The award-winning Chris Trimby not only tours with top artists and spends summers working the major festivals but also mixes live sound for TV music shows including Top Of The Pops, proving how varied and interesting a career as a monitor engineer can be. We find out how it all happened.
Chris Trimby chuckles to himself as I enquire whether he has a musical background. "Lots of people have said I have a musical ear, but when it comes to playing the piano or guitar you might call my playing avant garde at best..." Being unable to play an instrument has clearly not proved too much of a hindrance for Chris, however. In 2004 he was voted Monitor Engineer Of The Year in the TPi [Total Production International magazine] Awards, and he's one of the few sound engineers on the planet to have received an Emmy Award for mixing live sound. With touring credits including David Gray, Sting, Wet Wet Wet, The Beautiful South, Tina Turner, Madness, and most recently the Sugababes, he must be doing something right.
The last time I met with Chris was a little over a year ago when we worked together on BBC's Top Of The Pops, a show for which he has provided the studio sound reinforcement and monitoring for the past four years or more. In fact, Chris is a veteran of providing sound reinforcement for television, a very niche market in the live sound world. As if this doesn't keep him busy enough, he also spends up to three months of the year working on the biggest music festivals in the country, looking after the 'monitor world'. If you ever find yourself standing in the stage-left wing of the main stage at Reading, V, or Glastonbury it's more than likely you'll bump into Trimby, and I'd be surprised to find any signed band left that he hasn't worked with at some point.
I'm feeling a little uncomfortable at the thought of interviewing one of the engineers who played such a huge part in starting me out in the industry. It was seven years ago when I first met him, while struggling to find my way in the audio world, doing work experience on a music festival where he happened to be 'babysitting' the monitor rig. He was kind enough to show me the ropes and organised some other opportunities for me to learn on the job, so it's almost poetic that I now find myself talking to him about how he started out.
"I was a printer by trade, and was doing my apprenticeship between the ages of 17 and 21, but I also drove a van for a local band in Reading. They had a small PA system that I started fiddling around with, and somehow I got a good result, so they decided to keep me on. When the band split up, I bought the PA and continued to do world tours of Reading, Oxford and Swindon! That's where I first learnt the trade.
"When I finished my apprenticeship, I went to work for Entec (a London-based PA-hire company) full-time in around 1983. I worked there for three or four years, starting in the warehouse, which was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was fixing amplifiers, fixing bins, learning about phasing, how bins and horns work, how to repair them... it was a great grounding that lots of young engineers coming up these days don't get the opportunity to gain, because the industry has shrunk. I went freelance in 1986 and have been freelance ever since."
The transition from warehouse and crew to engineering bands wasn't something Chris had to wait too long for: "For me, thankfully, it happened very quickly. My first gig was Ted Nugent at the Hammersmith Apollo. I was the fourth man on the PA, plugging it up, and so on, and I did a few months of that. Then I went on to a festival tour, where I was one of the 'miking-uppers' and was in charge of the leads. I labelled every trunk, so that when anyone needed anything I always knew where it was. That impressed the people I was working for, enough that they gave me a job that was kind of half production, half engineering on a television show called The Tube. A guy called Gary Bradshaw, who is a fantastic FOH engineer, looked after me for six weeks while I bedded in, and then I was let loose on my own. I did that for four and half years, for six months of each year".
It's at this point that I show my age. I have never heard of The Tube, and this amuses Chris. After a quick Google, I discover that it was a Channel Four show with Jools Holland and Paula Yates that is now recognised to be the blueprint for many of the music shows we see on our TVs today. It ran from 1982 to 1987 and is considered a landmark in music television.
Chris: "I think the job was offered to other people, but at that age most people are more interested in touring round the world with The Stones or whoever. I welcomed it with open arms and halfway through the first series I realised that it would be a benefit for me in years to come. In January and February, when other freelancers aren't working, I am."
