A leading sound engineer offers tips for DJs

Wayne “Rabbit” Sargeant, whose famous clients include Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia, Dizzee Rascal and fabric, explains what it takes to reach the top of his profession, along with advice for DJs on how to get the best out of a sound system.

You may not have heard of Wayne “Rabbit” Sargeant but it’s very possible that you’ve heard his work. For the past 30-plus years, Wayne has been the sound engineer behind some of the biggest music acts on the planet. 

When we spoke a couple weeks ago, he was recharging back in the UK after a summer spent on tour with Calvin Harris, which included 14 dates at Ushuaïa in Ibiza. Although for Wayne this was a quieter period, with Calvin not back on the road until Halloween, he was still in the process of consulting on the the sound system design for a Black Coffee show at Madison Square Garden, the world famous New York venue. (At this stage, Wayne is practically an old hand at designing systems for MSG, with multiple shows there under his belt.) 

He also mentioned some shows for the UK rapper Dizzee Rascal (someone Wayne has worked with plenty in the past), who’s celebrating the 20th anniversary of his influential debut album, Boy In Da Corner. However, perhaps more impressive than the list of Wayne’s current clients was how free of ego he was in discussing them. The word “humble” might be a cliche in this context, but it feels appropriate here. 

Wayne’s outlook on sound engineering—which we refer to below as “front-of-house,” the role he mostly plays on the sound team—feels like it’s shaped by keeping a love for music at the forefront of his thinking. In other words, you can’t do an optimal job for Swedish House Mafia, Alesso, Avicii, David Guetta and the famed London club fabric if you don’t know what it’s like to lose yourself on a dance floor. It’s also about adapting your approach to suit the music and the situation, which Wayne has had plenty of experience of through working with rock bands like Kings of Leon, Kasabian and Snow Patrol, and hip-hop acts like DJ Shadow and Jurassic 5.  

The backbone of Wayne’s work has been in dance music, which, in addition to his decades of behind a mixing desk, makes him extremely well placed to offer DJs tips for getting the best possible sound out of a club system. We discussed the often combative dynamic between sound engineers and DJs, with Wayne offering his advice on managing that relationship. And, as a bonus, Wayne told us about his favourite sound system in the world.

What advice would you offer to DJs out there who aren’t playing the type of big shows that you typically work on? To firstly return to something we mentioned before we started recording, you’d always advise playing with the highest quality files possible?

Oh yeah, I kind of think if you play a DJ set with MP3s it’s slightly lazy [laughs]. And honestly, the amount of quality you can get out of a good sound system these days…maybe like 10 years ago, before you had these amazing line arrays we have now, you could probably get away with playing MP3s. But honestly when you listen to a set nowadays [playing MP3s] sticks out like a sore thumb. So I would really say regardless of whether you’re first on the bill, second on the bill, just try to get your source material to the best quality.

What are some of the main things DJs should be aware of when it comes to managing a system?

It’s a very good question. I’d probably approach whoever is looking after the house sound. Just speak to them for two minutes. Maybe just say, “Hey, I would appreciate it if you didn’t compress my set.”  

Would it be fair to say that historically the relationship between DJs and sound engineers has been pretty adversarial?

I think unfortunately, yes. I think the reason I and others have our jobs is that we care about DJs and DJ music. And a lot of people… this is probably gonna cause controversy, but I just don’t think a lot of engineers listen to the music the DJs are playing and making, understand it, or are respectful of it. If you’re doing a band, you can mix it any way you want. You can interpret it in different ways. But when you’re doing a DJ set, the music has already been made. So what you’ve got to do is represent the DJ and make sure their music is heard how they want it to be heard, you know? So I think there are a lot of places where they just don’t care. They think, “It’s just a DJ.”

So it’s about having a little bit of love for the industry and for the music and understanding it. I think if you’ve been out dancing and are into dance music and understand the bottom end, understand the vibe, understand how it should be sounding, then you’ll do a good job, you know? But there are lots of people who maybe come from a different background and just discredit a DJ as not being a live performer. This is a sweeping statement but I feel that it does ring true.  

