DAVE MAUGHAN: Recording Cathryn Williams

Interview | Engineer

Published in SOS November 2000
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

Newcastle-based engineer Dave Maughan, like many SOS readers, runs a small commercial studio based in his own house — where he recorded one of the year's most acclaimed albums. Sam Inglis hears his story.

Dave Maughan has clearly suffered at the hands of some of his clients. "A lot of musicians with cheap copy guitars and a little practice amp will say 'Can you make it sound like Ritchie Blackmore?'" he sighs. "No! I can't! Because there are ways to get that sound, and if you are creating that sound, then my job is easy. If you aren't creating that sound, then fundamentally I don't stand a hope in hell of reproducing it. I've always found that to be the case. I'm a bit of a lazy bastard, really. I like my life being easy. The best records don't tend to come from people who have no idea about that side: the people who are making them are really clued in about the noises they're making themselves, and it's important to them. You can't polish a turd.

"I'll fiddle around. I just instinctively put a microphone somewhere and say 'Right, I want you to keep your double bass like it is, or keep your guitar like it is, such that that bit of it is pointing always towards that edge of the mic. I don't want you to move one way or t'other. If you can do that, that's fine. And let's see what we get.' And then, when I hear it, I think to myself 'Yes, that's how I heard it happening through there.' And that's usually my yardstick. I come back into the control room wanting it to sound a bit like I perceived it sounding in there, and if I'm getting somewhere close to that, I think I'm on the right line."

Dave's uncomplicated approach to recording has recently reached a national audience, thanks to the success of Mercury Prize-nominated folk singer Kathryn Williams' second album, Little Black Numbers. The album, which blends Williams' delicate singing and guitar with varied percussion and instruments such as cello and double bass, was entirely recorded at Dave's Face Musical Productions studio and released on Williams' own Caw record label. You may also be hearing more of Dave's own band, The Morris Quinlan Experience, whose album of dark, cinematic, spoken-word-based songs is steadily gaining in popularity and radio airplay.

Stony Grounds

The equipment used to record Williams' album — and Dave's numerous other projects — is based around a substantial Soundtracs desk, an Otari 24-track analogue machine, and a Soundscape PC editing system. This setup once formed the sound studio in Newcastle-based TV and audio production facility Stonehills; now, however, it resides in Dave's home, where a downstairs room has been converted into a control area and a garage has become a recording room.

Dave's first 'proper job' in the recording industry was as resident sound engineer at Stonehills, a position which ended with the demise of the company in 1996. When the liquidators moved in, he persuaded his bank to lend him the necessary money and made them an offer for the assets of Stonehills' sound recording business. "You know what the secret is?" he explains. "The secret is to get the bank manager to come and see you. If I'd tried to go to the bank and sit in the dull interview room that they have in banks nowadays, I don't think I could have persuaded them in a million years. I just had to say 'Listen, Mr. Bank Manager, come across here and see what it's all about.'"

For a while, Dave continued to rent the studio building itself: "There was actually quite a time lapse between Stonehills closing down, and being able to finalise a deal with the liquidator. The liquidator obviously recognised fairly early on that I was serious about it, so he allowed me to continue using it and trading with it."

Unfortunately, a combination of high rent and other circumstances meant that, eventually, he felt forced to look for alternative premises. "Stonehills was a beautiful place, it was really well put together, and it was a crying shame to see it broken up. I was trying to keep it together. The way it came about was that Gateshead council had me and five other tenants, and the five other tenants just had office space. And I was hiring a sound studio space, which was quite a big area — they calculated the rent on the basis of floor area. But they had, in addition to that, two massive TV studios, other technical areas, and a theatre area. Stonehills had had a lease on the whole building from Gateshead council. When the liquidation came, Gateshead council wanted their building back, and they were trying to let out all the individual areas, and they weren't going to — who's going to hire a television studio for 365 days a year at that sort of rate? They had a problem there, until the Christian Channel came along. They just turned up on the doorstep one day and said 'We've heard there's a studio for hire, can we have a look?'

