'There's always a better way of doing things': Entec head of sound Jonny Clark on 'rock n roll corporate gigs' and working with Damon Albarn
Head of sound at touring rental company Entec Jonny Clark spoke to PSNEurope about the business 50 years on…
There’s a sign on the wall at West London production rental company Entec Sound & Light. It says: “Guide the crystal through the cosmos, avoiding planets and black holes”, a sentiment either from the ‘60s or sci-fi. Very acid rock, but these days the acid has been replaced by Pimm’s. Rock is going up in the world and so, therefore, is Entec. “There’s always a better way of doing things,” says Jonny Clark, Entec’s head of sound, and about raising global standards he is crystal clear.
Clark is the natural successor to Dick Hayes, the recently retired FOH figurehead who cut his teeth on the road with The Who and then joined Entec full time to help consolidate the company’s enviable reputation among the touring cognoscenti. Just one year before Hayes first humped Pete Townshend’s Sound City L100 amp heads on and off stage, and only two years after Roy and Gene Clair opened for business in Pennsylvania, Entertainment Technicians (Entec) was registered in the wake of several successful and ground-breaking open-air concerts organised by co-founder Harold Pendleton.
There was no Brit Row or SSE as yet, but there was a flood of louder acts that attracted huge crowds and who prompted the expansion of Pendleton’s jazz and blues events around Windsor into rock festivals that needed Charlie Watkins’ slaved amps and speakers, professional lighting rigs and more toilets. Adapting quickly to the counter-culture, Pendleton introduced simple ways to keep civilisation from crumbling – like wristbands and plastic beer cups – and more sophisticated ways, like video screens and twin stages for faster turnaround, to make the audience experience ever more engaging and rewarding. Entec embraced this production ethos with vigour, and applied its values to innovative audio and lighting.
Nearly 50 years on, and Entec is the rental company most true to its original form and function without ever losing touch with changing habits and technologies. The west London HQ, notwithstanding cosmic reflections on the wall, nestles between bus stops and burger joints with studied prosaicness, in an area beloved of transportation managers and anyone else keen to exploit the speed with which you can escape.
Despite this, Entec’s business is smartening itself up. As we’ll see, there are more suits and briefcases among the clients than before, and they know what they want. The latest inventory spend – Shure, Digico and d&b audiotechnik – satisfies all-comers and is a continuation of long-standing relationships that fall squarely into the ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ category, but the equipment has never had to behave itself so impeccably.
A d&b audiotechnik customer since 1995, Entec has added 20 d&b V-Series V8 three-way loudspeakers, 32 D80 four-channel power amplifiers and six DS10 audio network bridges. “Entec was an early adopter of d&b,” says Clark, “and now they’re in the top three names on every rider that comes across my desk. Why change that? The new generation of d&b is really exciting.”
Earlier this year Entec bought several Shure UR4D wireless receivers. To this has been added 28 channels of Shure’s Axient Digital system, including AD Series handheld and lavalier mics, ShowLink remote control and Wireless Workbench software, plus 10 dual-channel Shure PSM 1000 IEM systems.
“We’re confident that the manufacturers are on top of the bandwidth issue,” continues Clark, “actively making sure that there’s enough spectrum for us by changing their infrastructure to suit. We have an open dialogue with them about issues like this. Our purchase of Axient Digital gives us the kind of future proofing I’m looking for. It doesn’t mean that the current UHF-R becomes discontinued; it’s all valid and serviceable stock and we can suit different budgets accordingly. It’ll be around for some time, but the Axient Digital will be around for a very long time.”
Two 72-channel Digico SD12 consoles have also been purchased, along with the compact SD11i and two SD-Racks, in the wake of an additional SD7 earlier in 2017. “It’s a bit of no-brainer with Digico, because there isn’t a console manufacturer out there hitting the same notes,” according to Clark. “There are other, great products out there but who’s really bringing something new to the party? Again, it’s that rider thing: they’re nearly always at the top, and we are a rider-friendly company. The new SD7 has been out on tour since we got it last March, and I probably won’t see it again until late next year! The SD12s essentially replace the Profiles, which ticked every box but the technology seems to have run its course.
