, by the time I was doing professional tours, digital consoles brought major infrastructure improvements, so you could take a lot less equipment on the road. The desks were considerably smaller and incorporated the effects, outboard gear and racks of equipment that we used in the analog days. Once everything was combined into a single piece of equipment, people grasped the benefits of smaller, more efficient workspaces. Since then, their ease of use and the sophistication of product features have made them faster and more versatile to bring on tour.
Digital also opened up a major change in the kind of formats we used. As technicians, we became much more aware of multi-channel formats, different kinds of digital transmissions and networked audio. That transformed the role of working on a tour crew from mainly plugging in cables and lifting gear into the realm of IT engineers. It was a big adjustment for a lot of engineers, but fortunately, manufacturers helped to smooth the way with training programs and tour support personnel.
[MM] Did digital consoles impact how engineers actually mixed?
[DU] I think they may have brought a certain laziness to mixing. Before digital, if you had a new console or weren’t touring with one, you would turn up at a show and start your show from scratch. You might remember some typical settings for the act you’re working with, but starting from almost nothing every day was a far more cumbersome process. It also meant that you had no choice but to rely on your ears.
Nowadays, because of the simplicity of using a digital console, some mixers fall into the routine of just loading a show file every day without using their ears enough to make adjustments. For myself, it’s really important to stand back and punch a few things in and out and listen to make sure that what we did a little while back is still current. As a monitor engineer, I always walk out on the stage during soundcheck to listen in the space where the artist is performing.
[MM] If you were training a new monitor engineer, what would be the most valuable guidance you could give them?
[DU] Perhaps they haven’t had any musical training or creative experiences in which they have gone through the building blocks of learning to mix for somebody. So, the key, especially for them, would be for them to learn their equipment and really understand the tools at their disposal. People are tempted to use all the tools, effects and plugins, because they are so easy to access. Unfortunately, doing that can create problems that don’t actually exist.
Monitor engineers used to carefully choose their equipment, because they needed to carry it with them, and there was a physical cost to doing so. Budgets are one thing, but size and space and having to plug it all in were another. There was always the pressure of considering how, if they played somewhere where they couldn’t find the equipment they were accustomed to, it would alter what came out of the console. Now you can add any type of effect or outboard equipment you can think of, and it’s all on a USB stick.
I have seen a number of engineers fall into the trap of too many toys. As a monitor engineer, I shy away from adding toys at the expense of consistency. I would rather deliver a consistent result that the artist can perform to than add things for the sake of adding them.
The other side of it is that digital consoles allow people who are skilled and creative to be much more skilled and creative, because they have all these incredible tools at their disposal. It’s a matter of learning to walk before you try to run.
I would also advise any new engineer to learn how to talk to an artist and communicate with other people.
[MM] Does talking to an artist require a special skill?
[DU] It’s the same as talking to anyone else. There are many different personalities on both the artist and the engineer side, so it’s about finding and cultivating that relationship. Not every engineer will fit in with every artist, and that’s part of life. The key to any monitor engineering role is to earn the trust of the artist. It doesn’t really matter what you think you are doing with the console and equipment; at the end of the day, the artist’s perception of that output is the only thing that matters.
Sometimes, it’s an issue of interpreting very odd signals and comments. Artists, perhaps creative people in general, use terms and phrases that may be inconsistent or unclear, describing sound with colors and things like that. The only way you can learn what they mean is by learning to read the people you’re working with.
Sometimes, it’s more about what they don’t say. There was one artist, in particular, I would work with who would just give a look, and that look was supposed to tell me everything I needed to know. It became a matter of interpreting eyebrow raises and head tilts. You learn those little twitches and idiosyncrasies, but it only comes with time and by building a relationship with the artist offstage. You need to engage with them, try and find out what their little motions are supposed to mean and build up a book of them. Over time, it really helps you get in step with what they need to do their job.
Many thanks to Dan for his great insights into monitor mixing and working with artists.
Are you a monitor mixer or tour tech who has faced challenges while adapting to new technologies? If so, share your insights in the comments.