"It was great for Gateshead council, because they could just hand the whole thing over to them, and they said to us tenants 'Right, they're your landlords now.' And it was an impossible situation. When a band turns up looking for the studio and it says 'The Christian Channel', and there's all these weird people wandering down the corridor saying 'Praise the Lord, Halleluyah', it was the butt of a few jokes.

"Gateshead were kind enough to give me a storage room on the same site, so on the day I had to be out, we got hold of a van and took the stuff 50 yards round the corner. It was a long Saturday. Fortunately, I had a lot of people helping me who knew what they were doing, and were able to take it to bits and actually make intelligent notes of how it came to bits. That in itself proved to be a very valuable exercise, because I found out an awful lot more about how it was put together than I knew all those years I was using it!"

Going Home

Worse was yet to come. Loans were still outstanding on the equipment, and jobs were still coming in, but Dave had no studio of his own in which to do them — and no luck in finding one. "There were no suitable premises. There was another building in town that had been recently vacated that had been a studio, but it was in an appalling building with a machine shop underneath it, and absolutely no work whatsoever had been done to soundproof it. A lot of what I was doing was voiceover work, and the thing about voiceover work is that you're not interested in avoiding pissing people off outside with the noise you're making, what you're very concerned about is not getting any outside noise coming in. We looked at a couple of other places that were equally unsuitable, so it was all in abeyance and I wasn't really sure what I was going to do.

"In the meantime, I was subhiring other people's studios to do jobs — I didn't want to tell my clients to go to other studios — so I was doing quite a number of jobs and making not a penny on them, because of the cost of hiring other people's studios. What I felt was important was that I didn't lose clients. But once again, especially with voice stuff, it's amazing how flawed some other places' soundproofing was.

  Dave's Drum Laws  
  "Drum sounds and drummers: how good they are is inversely proportional to the size of their drumkit. Without fail," insists Dave Maughan. "You get someone who comes in with a double bass drum, double hi-hat, 12 tom-toms, and the guy's a shit drummer, and his drumkit sounds shit. You get some guy who comes in with a tiny little bass drum, it's almost like a toy drum kit, and it sounds great. Alex Tustin, who plays on Kath's album, he's got a really small drum kit that sounds beautiful, but it's tiny, it's physically tiny. It's like a kid's drum kit. I'm afraid this is not really what people reading the magazine probably want to hear but, when the artist knows about stuff like that, it's just a dream, because your job's been done for you. When he doesn't, it's just a nightmare, because you're having to fight against the odds, you're in a no-win situation.

"I hate drums that sound like 'booom', those sort of toms. I like drums that sound like a drum kit. When you go into a room and there's a guy playing the drums, that's how I think drums should sound. I took a bit of inspiration for this from Radiohead's OK Computer album — there's bits on that where the drums are literally a point source, with no stereo in the drums whatsoever. I love that. If you stand at the back of a gig, you don't here that tom come from over there and that tom come from over there.

"I go for small drum sounds. I'll always start with a bass drum mic and a snare drum mic and a pair of overheads, and if I can get away with that, so much the better. If it needs a bit more, then I'll start putting a bit more in. But I'll never start with a 12-mic setup, I'll always start small and if it needs it it'll become more elaborate."

 

"The next stage happened very quickly and quite spontaneously. My pal Richard was here, and we were talking about how to keep it going. And he said 'Well, where's the quietest bit of your house?' So we went round the house room by room. The front room was pretty noisy because of the traffic, but this room was for some reason really quiet even with the traffic. So we came up with this idea that if we got some secondary double-glazing, we could completely close the window in, and that would keep the noise level down. So we worked out what we needed and went to Wickes and bought all the double-glazing units. I must've spent about £150 and it took us three days to do. We used lots of No-Nails, the squirty glue stuff, and the results were just staggering.

"I'd already brought my Soundscape system back from the storage warehouse, and I decided to lay a multicore cable under the floor to the front room. I had the trolley with the Soundscape set up and one of the racks, the one with wheels on, and I decided I needed to get a small mixer, so I got this little baby Soundcraft. And the idea was that I kept it in here, and when I wanted to record stuff, I wheeled it into the front room and set it up, and recorded in here with the door shut. And it was fine, it was quiet. Bingo! I could now do a whole bit of what I was doing at Stonehills at home, and I didn't have to be paying for another studio, so that was good.

