Tag Archives: Priorities

How To Buy A Microphone For Live Performance

A guest-post for Schwilly Family Musicians

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

vintage_microphone-wallpaper-1280x800

From the article: “At the same time, though, a LOT of mics that are great for recording are a giant ball of trouble for live audio. Sure, they sound perfect when you’re in a vocal booth with headphones on, but that’s at least one whole universe removed from the brutal world of concert sound. They’re too fragile, too finicky, too heavy, their pickup patterns are too wide, and you can’t get close enough to them to leverage your vocal power.”


The whole thing is available for free, so go ahead and take a gander.


Should You Go To Audio School?

I went, and I loved it, but I don’t universally recommend it.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I’m not entirely sure if me being a graduate of The Conservatory Of Recording Arts And Sciences reflects well or poorly on the institution. I definitely did NOT walk out of there and summarily change the world, but I have made plenty of friends and mixed a whole bunch of shows that were well received.

In any case…

I went to The Conservatory. I loved it. It was the best academic experience of my entire life. You would think, then, that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone considering a run in this business that they also go to school for the craft.

That’s not the case, though.


At the level of the general population, we are slowly waking up to the reality that the “diploma in hand” is really not a golden ticket. Our collective, aggressive somnolence in regards to this realization can be partially excused; For a long time, school was THE key to the brighter future. There was quite a long count of years where the piece-o-paper did indeed function well as a gate pass to getting a gig. There are some professions that still absolutely require proof of getting through the coursework to even get started. For many occupations, though, successful passage through related education is now a pretty mediocre commodity. You went to school? So? The 10,000 other people who want to do this job also did.

Having the education on your resume is no longer anything that makes you stand out from the pack. It’s not at all rare.

But higher-ed institutions of all types, especially those that really need your tuition dollars, won’t tell you that. They live on your believing that the best way to get into [insert profession here] is to have some sort of diploma. Like I said, though, the diploma no longer marks you as exceptional. It just shows that you were able to spend enough money and hang on long enough to get your credit hours.


From the above, you might think that I’m against school. I’m not. I’m against believing that school is something that it inherently isn’t.

School is not, at its core, an entry card into a profession or socio-economic group. It can act as those things under certain circumstances, but that’s not inherently what school is.

School is actually your becoming familiar with basic concepts and vocabulary such that you have a chance to understand your real education, which is the doing of the work in real life. It’s the mental foundation for asking the really interesting questions, questions that tend not to be covered in school.

(There are educational institutions which get into those questions, but they do so only at the very highest levels. Original research, the prime-example of this, is not school. It’s “doing the work in real life,” just in an academic setting where the goals are more than making a profit this month.)

The point of school is to make you able to learn something later, when you’re not in the classroom, lab, or other controlled environment.

So, if that’s the premise I’m going with, why would I NOT encourage you (like crazy) to go to school for sound? Doesn’t recording or live-audio school give you a crucial foundation for a future life in noise-louderization and electron inconveniencing?

Well, it can, but it’s not the only way to get there.


I went to recording school at just around the turn of the century. Digital consoles were out there, but were still a revolutionary concept for a lot of us in the classroom. The music industry still revolved around rock bands being recorded in big, expensive rooms through big, expensive consoles, connected to big, expensive outboard gear. CPU-based audio workstations were just at the doorway of competing with Pro Tools rigs running DSP cards. The project-studio revolution was definitely in full swing, but audio was still in a place where you could spend a lot without getting a lot.

You also have to realize that the Internet was in the midst of revolutionizing everything, but not nearly as far along as it is now. Information that’s easy to find these days was still difficult to ferret out then. YouTube, and a million people doing “how to hook up your sound system” did not exist. Not everybody posted their manuals and free(!) editor software online.

What audio schools had at that time was full-featured gear, actual studio rooms like what were in vogue, information, and the opportunity to do “lab” work that combined all that. They could charge you a fair amount for the privilege, and be basically justified in doing so. They were riding that bleeding edge of a business that traditionally worked on the “master and apprentice” model anyway, but had become big enough for commoditized education to handle the basics.

Do you know what’s changed since then?

The schools have newer gear.

They charge quite a bit more for tuition.

Gear with immense functionality has dropped in price.

All the information you need is available almost instantaneously, often for free.

Huge sections of the music business have stopped being “big industry,” and have returned to their DIY, “punk rock” roots.

What hasn’t changed at all is that “hands-on” time is still the most precious part of learning the craft.

To be brutally frank, as far as I can tell, for the price of an audio school program you can buy your own gear that – while certainly not top-shelf – will have all the features necessary for you to learn much more than the bare basics. Once you get comfortable with signal flow fundamentals, you could then start looking for bands to work with, and maybe even make some money while you establish experience. A diploma is worth very little compared to real experience, a reputation, and having some of your own equipment.


None of this is to write off academic audio programs entirely. If you truly want to go to school for sound, you should – but I would encourage you to look at non-traditional factors when choosing a school. Forget about the nameplates on the gear and the manufacturer-sponsored certification programs. Forget about whether or not the live-sound lab has the biggest and loudest flown array ever assembled. Forget about the stories of (a very small minority of their students, probably) who are working with giant artists and getting their names on industry awards that are mostly based on sales. Rather, think about:

How much hands-on time is part of the curriculum? The more there is, the better.