“These are manufacturers who form a three-way relationship with ourselves and the end users to provide complete support. Our customers will always get an answer at any time between us – the contact number is on the console, or we’ll put someone in touch with the right person… the joint effort to keep these things on the road has never been so streamlined as it is today, and we’re glad to be a part of it.”
Riders on the form
As well as these purchases, Clark has been keen to restructure the staffing and departments in order to promote forward thinking without losing the spirit of the place. “I wanted to be pro-active rather than reactive,” he says, “and invest according to trends in the industry as opposed to the immediate demands of any given client. Of course, we listen to what the clients want, but if we keep our inventory relevant then we are in a position to offer the very best solutions possible and lead the market responsibly.
“We all know the riders and there is a commonality to everyone’s gear, broadly speaking. But the difference with Entec is that it’s still relatively small enough to provide very personal attention, and that’s from the very top of the company. You get looked after, and that’s the way we want to operate. Yes, we want to grow – but in a way that’s carefully thought-out and managed and not in an explosion of activity.”
Refreshingly, digital audio networking here is a workaday framework rather than an evangelical cause. “You have to make sure you can get in on any format and out on any format, but you can, more or less,” Clark says. “We use it more for system tech’ing than transport, but our guys will help you with that – Peter Eltringham is our specialist, and you have to have specialists in these areas now. You can’t just have an all-rounder, and that’s been reflected in my staffing structures across the company.”
Indeed, there are different specialists for wiring and power deployment, as well as the console and microphone landscape, including spectrum. Clark is a fastidious organiser who likes to keep his fire engine clean, so to speak, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why festivals do not figure as often as you might expect on the Entec calendar – although that could change.
“We’re doing a lot more ‘rock and roll corporate’ instead,” reveals Clark. “It’s the full rig, proper line array, proper groundstacks, sidefills… but at an awards ceremony, or a company milestone – even a birthday party for someone really important! They’ll hire a huge ballroom in a big hotel and a serious band, and we look after the production. The sound engineers will take a break from their touring schedule, and fly in for this one event. They may be big corporations, but they want to put on a happening show and they know we’re very neat and tidy about taking care of it.
“I make a point of making sure all of our boxes are immaculate and everything’s in tip-top condition all the time: the consoles are zeroed and meticulously cleaned, and staff take a great pride in that. We know that when we send it all out, it’s presentable – and reliable, of course. Our de-prep and re-prep is crucial, and I’m obsessive about it.”
When an agreement was reached with Colorado-based Brown Note Productions to debut d&b’s latest loudspeakers for large-scale arenas, stadiums and festivals on the recent European leg of Gorillaz’ Humanz world tour – GSL, part of the new SL Series – it was part of a new ‘transatlantic’ partnership with Brown Note, the company that supplies racks-and-stacks to Gorillaz in the US. Entec, meanwhile, has enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Damon Albarn and his cohorts since Blur’s first hit record.
“It’s quite a unique production,” explains Clark, “unlike a simple four-piece rock band who can pick up in-ears, radio mics or another package almost anywhere. We carry all the control worldwide, and it’s a very different type of infrastructure that needs consistency from continent to continent. From the outset Joel Stanley, the production manager, knew exactly what the requirements were and we packaged it accordingly – and sent our guy who designed it around the world with them. It’s very reassuring for Matt Butcher at FOH and Dave Guerin on monitors, plus knowing that I’ll take a call from them 24/7.”
All this, and the door is open for training and re-training. “Even if we don’t run official courses like other rental groups do,” reveals Clark, “we do welcome trainees into the warehouse for a week or so to become acclimatised to our methodology, prior to any field placements where they’ll see all the latest technology in practice. I think that’s a really important part of our future, to build new relationships and create a community rather than just get bogged down in a my-inventory-is-bigger-than-yours competition. We are competitive in that way, as the recent purchases show, but there’s so much more to it than that.”
Entec remains resolutely independent. “And we intend to stay that way,” Clark says emphatically. “We have partnerships with people across the planet, some new, some long-term, but I’ve always known Entec from my touring days as a compact and efficient entity that kind of flew under the radar. I’m quite reserved myself, and I’ve always liked that about Entec. There are many things you take for granted that were started by Entec and I’ve discovered a lot of these since I’ve been here. But history is one thing; you also have to set that aside and keep looking to the future.”