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Christian Cowlin - FOH & Sound Engineer for The Wailers

Christian Cowlin – FOH & Sound Engineer for The Wailers

Q: Can you tell us about your background and experience in the music industry?

A: From a young age, I was determined to be a part of the music industry in one way or another. I started learning the guitar at age 14, which was the first step in being able to compose and bring my musical ideas to life. At 16, I started my first reggae band with Delroy “Roots” Ogilvie, lead singer of Black Roots. However, after four years, I decided to quit playing music and focus on learning more about the production side of things. Over the next few years, I taught myself the basics of sound engineering, as I did not attend college to learn these skills. I managed to land a job as resident house engineer in a club, where I was exposed to a variety of shows passing through every week, including one featuring THE WAILERS. This proved to be the most crucial meeting in my career, as shortly after the show, I was called to join The Wailers on their European tour, working in various capacities from May 2000 till 2011, including as a keyboard player, production manager, sound engineer, and tour manager.

Afterwards, I spent the next six years touring with rock and roll legend Joe Brown as FOH engineer and tour manager alongside The Wailers. Over the years, I have worked with many artists in various roles, including playing, engineering, and tour managing with the likes of Vivian Jones, Aswad, Norris Man, Gloria Gaynor, Boy George, Henry Gross, and more.

Q: How did you first become interested in front of house and sound engineering?

A: After failing as a musician…

Q: Can you walk us through your typical setup process for a live show?

A: Generally, we load the equipment into the venue for the day, inspect the house equipment, and formulate a plan for a slick, stress-free show. We only carry a very light production and backline, so we don’t have major load-ins. Once we have everything set up and wired, we run through every line to make sure there are no faults. Then, we will either do a full band soundcheck or just a crew line check. As The Wailers crew, Matt (Stage Manager), Anthony (Monitor Engineer), and I are more than capable of getting the mixes and set up on point for the band to be able to walk up, plug in, and go without any issues.

Q: How do you approach balancing the different instruments and vocals in a live mix?

A: For me, it’s not a matter of approaching the balance of instruments and vocals, but rather feeling it and hearing it. It’s second nature to me, especially with The Wailers’ sound, as I have listened to this music from a very young age.

Q: Can you give an example of a particularly challenging mix you had to solve during a show and how you approached it?

A: I could probably give loads of examples of challenging shows due to poor acoustics in certain venues around the world, but that’s exactly what I’m here for – to problem-solve and ensure that the band sounds as good as the environment allows. I’ve encountered everything from microphone failures (which are usually an easy fix) to more serious issues such as digital console failures mid-show. One example that comes to mind is when an Avid SC48 console stopped responding halfway through a set. I quickly established that I still had control on-screen, so I had to mix the rest of the show using only the left hand of the console faders and the right hand controlled via the mouse and screen. It was definitely an interesting experience!

Q: How do you communicate with the band and other technical staff during a show to ensure the best possible sound?

A: We openly address any potential issues or concerns during set-up so that we’re all on the same page. During the show, I don’t communicate with the band unless there’s a technical issue that needs to be addressed. In that case, I’ll generally communicate with my crew onstage via house comms or Whatsapp to ensure that any issues are resolved quickly and smoothly.

Q: How do you stay up to date with new technologies and techniques in the field?

A: I try to keep up to date by consuming a lot of online content, although I rarely get the chance to test new tech out before actually being presented with it on a show. If I know a new piece of technology is coming up, I’ll generally research it beforehand or learn quickly on the day.

Q: Can you discuss a time when you had to troubleshoot technical difficulties during a live show?

A: Technical difficulties are fairly common during live shows, and the most common issues we encounter are usually digital console failures or frozen systems. While we always hope for the best, in extreme situations we may have to stop the show briefly to reboot systems. Another common issue is XLR cables becoming faulty, which is usually a quick and easy fix.

Q: How do you prepare for and adapt to different performance venues and acoustics?

A: Before approaching a new venue, I usually make some adjustments to our show files for the audio consoles. Anthony and I have files for every console out there. However, acoustic issues are usually addressed on a day-to-day basis, since we can only do so much in a space with massive amounts of amplified sound.

Q: Can you discuss your experience with different sound reinforcement systems and which ones you prefer to work with?

A: Although I have worked with a wide range of sound reinforcement systems, I have to give a shoutout to D.A.S Audio for their amazing sound system at Rototom Sunsplash in Spain. It was clean, heavy, and simply the best. For larger format festivals, I prefer working with systems like L’Acoustics K1.

Q: Can you talk about your experience working with in-ear monitoring systems?