Chris is referring to his distinguished career as a live sound engineer in the television studio. Subsequent television shows he has mixed live sound for include The White Room, Big World Café, TFI Friday and Top Of The Pops, for which he works two thirds of the year on behalf of SSE Hire. On a show like TOTP, his role is predominantly as a monitor engineer for the artists that perform in the studio. The show varies in layout from week to week, sometimes with two or three stages in the television studio and with acts varying from a simple playback with a live vocal up to a full band setup. In addition, he also provides a front-of-house mix of the band for the studio audience, all mixed from a little 'cage' in the next room.
Chris: "There is no 'line of sight' to the stages. During soundcheck periods, I have a stage person with in-ear monitoring (IEM) and a radio mic communicating with me. The main issue with mixing monitors for TV is spill. My friend Dave Lee, the sound supervisor on TOTP, is always talking about spill and how it trashes the broadcast mixes. It's the same for gig front-of-house engineers, but it's a little more difficult with television."
I've noticed how dramatically things have changed in the time that I've been working as a live engineer. As little as five years ago, a festival PA was a huge affair, with many speakers hung in massive cluster arrays and delay towers all over the field. In recent years, line-array PA systems [see our feature on line arrays elsewhere in this issue] have become the norm, and with many fewer boxes required to do the same job as before, so I am intrigued to hear from Chris how dramatically things must have changed over the past 20 years.
"When I started out, the desks were all Midas Pro 2s or Pro 4s. On the Pro 2, the input module had presence, treble and bass. That was your EQ. There were graphic EQs and reverbs, and I remember graphics with 31 rotary pots rather than 31 faders. The PAs in those days were Martin systems: bins, horns, fillers. Theatres were the venues of those days. When arenas were used and when you had to fly PA in an arena, essentially what you had was a flat bit of wood that you stacked the bins and the horns on, you ratchet-strapped them, put a curtain round it, and flew the whole thing in the air."
I think I might have been wearing my alarmed expression at this point, and Chris quickly continues...
"It was all obviously very, very safe, but that was essentially all there was. In those days, when we used to do the festivals it was pre-flying, really. We used to have two enormous wings either side of the stage that were just scaffold with double decking. We would stack Martin double bins three wide and five high, and then do exactly the same on the tier above, so it was three wide and 10 high. The bins would couple together and act like one huge bin. In the gap between one decking and the other, where the scaffolding was, we used to put bits of cardboard and then gaffa it all up. This contraption used to reach to the top of the field! It gave you a good grounding in how things work. These days the pre-packaged setups that are delivered to you are fantastic, but they don't actually teach you anything."
With all this talk of ground-stacking front-of-house PA systems, I wondered if Chris ever considered going down the front-of-house engineering route?
"When I owned my own little PA system, I used to engineer front-of-house, and then I went to work for Entec. In those days, the band would always have a front-of-house engineer but the monitor engineer would be provided by the service company. These days there is much more parity between the two roles, but once upon a time monitor engineering was considered more a sideline. Quoting a good friend of mine, Vish Wadi, he was working for this guy who had some problems with his monitor engineer, so Vish went to do monitors for him instead. When Vish got onto the board he just went 'Oh my God, this is what I want to do!' I said 'Yeah, dead right. That's exactly how I felt!' Then I asked Vish who the bloke was and he replied, 'Oh, Bob Marley'.
"I have no interest whatsoever in doing front-of-house. I just like being on the side of the stage. We were talking earlier about hand signals [Chris is referring to an earlier conversation about how he has been known to communicate only in hand signals, even on the tour bus after a gig]. Well, it was the other day with the Sugababes in Vienna. The bass player plays the keyboard bass at one point. He was facing away from me, and signalled for me to turn it up. I turned it up and he just gave me the thumbs-up. Didn't even look at me — he just knew that I was aware. There are nine people on the stage other than him. How did he know I'd be looking at him?"
It's completely obvious from how Chris talks that he is in love with his job, and that he enjoys working so closely with the musicians on stage.