Related to the above, how much real, honest-to-goodness portfolio material will you have when you graduate? The more you can get, the better.

How much recruiting is done by potential employers at the school? Do local production companies go looking for graduates? The more of that there is, the better.

Will there be easy opportunities to meet and form relationships with people working at local, regional, and national levels? The more of those, the better.

We’re in a new age where the traditional barriers to entry are nearly nonexistent. If you’re going to go to school, go to a place that serves as a functional launchpad for your career, not merely a factory for people who can answer questions on tests. To use the language of Seth Godin, look for a place that prepares you to pick yourself, rather than for other people to pick you. If I had all of this to do over again, and I went to school, I would go to a school like that.

Heck, I want to teach there.


Dear Audio Humans

This is a service industry that just happens to involve sound.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Dear Audio Humans,

It has come to my attention that a good number of our friends, the musicians, have had some unfortunate experiences with us. My conversations with these players, these people who create the noises we selectively louderize, have revealed that we often do a poor job of serving them. This is a bad thing, but it’s correctable.

I want to lead off by addressing a myth of monstrous proportions. It very well may be THE myth that drives the majority of these fraught encounters.

It is the myth that success in our job is about creating the very best sounds. It’s the fable that the single biggest measure of our success is audio quality.

Actually, no. Our job is to facilitate the creation of a show, by way of helping the musicians with the scientific and technical disciplines involved in the inconveniencing of electrons and air molecules. Helping. Service. This is a service industry, and the musicians are almost always our biggest client when it’s all said and done. If they aren’t happy and cared for, we’re failing – no matter how perfectly tuned the PA is, or how awesome that snare-drum sounds out front.

You see, Maya Angelou was exactly right. She’s quoted thus: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Corollary: No musician goes home humming the FOH mix. They go home remembering their emotions about the show. If, because of us, they remember how frustrated or insignificant they felt, perfect phase alignment of the crossover point between the subs and tops doesn’t matter for crap. I can tell you for a fact that there are musicians who have played at class-A venues, and who have been treated very poorly. Do you know what those musicians talk about? They talk about the venue’s name, the name of the company responsible for production, and how seriously pissed off they still are at the lack of decorum shown by the crew.

Not a word about the awesome mics.

Not a peep about what name was printed on the monitor-wedge grilles.

Not a syllable about how many watts the PA could dissipate.

But they could write us all an epic-length poem on the effects of jerkdom.


So, in a practical sense, what does this mean?

First, let’s remember to smile and shake hands.

With everybody, including the opening act(s).

(The opening acts are real people playing real music, and are not any less important to the show than the headliners. If anyone says anything to the contrary, be polite to that person – and then ignore them as much as is feasible.)

As much as we can, let’s try to find a way to be pleased that the musicians have arrived, and try to show it. People like to be welcomed and treated with importance. We are the Maitre D’s, and the musicians are hungry for what we can serve.

Let’s also try to have a sense of humor. The hangups and misadventures are going to happen, so we may as well laugh it off. It can take quite a while to be able to do this consistently, but it’s worth it. When the day comes where you realize that the rough spots of show production are actually just hilarious war-stories in the making, you begin to see how every moment is really just a grand adventure. Putting a gig together is serious business, but even the most serious business has a joke buried somewhere. It may not be appropriate to voice that joke at a particular time, but we can be mindful of it.

Next, let’s try to be helpful instead of just sitting around. Musicians get so little help with their gear that you can often ascend to superhero status by simply picking up a combo amp and moving it indoors. The practical side to this is that a rested band plays better than a tired one.

Let us banish the idea from our minds that it is our job to “fix” the band. That is not our job. Our job is to translate what the band is doing. We may take the opportunity to sweeten. We may be able to correct some problems. These are good things, but they are always done by working with the band’s momentum instead of against it. The players are not wrecking OUR mix or making it hard to get OUR favorite sound. They are making THEIR sound, and we are here to help them sound as much like themselves as possible. Some bands don’t yet sound like themselves, or don’t know how to sound like themselves. Patience and gentle assistance are required in these instances. Insults, complaining, exasperated lecturing, and other rudeness are inappropriate. (The band will not remember that you fixed their lead guitar sound. They will definitely remember that you were unpleasant.)

Let’s “stay on station.” If we don’t see as unacceptable the phenomenon of an engineer getting a mix basically dialed up…and then disappearing for an hours-long smoke-n-beer break, let’s start seeing it. It will not kill us to stick around and listen to what’s going on. We will not suffer permanent harm from being available to respond to a band’s requests of us. Being present is actually very easy, and highly noticeable.

Last, let us not view requests for changes in monitor world as some sort of imposition, diva-hood, or pickiness. Instead, let’s view it for what it is: An expressed desire for a change that will help the show along. The show on deck IS the show out front – we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s somehow vice-versa. If the musicians have what they need, they will create a show that feels better to themselves and the audience. We can be honest if a desired change is being opposed by the laws of physics, but let’s at least try to get there first. Denying a change-request for monitor world because we don’t think it’s reasonable or are afraid of what it might do to the FOH mix is…well…cheap. When the monitors are as correct as they can possibly get, we can (again) ride that momentum out front.

There is no shortcut to doing a bad audio job that is any shorter than forgetting that this is a service job that involves sound. The inverse is also true. I’ve been in situations where I had done the service part, but felt pretty poorly about how the show sounded, only to have people tell me how great the show was.

