James Towler (pictured) became Steve Winwood’s keyboard tech in 1997 and in 2003 became his monitor engineer. He built, managed and engineered in Winwood’s studio in Cheltenham, UK, and he mixes FOH for live shows.
“From the age of 14 I had a keen interest in music equipment,” says Towler. “But after school I became a financial consultant and wound up doing offshore investments. Then I met some musicians in London, and one happened to be Steve Winwood’s music director. I fixed some things for him, and he asked if I had ever considered being a keyboard technician. I said, ‘No, but I’ll do it!’
“I am 100-percent Steve Winwood all the time,” he notes. Even so, he found time to produce two albums for John Lydon and Public Image Ltd., and he works with a few bands in Gloucester.
For Winwood’s 2016 tour with Steely Dan, Towler recommended mixing monitors with the PreSonus StudioLive RM31AI rack-mount digital mixer and recording with StudioOne 3 Professional.
“I’ve been a fan of PreSonus since 2003, when I bought the DigiMax,” he relates. “I ran monitors and did the recording feeds using 32 channels of DigiMax, with limiters, running to hard-disk recorders. So I know and like the sound of PreSonus preamps.”
When the RM32AI launched, Towler grabbed one, and he added the Dante option card when that came out. “For this tour, I have outboard mic preamps with Dante options, and I split the signal from there,” he explains. “One split goes to the FOH desk and the other goes to the RM32AI, which consolidates the feeds for five monitor mixes onstage. At FOH, I have a Mac mini and an interface with a Dante card, and I take the streams into Studio One for multitracking.”
Winwood mixes his own monitors but not while playing. “We tried mixing monitors with iPads onstage but Steve was trying to jab at the iPad while playing with both hands and feet and singing,” Towler points out. “Now he sets up his monitor mix at soundcheck, and I’ve got a guy onstage with an iPad to assist the musicians from there. With UC Surface, I control the RM32AI from front-of-house. The whole band is on in-ears, and I tweak the feeds with the RM32AI’s Fat Channel EQ and compression. Steve has them in both ears, so I put a touch of RM32AI reverb on his mix to bring it out of his head a bit.
Although Towler uses the RM32AI for monitors, it also provides emergency backup preamps. “I had an outboard preamp go out because of a storm at an outdoor gig, and all we had to do was change to the inputs from the RM32AI and reassign the Dante feeds.”
The musicians hear the difference with the RM32AI. “Steve has remarked on how much better it sounds,” Towler says. “So has Paul Booth, the sax player. The drummer, Richard Bailey, said that for the first time when wearing in-ears, it feels like he’s playing his drum kit again.”
Towler records every set with Studio One 3 Professional. “ I have not had one issue with it,” he reports. “It has been completely stable; it works seamlessly. I started getting interested with Version 3. With Version 3.2, I thought, ‘okay, right, that’s got what I need now—done!’ The difference was the Smart tool. With that, I after just 30 minutes of messing around, I could edit at least as fast as I could in Pro Tools. Now I can edit much faster. And I didn’t have to think, ‘where I am I going for this or that?’”
That was just the start. “I found that the options within the Smart tool were better than in Pro Tools,” Towler continues. “I’ve got macros set up so I can normalize a file and drop it down to 14 dB at the click of a button and start applying plug-ins. It’s so much faster.”
Rather than use UC Surface’s Smaart audio analysis, Towler created a solution using Studio One. “I set up the solo at the FOH desk so that when I solo, I have the FFT up in Studio One on every channel,” he explains. “I can click to any channel to see what frequencies are there. I’ve also got a reference mic, and when I solo that, its feed is up on the screen. It’s great for dealing with feedback issues or anything like that.
“It takes a bit of thinking to figure out all the things you can do with Studio One, but once you’ve got it, there are many cooler ways that you can work than what you’re used to with other DAWs,” he says. “Add to that the way Melodyne integrates into Studio One, and why would you ever want to use another DAW?”