Tag Archives: Professionalism

What A Mixing Console Isn’t

Magically turning a band into something else isn’t what we’re here to do.

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 working on a new video, but it’s taking a while due to scheduling issues. (Being busy isn’t a bad thing, but still…) I figured I should put something up here to prove that I haven’t forgotten this site in the meantime.

So, in regards to a picture of a sophisticated mixing console: The device depicted is not a tool for fixing arrangement problems or interpersonal conflicts.

There, that should stir the pot a little. 🙂

If You’re Going To Talk, Talk Like You Mean It

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.

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“As near as I can tell, the trouble comes from not realizing that the entire time you’re on stage, you’re performing – or rather, that’s what’s expected. If you stop performing, the emotional connection between you and the “folks” starts to get scratchy and intermittent.”

Read the whole thing (for free) here.

The First Rule Of FOH

It definitely isn’t “Get control over everything.”

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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Well, I’ve done it. I’ve gone and had my first, real disagreement on Twitter. I may be a real boy now!

The (actually very mild) dust-up occurred between myself and another engineer. He was miffed at my “Pre or Post EQ” article, because – for him – my approach was far, far too passive. His response was that the first rule of FOH is to get control over the show.

Well, I’m sorry, but I can’t agree.

First of all, Rule #1 for all audio engineering is, “First, do no harm.” This job is very much like medicine: Shut your trap, listen to the musicians, try to get to the root of the problem, treat people like human beings, and don’t rush to a diagnosis.

Second: Not everybody is like this, but the process of getting in control over everything is basically installing a dictatorship. Not everybody is on board, and they may swallow their tongues for a while, but a rebellion will brew.

…and, if they aren’t afraid of you, folks may do nasty things to you out of spite. Does that sound like a fun show? That sounds like a TERRIBLE show, one that flat-out sucks for you, the players, and the audience.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Being an audio human for live shows has basically nothing to do with molding every second of the proceedings to your will. That kind of thing can (and does) happen, but I don’t see it as the normative case for folks doing shows where muting the PA doesn’t totally mute the band. That’s the vast majority of us, by the way. Rather, this gig is a sort of collaborative Judo, wherein we utilize the momentum of the band to transfer the best possible show to the audience. Forcing your way to maximum control is the opposite of that – I’ve seen it in action. Wrestling control of the show away from the musicians has an overwhelming tendency to KILL their momentum.

The musicians’ momentum is what the audience came to see. In the grand scheme of things, nobody truly cares about how “fat and punchy” the drums are. Nobody truly cares about how radio-ready the vocals seem to sound. If the show momentum is off, that will be the thing that the patrons notice. They’ll be impressed by the mixing for a few moments, but they didn’t buy those tickets for that purpose.

Now, if you can get complete control and also maintain musician momentum, I’m all for it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have full control if that’s the natural state of the show. If it’s not the natural state, though, you’re wasting a ton of energy (literally and figuratively) by swimming against the current.

Folks, it’s not “our” show. It’s the band’s show, and we are helping with it. We do get partial credit, and we may get an outsize portion of the blame, but – deep breaths, people! I’ve mixed plenty of shows that, to my mind, sounded rather poor. Some of them, in the opinions of audience members, were my fault when they really weren’t. Some of them, also in the opinions of audience members, sounded absolutely stellar (while I was grinding my teeth into fine powder over how terrible everything was). It’s okay! There are people who think I’m an idiot, but there are enough people who think the opposite that I’m not worried.

If something’s really amiss, comment on it, but don’t force your way into the captain’s chair. Interestingly, you’re far more likely to be promoted to that seat if you demonstrate an ability to collaborate with what’s already going on.

The Caterpillar Problem

The end result gets the glory, but there’s no end result without the groundwork.

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 just finished working on a show that took five months to plan and execute. It would have gone off without a hitch, except that a monitor wedge had its power cable kicked out at the last minute, when nobody was looking. This caused a fair bit of consternation for the sax/ flute player, but he’s a consummate professional and got through it anyway.

I digress.

Five months for two hours or so of showtime. It’s a classic case of George Carlin’s “caterpillar problem:”

“The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.”

That’s just the way it is with live sound, and also with life in general. Getting “there,” wherever “there” is, involves a long, hard, muddy, unglamorous slog. Anybody who thinks live music is about the roar of the crowd, the growl of the guitars, the thunder of the drums, and the glory of the lyrics soaring with it all, like a Pharaoh atop a chariot pulled by giant, glowing, cats…well, that person is incorrect. That person also probably has never done the work to put on a live gig, soup to nuts.

The ugly work of show production is the important work, though. It’s the caterpillar that eventually creates the chrysalis, dissolving itself into raw material that eventually becomes the butterfly of the end result. What’s done in the literal and metaphorical glare of the worklights is the critical foundation, and without it – no butterfly. You don’t get publicity for the “caterpillar work,” but without it, there isn’t anything to get publicity for.