So, let’s remember to do our real job.


Don’t Worry About How It Sounds, Worry About What It Does

Any mixer you buy will sound fine. Pick based on the features and how they work.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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If a console sounds bad – I mean, legitimately and unmistakably – it’s either broken or you’re using it poorly.

(If this post doesn’t kick the hornet’s nest, I will be very surprised.)

My point in this really isn’t to offend. It really isn’t to pick a fight. It really is to be very direct about what to spend your time and worry on when picking out a device to route and combine inputs.

I am by no means the most “well traveled” console operator on Earth. There are guys and girls who have had their paws on many, many more desks than I have, in several thousand more rooms than I’ve been in. At the same time, I have been around long enough to have gotten a pretty good sampling of what’s out there.

I’ve run signals through five-input mini-mixers.

I’ve done “coffeehouse” gigs on ancient monstrosities that I could barely lift. Hugely overgrown beasties which consisted of something like 12 channels, a heavy-as-a-bowel-movement class-AB poweramp (that probably managed a peak output of 400 watts/ side into 8 ohms), knobs and faders that someone with giant hands would have found comfortable, and which had “Peavey” silk-screened on the top surface.

I’ve pushed live audio through consoles that people would be embarrassed to own, and consoles that people would happily show off to some folks, and also through contraptions that nobody could possess but me – because I assembled the thing.

I’ve been on what Avid/ Digidesign would consider a flagship live-mix platform.

I’ve had the opportunity to do real, serious, hands-on, studio-environment stuff with large-frame analog units that would run you about $1,000,000 (in late 1990s dollars) when new.

Let me tell ya, folks,

They all sound basically the same.

Really.

Much like preamps, I have never been in a situation where I thought, “If I just had this one particular console, this would all sound better.” Never.

The Subjective Factor

Some of this has to do with how I work. There are sound craftspersons out there who are into the idea of “special mojo.” The magic of a certain preamp circuit. The plug-and-sweeten behavior of a very specific EQ design. The way the summing bus in a certain piece of signal-combining gear does this beautiful “something” when you hit it just right.

This is all neat stuff. When you’re sitting there, and you’re sure it’s happening, and it’s making your day, that’s great.

It doesn’t generally fit my reality, though. In my world, the time required to find the spot where the snare drum smooshes seductively into the harmonic distortion characteristics of a mic pre is time that would be better spent getting the vocals loud in monitor land. By my methodology, finding a console that gives you some extra forgiveness – or even sounds super-special – when you’re just tickling the overload lights is not a problem to solve. The problem to solve is why your gain structure is messed-up enough to have you bumping into the electrical limits of the desk.

On the flipside, you might be really into this kind of thing, which is fine if it’s working for you and the people around you.

The reason, though, that I point out that I don’t personally find it helpful is for the new folks. The guys and girls who are trying to buy things, and agonizing over spec sheets, scared to death that they’re not going to get enough bang for their buck. The bang is not in those tiny numbers.

What You’re Looking For

What my experience has overwhelmingly shown me over the past years is this: Any console which is basically capable of filling the needs of a given sound-reinforcement scenario will, at a fundamental level, have very comparable “audio circuit” performance to anything else capable of handling that scenario. Modern manufacturing of gear is such that pretty much anything, when run sanely and not engaging in transduction, will have low noise, imperceptible distortion, and transfer response that’s linear from direct-current to dog-whistles.

In other words, there’s no point in looking at SNR, distortion, and frequency response numbers on a mixer’s spec sheet, because it’s all going to be great.

It might not be magic, but it will pass signal in a straight line as long as a component hasn’t failed, and you aren’t hard-clipping the poor thing.

So forget about finding the unit with the best numbers.

Instead, get your mitts on the control surface (whether real or virtual), and figure out if you like how the thing behaves as a tool for intense, realtime munging of loud noises. Does the soft-patching make sense to a rational human? How about to an irrational human on the verge of panic, because something went wrong and the show is 30 seconds from downbeat? Can you make your common routing needs happen without getting lost? If you have preferred EQ setups that you like to use, can you dial them up without struggling? Is it easy to make any built-in compressors and gates act in a way that makes sense? If there are onboard FX engines, can you get the basic delay and reverb sounds you prefer?

These functional considerations are orders of magnitude more important than any subjective sound-quality difference you encounter, especially because they directly affect the “macro-level,” subtle-as-a-kick-in-the-face sound-quality that comes from really messing with an input. At least consider believing me when I say that you don’t actually care about whether or not one console seems to have “slightly deeper and more 3D” bass than another. First, it probably doesn’t – you’re probably just running the “better” console a little louder, or you moved a bit after patching your reference material into the different unit. Second, the tiny little worries evaporate in an instant when the real problem is a musician who “can’t hear the other guitar at all, dude.”

A miniscule difference in distortion characteristics won’t mean squat when the band is 110 dBC continuous in the back of the room without any help from the PA. A 2 dB better noisefloor isn’t worth arguing about when the space is filled with 100 people who are all shouting over each other.

Now…if you’ve got all the basics down, and you’ve found a few different desks that you enjoy using, you’re now ready to nitpick tiny, sonic details. If you’re into that, and you’ve got the time, and the money is all figured out, have at it! If you get a kick out of finding the special mojo, don’t let anyone stop you.

