Having a space that was meant for entertaining, unwinding, enjoying a cocktail and listening to…
Here’s part two of our founder interviews, and as you’ll see, the sound half of our “Sound & Vision” duo has a serious background in music, audio and live sound. Here, he gives us a look into some great stories from his life before LUNO, doing sound on the road and some basic tips that will help you avoid some common errors people make with their home audio setup. He also imparts some wisdom about the age old debate of analog vs. digital, that should help provide some clarity for those who are looking into buying a record console and help guide you close toward pure sonic nirvana.
Can you tell us a little about what you did before LUNO and is LUNO all you do?
Well, for most of my life I lived in the UK, I was a producer, engineer and guitarist for an English band, Amusement Parks on Fire. For most of that time we were signed to V2 but when V2 closed its doors we decided to come to LA to record our third album for the also now defunct Filter magazine’s label. This was 2009 but a series of (fortuitous?) accidents meant the album took a fair but longer than it should and that gave me time to get to know Jennifer, my now wife and co-founder of LUNO! Since moving to LA I’ve spent more time working as a live sound engineer.
When did you get involved in the sound engineering side of things? Did you always have a knack for it or was it something you studied?
I’ve been a sound engineer almost as long as I’ve been playing music. The first time I stepped in a studio as an amateur musician I know that was where I wanted to be. I quit the college course I was studying and asked a local studio what I had to do to end up on the other side of the console. This was back in the days before everyone and his dog owned a recording studio, the technology wasn’t yet affordable and these were still expensive specialist spaces.
So, I did it the old fashioned way, I basically had to pay my dues and for about six months or so I was a “tape op” and assistant. I would learn from anyone that would teach me and take care of all the things on sessions no one else wanted to do until the day an engineer was taken sick and I got to run my own session. After that I didn’t look back, that was over two decades ago.
What was the first piece of audio equipment you purchased?
I didn’t purchase it myself but I do remember my Grandmother giving me a Walkman maybe when I was six or seven with a copy of the Grease soundtrack on cassette. It immediately became my favorite possession and I spent a ridiculous amount of time waiting for songs I liked to be played on the radio so I could record them from it. I made what would be considered some “eclectic” mixtapes back then.
For someone who wants to improve their own home audio setup, do you have any recommendations that can make a big impact on sound quality or are there any common mistakes people make that are easily avoidable?
This isn’t the most thrilling sexy answer but the main things I can think of that people often get wrong and can fix very easily are speaker placement and polarity.
I’ll start with polarity first because it’s such a basic error and if you get it wrong you don’t stand a hope in hell of your system sounding good. Put simply, when running speaker wire make sure the red output terminal from your amp goes to the red input terminal on your speaker and the black to the black. That’s it, seems obvious but I’ve seen a surprising amount of systems where no one has noticed one of the wires is flipped and this means that the speakers are not only not working in unison but they’re fighting against each other. It sounds REALLY bad.
As far as placement goes, ideally, try and place your “listening chair” in the third point of an equilateral triangle with your speakers being the other two points and make sure they’re at a reasonable height. Head height is perfect but at least try not to have them pointing at your ankles!
What do you think about something like Sonos or wireless speaker setups? Are they compatible with your consoles?
For convenience we include one wireless option for our customers to stream music wirelessly to the console (usually Apple Airplay but sometimes Bluetooth). However, as far as the turntable goes, to make one work as part of a wireless setup involves digitally converting the signal from it first. To me and many of our customers this often contradicts the point in buying a system like this, they want a straight simple analog path for the turntable (turntable to amp to speaker, no messing around, no digital conversion) Of course, that doesn’t mean that converting it to digital and sending to digital speakers isn’t a reasonable option for those that value convenience and aren’t purists but I personally like the all analog signal path for record listening.
Can you tell us about some of the bands you’ve been in and if you’re currently working on anything?
I’ve been in bands my whole life but as far as selected highlights go there is Amusement Parks on Fire who I mentioned earlier and more recently I worked on an album from our house with Jennifer and a mutual friend. The band was called “Ghostel” and we were lucky enough to have a song called “Buckley Get Your Gun” placed in the trailer for the Turkish 2015 Oscar nominated movie “Mustang”. Jennifer and I are working on a project right now, we should have an EP out in the near future
What instruments do you play, do you have a favorite piece of gear?
I play guitar fine and a few other instruments at a basic level. As far as favorite pieces of gear I’m quite flexible, I like to use whatever is around, ideally in ways it wasn’t intended! Really, the closest thing I have to a favorite piece of gear is a 70’s Gibson SG that I’ve owned for nearly twenty years that’s been heavily modified and broken many times over by me. That’s still my main guitar for everything I play on.
Who are some of your favorite producers or engineers and why?
Tom Waits is an incredible producer, he’ll do whatever it takes to capture magic on record and succeeds often, that is a gift. As a mixer Tchad Blake is one of the best, excellent use of texture and contrasts, a real genius. Pete Katis who has worked on seven of The National’s albums is also amazing as is David Fridmann, the Flaming Lips go to guy.