What advice would you give to DJs to manage that relationship?

I think it’s about communicating with them. Having a bit of an understanding about how things work with sound systems. Try to go out onto the dance floor and listen to the system, thinking, “Is that quiet?” And then saying, “I heard the last guy and it didn’t sound quite right could you just make it a bit clearer…” Because then it hopefully makes the house engineer feel that they’re needed and wanted.

So DJs don’t necessarily need to be experts but being able to communicate what they’re hearing in terms of the system and trying to relay this to the engineer feels important.

Yeah and it also depends on what type of DJ they are. So a dubstep DJ for example, it’s all about the bottom end. If the engineer is just sitting there and for the mixing they’ve just used a high-pass filter, that might be alright for a little background music. But the dubstep DJ will want to say, “Can you make sure there’s no processing on my channel? Make sure that I can get to the level that I’m allowed to get to.” Have a little bit of banter with the front-of-house guy. Just give them a little bit of encouragement and make them feel included in your show. And I think that will go a long way in helping you get what you want.

Thinking about how DJs should handle the mixer. Are there any rules of thumb? You hear things like, “Don’t touch the master level,” and, “Don’t push the EQs past 12 o’clock.” 

Oh yeah, but I suppose that’s the creativity element of a DJ, isn’t it? And if that’s what their style is [to push the EQs], so long as you’ve set your mixer up correctly… That’s why I always take the outputs down on the main master output to -12 or something. And then when you’re doing all those EQ boosts you’re OK. If the output is at 0 and you start boosting the tops of the highs on each channel and you use gain that way, that’s going to distort the output. So if your master is down, then you can be creative.

What advice would you offer people who were interested in becoming involved in your field? Take a course? Gain practical experience?

I was very hands on. I suppose a good way to get involved is if you have a club locally. A music venue or a nightclub. Just go in there and knock on the door and offer some help. I think that is still a good fast track. I was at the Millennium Dome in 1999, employed as a senior engineer, and we had people coming out of universities, amazing places, and they knew things from an audio engineering point of view but didn’t really know how to do anything. You know, their theory was amazing.

Theoretical rather than practical.

Yeah, all very theoretical. So I think practical experience is still one of the best ways. So getting into a venue is a good way because if you start signing up to a course, you might not ultimately like it. So if you go and help at a venue for a bit, then you can go and see if you like it. And then go into the university or something. But I still think practical experiences are really, really beneficial. You get a chance to experience it, because it is a really fun industry.

Are there ways to actively help train your ears?

Oh god yeah, totally. Playing around with various equipment like processors. Some people listen to a compressor and say, “I don’t know what’s going on there. No idea.” But as you play around with these things, you can get more and more attuned to what they are doing.

You reach the stage where now, I can pretty much go walk around a field and tell you which cabinet a broken speaker is in. I’ve done that a few times in places and they’ve had to pull down the PA system.

Are there types of people who tend to do well in your world? What qualities do successful people have?

I mean, it’s changed so much. Fundamentally it’s similar, but there are a lot of new skill sets that you find that now because everything was analogue and now everything’s digital and all the amplifiers now are like networks, like a computer system, which is like whoa.

But I think if you’re into music but not a musician… I was really into music, playing records all the time since I was younger. I got into trying to play as a musician but it was at school, I never really had the dedication. And then I didn’t really know what to do. But when I entered this world, just playing around in the venue, I thought, “This is fun.” It’s practical. There’s a little bit of engineering but you also get the music and you get the fulfilment. The feeling at the end of a successful show is phenomenal. It’s a really great natural high full of dopamine, which is great, you know?