"It continued like that for a little while, but it was getting to be a pain in the arse, because if I had a job coming in it would take an hour to get all this through there and patched up and working, and to put the monitors on their stands and whatever. So I wanted some way of setting it up that meant I didn't have to move it all every time.

"We looked at the garage, and we looked at the roof — there's a massive roof space in this house that hasn't been converted, but you don't particularly want people to be traipsing past your bedrooms and stuff, so we decided that it had to stay on the ground floor. The sensible alternative was to look at the garage. We hired some builders, and we spent about five grand in total doing it, but within about eight weeks or so from deciding to do it, we had a workable studio.

"We haven't used the whole garage area — there's still a lobby as you go in. There's two reasons for that. We wanted to put the inner wall in such a place that it turned the room into one of Paul White's 'optimum dimensions' — I know he's intending rooms to be larger than that, but it does match one of his optimum dimensions. I've actually used his book [Creative Recording III: Acoustics, Soundproofing and Monitoring] quite a lot for that. And also it gives the soundproofing as well, because ultimately the weak point is the door. We've got now two very thick, extremely heavy fire doors. Those fire doors are bloody cheap, they were under 100 quid each, and they cut them to size for you and put the beading round. When you've got the two doors shut, that's deadly silence. We've got five layers of glass in the window — two double-glazing units and an angled single pane. It's not perfect, because they say you should always use different thicknesses of glass for everything, but we did manage to get a different thickness double-glazing unit on the inside to the outside, and then a different thickness glass again for the slanted sheet in the middle."

  FMP Gear List  
  Dave Maughan is in no doubt as to what he considers the most important item of equipment in his studio: his Dobermann dog, Leo. "Our single most important asset," he insists. "More studios should have animals, because they are invaluable for de-stressing clients, putting them at ease, and helping them overcome 'red light syndrome'. Leo also doubles as head of security."

RECORDING

• Soundtracs CP6800 32:12:2 split console (automation discarded).

"There are six auxes, and also the monitor channels double as extra inputs on mixdown, so you can get 56 inputs on mixdown."

• Soundcraft Spirit Folio SX mixer.
• Otari MX80 2-inch 24-track plus CB140 remote.
• Otari MTR12 quarter-inch tape machine.
• Soundscape SSHDR1 hard disk recorders (x2).

"One of these about to be replaced with a Soundscape R•Ed system."

• Pentium 166MHz PC.
• Sony DTC77ES DAT machine.

"This is permanently hooked on to the S/PDIF output of one of the Soundscapes, so I never record via the Sony's converters. It's a four-head/four-motor machine, and the most reliable DAT machine I've ever known — touch wood!"

• Sony F1/PCM701 Betamax-based digital audio recorder.
• Yamaha CDR400AT CD writer.
• Genelec S30C monitors
• Neumann, AKG, Beyer, Sennheiser, Shure, and Reslo mics.

OUTBOARD

• Single-channel 'Max Bygraves' valve compressor.

"That was given to me by a guy called Roy Hartnell, who used to own a studio in Newcastle called Morton Sound during the '60s. He became a friend of mine a few years ago, and he said to me 'Oh, I've got this old valve compressor in the roof, do you want it?' It was custom-built from a circuit diagram published in one of the American mid-'60s recording industry magazines, and to the best of my knowledge it's a clone of something American. It was dubbed the Max Bygraves compressor because apparently Max Bygraves came to Morton Sound one time and recorded something. It has a softness about it which is nice. It's easy to overdrive it, and it doesn't compress very hard, so if you're trying to use it to compress too great a dynamic range it can be struggling, but when you've got the right situation it can be beautiful."

• Custom-built dual-channel copy of the above.

"That one there is actually a copy of the Max Bygraves, two-channelified, which I had made for me by my brother's company The Sound Clinic. So that's a prototype of a valve compressor that my brother's company is actually looking at developing. I've always been telling him 'I want a Fairchild. Can you make me a Fairchild?'"

• Urei 1178 dual-channel compressor.
• Drawmer DL221 dual-channel compressors (x2).
• Lexicon PCM70 digital reverb.
• Ibanez SDR1000 true-stereo digital reverb.