All I’m saying is that the “big mojo” of how comfortable you are with the console as an “audio wrench” matters a lot more. That’s what’s really and immediately going to precipitate what musicians and audio members are going to notice. As is so often true in this business, the ordering of your priorities list is critical.


A Long, Strange Trip

The story of an adventure with Mokie, our local Grateful Dead tribute.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I was finally having a bit of relaxation after the show. We had pulled it off. By the grace of God, and with a lot of help and hospitality, we had made the show work. Everybody had seemed to be very pleased in the end.

Even so, I was not enjoying my turkey sandwich and Sun Chips. Not really, anyway. It’s not that they were bad, just overpriced. It was about the same story for the…well…I guess I’ll call it “Gatorade” that I was having. I was enjoying that even less, because it was tasteless.

Positively unflavored.

Well, I guess it was unflavored. I’m assuming it wasn’t. I didn’t actually taste my drink as it went in, due to its point of entry being an artfully administered puncture wound in my left arm.

As places to have an unplanned afterparty go, the Emergency Department at St. Mark’s is not on the short-list. The staff are great, and the place is REALLY clean, but it’s just not a place you want to be, you know?

More on this later.

The Safety Factor: 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM

Webb A/V is a show-production force in this town because they are GOOD at what they do. Obviously, they have the technical chops and the gear to pull off their contracted events, but there’s more to it than that: They seem to instinctively get that this business is about being a service industry with an excellent safety record. If you are the client, you will be taken care of, and everybody will leave with all the body parts that they brought with them.

I walked up to the stage, with none of the onsite crew knowing me from a hole in the ground, and I was instantly treated with accommodation and courtesy. All I had to do was figure out my own plan of attack. The crew leader, Tom (I think it was Tom, the day kind of turned into a blur) was on top of everything necessary – the first thing being power.

“Hey man,” he said, holding up an electrical quad-box, “you guys are going to have your own, 30-amp circuit for stage. I’m going to give you the X-phase, and we’ll use Y and Z for the PA and lights.” (If you’ve never encountered it before, multi-phase power is common for shows with bigger electrical requirements.) Webb was ready to go, they were ready for us, and the deck wouldn’t have to share power with anyone. That’s a pretty good way to start things off. The provided FOH rig was a “4 over 2” QSC KLA, which sounded pretty darn nice as DJ, the Webb A1, started dialing it up. This left the band and me to do our own thing on deck, which kept things moving along nicely.

Life would have been perfect, except for the weather. The great outdoors has great acoustics, but it also has a great many ways to wreck your gig.

While this particular bout of “Utah overcast moodiness” was hardly a mid-Atlantic storm, it was still producing some noticeable forces. That is to say that, for our situation, the gustiness was tremendous – the problem being wind-related. The various light and sound trees were all firmly weighted down with sandbags, but even so, the crew leader was concerned enough to keep the masts in their lowered positions as much as possible. Air currents would die down, and then whip up with authority.

Did you know that cable-tub lids make excellent gliders? Did you know that ride cymbals are very effective as both kites and boat-sails? Did you know that plastic crowd-barriers LOVE to skitter across parking lots? These are things that we found out.

At some point, a wind advisory was issued. It was issued at roughly the same time the swirling air found some loose dirt, whipping it across my face and arms with an accompanying sensation of being stabbed with a hundred small needles.

On the upside, all the dry skin I had exposed was neatly removed. (Ladies, I don’t know what those fashion mags tell you about skincare, but I’m pretty sure that all the oils and spa-treatments in the world are NOTHING compared to good, old-fashioned sandblasting.) The downside was that things were clearly getting out of hand. About a minute later, the crew lead walked up.

“We’ve got to pull the plug and take all this down.”

…and that, right there, was the ultimate expression of professionalism. The expense and effort involved in putting up a show-rig is non-trivial. As such, there is tremendous pressure to “tough out” any situation. In the end, though, screwing up on the side of safety is always the correct choice. People in this business have died because the drive to keep the show on has overridden a healthy sense of danger. The chances of things not ending well were plenty high, so it was time for Webb to pack up and go.

What followed was a scramble for the band and me to yank down our more-than-halfway set deck, and run everything indoors. As we did so, there was one nagging problem: We really didn’t know what we were going to do once we got inside.

The Hospitality Factor: 4:00 PM – 9:00 PM

Especially when I’m in someone else’s house, I try to assume as little as possible. In this case, I was in The Rock Church’s house, as they were providing the indoors part of the whole equation. What we were met with when we walked in was a stage that was already set and ready to go – for someone else. The church band was that someone else.

To me, the answer was clear. We were going to set up around what was already there. We would use all our own boxes (which we had brought for monitor world) to handle both the stage and FOH. I would use my remotable console as a stagebox, and run things off a laptop with a network connection. We were going to have a show, and we weren’t going to muss up anyone’s hair in the process. The only problem was that I didn’t have any speaker stands with me.

Thinking quickly, I spied a couple of tall, cafe tables out in the audience. I could put a couple of speakers on those, and the result might not completely suck. I grabbed ahold of (who ended up being) Steele, the pastor, and asked if we could “appropriate” those bits of furniture.

“You can have anything you want!” Steele declared, emphatically.

He and another gentleman pulled the tables over to the stage.

“What do you want these for?” Steele asked.

I related my plan to get a couple of boxes up to ear level.