You need to be able to think quickly. Under pressure. And have a love for the type of music you’re working with. So if you’re not sure what you want to do; the DJing might be not working out, and you feel like live engineering could be interesting, maybe just poke your head in a venue and see what the vibe is and see if that still suits you and have a go. I’m sure a lot of places these days will be crying out for a bit of help.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I grew up in Suffolk, in the UK, where you can either be a farmer or in the building trade. From there I ended up going to Nottingham Polytechnic, as it was called in 1986, and basically the Polytechnic had a really good student union that had three different venues.

One was about 300 capacity, one was about 800, the other maybe 1200. And they had their own audio system, lighting, staging. The students did all the posters, security, staging, loading in—everything. So I basically just started saying, “Oh, this looks fun. What are you doing here? How can I help out?”

I started helping out, and within two years I ended up running the audio department. Every Monday night we’d have shows there, which at the time would be bands like Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers… Downstairs we’d have things like Lenny Kravitz, Nirvana’s first tour of the UK.

So I learned about desks, systems and got thrown behind the monitor desk and started mixing and then doing front-of-house. So it was basically like a hobby that turned into a career. I fell into it by mistake. So it’s all practical knowledge, really. And then from that I ended up working for an audio company locally and for a group of DJs called DiY, who were Nottingham-based underground DJs. We’d make monitors for those guys, and used to go and set up raves for them.

We did all these big shows at the Marcus Garvey centre in Nottingham, which was about 3 or 4,000 people. They were all-nighters there, it was good fun. So I’d look after the decks, look after the sound system. We’d just put loads of speakers in. We had bass bins from one side of the room to the other [laughs], and then separate speakers all the way up, which were all individually plugged in with XLRs.

Back then it was different, really. You were just making sure everything was plugged in and everything was in phase. Make sure that all the speakers were going in the right direction and at the right time. And at that time obviously it was vinyl. So when you put the needle on the record making sure nothing was feeding back. We had to isolate the decks, make sure that was OK. You had to EQ the system to make sure it was heavy enough but also wouldn’t disturb the DJ playing, and then take care of each DJ going on making sure everything was OK. From the decks point of view, swapping out mixers, anything like that, swapping out decks if they went down and just basically getting the best out of the system and helping the crowd have the best time. So that’s how I cut my teeth.

Later I worked at the Millennium Dome for a while, and we did some big New Year’s Eve parties there for DJs, which was great. And then I started freelancing. I got a job with DJ Shadow early on. I travelled the world with him, and then at a similar time, Jurassic 5. They were both DJing on vinyl at the time.

Those days were quite different. You’d go into venues doing rock and they wouldn’t really be thinking about the relationship between the decks and the room and the vibration. So having to say, “Right now, you can’t have the sub[woofers] on the stage because that oscillates the whole stage.” So I’d have to go in, rebuild sound systems, re- time align them, get all the decks set up properly. And that was the gig, really. Obviously you were doing front-of-house.

It was kind of like mastering: ensuring that your artist is getting their music going out to that crowd exactly how they want it to be. So you’d be tuning sound systems, making it sound great, not making it feed back and getting the best out of it. So it’s almost like designing a system and then mastering it at the same time. All you’d be playing around with a lot of the time is those two main channels, but it’s actually just caring about it. A lot of people think, “Oh, it’s just the DJ. I’ll put a compressor on it, turn on the high-pass filter and go to the bar.” [laughs]

So I got a reputation for being able to do that and to care about it. Then I had a residency at fabric doing fabriclive on Friday nights. So I used to do a lot of DJs there. So I’ve always had a backbone in dance music.

As the years went by I started working with the likes of Swedish House, Avicii, Alesso, David Guetta, Calvin Harris. Then obviously we entered the time of CDJs and different equipment. So I’d be encouraging DJs saying, “Come on guys, let’s get rid of those MP3s. Let’s get some WAVs!” [laughs].  

Halfway through the 2000s we started getting a lot of digital consoles coming on the market, so everything became digital and digitised. So we started processing things differently using different outboard equipment, but it still came down to the same thing: it’s all about the system design and about how you process the sound.

