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An interview with Sonalyst’s Rory Madden

When your career starts as sound man for Dire Straits, it can surely only go one way from there? Not so for Rory Madden, founder of Sonalyst; the opposite proved to be true, as he has since worked with many more of the world’s biggest names.

How did you get into the rental/staging business?

I’ve been a paid sound engineer for some 32 years now. My interest in sound developed really early, aged nine. It all sprung from the family band, which my grandfather started. Everything just developed from there. I started as a ‘paid’ engineer with an up and coming band called Dire Straits. The band were looked after by Concert Sound who had probably the best equipment available at the time. When Tina Turner came on the scene she also opted for Concert Sound, and I made it onto the crew. I’ve now worked with Tina for over 30 years.

But, like everyone, I eventually got tired of all the travelling, and wanted to spend more time with my wife Helen and my children. So, I started to look around for an opportunity. It eventually came with a call from an old colleague who was involved with the “Tonight’s The Night” musical – the one that’s based on the songs of Rod Stewart. “The sound is terrible, Rory,” he said. “Can you come and fix it?” Well, I changed their sound rig overnight – and they were thrilled. I then went on to produce the cast album. So, I suppose something must have been right and that was the beginning of this ‘new’ career!

After that, and with the help of colleagues old and new, I went on to develop an equipment resource, and supplied the design and gear for shows like “Little Britain” and “The League of Gentlemen” among a host of others. This technical resource was built on years of experience, finding out what worked consistently and what didn’t. Now, in our digital age, the base equipment may have changed, but the technical disciplines behind being able to deliver 100% night after night are largely the same.

Today, Sonalyst is five full time people, but we generally staff our projects with freelancers who we handpick. The equipment, whilst very important, is a small part of a successful production. The right people are mostly the key, so we’re always very careful to get the right profile and make the chemistry right. We could have built a larger full time base, but then the company gets top heavy. This way, and with careful planning, we can always provide the very best solution.

More recently we’ve added video and lighting to our technical resource. I found that I’d gleaned knowledge in those areas, so it wasn’t hard to bring those additional capabilities into the company. People love a one stop shop – they know they can say “Sonalyst will deal with it”. We have adopted what I believe to be the best core technical disciplines here also, and the fact that a show can get everything it needs from one company offers tangible benefits to the production.

What is your favourite project that you’ve ever been involved in?

There have been many, many special projects with people like Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, John Denver – and especially Joe Cocker, who is one of my favourite artistes. But as I said earlier, I’ve worked with Tina Turner for over thirty years, so I suppose my most memorable project would have to be the concert she did at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. It was at the end of an 18-month tour, and was an HBO special. The sheer scale of the event is what made it so memorable. The Maracanã is an iconic stadium, with a capacity of over 200,000 – and it was sold out, and at the time it was the world record for attendance at a concert. I loved it!

Is there are a particular product that you’ve come to look on as ‘an old favourite’?

When I was first getting into the hire business, I needed to move quickly – and one of the things I needed urgently was a line array that would ground stack, because in a large proportion of theatres you can’t fly stuff. I went to audition four systems, and the one that impressed me far and away the most was the Meyer M Series. What I love about the Meyer array is that it delivers a stereo image that is second to none. With other arrays, when someone speaks, the audience looks at the PA: with the Meyer set-up, the image is so accurate that the sound really seems to be coming from the speaker’s mouth. The Meyer kit absolutely suits what we do.

It’s not just about the base products, though. There are also companies we have come to rely on over time. The main elements of a rig are what they are, but if the connectivity and infrastructure is poor you will always be having problems. So, I would say that VDC Trading have been an absolute Godsend to me. Their technical director, Dug Guthrie, is absolutely brilliant. A typical example of what VDC bring to the table would be when we were putting together the “We Will Rock You” show, which was fantastically complex. Yet, with VDC’s help, we were able to put the whole system together in nine weeks. If I tell you that the system included hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of cables, and there wasn’t a single problem with one of them, that tells you something about the expertise that VDC bring. Anyone can buy a PA or a desk – but the cabling infrastructure is everything. Without VDC, we couldn’t have pulled off “We Will Rock You” in the time we did. Thanks Dug!

Is there a recent product that’s caught your eye that you think will be very useful in your business?

I’ve never bought products just because they’re new and vibey. That being said, we do have number 001 of Yamaha’s M7 mixing console! I have to listen in detail to anything we might buy, because I need to believe in it. If I don’t believe in it, I can’t sell it. One of the attributes I’m always looking for is that any equipment has to do more than capture the sound of a band; it also has to capture the energy. That for me is what a live performance is all about.

There’s lots of good new gear around, but very little that is supported by great technical and management teams. That is the ‘package’ I am looking for. I think the main ones worthy of note that we are investing in at the moment are Coda Audio loudspeaker systems and DiGiCo consoles. They both add that extra performance margin, which coupled to the backup is the real value which, in a business with fine margins, counts for a great deal.