You don’t get publicity for coordinating across multiple teams. You don’t get publicity for the hundreds of emails and chat messages that get fired around. You don’t get publicity for being able to manage your calendar properly. You don’t get publicity for your stage plots. You don’t get publicity for the process of laying out the stage in an organized way. You don’t get publicity for running cables neatly. You don’t get publicity for tuning the Front Of House PA and monitor world in a sane way. You don’t get publicity for doing a careful line check.

But you DO get publicity for when all of that finally comes together. The process is required for the output. You can’t get around it.

And the more you feed the caterpillar, the bigger and better the butterfly becomes.

Conversely, starving the prep work starves the show. Lots of people want to run lean on the prep, especially because the prep is expensive while not looking flashy. The battle goes in dips and surges, but it’s ever present; Someone, somewhere, is always trying to “compress the schedule” and “save a few dollars.” An alarming number of people exist who are unable to see the connection between foundations and what sits on them. That didn’t happen on this latest show, but it has crept up on me on a couple of gigs this last year. It’s tempting to go along with it, so as to land the opportunity to do a night, but it’s a big risk. You may not be able to avoid disappointing somebody, and I’ve learned the hard way that showing up and then disappointing people is worse than not getting the gig at all.

The absolutely essential work of the caterpillar requires a certain amount of time. There’s no getting around it. Plenty of people will want you to work magic in unrealistic timeframes. Politely decline. Butterflies don’t always get butterfly-grade publicity, but if you want a chance at the top-shelf stuff, you need to be able to build the best butterfly you can.

Oh, and here’s one more secret: The dirty work doesn’t get publicity, but it DOES get noticed by the people who really matter.

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.

When Do You Want To Sound Good?

Great gigs are the ones that get “picked at.”

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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There’s a point where a guys starts repeating himself; I have certainly reached that point here. Nevertheless, repetition of theme without rote regurgitation of content can be useful. So, I’m going to talk some more about time, and gigs, and showing up, and how it impacts success.

And I’m going to do it by borrowing the words of Jason Giron from Floyd Show and Loss of Existence. There was an occasion where a fellow band member asked, “When should we come to soundcheck?”

Jason replied, “When do you want to sound good?”

I tell you, every so often you get to stand next to someone who can perfectly encapsulate a tome of wisdom into a single sentence. This was one of those times for me.

There are plenty of bands, individual musicians, and production humans out there who want to minimize their exposure time when it comes to a gig. This is understandable, because in Western society, time and money sit on either end of an equality symbol. The problem, though, is that minimizing your on-gig time has an alarming tendency to minimize your on-gig success. When it comes to show production, getting the really amazing things to happen requires “picking at it.” Picking at it isn’t time and money efficient, but it’s necessary to create magic.

If you want to really get comfortable with how everybody sounds on a stage with no reinforcement, and truly dial that in so that the future reinforcement will be maximally effective, you have to take the time to pick at it. It doesn’t happen in the space of a minute. You actually have to get up there, play some songs, and figure out how everybody fits around everybody else.

If you want to dial up a truly killer starting point for monitor world and FOH, you have to pick at it. You can’t just throw it all up there, run a few test signals through, and walk off for a bite. You have to actually go up on deck and listen to a real mic through a real wedge. And then listen to a real mic through multiple wedges. At high gain! You also have to listen to real music through the FOH rig. If you want an objective measurement of the system, you have to get out your reference mic and attendant software, and then take a few minutes getting a good trace.

If you want me to create the best monitor mix possible for you in that room, you have to pick at it. We have to go through several iterations of tweak/ listen/ tweak/ listen/ tweak – and we have to be able to do it all with calmness and rationality. Thirty seconds of panicked gesturing from a cold start ain’t gonna get you there, pilgrim.

If you want to build the FOH mix that effectively translates what the band is doing into the house, leveraging and flowing along with the natural sound of the group in the room…You. Have. To. Pick. At. It. Before doors. Or do you want to be futzing around, “finding yourself” for the entirety of the first set? People, please. Bands and audiences deserve better.

As an experienced “Selective Louderization Specialist,” I can tell you that sounding good (and getting everybody truly comfortable) takes at least an hour of work. Bare minimum. (There are plenty of bands that require much more time than that.)

And that hour does NOT start until everybody is in the same room, with all the gear working, and with the entire audio system pre-tuned for the appropriate performance. (A hint for sound people: You have to be really early if you want a fighting chance at this.) It’s not to say that it’s impossible to sound decent in a smaller span of time. It can be done, and sometimes it must be done – but why choose that outcome if it’s optional?

“I’m not required to smack myself in the face with a sharp object, but I’m going to do it! Eugene, hand me that axe!”


Assuming that it’s going to take no less than 60 minutes of effort to make your show spectacular, I encourage you to ask yourself the “Giron Question.” When do you want to sound good? Figure out when that time is, and then show up a lot earlier than that.

