Sennheiser’s Pro Talk Series on YouTube features interviews with the industry’s most respected sound engineers, including James McCullagh, Front of House Engineer, Backstreet Boys.
James McCullagh, whose interest in the music industry began early on, set after a profession in the industry, and through the years has worked with a wide variety of artists – including INXS, Journey, Katy Perry, and the Backstreet Boys, among many others. As a boy, McCullagh observed his relatives with roots in the industry, before eventually testing his own-hand at production. “My inspiration came from a very young age. My dad and uncle are professional musicians, and my uncle also had a studio. He recorded any artist throughout the eighties in South Africa,” he recalls. “I started recording bands in our garage and my uncle heard my production and he was like, ‘Hey, you should come and do this in a proper studio. Come and help me.’ I’d go into his studio and help him out in the afternoon. I didn't know what I was doing, but I knew I was creating music and that was important.”
In early 2013, he had just finished the Katy Perry tour when he received a call from the Backstreet Boys’ management asking if he’d like to go to China the very next day, to which he said yes. The gig in China led to a one-month promotional tour in Europe, and the rest was history. “When they asked me to do the rest of the tour, I jumped at the opportunity,” McCullagh recalls. “And, here we are. That was about seven years ago and I’ve been with them ever since.”
Working with the Backstreet Boys has been a gig-of a lifetime. That proved true once again when as the band was preparing to hit the road to promote their latest studio album, DNA, with an expansive arena tour. McCullagh was tasked with the challenge to make this live experience sound different from the previous Larger than Life, Las Vegas residency.
As the FOH engineer, McCullagh is always in tune with the needs of the band during the shows. “It’s very much reading people. Like I've learned to read the crowd, I've learned to read the guys. I need to know how they’re feeling. I’m an extension of them as a unit. However, they are delivering, I need to replicate that... I have learned the boys are very involved in terms of what they want from production aspects. We have a game tape. In the beginning part of the tour, every night they would listen and send me notes...we basically polish it up and fix any little details. I’ve always tended to lean towards an audience experience. I’m not so interested in getting a studio perfect mix,” he adds. “The fans, they come to hear the boys. They want to hear every single one of their favorite Backstreet Boys in huge detail, soaring above everything else, and they want to hear them blended perfectly. So, I focus on the vocals. I make sure that they’re clear, precise, mixed perfectly and then you know, try to mix in energy with that.”
Lastly, McCullagh offers insight for someone getting started in the industry, “This industry is pretty tough,” he says candidly. “I think you’ve got to believe in yourself and just keep trying. What makes this industry so exciting is that there is no fixed way to make it in. Keep knocking on doors.”
Photo: James Capparelle