"It is a service industry. Marty Pellow (the lead singer of Wet Wet Wet) and I used to have some major arguments in the early days about monitoring. He would say 'I don't know all that 2k, 4k stuff!' and I'd reply 'that's why you're employing me — is it thin, fat, dull? You tell me what you think of it and it's my job to interpret that.' I'm glad to say we now consider each other friends. I have this policy about being good at your job. You can pull the wool really easily over your own eyes and say to yourself that you were fantastic, but when someone else says to you that it was good that night, unprompted, that's when you know you're doing your job properly."
For TOTP, Chris mixes on an Innovason SY80 digital mixing console, and uses SSE Hire's MB4 wedges with Camco Vortex amplifiers. He has been a great believer in digital mixing consoles since their early days, often choosing digital boards over analogue while touring, and he's very happy using the built-in processing of the console when running the show. In fact, the only outboard that Chris uses is a couple of external reverbs, as the Innovason does not have reverb built in. All EQ, including graphic EQ for the wedges, is built into the board.
Chris: "Now that it's live to air, the show has changed completely. Previously, we would record one band then stop, set up and record the next. Now, of course, we have to go directly from one to the next. This meant that we needed more inputs and outputs, because we don't have time to patch."
Quite how Chris can find time to fit touring in with all his other commitments is a mystery to me. Chris: "I found it hard to get time to tour, with the TV work. Because I embraced the TV thing, the longevity of that is six months of the year for five years, with festivals in the summer. For any band that's worldwide, you have to be available to be away for long periods of time, and I can't always fit that in with the television jobs, but I enjoyed TV and thought it was better for me. Twenty-two years later I'm still doing the same job — television, festivals in the summer, and some touring. There have been times when there hasn't been an awful lot of TV and I've had to go out on the road, but I really like the balance of the two. When I got bored with touring I used TV as an avenue to get out of it, but like any job you get bored and veer back the other way. I really enjoy touring now, because I can pick and choose."
As our conversation progresses, I try to steer Chris towards discussing some of his equipment preferences. I assume that he is probably using only high-end professional equipment and I'm definitely intrigued as to whether he has any special toys...
"Although I have preferences regarding gear, I do find it difficult to talk about it. It depends on who you're working for and what budget they have. I have worked for some of the top artists, but then you invest yourself in the future by working for up-and-coming bands, in smaller venues with lesser budgets, and you still have to get the same result, although you find yourself working with your second, third or fourth choice of equipment."
I get the impression that Chris would prefer to keep things simple and affordable, and that as long as the gear sits somewhere in the professional area of the market he's happy to make it work. Eventually, however, I do get him to divulge some of his favourites. First, wedge monitors...
"I was brought up on the Martin LE200s, which became the LE400s and then the LE700s, which the SSE MB4 [the wedge that Chris uses on TOTP] is based on. It's essentially a single fifteen-inch low/mid driver and a two-inch LF driver with a port. It is a very natural-sounding wedge for me, and I've travelled round and been given all sorts of homegrown wedges. Those with the fifteen-inch and two-inch drivers, with a proper-sized port, have always sounded the most natural in the low end to me.
"For monitor engineers, outboard is never as lavish as for FOH engineers. I like the Yamaha SPX series and Lexicon reverbs, sometimes a Harmoniser, BSS compressors, Drawmer Gates. EQ is generally on board on the Innovason console. If anybody asks me about any sort of miking preference, I have no preference about anything except a Shure Beta 91 on the kick drum, although I'd use an AKG C414 on a vocal if it comes to it. Generally it's the FOH engineer who tends to have the choice, but I'll always take a 91. It's a boundary layer microphone, essentially a Beta 98 if you take it apart. You put it inside a drum and it picks up what the drum is doing naturally, rather than putting a mic in front of a skin.
"I loved the Sabine Workstation 4000 during the TFI Friday days. It's a third-octave graphic equaliser and automatic notch filter, a fantastic piece of machinery. The user manual was brilliant: it told you what it did, and then how they thought you should use it, although I don't use it anymore because the digital boards do all the EQ. It took me a while to get to know it, as you don't always get to practice with pieces of new machinery. I'm now in a position within the industry where people come to me with new pieces of equipment because of my experience, and also because of the amount of acts that come through the jobs that I do. When I'm doing festivals and television I might see 10 bands in a day."