These days I use a lot of SSL equipment, a BUS+ and a Fusion. Before I used to use a lot of other equipment as well for processing and mastering a stereo signal clearly. Some people would say, “Oh you only mix two channels, mate! Left and right” And I’d be like, “Well yeah but you could say that for the whole of the mastering industry.” [laughs].  

So what we’re really doing is taking all those mastering techniques and putting them in a live domain, so that your DJ sounds better than any other DJ. That was my idea: trying to make whoever I was working for sound better than anyone else… I think I’ve managed to do that fairly well.

You don’t want to take away from the music and overproduce things as well. You’ve got to design a system making sure there’s just enough sub going on and also a nice balance so that it’s not covering anything farther up the audio spectrum. You can almost overdo it sometimes. I’ve heard mixes of people when they start compressing it, and they’re listening to it going, “Yeah, that’s great.” But you’ve just lost all the intelligibility out of the music. You can’t really be compressing already compressed music.

What are the kinds of things you need to think about in terms of working with DJs?

So basically from a DJ point of view, it would be setting up whatever decks they’re playing on. If it’s Technics 1210s, obviously balancing the decks, making sure they’re level, making sure there’s no vibration or oscillations at the needle. Also setting the mixer up correctly so that the outputs don’t clip and there’s enough headroom in there. You’d then do some of the same things with the CDJs, making sure everything is working.

On a mixer like the [Pioneer DJ] V10, you can save all your settings on a USB, which is great. I’d always go into the custom interface and set up my output level, reduce that by quite a lot so that the mixer doesn’t overload. So just making sure all your equipment works properly. I tend to plug everything in digitally and in analog. So if anything goes out, say if the digital just drops out, you can just switch it over signal and you’re still good.

From a stage point of view, just making sure all your cabling is as good as it can be. That your mixer is set up so that it’s driving optimally, but not too much so that if you start cranking things up you’re getting into distortion. Sometimes, like with Calvin Harris, we have a dedicated monitor engineer.

So they’d be doing everything you just described?

Yeah, he’d do everything I just described—set the decks up and also he’d set the monitors up. Obviously these days we have quite a large monitor system, with three line array top boxes and a sub. Sometimes you might have a rear as well. So he’d set that up as well, balance that, make sure that level feels good, checking headphones are OK, and making sure it’s OK for the artist you’re working with. Making sure everything’s in phase, all the speakers are pointing in the right direction, nothing’s broken, no distortion. So that’s the basis of getting your DJ happy on stage, because if they are happy on stage that’s also going to come across to the audience.

Between myself and the stage, we will check all those inputs—left is left, right is right. Make sure the AS output is working and the microphones are working for talking to the crowd. I’d get Scott [the monitoring engineer] to shout into that and talk and then I can EQ the signal at front-of-house, so that all the audience would be able to hear the mic clearly. Generally DJs shout quite a lot. They get a little bit over excited and go, “Come on then!” [laughs]. So you want a little bit of compression.

I put a load of familiar songs on the system and then have a listen, see if it’s all time-aligned correctly. Make sure the bass is right. Sometimes systems have flown bass speakers in line arrays and floor bass speakers, and it’s about making sure that it all feels like the bass is coming at you in one big lump and time-aligned correctly.

If you were doing my job as front-of-house, you would “advance” all these things. You send over a spec saying, “Right, we need these decks, we need this type of system and it needs to be reaching these sorts of levels without distortion.” And if the arena is over, say, 60 metres, then we need delays as well. So extra speakers in the room to cover the back of the room. Because I feel with dance music especially, you want lots of headroom. When we go and play places like Madison Square Garden or large arenas, I try to recreate a club environment in those places. Lots of rock places tend to just throw the sound out and have a big set of speakers, whereas I like to have more distributed speakers. Just so you’ve got lots of headroom, so you get that warmth.

In your role, what are the different areas that you need to have an understanding of? 

