Most professional musicians know the importance of the man (or woman) behind the console. Without him and the underappreciated monitor engineer, a band may as well be playing in the drummer’s garage. Smart musicians understand and respect that. Others have yet to learn it.
L2P talked to successful sound engineers to find out how they keep their cool when dealing with belligerent,
pin-headed musicians, know-it-all touring engineers, and nasty room acoustics that would send even the most seasoned front-of-house guy into a tizzy. <
Please Please Me
In the early ’90s, the heavy metal band Flotsam & Jetsam performed at a small venue in New York. Their destructive drummer, who will remain nameless, complained to the front-of-house guy that he couldn’t hear the guitar in his monitor. By the end of the second song, the drummer was visibly agitated. At the close of the third tune, he came out from behind the kit, ran over to the side of the stage, shoved his drumsticks into the front-of-house man’s face and yelled, “When I tell you to turn up the guitar, you turn up the guitar! Got it? Don’t play games with me.”
The sound engineer didn’t flinch. He punched a few keys while the drummer fumed on his throne for the rest of the set. To the engineer’s credit, he didn’t break the golden rule of live mixing: The musician always wins.
“Let’s face it,” says Joe Fiorello, FOH man for the House of Blues in Los Angeles, “no one is buying a ticket to see the engineer.”
That isn’t to say that soundmen should take it on the chin all the time. The last thing anyone wants is to receive a full-on assault from inexperienced tour engineers and/or abrasive musicians. House production staff members have been known to tell people off or combat stubborn musicians through subtle ways such as turning the knob of a channel that’s not plugged in and ask, “How’s that now?” The clueless musician replies, “Sure, that’s much better.”
Other soundmen will do what is called negative mixing. This is particularly pertinent with vocalists. First you give them what they want to hear, and then, for the sake of stage volume, pull the guitars and drums out of their monitors.
A more straightforward approach would be to defuse a potential powder keg by simply presenting your side of the story. If the musician still won’t cooperate, you have to let go.
“There’s a certain amount of guys who aren’t going to listen to you no matter what,” says Dave Katzman, FOH engineer for Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago. “If you got upset every time it would drive you to an ulcer. The musician will prevail.”
Add to this the pressure of pleasing your boss. “You have to make the owner of the club comfortable that what is going down onstage is good,” says Richard Scott of New York City’s The Bottom Line. “He doesn’t want to present crap.”<
Ultimately, there may not be a right or wrong way to mix sound, just the right way to please all the players involved. Pre-fade listens, compressors, multichannel power amplifiers, auxiliaries, subgroups and EQ are tools by which sound engineers can amplify what the audience came to hear. A good soundman is invisible and can only be a conduit between the performer and audience. He is not a magician or the cause of all onstage problems. More musicians need to understand this.
“When I tell you to turn up the guitar, you turn up the guitar! Got it? Don’t play games with me!”
The Mighty Mighty Tone Boss
“The trenches.” That’s how many sound engineers refer to working the monitors. It’s a thankless job some consider as important as FOH. For financial reasons, a lot of touring bands don’t have monitor specialists, and house production guys dread getting the call.
“It’s hard because you don’t actually hear what you’re working on,” says Scott. “You have to look at the musicians to see if they are happy. If you are a front-of-house guy then you can turn the bass down and hear it as it goes down. With monitors it’s a matter of guesswork and assumption.”
Remember that the next time you want to chew out a monitor guy over your walkie-talkie. Be patient, and if you’re a musician, please understand that the monitor man, though he is in the thick of the noise, may not always have the best perspective to hear isolated sounds.
“Monitors are a black-and-white world,” relates Frank Sass, sound engineer at the Exit/In in Nashville, Tennessee. “You’re either right or wrong and there are no creative gray areas.”
Some bands take care of stage problems by using ear monitors. With these, there’s virtually no stage volume, which lends itself to a more controlled setting. However, some sound engineers absolutely hate this approach.
“There is something basically wrong with that,” says Fiorello. “The bands want so bad for it to sound like the studio recordings. A live performance should be the record with a little bit of fire under it.”<
Can You Top This?
Stage volume is synonymous with sheer frustration. If musicians are playing “Can you top this?” then usually it’s because they can’t hear themselves onstage and thus play louder. If one member plays louder, the rest of the band cranks it up a notch. This disorder spreads system-wide and creates too much stage volume. You’ll have a singer screaming (literally) and complaining that he/she can’t hear the vocals in the monitor. It’s a horror show for soundmen.
“I’m in the heart of Country Music USA, so the vocals have to be on top,” says Sass. “If you can’t understand the lyrics, you just have to say, ‘What’s the point?’”
Weo Shields of Tribeca Blues in Manhattan can relate: “I’ve toured with Johnny Winter, who sings on 2 and plays on 10. It’s a headache.”