Chris' way of working is to try and keep things as straightforward as possible. If he's experiencing a problem with equipment, he's a big believer in going back to basics.
"I did a gig in Bristol where they had been struggling with their monitors. The graphic looked as though someone had fallen over and pulled the faders with them. I had a listen to the monitors and they didn't sound very good, so I flattened the graphic and listened to the boxes flat. They were bi-amped, so I asked the house engineer to turn the high end down a couple of clicks on the amp. He asked if he should do it on the crossover, but I said 'no, on the amp'. We turned the amp down a little bit and the monitors sounded a lot better; a little bit of EQ and they sounded great! When you turn a crossover down, it turns down, say, 2dB of the crossover, but then if it then goes into the amplifier and the amplifier is too big, turning the crossover down 2dB in proportion to what it's going to amplify is a meaningless action. Turn the amplifier down. Quite often especially on monitors, the amplifiers are far too loud for the high end. In places where people don't have enough experience, all that is needed is someone to take things back to basics. If you find yourself hacking away with a graphic EQ, the problem is rooted somewhere else in the chain."
There's always some debate over digital mixers in the live sound world. Most live engineers either love or hate them, with very few sitting on the fence. In the early days, reliability was the issue, while some purists even now claim that digital boards sound inferior to their analogue counterparts. Chris's position in the great debate is very clear:
"I use digital boards virtually all the time now. The only thing the analogue board has over a digital board is that most people can walk up to an analogue board and use it whether they have used it before or not. With a digital board, it's a bit like me asking you to put a document together in Microsoft Word without you having ever used the programme before. You have to be taught.
"I was chatting with Ian Barten, who was doing the Charlatans monitors at Reading Festival a year or so back, and he patted SSE's old analogue Midas XL3 and said 'you're not going to get rid of these, are you?' It made me think. I assume that SSE will get rid of them at some point, but the fact is that a board like that is a workhorse everybody knows, and it's really easy to get a sound together quickly with it. But I prefer digital because of the sheer power and the information transfer. I can sit on the train and do my patch for TOTP, go in, stick a disk in and it just fires up!"
I wondered whether Chris ever worries about the fact that a digital mixer is just a computer, and computers can always crash in the middle of a concert.
"It's an interesting question. But when someone says about a digital mixer 'it's got a mind of its own'.... No. You did something you were unaware of. You clicked something twice, the cursor was in the wrong place and you pressed the wrong button because your attention was elsewhere. When these things happen, they're normally mistakes by the operator.
"Having said that, the few times I've come across problems with digital boards haven't been during a show but during the boot-up stage, with both the Innovason and Yamaha. The Yamaha and Innovason problems were literally during the boot-up sequence. In Glasgow with the Sugababes, I booted the desk and it wasn't doing what it was supposed to do, so I just re-booted and it was absolutely fine. It's like any other computer. A show stopper? Absolutely not. When I was touring with David Gray and we took our boards around the world with us, we had this problem where a desk wouldn't boot at all because the CPU had fallen out in transit. When I arrived, the tech was looking a bit sheepish, with this board literally in bits. I told him not to worry. I'm more confident about digital boards than analogue, because wherever you are in the world you can phone someone who can come out and fix a computer. They don't have to know about sound, they just have to get a computer to work!'
"I find there's actually more safety with digital. With most of the digital boards, you can hook your laptop to them and run the show off your laptop, if it comes to it — it's like having a spare board with you. In the analogue days, all you would ever take out was a spare power supply. If someone pours water into your digital desk, you can possibly mix the show on your laptop. In the analogue days, the show would be over."
In recent years, it has become far more common for musicians to use in-ear monitoring (IEM) and I wondered if Chris had any views or tips on how to get the best out of them. I remember reading an interview with Chris when he was touring with David Gray, where he mentioned that all members of the band were using IEM except the bassist. I was intrigued as to whether this was due to input from Chris, and whether he prefers the in-ear or wedge-monitoring approach.