You used to have the studio. And then there was live. There were almost two types of engineers. I think now that the audio systems have got so much better, I think those skills can transfer across. So I tend to use a lot of studio techniques. 

Many years ago I was doing Dizzee Rascal and he was on his third album or fourth album. And we noticed that basically, we were going to headline a festival, and all of his tracks were all over the place because they were from different albums with different mastering techniques. So I went and took all the live tracks, went to Metropolis and remastered everything with a guy there and got them to a level where when they went back into the live mixer and came out it was like boom! So I treated things that way around, rather than trying to EQ and everything afterwards. 

So the high level skill set it’s basically: know your outboard equipment, your console. System design is something that you need to get into. And that’s quite different these days, where it’s all about time alignment and, more importantly, phase alignment, making sure everything’s in phase, which basically means if your speakers are all doing their thing at the same time that’s good. If they’re slightly out or because they’re positioned incorrectly you’ll be like, “Oh what? That doesn’t sound quite right.” And you’ll press a phase button on the flown subs and be like, “Oh, there we go!” with the sound coming at you like a tornado. 

So you need to know system design, acoustics, and what goes into those boxes. Studying a “live” course might be a way to go. Because if you do a “studio” course you don’t really know about the sound system and the sound system is integral to a live show.

Thinking about acoustics, what are some of the features of a space that tend to cause the most issues?

It’s when you’re in large spaces, the reverberation can cause things to be… I mean, outdoors, it’s fine, it’s really when you’re indoors that you get horrible, very long reverberations, which can cloud up the mix. You have to be really careful and EQ the standing waves out. And I tend to just start at the bottom, the lower end at the bass. If you get those fundamentals out, you’ll find that the standing waves will go up through the octaves. So if you get 60hz, the next will be 120hz, and you will go up like that because it’s a mathematical wave. 

The biggest rules of working with sound are listen, listen and listen. 

You don’t want to overkill something as well. You’ve got to try and push things to a limit when you’re doing a big show, but also when you’re pushing those big systems it takes a lot of power, so you’ve got to be wary because you don’t want to be halfway through the show driving up a system and the power trips and you haven’t checked it.

But I would say acoustics is really paramount to achieving a really good live sound. And understanding EQ and how to EQ an environment and a room and balancing the system. That’s why I think the headroom is so important and trying to have the biggest system possible—it’s easier than trying to push a smaller system into a large environment. You just run out of headroom, the system starts getting angry and it doesn’t sound great. You’re better off just having something way too big and just letting it just tick over. 

This is why I like to design things with a distributed system, so multiple speakers. Then you don’t have to drive the main system and it’s easier to control when you’ve got difficult acoustics.

When it comes to “ear-knob coordination,” so knowing how to adjust things based on what you’re hearing, I assume that just comes with practice?

Yeah, just reacting. It’s about setting up your tools on the desk on the day and saying, “Right, OK. Where are the problems going to be with this system?” Trying to interpret that when you’re sound checking it. What some people do, they go into a room and they go, “Oh, it sounds really harsh. So they EQ all the harshness out. And then what happens is that the arena floor then gets covered with people, so all that reflection goes away, and then you’ve got no clarity in the sound.

Finally, I’m going to put you on the spot. Do you have a platonic ideal of a sound system? Or do you have a favourite system?

I do have a favourite venue actually, which is the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam. It’s two venues actually. The Heineken Music Hall and then its bigger brother or sister, the Ziggo Dome. These venues are absolutely phenomenal because the acoustic treatment there is incredible, even with any system you put in there. You can hear every single element of the music. Usually the problem is that you can have amazing systems and the intelligibility is held back because of the acoustics of a venue. Acoustics play a tremendous role and unfortunately few other places treat venues in such a way. But honestly, if you have a choice to go anywhere, the Heineken Music Hall and Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam are absolutely amazing.

Text: Ryan Keeling

Swedish House Mafia photo (top): Per Jahnke