“Man, you should just use our system. Hold on, I’ll give Tim a call, and he’ll get you set up.”

In the space of about 30 seconds, we had gone from piling together a disaster-mitigation rig to being first-class citizens on a system every bit as good as what we were originally slated to use. On top of that, it was all hands on deck, on short notice. Tim came down at full-speed, patiently ran me through the system setup, and then yanked the existing patch entirely so that I would have a blank canvas to use. Everything was at our disposal, and the up-center drum riser was cheerfully removed to make room for Mokie’s two-kit percussion ensemble. They even lent us the church’s uber-rad, SVT bass rig.

On top of it all, Foster hurried down and – with patience as great as Tim’s – worked up an honest-to-goodness light show for both the band AND a hip-hop dance group. In record time. I would later go on record as saying that “Foster’s” is Australian for “beer,” whereas “Foster” is Australian for “killer light guy.”

Now, in my mind, I don’t think that Mokie and I are tough to work with. At the same time, the show (and all our needs) were basically dumped, last minute, on all the folks at The Rock. For that reason alone, they get a massive “Thank You” from me for “putting up with our crap.” Everybody in that building embodied hospitality, and the show happened because of it.

I must not fail to mention another couple of elements: The supreme importance of having a sanely-tuned, sanely-patched system to work with, and the equally supreme importance of having a great band to work with. Mokie is an ensemble that knows how to actually be a band. They would still basically sound like themselves with no PA and no monitors. While it would not be the most fun gig for them, they could pull it off. Because of this, the audio system doesn’t have to work any magic to “fix things.” Rather, the PA is able to act in its best capacity, which is to translate the already cohesive band into the audience. When you add that to an FOH and monitor setup ready to do real sound reinforcement (by sounding nice while being “unhyped”) what you get is a show that can be run effectively in a crisis.

I normally use EQ and compression on my FOH channels in a manner reminiscent of a sledgehammer. I normally have a separate, virtual monitor world. There was no time for any of that on this gig. We had to throw-and-go…and we were fine. I didn’t have all the flexibility I could have used, but that’s just the final layer of varnish anyway. For what was going on, I was able to run my channels surprisingly flat – and get away with it pretty handily.

The Hospital Factor: 9:00 PM – 3:00 AM

As the gig hit set break, Mokie’s fearless leader, Chip, walked out to FOH.

“It sounds GREAT, man. Some of the folks are even saying it’s the best show we’ve ever done.”

“Well,” I said, “clearly this means that the way to do these shows is to set up halfway, tear down and reset in a blind panic, and then just go for it with no preparation.”

I was feeling pretty good about what Chip said, but I can’t say that I was really feeling good in general. I wasn’t incapacitated, but I was definitely wondering what was wrong with myself. I had this weird aching in my upper chest and the top of my back. Even with the show settling into a basically comfortable groove, my heart wouldn’t slow down to a normal pace. I hadn’t done a strenuous gig in a long time, and the sudden call to maximum performance was not treating me kindly.

“Don’t be anxious,” I thought to myself, “because being anxious just makes it worse.”

As the show wore on, the good news was that I didn’t feel worse. I was able to smile through my discomfort and get things done. The bad news was that I wasn’t getting much better. As we ended things and tore down the show, I figured that I just needed to go home and go to bed.

Three-quarters of the way back to the house, on the I80 – I215 collector, it happened. I was barreling along with a vehicle full of gear, when the unmistakable feeling of being about to pass out hit me like a ton of bricks. What seemed like a white-hot lump fell into the bottom of my butt. My stomach felt like it would readily wrench its entire contents out my backside, given half the chance. I pulled to the shoulder and slapped the button for my emergency flashers. I wasn’t thinking clearly. Instead of yanking my brake, I moved the gear-selector to “Park.” The transmission made a howling grind of protest as the parking pawl ratcheted against a still mostly-highway-speed transmission. My hands were tingling.

In a daze, I sat drenched in sweat. A few cars tore by me. I wondered if I was having a heart attack. I thought about what it would take to get my phone out and call 911. I didn’t know if I could get my phone. I figured that I had about two minutes to decide.

Slowly, I started to feel better. The pain in my upper body was mostly gone, actually.

Half of me just wanted to drive home and forget the whole thing. The other half of me knew that treating such an event lightly was not to be filed in the “Smart Ideas” drawer. My more cautious half won the argument, and I drove to St. Marks instead of the house.

At the ER, the various goings-on began to…go on. No, I hadn’t had dinner. Oh…yes, why I DID have a bit of a sunburn. I did feel better now that the episode had passed.

The various tests were ordered, and my aforementioned sandwich was ordered. The nurse obligingly stuck me with an IV so that I could have a big drink without actually drinking anything. I sat, craning my neck to watch my vitals monitor.

That heart rate looks a little high.

Is that ECG trace normal?

Don’t be nervous.

That doesn’t seem right.

Don’t be nervous.

The MD was ultimately satisfied that I was not about to die. She was also, somewhat surprisingly, just fine with the idea of putting me back in control of 3000+ lbs worth of metal, glass, fuel, and audio gear. She sent me out the door with a stack of papers talking about things like dehydration and near-syncope. I was told, in no uncertain terms, to take it easy the next day. I was happy to oblige, being tired from the whole thing.