A: With The Wailers, Anthony handles that end of the multicore, I didn’t have much experience with in-ear monitoring systems. However, on the Joe Brown tour, I had the opportunity to work with them extensively and loved them. With enough time and pre-production, you can dial them in like a record for each musician and singer. They are phenomenal and make for a very clean stage, which in turn gives a very clean overall mix for the fans out front.

Q: How do you handle feedback from the audience or the artists during a show?

A: I don’t usually encounter feedback issues, but if it ever becomes a problem, I simply target and reduce the frequency.

Q: Can you discuss your experience with incorporating different effects and processing into a live mix?

A: For reggae music, incorporating different effects and processing into a live mix comes down to knowing and feeling the music. For FX, I usually have a basic structure of four reverbs and four delays. Reverb 1 is for my static snare reverb, while Reverb 2 is my sweep reverb for the snare for the dubs. Reverb 3 is used for guitars and keyboards, and Reverb 4 is for vocals. Delay 1 is for snare dubs, Delay 2 is a tap time delay on vocals, Delay 3 is a slapback delay for vocal texture, and Delay 4 is used as a grab delay for dubs, mainly on vocals, but sometimes on a guitar or keyboard hit.

Q: Can you talk about your experience with integrating digital mixing consoles into live shows?

A: This was nearly the end of my career in mixing when digital became the dominant platform, especially for fast access dub mixing. I had to completely rethink my approach, and there are still some consoles where I can’t do everything I need to. However, I now prefer digital because I can be show-ready in minutes with my USB files.

Q: How do you maintain and care for your equipment to ensure reliability during live shows?

A: Matt is very diligent about keeping our stage equipment in good working order. With all the travel we do, our gear often gets rattled around in trailers and cargo systems, so we have to stay on top of tightening screws and other maintenance tasks.

Q: Can you talk about your experience with recording live shows and the steps you take to ensure high-quality recordings?

A: When I record a live show as a two-track, it’s purely a reference for me or any band members to listen back to and hear certain things. I don’t pay much attention to what goes to tape; my main focus is making sure the audience has a great experience.

Q: How do you approach creating a sound check before a show and ensuring the sound system is optimized for the performance?

A: We rarely have to do a soundcheck. Anthony, Matt, and I all know what we need to do, and we tune the systems and check everything beforehand. Then we just get up there and play.

Q: Can you discuss your experience working with different microphone types and techniques for capturing sound during live shows?

A: I’ve gone through many mic preferences over the years, but currently, I mainly use sE Electronics for my drum and guitar mics, and Sennheiser e945 for vocals. I don’t have any special mic placement techniques, but I am particular about where I place the Aston Snare mic to capture the balance of open snare and cross stick (rim shot).

Q: Can you talk about a time when you had to make on-the-fly adjustments to the mix during a show?

A: That’s just standard. Things can change, especially guitar and keyboard levels, so sometimes you have to make adjustments on a song-to-song basis.

Q: Can you discuss your experience with live sound reinforcement for different musical genres?

A: Regardless of the genre, I approach every mix the same way (excluding the FX). Of course, certain genres may require different sub reinforcement than others (e.g. a rock and roll band vs. a reggae band).

Q: How do you work with lighting technicians to create a cohesive audio-visual experience for the audience?

A: Personally, I don’t work directly with the lighting technicians. Matt will handle any notes before the soundcheck and make sure they know which spots to light, etc.

Q: Can you talk about a particularly memorable show or tour you have worked on and what made it special?

A: To be honest, every tour with The Wailers from day one has been memorable. I’ve had the opportunity to play at bucket-list venues and work with incredible musicians. It’s been an epic journey.

Q: How do you handle stressful or high-pressure situations during live shows?

A: With grace and dignity. Over the years, I’ve learned that screaming and shouting doesn’t make things happen faster. Every situation is unique, and we try to deal with it professionally and promptly.

Q: How do you handle sound checks and live shows with multiple acts and time constraints?

A: We do what we can with the time allotted. Obviously, there is a minimum amount of time required to throw a show onstage. As long as we have time to pre-build backline and pre-mic for our show on a multi-band lineup, we’re usually good to go in 10-20 minutes. We also meticulously plan for these situations to ensure smooth band transitions with everyone on the same page.

Q: On top of being the FOH/Sound Engineer for The Wailers, you also sometimes fill the void as the keyboard player for the band. Does that happen often? How did that come about? Did someone from The Wailers teach you all the songs while on the road?

A: It doesn’t happen often, but it started back in 2003 when a keyboard player left a tour abruptly. Familyman asked me if I could play and taught me the chord shapes on a toy keyboard during a bus ride through France. I played the rest of the tour, then went home and bought a keyboard to learn more Bob Marley songs. Since then, I’ve filled in on keys at various times when needed.

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