You may not recognize Dave Williams but chances are, your ears are familiar with his work. This Australian native has been touring with La Dispute for the past three years and has also worked with Title Fight, Deer Tick, Balance & Composure, Defater, Touché Amoré, Pianos Become The Teeth and just about every other important band in the punk underground.
What makes Williams special is the fact that he uses a piece of studio equipment called the Universal Audio Apollo in live situations. While it's not specifically designed in this use (especially in the large venues he's in with La Dispute), its key strengths are the extreme portability and the fact that the built-in digital plug-ins give him far more flexibility than analog boards. It's basically like having studio sound, regardless of how shitty the club is.
We caught up with Williams to talk about how the Universal Audio Apollo works, how it holds up on the road, and what the future holds for live sound. If you don't believe us, check out La Dispute live this spring on their headlining tour supporting their new record, Rooms Of The House this spring. Your ears will thank you.
Noisey: Could you talk a little bit about the Universal Audio Apollo and what exactly it does in non-audiophile speak?
Dave Williams: The Apollo is a piece of gear that in short allows me to manipulate eight channels of audio, and make each channel sound better than before it came in. It’s generally found in recording studios or people’s home studios; I’m not sure of anyone else who uses it like I do. The creators at Universal Audio are particularly great at making plug-ins (the part that enhances the audio) that accurately model the sound of vintage recording gear and the Apollo provides the platform where this can be done in a live environment. In the same way that I can twist a knob on a mixing board to make a guitar sound better at a live show, I can twist the virtual “knobs” in the Apollo to make that guitar sound like its going through a recording console from the seventies or vintage compressor from the sixties.
What made you decide to start using it in the live setting?
The first time I took the Apollo on tour was late last year. The band I was working with used a lot of different reverbs and delays on their record which really enhance what they're dong musically, so trying to replicate this in a live setting would be challenging to say the least. After a little research, I realized the best way to add this vibe to the show would be to use my Apollo. It would allow me to pre-program a bunch of reverbs and delays that I could switch out during the show pretty easily.
I was a little hesitant at first because I don’t know anyone else doing this, but the worst case if it failed would only be dealing with some effects going down which isn't a show-stopper. After seeing how reliable it had been I had no hesitation taking it out on tour with Deer Tick. It was super reliable, gave me great consistent sounds and helped cut down on soundcheck time. This is great news with a band like Deer Tick who have a 32-channel input list and you're loading in a heap of keyboards, a Hammond organ and Leslie speaker every show.
What are advantages of the Apollo versus a typical live sound set-up?
The most important part of live sound is being able to make a band's performance translate to the audience in the room. To me, a big part of this means taking out as many variables in each show as possible so I can focus on the music. In the same way a band takes their own drum kit and amps everywhere, I like taking my own mics and processors to keep everything in check. The Apollo has helped reduce my effect rack from something that needed two people to lift it above shoulder height safely, to taking only one analog compressor (Empirical Labs Distressor) and the Apollo, so my set up is compact and can fly with me to Europe and Australia.
I learned how to make records in a studio that had a beautiful Neve analog recording console from the 1970s. It’s actually really similar to the board at Studio 4 where La Dispute recorded their new record with Will Yip. A board like that will never ever see the road but the Apollo has plugins that pretty accurately model how these boards sound, plus heaps of other classic studio gear that sounds better than anything in a typical live venue set up. While I really doubt anyone in the audience will think, "Oh, that guitar sounds like it's running through a Neve EQ and a Fairchild compressor," the improved sound really helps translate what the band is doing on stage more effectively—and I know that most people have to enjoy that.
Do you think that technology is going to allow better sound at live performances in the future?
Absolutely. In the world of PAs alone, speaker technology is always evolving to be clearer sounding and cover more of the audience than ever before; there are even programs people use now to be able to simulate PA coverage in a room so they know where to place speakers to make it sound the best it can. I believe that digital technology is coming out of its infancy and plugins like those produced by Universal Audio and Waves will continue to push the boundaries to make mixes sound better.
To some extent what I'm doing isn't new. A lot of bigger tours take out their own digital consoles and are able to save entire shows with different settings for each song; some of them even let you run third-party plugins that can model vintage gear similar to what the Apollo does. I guess the Apollo just fits a niche where I want to have consistent and quality sound, without having to carry around an entire mixing board.
Were you nervous using it live for the first time?
Not really. Like I said, I started using it for reverbs, so it's taken a few stepping stones to get to using it where I am inserting it directly onto key channels like over the drum kit or guitars. This next La Dispute tour will have me using it on lead vocals for the first time. There’s no hiding from that if a lead vocal goes down, so maybe I’ll be a little nervous for that first show. Who knows?
Speaking of which, La Dispute are pretty aggressive live. Are there any fears of blowing the gear out?
Last November, the Apollo was sitting in the trailer of a band that I’d just toured with called The Reason and they hit a patch of black ice and slid off the road where the trailer flipped. I wasn’t involved but the band and the Apollo both survived, so I think it’s a pretty sturdy unit. I’m actually more worried about some drunk asshole spilling their beer over it as it lives at the soundboard with me than anything La Dispute can do.