Justin Grealy: An introduction to API’s brand new columnist

Way back in the early Jurassic era of audio evolution, when Punk was a snot-nosed kid with adjustment problems and the flowery chemise of the New Romantics was still locked in Granny’s wardrobe, somewhere near the ancient City of Nottingham, there was a dodgy little PA company whose name has long since been consigned to the shredder of posterity.

However humble these beginnings (and humble they certainly were!) this small pile of secondhand audio lego was mine and right from the start was my love and inspiration. This is where the problem (I thought absence made the heart grow fonder!) with girlfriends started too. Coincidence? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

A little PA, or any PA for that matter, can be a cruel mistress (all PA systems are feminine, surely!) and ‘twas no exception for me. As I knew very little technically at the outset I quickly had to assimilate a host of different skills and techniques, including reconing speakers, replacing and building passive crossovers, fixing amplifiers, building and maintaining cabinets and all manner of maintenance. Much of this early experience has been invaluable to me during my 30-year “career” as a sound engineer.

It was in the early 1980s I suppose, when it first dawned on me that it might be feasible to make a living from sound engineering. Life was pretty grim for most of Britain in the early 80s. Memories of power cuts and the three day week were still painful as we watched Thatcher and Scargill square up for a fight to the death, unemployment and inflation were rife and the economic forecast grim. A perfect environment for post punk disenchantment to crystallise into noisy little bands for the suspicious and unpredictable subversive youth to champion by way of attending ’orrible little gigs in the dingy back bars of unfashionable pubs and clubs.

Being the custodian of some loudspeakers and amplifiers that nominally belonged to a local theatre company, I quickly became a popular guest at such events. Provided, of course, that I brought along my lovely Rogers monitors, as they made a great little vocal PA. Actually they didn’t, the tweeters weren’t up to the job so an endless stream of blown drivers and crossover components ensued. However, the loafers, punks and other ne’er do wells of the Musical Parish seemed keen enough to keep doing gigs, so slowly but surely I built up enough gear to run a decent little almost professional PA system. I’d conservatively guess that from 1981 to ’84 I did at least 500 gigs, as well as several little tours. In the early days it was pubs, village halls, the back rooms of working men’s clubs and the like around the Nottinghamshire area, but I soon graduated to college and university shows, as well as some proper music venues all over the country. I even did some London shows. I particularly remember The Clarendon Ballroom (as was) on Hammersmith Broadway, ULU, The Boston Arms…. Happy days….

So there I was, quite happy, running a little PA company. It was about this time that I was first approached by a band who needed a sound engineer to work for them full time. It took no time at all to make that decision! What? You want to pay me loads of money for turning up and mixing the show while other people put the PA up and plug it in? Hmmm, let me think…Thus started my career as a live sound engineer. It wasn’t long before I had a great idea. Flog all the gear, pay the debts and hot foot it to London. So, in early ’85, clutching a space echo and a collection of cheap secondhand microphones, I boarded to train to oblivion, stopping at Leicester, Peterborough, Northampton and the rest of my life. So there it is, a potted history of my life as a sound engineer (part one).

The only significant addenda is that since June 2009, I have become a teacher of live audio, for Alchemea College in Islington. This has caused me to re-evaluate many of my opinions as well as to realise that in order to teach anyone anything one must fully understand it oneself; not just think you do.

In this column, I’m going to be discussing – well, going on about- various issues pertinent to the industry today. Being of the elder generation and ever so slightly opinionated, I have plenty to say on almost all subjects pertaining to the music business. Next time, I’m going to have a stab at the neverending digital versus analogue debate. Thought I’d start with a biggie!

To contact Justin, please contact darryn@soulsound.co.uk in the first instance.