What to do? First, the FOH man can make sure his stage is outfitted with consistent mics. If you don’t have consistent mics, then know which mics are good for low end and for high. Of course, a soundcheck is always necessary (even though soundmen say that some bands don’t show for them). Make sure that the mics are placed at the necessary distance from the snare drum, the bass amp, etc. The best way to prepare for stage volume is to do a dry run.
Dave Katzman at Buddy Guy’s Legends says he starts with the kick drum, goes to the snare and then the tom-toms. “You don’t want the ring of the drums louder than the initial strike,” he says. In order, Katzman does the guitar, the rhythm section (including keys), and finally the vocals.
“Every soundman has his own techniques,” continues Katzman. “You have to learn characteristics of the mics you are using. Your mixing comes down to the way you want it to be heard if you were in your living room.”
OK, so now you’re in the middle of a show and one instrument is louder than the other. One way to fix this mini crisis is to get on your clearcom and tell the band to turn it down a bit. If you’re a soundman for a small club, you can explain to the band that they need not play at the same volume they would if they were at the Madison Square Garden.
“Smart bands play at the volume of the drummer and the front of house will carry nicely,” says Frank Sass. “The bad ones turn up their Marshalls to 11 and 45 minutes later they leave the stage.”
Bass: Your Friend and Enemy
In some situations, the bass guitar is the most overbearing component. Bass, such a rudimentary ingredient to any band, can be your friend or monstrous enemy. “At certain keys it becomes the dominant sound,” says Katzman. “My stage at Buddy Guy’s resonates at G. It just so happens that blues is played a lot in G. Sometimes I’ll pull the bass out of the mix because you don’t need it. If it’s coupling with the stage, it comes up through the bass of the mics.”
You can use it to your advantage by pushing some Pavlovian party buttons. “You don’t want to mix too loud, but you should move the audience,” says Katzman. “A low mix should be felt. If you hit the right frequency on the low end everyone will get up and dance.”
It’s a Snap
Walking into a room cold – you’ve done it. You may have to do it on a regular basis if you’re a touring sound engineer. Some guys can look at a spec sheet to know at what levels to mix everything. If you are like most and you can’t hear it in your head, a word of advice: Get down to the venue before the gig. If you are in transit, ask the production crew to fax over a spec sheet which has the dimensions of the stage, the layout of the room and, most importantly, what quirks the room has.
Once you arrive at the venue, the first thing you should do is ask the FOH man if there is anything he has forgotten to tell you. If the answer is no, then you are on your own. Play with echoes a bit. Put on your favorite CDs, play with the third-octave EQs to warm up to the space. Go to the truck and break out an amp. Be aware that the sound of the room will change with a packed house, but some things are constant.
Look at the fixtures. How will that Formica floor absorb sound? Is it a wood-and-carpeted room, a recipe for a soundman’s dream? Does this air duct block out mid highs?
Trust yourself. Use your ears. Your ears are your career; learn to interpret the information that you are receiving through them. “I’ll walk into the middle of the room and snap my fingers to find out what the parameters are,” says Sass.
“I’ve been doing this 20 years and there’s nothing I don’t know.”
Soundman vs. Soundman
Do you know this guy? He tells you right off the bat, “I’ve been doing this 20 years and there’s nothing I don’t know.”
Besides this being an impossibility, it makes for very bad rapport between a FOH and a touring engineer. There should be no competition. Soundmen are on the same side. However, you may have come across a few hot-headed engineers who are walking, ticking time bombs, hell-bent – inexplicably – on ruining the mix.
“I’ve run into too many engineers who’ve said, ‘You can’t tell me anything I don’t know’ my first inclination was to tell people that they were wrong,” confesses Steve Rarick, owner of Sound Engineering Services based in San Diego, California. “You have to gauge people on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes what they’ve learned was wrong from the start, yet they don’t want to hear it.”<
If a touring engineer is so insecure that he can’t listen to a suggestion from the regular FOH (if that is you), or vice versa, then both soundmen have failed to do what they are getting paid to do. Be helpful, don’t let a situation escalate, and respectfully speak up if there is a problem. If they choose not to listen, at least you did your job.
“I’ll try to give some pointers but some guys come in to Buddy Guy’s and say, ‘This is my EQ, and it has been for 11 years,’” comments Katzman, who has toured with Albert Collins, Otis Rush, and Albert King. “I say, ‘Good luck.’ If you are touring, let the front-of-house guy do his thing – he lives there.”
If you think you are a big shot, then put your money where your mouth is. Buy or rent some of the latest digital sound and recording equipment components and eat, sleep, and drink it for a month. A lot has changed over the last few years in sound technology. You can even go one step beyond by schooling yourself in the basics of physics.
“It doesn’t hurt for a seasoned soundman to take a sound class or two,” says Katzman. “Learn how sound moves through air.”
In the end, the guys at the dials have tremendous power under their fingertips; they can best do their job with the cooperation of the musician. As Frank Sass sums up: “When I was in a band and had an idea, the guitar player never listened to you. Now that I’m a front-of-house guy, everyone listens to me.”
Originally posted 2009-01-17 01:07:27.