"It's actually a Sony thing badged. It's quite good for a lot of things, but it takes more setting up and the presets always sound better when you've fiddled with them — whereas on the Lexicon I like the presets."

• Yamaha SPX900 multi-effects.
• Bel BD80S true-stereo digital delay.
• TC Electronic TC1140 parametric equaliser/preamp.
• Orban 536A sibilance controller.
• Studio Technologies AN1 stereo simulator.

INSTRUMENTS & MIDI

• Gibson SG Deluxe guitar.
• Hammond C3 organ with Leslie 122R.
• Leslie 145 speaker.
• Yamaha Clavinova CLP50 digital piano.
• Award Sessionmaster preamp/amp simulator.
• Mesa Boogie V-Twin valve guitar preamp/amp simulator.
• Atari 1040STFM running Cubase.
• Casio FZ1 sampler, used as master keyboard.
• Emu Proteus 1 Pop/Rock module.
• Emu Proteus 2 Orchestral module.
• Emu Proformance Plus piano module.
• Yamaha TG77 sound module.
• Alesis D4 drum module.
• XRI Systems XR300 MTC synchroniser.

 

Monitoring Quality

Dave sets great store by the quality of his speakers: "One of the most important things I've got here is the Genelecs. They're S30Cs, tri-amped actives with ribbon tweeters. They were originally designed for broadcast post-production studios and even post-production trucks. They're nearfield monitors for use in awkward places, and they are bloody brilliant. I can actually put my hand on my heart and say I've never got a mix wrong with the bottom end or anything like that since getting those. Originally we had a pair of Tannoy Reds in the control room at Stonehills and I just couldn't work with them. For whatever reason, I just could not make sense of them, so we knew we needed new monitors, and I persuaded the powers that be that we needed to look at them, and we tried a number of things. We had a situation where we had a lot of monitors in side-by-side for about a fortnight so we could swap between the two, and every time you switched off the Genelecs, it was impossible to work with anything else for more than about 10 seconds, you'd always want to be back on them. The decision just made itself. For working in this sort of room, they are just the best.

  Cutting Out The MIDI Man  
  "My philosophy on MIDI is this: I've got an old Atari with Cubase. And it's in a cupboard. And when people come in and say 'Have you got an Atari?', I think 'Oh, God.' I don't know why anyone bothers with MIDI.

"We used a certain amount of MIDI when we were writing the Morris Quinlan album — tracks like oboes were all put down as guide parts. We're in this happy position where we know quite a lot of people in the Northern Symphonia, and we just said 'What are you doing tomorrow? You don't fancy coming and playing some oboe for us, do you?' And we replaced everything with real stuff. And the difference — I've still got CDs kicking around of mixes with the guide parts on, and the difference when you compare it to the final thing with like a real trumpet on is so great.

"That is totally and utterly my philosophy on MIDI. Stick it in the f•••ing skip. I mean Proteuses have got their place, but that's not on finished records, for my money. They always sound dull compared to something that's a real instrument. Dynamics, that's what it lacks — on a MIDI keyboard there's 127 different ways of hitting it, but on a piano there's an infinite number of different ways of hitting it."

 
"I have the desk that I'm working with at 90 degrees to the monitoring. A lot of people have commented on this, but when you've actually got used to working like this, there's something good about it. It's the same thing that if you take a mix home and listen to it on your hi-fi, you're somehow loads more objective about it. It's that process of resetting the brain between actually doing it and listening to it. There is something about moving away from the desk that makes you more objective about what you're hearing. I know that sounds daft, but it actually does work. It's a strange thing, but you're suddenly off duty when you back away from the desk, and that's impossible to put into words unless you've been there.

"One of the things that's quite inspired me was Paul White talking about monitoring and monitoring rooms, and the idea that there is no such thing as the British standard living room, the ideal place to listen in. I kind of played on this idea a bit when I first took over running Stonehills. It was a dull, dull room, and I actually had the idea of making a false fireplace on the wall — I really liked the idea of recording in your British standard living room where it actually gets listened to. It seemed like the ideal start and finish to the programme chain.