The irony, of course, is that I was all set to be “100% for safety” when it came to things like wind and water, but I failed to take care of myself. A few bucks worth of actual Gatorade might just have kept me out of the ER. I have no idea how big my bill will turn out to be – I’m insured, thanks to my mom being very keen on that whole issue – but no matter how much money I end up owing, it still contributes to my final, self-administered diagnosis:

Don’t be an idiot next time.


To Hurry Is Useless

“To hurry is useless. The thing to do is to set out in time.”
– Jean de La Fontaine

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Especially when it comes to show production, I will say this when it comes to time management:

If you’re in a hurry, you’re doing things the wrong way.

Of course there are exceptions. When a million things that you couldn’t have foreseen suddenly fling themselves at you, teeth gnashing, you can’t blame yourself. It’s entirely possible to get all your ducks in a row, only to have a vanload of psychotic kleptomaniacs with a fondness for waterfowl show up on the scene. The next thing you know, your ducks are gone.

I’m not here to argue the (bogus) point that you’re responsible for every eventuality, just because you have a certain position of responsibility on a show. That kind of thing sounds good for corporate motivational posters, but it’s as helpful as a greasy hammer when it comes to real life.

What I am saying, though, is that boredom is infinitely preferable to panic, and that you can often choose to not be in a pressure situation. You just have to allow yourself significantly more time than you think you need. If everything goes perfectly, then you can lounge around and enjoy being done. If everything does NOT go perfectly, you still have some cushion to work through your conundrum.

Again, what I’m talking about is when there are clear choices involved.

There are people who have a habit of thinking, “We can set up for our gig in the space of [timeframe], so we’ll show up at [timeframe] before doors.” These people CAN have a good show – if everything goes their way, and the folks supporting them are really top-shelf. If anything (at all) goes pear-shaped, though, the trouble will be very serious. The show probably will be late, or on time but something of a mess. The stress factor will be increased, and live music is plenty intense without any additions, thank-you-very-much-folks.

It’s also entirely possible to show up with plenty of time to spare, and then use that spare time poorly. I remember one show that I did where everybody, including me, was plenty early. We got the band’s gear all set up. I had a basic mix dialed in for the wedges before anybody else arrived. (I’ve told this story here before, I believe, but with somewhat less detail.)

And then, we didn’t soundcheck. The band wasn’t interested, for some reason. I stood by my console at FOH, and waited. As Douglas Adams would have said, nothing happened. Then, suddenly, and with no warning…nothing CONTINUED to happen. Roughly 90 minutes passed this way, as I remember.

Finally, at pretty much the precise moment that the band was to start, they took the stage and proceeded to do what they should have been doing all along: Soundcheck. Except, we had no time. We had to pretty much be in full swing immediately. Nothing was really where it was supposed to be, and so there was this flurried and chaotic activity of trying to dial everybody in all at the same time. Everybody needed something fixed in the monitors, and as I focused on one person, another player’s requests got lost. The drummer, in particular, had precisely what he didn’t want (a lot of everybody else’s vocals), and he wasn’t really in a position to communicate clearly about it. I think the poor guy suffered through a significant part of the first set before anything could be done. It all wasn’t a complete trainwreck, but it was an infinitely bigger sandwich-o-crap than it actually had to be.

To be brutally frank, the band could have socialized for a whole hour before downbeat – with everything being in place for downbeat – if we had only taken 30 minutes to get things dialed in beforehand. It might not have even taken that long.

There’s a big difference between not being able to put your ducks in a row, and not even attempting to arrange those little birds in a linear fashion. Why be in a hurry if it’s not necessary?


Music Is So Much More Than Recordings

A Schwilly guest post.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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“Before anyone could even begin to think of selling something as antiquated as a physical record, there were centuries upon centuries of successful and unsuccessful musicians.”


The entire article is available (free!) at Schwilly Family Musicians.


We Are Water Flowing Downhill

If you’re stuck, try to go around.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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One of the most lethal threats to successfully pulling off a show is getting stuck.

Or, rather, agreeing to remain stuck when you don’t have to be.

We’ve all seen it happen. You’re setting up and dialing in, and something won’t cooperate. The entire flow of show-prep suddenly diverts towards making that thing cooperate. Minutes pass as more and more resources are devoted to solving the problem. An hour goes by, and you’re still stuck, and you look up, AND IT’S 15 MINUTES TO DOORS, HOLY CRAP!

I’ve been there. I’ve been there (and been guilty of perpetrating it) when a snag has brought an entire production – even a decently planned one – to a grinding halt for far too long. So what do you do?

One thing you can do is learn the lesson of water flowing downhill.

Zen And The Critical Path

Consider the stream flowing down a rocky bed. The current has a destination which it must reach, yet there is impedance to the flow of the liquid. The rocks are obstacles. Snags. The water cannot flow through them.

Yet the water is untroubled. It merely flows around the rocks, acknowledging the stones by slowing – yet not stopping. The water continues down the critical path, and thus overcomes the rocks without overpowering them. The current strives against the impedance without effort.

The water does not confuse an obstacle in the path with the ending of the path.


Too often in troubleshooting, we make the assumption that we can not move onto solving the rest of a problem until we have solved each piece of the conundrum in some arbitrary order. However, this is rarely the case. Many shows are inherently “parallel” in nature. The lead vocal has a route to the PA, and the kick drum has a route to the PA. Those routes are very likely independent of one another until they are summed into an output path. If the kick drum’s independent route fails, but the lead vocal can still make it, you have a workable show. It may not be the exact show you were hoping for, but you still have a show.