What is a common misconception about audio or sound engineering that people have?
That there’s a right way to do it.
You’ve worked with quite a few artists, can you tell us about a few you’ve recorded or toured with? Any crazy stories you can share or does anyone have an insane live setup?
A short while back I was working with a band called Mondo Cozmo, they’d had a strong radio hit with a song called Shine and were playing a lot of festivals. Now, when you play festivals as a band you rarely have time to sound check, festivals are often insanely tightly scheduled and ALWAYS on the brink of falling apart at any minute. The fact they so rarely do is always amazing to me and often a credit to the crew.
As a sound guy working a festival you often have just 20 minutes between acts to get ready for your show.
Nowadays us engineers all carry our mixes round on USB flash drives. Generally you use that short time you have to just plug it in, load the mix and hope to God it translates well on the sound system they’re using
Anyway, this was the case for a major festival we were at, an audience of 20,000 were waiting and I had around twenty minutes to get ready. Usually that’s not a problem except I get to the console, plug in my hard drive and my show file is corrupt, it won’t load. Now, this is not an easy band, they have multiple instruments and singers, a very complex set up, I stand no chance of setting up a mix for them from scratch in the time available but I do remember that I’d sent a backup of this now corrupted show file via email to myself a few weeks ago.
The problem is I’m in the middle of a field, there’s no Wi-Fi available but I know that there will be in the dressing room so I start to run there as fast as I can… I know it’s maybe five minutes each way. First I have to ask the festival’s engineer to borrow a flash drive, thankfully she has one, I get to the dressing room, log on to the painfully slow WiFi. I finally get to my email, log in, find the one with the file attached and begin downloading it. It fails the first few times but finally goes through, I transfer it to the drive I’d borrowed and run full speed back to the stage, I have already heard the current band announce their last song. I now have less than a minute until Mondo Cozmo walk on, I put the drive in the console and thank God, this time the it sees it, the file is intact. I hit load, wait for what feels like forever for it to complete and I manage to unmute my mix THE SECOND the band walk on stage! The show goes on, 20,000 people blissfully unaware of how close we were to a complete catastrophe that day!
Did you grow up with a record player/console in your house, did your family listen to much music?
Yeah, my uncle was a relatively successful producer and record label guy so we got his hand me down systems. I basically grew up with sound systems in my house that would have been top of the line five to ten years before! Because of this I did get used to good sounding audio gear and record players at a young age.
What is your favorite vinyl LP you own?
Rain Dogs, the best album in the history of the world. Jennifer may not agree with this statement. Jennifer is wrong.
Is there something that makes vinyl sound better than other formats? What’s your take on analog vs digital?
Do you have a few hours?! This will be hotly debated until the end of time, “better” is a hugely subjective word.
Digital audio has actually come a long way, I remember initially that many sound engineers outright hated it as a medium when it was introduced and considered it cold and brittle sounding. However, given time new techniques and ways of working with it were developed that got much better results because, here’s the thing, what digital does is just capture what is put in to it. extremely accurately almost to a fault, it’s like a crystal clear piece of glass. In contrast most analog gear, turntables included, are less technically accurate but impart a slight tint and color to the audio that many find flattering. They both have their place and digital wins for convenience, sure and has probably dominated the market for that reason but for personal listening I, and it turns out many others, find listening on vinyl much more enjoyable. As I say, the word “better” is subjective, many use different criteria to try and judge what is “better” but, for me, the most important factor when it comes to listening to music is how much enjoyment I derive from it. In that respect vinyl wins hands down in my opinion.
If you could collaborate on a custom hifi console for anyone, who would it be and what type of setup would you configure and why?
Probably James Murphy of LCD soundsystem. He’s a great producer and engineer too so he knows his audio stuff already. He actually designed a 50,000 watt sound system for club DJ’s to play vinyl through so he’s dabbled in that world already. I just think we’d be philosophically aligned plus he seems like a good bloke.
Do you have a favorite live band and favorite recorded/studio band? Why?
It’s hard to beat the spectacle of a Flaming Lips show live. Recorded, Tom Waits still, final answer!
Can you tell us about the process of creating the audio setup for one of your record consoles? What approach do you use and was there any reason you selected certain audio components over others?
Of course, there’s a reason for everything that’s in that cabinet to be in there right down to the RCA connectors we picked. All the components were chosen to work both well together and in the rather specific confines of being built in to a piece of furniture!
The first thing I knew was that I wanted to keep some of the sonic characteristics of the original record consoles and part of what defined a lot of them was that the speakers were mounted in baffles with those huge open enclosures behind them, it added a certain color and length to the sound. Generally though because of these enclosures and because a turntable had to live in the same unit often those vintage units were very light on bass. The trick for me became finding a way to house a small subwoofer that was designed to fill in that lost bass somewhere appropriate in our cabinet without also causing vibrations that disrupted the turntable. So there was a lot of experimenting with all kinds of components both to see which combinations sounded good together and also what would allow us to achieve that goal.
If you could give people looking to purchase one of your consoles one piece of audio advice, what would it be?
Listen to the whole album, don’t skip the deep cuts.