"I like the idea of being able to use different rooms in the house, and I have wiring in for that reason. There's a nice atmosphere playing in the living room compared to being in a dull, uninteresting room. For me, the best records have rooms in them — you can actually hear the room, and hear that it was recorded with a stereo mic."

Kathryn Williams

Much of Dave's work is still voiceovers, editing projects and recordings for local artists; and it was with one of the latter that he's had his greatest success. Newcastle-based singer Kathryn Williams was, at the time, just another booking for FMP: "She talks quite a lot in the press about how her first album cost her 80 quid to record. I am that bastard who charged her that 80 quid. She managed to blag a lot of the other recording time, and a lot of different sessions were pulled together for the one album. I first worked on two songs with her at Stonehills. She was being managed at the time by a guy I'd worked with on a number of other things, and he brought her along one day, and said 'Here's a girl I saw doing a gig last night, she's dead good, we're going to come in and record a couple of songs she wants to do.' And that was it. We recorded about half a dozen songs, two of which ended up on her first album Dog Leap Stairs. It was done very quickly.

"I didn't hear from her after that until they wanted to put an EP out in the summer of last year, and they decided they wanted to put a couple of extra numbers on that and they came here to record them. We actually recorded another version of a song that's on the first album, but we recorded it as a live take, just down to stereo."

The perennial problem for any engineer recording a singing guitarist is getting enough separation between vocal and guitar. "It's harder to do that in a studio," explains Dave. "In a live situation people stand, and the vocal mic and the guitar mic are physically further apart. For some reason, you always have them sitting in the studio, they always expect to sit, and the mics are that much closer together, so there are problems. I have experimented with little screens attached to the mic stand — if you've got a guitar mic at waist level, I'll have the equivalent of a studio screen fixed to another mic stand boom above that mic, so it's hiding it from the other one. That can make quite a lot of difference."

  Compiling And Editing In Soundscape  
  Dave is clearly a big fan of the Soundscape system, and finds it invaluable not only for compiling and editing takes, but for putting together complete mixes from sections. "The thing about Soundscape is that you can always mix tracks in bits, because it's all hooked up to timecode, so it's always in the right place. You don't even worry about all the muting — I used to tear my hair out trying to get the beginnings quiet. If you got nine-tenths of the way through a mix on a song and you buggered it up, that was it, you had to go back to the beginning and start again. With the Soundscape, you can do an overall good pass on the mix, and then you say 'Right, we want another go on the front without that channel, that channel, and that channel, because we don't need them.' And then you can just cut the two mixes together. If you choose either a convenient hard consonant in the voice, or any sort of transient, it'll mask the cut.

"If you have to be clever about it, the secret is that you have to switch De-glitch off. Soundscape's got this overall automatic De-glitch algorithm which, for most things, removes any clicks that happen when you have bad edits. But when you are aiming to have a very good edit, it actually introduces an artifact rather than removes one when you're going for very accurate editing. An example is when you've got someone singing a long note and their pitch wavers. You can't actually make it dynamically pitch-change in Soundscape; you're always stuck with taking a bit and making it go up or down, but you can often get very close by chopping it up and pitch-changing individual bits. Now if you do that with De-glitch on, what you get is half-a-dozen clicks in it — but if you turn that off and go to waveform level and match each one up, it's perfect.

"Whatever I'm doing, there's an awful lot of stuff flying back and forwards between Soundscape and tracks of the tape. If you take a four-minute long song with an average amount of lyrics, it's a 20-minute job to just go through and cut round them and mute those bits and then put them back onto tape or whatever. And it's because of working like that that I'm interested in Soundscape's R•Ed system, the idea of actually being able to use R•Ed as a tape recorder. I'd still keep the analogue desk, so it means it'll be an expensive setup, because I need all their proper balanced I/O, and I need 24 channels."