The critical path is getting whatever MUST go through the audio rig to go through it. Everything else is a bonus. The vast majority of small-venue shows can come to a workable conclusion with nothing but the lead vocal working. Like I said, that may not be the best possible show – but it will still be recognizable as a show. If you hit an obstruction that you can’t quickly clear, take a moment and think: “If this can’t be made to work, is it truly the end of the show?”

If you answer in the negative, you are snagged on something that is NOT on the critical path. Flow around it. You can always come back to it later, but for now, you need to focus on arriving at the minimum viable product. In many cases, people only get stuck on a technical problem because they “assent” to being stuck. They decide to stop and bang away at the issue when there is no physical reason that other (actually more critical) issues could not be addressed first. The longer they consent to remaining obstructed, the more that the effort required to handle the rest of the show is concentrated into a shorter span of time. At some point, a threshold of panic is reached. This is a bad scene.

Do not confuse an obstacle in the path with the ending of the path. We are water flowing downhill.


The Rise And Fall Of A Small Venue – Part 2

Having all the top-shelf toys isn’t always necessary.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Mario and Mishell really got the foundation of Fats in the right place.

Look closely enough at the composite picture above, and you can make out the original FOH PA. That original setup was two, JRX full-range boxes and a single JRX sub. Now, it’s true that the sub eventually got moved upstage for the drumfill, replaced by two Peavey boxes that I had wanted to sell. However, it’s important to note that everything in that original, functional setup was used – continuously – from that first, fateful show with Wes’s band to the mainstage’s final night.

Let that sink in.

With one or two exceptions due to a bad power switch on an amplifier, ANY SHOW anybody heard at Fats came through the core of the original PA. A JRX rig isn’t a two-million dollar setup from Meyer Sound, but it still sounded just fine and was more than adequate for the needs of the venue. By the end, that system had a lot of miles and a lot of smiles associated with it. In terms of overall return on investment, those entry-level JBLs were probably the best value of anything ever purchased for shows at Fats.


Now, let me tell you about what makes the “good ‘ol days” the “good ‘ol days:” It’s the people, the love, and the dedication.

It wasn’t the load in and load out.

Back in “the good ‘ol days,” I loaded in and out almost as much as the bands did. I brought in a snake, extra mics, a mixing console, monitors, and some sundries – and, when the weekend was through, I took them out again. I was often the first person in and the last out. It was acutely exhausting, but it was great in its own way.

It wasn’t the acoustical environment.

The original version of the basement had no acoustical treatment at all, beyond the carpeted stage. The upstage wall was corrugated metal. Anyone who, in later times, thought that Fats was a loud venue probably wasn’t around for the first part of my tenure. The very live (and thus, LOUD) room necessitated a lot of PA if you wanted to balance the mush with some sort of clarity. I regularly ran the system all the way up to the clip lights…with vocals! I didn’t want to tear anyone’s head off, but I often did.

It wasn’t the world-class production.

The gear we had available was certainly decent enough, but it was sparse and limited in its performance. In the early days, bands got a handful of mixes on compact wedges. The console that I brought in was a bit of a dinosaur, built in the age when the Elves forged rings of power…and digital-mixer manufacturers hadn’t yet discovered that EQ on the buses was actually a stonking-great idea. (Oh, Tascam. Your design choices make me chuckle so.) Our stage-lighting consisted of three bulbs, bare, in saturated colors, connected to a group of sockets run on a single dimmer switch. Nobody was going to confuse us with The Depot or The State Room.

But what we did have were great people, a love for music and the people who make it, and the dedication to do everything we knew how to do as best we knew how.

The original downstairs serving team of Mario and Krista set the tone and the bar – no pun intended – for all future crews. With the three of us there, what you had was a no-bull group of music fans who wanted to hear good tunes and treat people the right way. Krista blended a razor-sharp sense of humor with a honed instinct for the real craft of bar service. She could sing along with pretty much any walk-in music I had, and never had any trouble making friends any musician who walked in the door. On Mario’s side, there was a special sort of presence to the room with him, an owner, being hands-on with the proceedings. Mario is the sort of gentleman who gets respect due to people just wanting to respect him. He was the craftsman who took the basement from a run-down storage area to an actual venue. He was absolutely fearless about “getting dirty” in pursuit of a job being done, and as a drummer, he could talk shop with any band in the room.

Mario was ENTHUSED about what was going on with every aspect of a show, and some of my fondest memories of Fats are the pre-show conversations we used to have about bands and live-production. We could kill hours with chit-chat about mics, speakers, guitars and the people who played them, drum techniques, and anything else you can imagine that had to do with music. We called those times “The Calm Before The Storm,” and there wasn’t much that could equal them.

Like I said, we didn’t start out with all the cool toys. Even so, bands seemed to get a real kick out of the place. There’s a reason that this quote survives: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I think bands responded to being wanted. I think bands responded to a crew that wanted to do everything possible with what was available. I think bands responded to venue management that was all about being fair, folksy, and easy to work with. I think bands responded to seeing that the point of the basement was to have music: The stage was a focal point instead of an afterthought, and the show was meant to be the reason you were down there.

