Renowned FOH engineer Dave Swallow marks his final words as a regular contributor to Audio Pro International with a podcast - located at the bottom of this page - to accompany his December column, reflecting on the highs and lows of a truly memorable year.
So, here we are, December is upon once more. Those sleigh-bells drawing ever closer, the forced Christmas cheer has besieged shop front windows, and the cold, dampness of Northern Europe has infiltrated my bones. Another year has passed, and these are my last words as a regular API contributor.
Well, what a bloody bizarre year this one has been, so I thought I’d take look back though the events of this year. I’ve made this more of a personal retrospect rather than some kind of ‘celebrity top 10 count down’ we normally see in the festive season.
At the beginning of the year, I would pass the time adorning the sofa in the front room with my dressing grown draped over me as if I were posing for a catalogue, watching rather crap Dutch telly, which I can hardly understand. Only now have I added a handful more Dutchisums to my language base. It’s a tediously difficult language to grasp. Whenever I try to speak it a German accent appears, the resulting decentful look from the girly; my childish rolling of eyes into the back of my skull, doesn’t help in my education.
These days would drift by like a schoolboy waiting for the end-of-day bell. My end-of-day bell, on the other hand, came in the form of a massive shock as my phone would leap into life with an enormous buzz and run across the room sending shockwaves though my lethargic body; Miranda is on her way back from work. I knew I had about half an hour to do the three S’s, make the bed and look like I’ve been busy all day.
The monotonous daily phone calls were a futile attempt to find employment and began banging at the door of my self-confidence, requesting an immediate audit. I was utterly bored, not a penny coming in through the door, and had no idea what to do about it. So eventually I managed to grab myself by my own dignities, trouser any doubt in my ability, and make my own work. If no one else was going to give me anything to do, I can bloody well use my time wisely. After all, what is a recession for; diversification. I sat down and started writing. The next thing I know, I had a couple of seminars, parts of books, a few ideas for TV shows, and nothing to do with any of them; but at least I had something.
I delivered my first real seminar at Plasa Focus in Leeds. It was the most attended seminar they have ever had. To be honest, what would you expect from the title ‘The Art of Mixing a Show’? I’m actually really proud of what these seminars have become and are becoming. I do understand that some of the thoughts involved are a little far-fetched, but addressing the idea of creativity is a hard one. I know some of you would rather I give you quick tips and easy knowledge to mixing, but the path to understanding that knowledge is just as important as the knowledge itself.
As I started to pick myself up, I was hit by some upsetting news. An old colleague had taken his own life; always a hard thing to think about and justify. My thoughts would turn to his family, then would naturally flow into thoughts about how I knew and understood him.
Shortly after this, a highlight of my year. An all-expenses paid trip to Sydney to talk to our Aussie chums about mixing. On the way out there I had a change in Hong Kong. As I re-embarked the long-haul transportation vehicle, I get a seat change. Thinking I’m being relocated next to the toilet, I find myself momentary pondering over the position of seat 4D. Then, the sudden school boyish realisation that I’ve been upgraded to upper class hit me. So, obviously over the next 9 hours I had to do everything that you would expect can be done in the upper class cabin; which had two consequences. Firstly, it was obvious to everyone that I had never travelled in this much style before, and secondly, I arrived in Sydney not as rested as I should have been. Anyway, the seminars went very well, and this is where I tried out my idea for the very first Audio Think Tank.
I had some pretty fun gigs this year that threw me right back into my youth. I rushed back from Australia, no such upgradable luck on the way back I might add, but I did manage to get two seats all to myself, to join Billy Ocean for a few shows. I never in a million years thought I’d be mixing ‘When the Going Gets Tough’, ‘Caribbean Queen’ or ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’, yet there I was, holding the helm at the good ship Ocean for a few shows over the summer. I also had the privilege of mixing Underworld, and sometimes both bands in the same weekend. ‘The Long and Winding Road’ to ‘Born Slippy’. I had thoughts of Michael Douglas macheteing his way though a rain forest, then thrown into the dark, dank world of Scottish drug abuse. Extremely bizarre, but very gratifying.
It seems that the music industry has been hit by a plague of unfortunate circumstances this year. Some of which might have been avoided, others have been riding full speed down the highway to hell, and others have left a giant question mark in our lives.
I was having a snooze on the Ocean night-liner, on one grey Saturday in the depths of Norfolk. My phone indicated that I had a message, so I ignored it. It then buzzed again, and again. Demanding my attention like a 4 year old, so I opened an eye and picked it up. The first text message read ‘Winehouse has been found dead in her flat’. Obviously I was struck by the wonderful sensitivity shown in this message, but the following texts appeared to have backed up the information in the first.
I look back at my days in Fort Winehouse with the understanding that I was not ready for such a job. Those days were tough. I felt like I was being taken for a ride by members of the entourage, and I wasn’t as confident as I should have been. But, she was wonderful to work with and I learnt a lot on those tours. I learnt a lot about myself and how I deal with situations, but in hindsight, I learnt the importance of competence. You only learn competence when you understand when something is wrong and try to change it. You can be good at your job yet have no competence. The understanding we gain when things aren’t as they should be, and the strive to correct them is where competence come from. Only when we have learnt from our mistakes do we know the right questions to ask and can then call ourselves competent. This wasn’t just to do with Miss Winehouse or the people around, but also the personal circumstances I was in at the time.
Her departure left me feeling more empty that anything else; I didn’t really know what to feel about it. It was as if we had been working out the most amazing physics equation of all time and the end result was not what we expected and utterly underwhelming. It seems that at times like these everyone comes slithering out of the woodwork to put their hand up to be acknowledged alongside their hero, have their say, then retreat back into what ever they were doing before. I look back to one of the first tours we did together; there are now two people who don’t exist anymore. I still think about them both.
The summer was ticking by without much incident, then news came in about the stage collapse in Indiana, which followed the lesser-covered stage collapse in Ottawa just weeks before. Then a week later we get the news that Pukkelpop was hit by a freak storm and one of their stages collapsed. This obviously hit home more because it’s one of my favourite festivals and I had friends there. Apparently, as rumours go, there was another stage collapse in Asia, but that’s just hearsay. This has obviously led to lots of questions about safety. We’ll see where we go from here.
September was a far more joyous month. I got married; had a wonderful time, thanks for asking. Then I left my poor new wife, days after the wedding to fend for herself as I sped off to London to deliver the newer, more improved Art of Mixing seminar. I think it went down pretty well. I then jetted off to a Spanish island for a relaxing holiday, and I only got a little sunburnt...
A couple of weeks later, sitting in my hotel in Istanbul having breakfast, I hear about the finale of the Steve Jobs saga. Although I never met him, nor know anyone that has ever met him, it truly did feel like the end of something. Steve Jobs left a massive mark on our industry; every dressing room you walk into is full of macs, pretty much every song that’s written is composed through a Mac, and iTunes made it easy for people to buy music rather than use a pilfering site.
‘Steadily turbulent’ is probably a good way of summing up what this year has been for me. I know all of you have had your own challenges this year. There’s been a lot going on in politics, economics and the music industry is in a state of flux. With change comes possibilities. Inventive, constructive possibilities.
Now December has encroached, and that’s another year done and gone. I’m a little older, a little wiser, and ready for some new-year resolutions. Now it’s time for me to sign off. I wish you all the very best of the season and the new-year. Thanks for reading.