 

Black Number's Up

Kathryn Williams' second album, Little Black Numbers, was entirely recorded and mixed at FMP. It's a refreshingly live-sounding affair, notable for a 'warts and all' approach to recording vocals and acoustic instruments which leaves obvious artifacts such as lip noises and fret sounds in the mix. This, explains Dave, is simply an accurate representation of Williams' music: "She is a very quiet person. Her actual vocal level is very quiet compared to a lot of people, so with respect to the volume of her actual singing, her lip noises and stuff are quite high, and inevitably, if you've got a compressor on there, it accentuates them even more. Now people are used to hearing those things removed and indeed, a lot of the singers I work with would be horrified at hearing those kind of artifacts — so I'm as used to leaving them in for Kath as I am to taking them out for other people"

Dave's attitude — that it's up to the performer to make the sound they want, and the engineer's job is simply to capture that sound — is also responsible for the twangs and snaps that add life to the double bass and other acoustic instruments on the album. "I've learned a lot about double basses over the last year or so, because there seems to be a resurgence of people wanting to use double basses and cellos and things. Sometimes the slaps and the rattles are as much part of the sound as the notes — in certain types of music, the double bass is doing as much as the drum kit, and then on other occasions you don't want any of that. But mostly it's down to people knowing what they're doing and having the right instrument. There are some double basses that are good for being played as a 'twang, plunk, plunk' sort of bass, and there are some that are good for being bowed as an orchestral instrument, and they tend not to do both jobs."

Little Black Numbers was mixed at FMP by producer Head, also known for his work with Therapy? and PJ Harvey: "I took more of a back seat in the mixing — I just looked after the Soundscape," explains Dave. "Head was up here for six days. There's 12 tracks, so on average that's two tracks a day. He brought one little ancillary piece of gear with him, which was an Alesis Microverb, which he reckoned had his all-time favourite plate sound on it. It was good to have. It's always quite nice when people bring an extra bit of gear along, because it just adds something that you weren't expecting."

The Big Time?

Every town has its Dave Maughans — recording engineers with a small but professional home facility, struggling to pick up business ranging from local bands to corporate videos and voiceovers — and most of them must dream that one day they'll have a project that will achieve the national profile gained by Kathryn Williams. The success of Little Black Numbers has, as Dave acknowledges, done his business no harm — but it hasn't changed his life. He can now afford to turn down some of the worst jobs, but at the end of the day, while other producers will be using state-of-the-art residential facilities, he'll still be recording music in his garage. And it's a good reflection on Dave's skills and his setup that from the end result, you can't tell the difference...

You can find Dave Maughan on the Web at www.davemaughan.co.uk and www.morrisquinlan.com.

  Analysing The Mastering Process  
  "I was interested in what the mastering process did to Kath's album. There's a lot that you can use Soundscape for analytically as well as actually doing recording. One of the best things is that if you know the music's stayed in the digital domain since it left here, you know sample-for-sample it hasn't changed lengthwise, so you know that if you take the track in off the commercial end result CD, and you've got a CD-R of the mixes as they were when they left here, you can actually line them up perfectly side-by-side, sample by sample and compare them, switch between them, hear what changes — and, of course, most interestingly, phase-reverse one of them and add them together. The thing that please me the most about it was that the mastering processors left the bottom end untouched. When you phase-reverse them, the bottom end simply disappears, which means they've left it untouched. What the mastering process has done is that it's lifted a lump in the mid region, which lifts out the vocal a bit more than we had it, and also accentuates the reverb tails."  

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Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Producer Jack Douglas

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Their latest album saw Aerosmith return to their roots, with Jack Douglas in the producer’s chair. But it wasn’t all retro...

Beyond The Grave

Janus: Gravedigger Then And Now

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Signed to Harvest, Janus made one album — and hated the way it sounded. Four decades later, they finally got the chance to mix it properly...

Shahid ‘Naughty Boy’ Khan

Producing Emeli Sandé

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Shahid Khan has gone from pizza delivery man to in-demand producer — with a little help from Noel Edmonds.

Inside Track: Mixing the Led Zeppelin Reunion

Alan Moulder | Secrets Of The Mix Engineers

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The film of Led Zeppelin’s reunion concert was five years in the making — yet Alan Moulder had only three weeks to mix the entire soundtrack!

Peter Cobbin & Kirsty Whalley

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: 2012 London Olympics

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Underpinning the biggest spectacle of 2012 London Olympic Games was probably the largest multitrack recording ever made. Just how do you mix a thousand-track project?

Mike Stevens

Musical Director For The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert

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Mike Stevens has worked with some of the world’s biggest pop acts at countless high-profile live events, including the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee concert.

 

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