Zero musicians probably remember how loud (or not loud) those mini-monitors were, but I’ll bet a whole bunch of musicians remember being treated like they actually mattered to somebody. I can’t remember any band that, upon being asked, did not want to sign the wall where players recorded their presence at Fats.

As a final point, I’ll also say that part of what made those early shows “the good ‘ol days” were the first experiences in that room with all the great talent Mishell booked. It didn’t matter that that the system didn’t do “crushing, Reggae dance hall bass.” Wasnatch and Dub Symptom still knew how to party. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t do ultra-minute surgery on every aspect of a guitar sound. Stonefed and Marinade still jammed hard enough for the crowd to fog the mirrors. You do have to have the basic tools, but past that, the actual humans involved in the music are what makes it work or not.

Even in the early days, Fats definitely worked.


First, Do No Harm

Doing nothing is perfectly acceptable when the alternative is to wreck something.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I attend a church which throws parties on occasion. Those parties feature the tunes of The Joshua Payne Orchestra, a group that emanates (what I call) Wild and Wooly Jazz Weirdness.

To date, we have not run a PA system for the event. The JPO has brought in equipment that does playback, a bit of fill, and some announcements, but that’s it from the reinforcement side. Even this last winter, with the church’s PA sitting close-at-hand in the Impact Hub basement, we didn’t “do sound” for the band.

And I’m not upset about that.

After the party, Josh asked me about what I would do for them, soundwise, if I was to do something. I answered him as best I could in the moment, which was that I really didn’t know if I SHOULD do anything. That’s not to say there would be nothing I could do. It would be entirely possible, for instance, to “get on the gas” with the midrange of Josh’s guitar; There were times when his parts got just a touch swamped for my taste.

But I still wasn’t sure if I would be ready to jump right in and make that change.

The Holistic Experience

I’ve said before that I think live-sound is not actually about the best sound as divorced from all other factors. Rather, I hold that live-sound is all about getting the best show. It’s how the gestalt comes together, and the whole experience is more than just checking off a bunch of boxes. You might think that getting the best guitar sound ever, plus the best vocal sound in history, plus the coolest snare in the known Universe (and so on) would get you the best show, but that’s not guaranteed.

In the case of JPO, the theoretical question I had to put to myself was, “Will fixing this detail ruin the whole?”

Integral to the party atmosphere was the music being prevalent, but with room to socialize. That was definitely working out without the addition of a full-on FOH mix going on. The music was in pretty much exactly the right place.

Now, remember that live audio is an additive business. If I want to change something, I have to make things louder.

The problem, then, was that making a desired change might have created an overall experience which was always in balance…but a little too loud. If it’s a little too loud, people stop focusing on the nice balance and start to notice that they’re not enjoying themselves as much. That’s not what you want.

There’s also the issue that The JPO is an extremely professional set of players who construct non-standard sonic experiences. They’re used to listening to each other, and do not need “help” to pull off the music at a gig. Even more than with other bands, you can’t be sure that you know precisely what their intent is for a particular tune. This isn’t 4/4 rock in the pattern of verse/ chorus/ verse/ chorus/ bridge/ verse/ chorus. It’s not like the basic rules of music don’t continue to apply (they always do), but an engineer faced with an unconventional sound is best served by NOT being cocky about their knowing how the music is supposed to come across. Diving right in and changing everything in a frenzy isn’t likely to get you the correct results.

Without having a more intimate feel for what was going on, I didn’t want to say “Yeah, we should totally do this, and this, and this, and…” It was very important to recognize that the band was executing their craft beautifully, and that my first reaction to that on-point execution should be one of respectful observation.

Don’t Confuse Action With Effectiveness

I sometimes call this craft “Selective Noise-Louderization.” The more of it I’ve done, the more the “selective” part has felt important. Rather like music, a lot of the success in live-audio can come from what you refrain from doing. This can be a very tough part of the discipline to internalize, because there are TONS of internal and external expectations that we should be “doing stuff” with all the gear we have handy. We have systems that can melt faces, and consoles with highly capable processing built in – and that makes folks (and us) think that our job is to change things.

That’s not the case.

Our real job, our real discipline, is to do just enough to make the show do what it’s supposed to do, and then STOP. For certain gigs, this means being very hands-on. For others, this means touching almost nothing. Fiddling around with every possible knob and switch on the rig is easy; Figuring out what’s appropriate to do is hard.

We even face professional expectations to “just go for it.” I was once mixing a show where we were having some feedback problems in monitor-world. We had backed ourselves into a bit of a corner, and I was trying to maneuver back to stability without just hacking away at everything. A fellow tech was in the room, and this bothered him. In his mind, I should have been making huge changes to monitor mixes, yanking levels down, and just generally being active. My calmness looked like apathy – but I had good reasons. I wanted, as much as was possible, to preserve the on-deck mix and be as unobtrusive to the players as I could be. To my thinking, flailing around dramatically actually disturbs the performers more. Lots of “doing” can look impressive, but it can actually push the show farther off the rails. Making a non-emergency into an emergency is a bad idea.

Sometimes you have to do something deliberate. Sometimes you have to do something dramatic. Sometimes you have to resist the urge to do anything. The point is to not make things worse in the name of “showing up.” If you’re on station and paying attention, you already have showed up. If what the show needs is to be left alone, then just stand back and enjoy the music. Everything will be fine.