Buford Jones is an award winning audio engineer from Texas. For the past 37 years he has been sound mixing live shows for some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry- David Bowie, Pink Floyd, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Prince to name a few. He has also worked at the famous Abbey Road recording studios in London. He was at The Banff Centre recently as guest faculty for the Meyer Sound Workshop. I asked him about the tricks of the trade.
What is the difference between being a studio sound mixer and a live sound mixer?
In the studio you’re in a controlled environment but on a live stage the acoustical environment is constantly changing. One day it can be very difficult to make things sound good and on another day it’s quite easy. That alone is a major challenge but it’s something you learn to cope with.
When some studio mixers go on the road they find it very disruptive not to have the sounds the way they are used to. The other thing with touring is that you only get one shot to get the sound right, but in the studio you rewind, go back and clean things up and keep cycling through it until we get it right. On the road it’s much more challenging. You get to do sound checks but on the road you’re lucky if you even get one sound check to prepare yourself for what’s going to happen in a live show.
David Bowie, Prince, Pink Floyd, Don Henley – you’ve worked with some big names. Who has been the most enjoyable artist to work with?
Linda Ronstadt. There are so many things I learned from that experience back in the 70’s. We first started working together in 1975 and through to 1980 when she toured. It was a step up for me and I was really learning a lot. I was still young and when I look back I think that’s where my whole career shaped itself.
How much time have you spent on the road?
After 37 solid years of touring I can think of only a three-month period not being on the road. For the first 10 years I think I was averaging nine months on the road, as things settled down it went down to maybe eight months and now I’d day I go on the road about three months of the year. It’s still enough travel enough to fill up five passports.
What keeps you going?
There’s something so special about doing a live show for 800 – 800,000 people; when all the elements come together it’s just priceless. You can’t describe it to family and friends you just have to be there. What keeps us driving is the inconsistency of it all because you’re always trying to get that amazing moment back. That’s the drive that keeps you going. I tried other areas of work but just keep coming back to the touring thing.
Can a live performance be greatly enhanced by the work of a sound engineer?
There’s some things that we can add to, to sweeten the cake, but I think when we overdo that we are taking away from the originality of it all. I remember in the mid 70’s I arrived in New York city and a cab driver asked me what I was doing in town and I told him I was in the live concert touring business, that I mix sound. And that I was mixing sound at that time for Linda Ronstadt. And he said, ‘ah,she bakes the cake and you serve it’. I’ve used that analogy ever since. In fact if I ever write a book that will be the name of it: ‘They Bake the Cake and I Serve It’.
Were there ever any major disasters during a live concert?
I don’t remember any show that didn’t come off on schedule but I do remember one show with David Bowie in France where the transformer ignited during the show and started a fireworks display. People in the audience just thought it was part of the show and started to cheer it on which was funny because it was actually a catastrophe.
What are the most important personal characteristics associated with being a live mixer?
A love for music is the number one. All the technical aspects are extremely important to understand and how to manipulate the equipment but it goes so way beyond that. I think that if you have a musical background it helps. I look at the musical console as an instrument. It’s your own way of playing a musical instrument. When you have that desire to play music and you collaborate with the artist you almost become like a band member. You have to understand musically what they are thinking and what they require. When you find that musical slot and you fit into it that’s when the true magic comes out.