"That's what they were doing when I got there. I like in-ears as much as I like wedges. They are undoubtedly better for FOH engineers, as there's a lot less spill, but I can achieve that with wedges too. There's a whole in-ear/wedge confrontation with people that don't really know how to use them... I've seen people with in-ears, thumpers, subs, wedges, the lot! But with a band that use a lot of in-ears on stage, what I tend to do is just have two side-fills providing a nice wash across the stage. It adds a proper low end and richness on stage, and also acts as a backup. If someone's in-ears were to suddenly go down, they could pop them out and have something to work to immediately.
"For the Sugababes, the whole band is on in-ears and the girls are on wedges, which is the other way round from what you would normally expect. There are 50-odd channels in their setup — it's huge! Drums, bass, guitars, two keyboard players, percussionists, eight channels of electrics, and the three girls."
With such large ensembles on stage, I ask whether Chris ever worries about hearing damage, considering that he's subjected to amplified sound day in and day out.
"I think you can have it as loud as you want and it won't damage your hearing. The wrong frequencies at the wrong level is what will damage your hearing. Loud bands are great, but vicious amounts of mid-range and high-end are not good. Obviously, sound from loud bands can damage your hearing, but I believe it's more to do with frequency than volume, or too much volume of the wrong frequency."
Doing shows like Top Of The Pops and the festivals, Chris is in the fortunate position of being able to engineer a lot of bands. I asked him about the approach he takes when working with a new artist for the first time.
"I have a very specific way of doing things. If I walk into a job and ask the band how they want to do it, and they say 'you tell us', then I run riot! If they don't like it, we'll try something else. Most of the time they seem to like it. If I get a band with a very specific way of doing things, then I start off doing it exactly as they like it. If I feel I can better the situation, as time goes on I might try a few things. I might try a rear wedge for a soundcheck one day, so that I can turn a front wedge down and pull it back from the edge of feedback. They might have heard from an engineer years ago that that doesn't work, and it has put them off doing it.
"David Gray soundchecked every day for at least two hours. Madness soundchecks, on the other hand, are very short. The girls in the Sugababes never soundcheck — for their age, they are extremely experienced and very professional. I like bands that jam for soundchecks too. When they come in and rehearse a song that they messed up yesterday, you find that they're not really playing. But when they jam and they're really playing, the levels are a lot different."
It's clear that Chris' considered approach and skill in communicating with bands have played a huge part in his receiving the Monitor Engineer of the Year award, but when asked about the highlight of his career he's in no doubt whatsoever.
"The Monitor Engineer Of The Year Award was from Total Production International, a trade magazine that runs a voted award ceremony. I was very pleased to get the award, because people vote for you. But I was particularly proud of the Emmy award. I was mixing for a special Twin Towers 9/11 fundraising event, where all the money went to the emergency services and families of those who lost their lives. The part from Britain was Sting and U2 doing songs, for which I was mixing the monitors. The show received Emmy awards, and I received an Emmy for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Variety or Musical Series or Special."
It's now that I realise how much of Chris's day I've taken up, and that it's probably time to let him get back to work. Having had Chris help start me out in the live sound industry all those years back, my final question was if whether he had any advice for aspiring sound engineers trying to find their way in the live sound industry.
"I can't tell you exactly how to get into the business, but whatever break you get, no matter how big or small it is, keep it simple. Sometimes you need masses of gear because you need masses of gear, but don't get lost in technology and equipment. Remember what you are there to do: amplify the band. And don't be scared to tell them that you think it's wrong over there because it doesn't sound right over here. Sometimes that could lead to you losing your job, but you have to risk that. Something that often gets pointed out about myself is that when I speak up, people do tend to listen, because I believe in what I'm saying. If I get fired, then so be it. I've been fired twice in 20 years. If you have that confidence, of not worrying about losing your job, it gives you the freedom to be able to say what you need to say to people, and allows you to do it in the right way. Just be honest, keep it simple, and put your hand up when you're wrong!" That sounds like good advice to me.