About That Zappa Interview

What matters is the product, and how it connects with fans.

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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This animated version of a Frank Zappa interview made the rounds a month or two ago. The first thing to do is to watch it, if you haven’t done so. Be warned, there’s some PG-13 language used.

The whole thing shows just how smart this guy was, and how he understood exactly what we’re actually trying to do in this craft. As such, I want to dig into a number of points and expand them as I have come to understand them.

Not In The Band Anymore

Mr. Zappa opens up by going straight into a really tough point: Why would someone not be in your band anymore? In this case, two reasons are laid out. The first reason is that a player (or, if I dare to synthesize a bit, a crewmember) can’t handle the job. The second possible reason is that a better opportunity came along.

I’ve had the good fortune to come across only a few bands that desperately needed to fire somebody. In the cases where a firing was needed, the situation was often that, despite the need, nobody was getting dismissed. In general, the lack of movement came from the other band members believing that the definition of “good enough” was mostly about a player’s technical ability. I’ve written before about how this isn’t a sufficiently wide-ranging view. There are plenty of musicians and techies with incredible “chops” who are also terrible at being in a band with actual, other people. Maybe they play too loud. Maybe they can’t stop playing, even when it’s some other player’s turn. Maybe they’re just a pain to be around. In any of those cases, the person in question isn’t good enough to be in the band – being part of the group is a necessary skill, and at least as important as being able to play every possible variation of a G-major chord.

The second bit might seem to be more obvious, but I think there’s some hidden meaning within it. Is your band good enough that it produces people who other bands want to hire? Think about that as an aspiration: That your group not only seeks out, but also creates musicians and crew members who become sought after. That’s the mark of a brilliant organization, an organization that improves a music scene just by being there. The very best bands don’t just play killer tunes, but are also economically and organizationally structured for people to do their best work.

The Spirit Of Accomplishment

This connects with the previous sentence. The very best bands, the ones that are platforms for people to do their best work, produce a sense of pride in the group. When the players and crew are giddy with the excitement of standing up and saying, “Check out what WE did,” then you know you’re on the right track. This kind of pride becomes infectious, and beckons others to join in. That’s why Frank could claim that there was no shortage of people willing to put themselves through the rigor of being in his group. The discipline required to execute at the “varsity” level is a natural necessity and not an arbitrary imposition, and good people will readily volunteer for it.

The flipside is that, if truly respected players and techs don’t have much desire to be subjected to the discipline of your organization, you may not actually be varsity level. That might sound a bit harsh, but the good news is that you can start correcting a problem once you’re aware of it.

Adverse Circumstances

Let’s keep going with that “varsity level” metaphor.

Can your band play and sound like itself without top-shelf monitors? Can your band play, even if FOH isn’t being handled well?

Do you have a backup plan if a piece of gear dies?

Can you pull a coherent acoustic set out of your buttocks, if all else fails?

Does your crew have a contingency for getting through the gig, even if a major piece of gear vomits all over itself? Do they have, somewhere in their minds, the ability to downgrade all the way to a vocals and/ or priority-instruments only mix? Can they do it without thinking about it for more than a few minutes?

If not, it’s time to do some thinking. There’s no shame in not being at this level immediately. Shoot for it, though.

The Dictatorship

Some productions can function as full democracies. Some can work as partial democracies. Some require an out-and-out monarch. No matter what, though, all shows require that there be a singular someone where the buck stops. THE point of contact. The person (or entity) that “signs the checks.”

You might think that being the point-person means that your primary duty is to give as many instructions as possible. This is incorrect. In a band that enables disciplined people to do their best work, the leader barely has to give instructions at all. The job of the king is to make the big-picture decisions while ensuring the well-being of the folks who are led. If the group is actually a well-honed production unit, then people will know their jobs and do them without being continuously prodded.

The check-writer certainly has authority. The check-writer certainly does give orders. The check-writer certainly does hire and fire. All these things do not exist for themselves, however. These natural authorities are in place so that the check-writer/ dictator/ king/ chief/ grand poo-bah can create an environment where as many people as is practicable are able to execute their craft at the highest level that is possible. If those authorities are used for some other purpose, such as the growth of an individual’s ego and power-mania, then a person’s exit from the group is both justified and praiseworthy.

(In the case of Frank Zappa, I’d be willing to bet that he used his authority properly. Some folks just can’t handle the idea of someone else being in charge, though, and they will “select out” no matter how good the band is.)

The Product

The apex of all this is to provide a product. In the case of a concert, the product is an integrated experience that takes the audience on a ride that they couldn’t otherwise go on. The experience is a union of parts that creates a gestalt greater than those parts. The better the gestalt experience, the more that product connects with an audience’s emotions, the more in-demand (and well paid) the band is likely to be.

That concept of “wholeness” is very important. Wholeness comes from supporting an impeccable foundation. Performances that ultimately fill venues are not, in any way, about just sticking a bunch of improved “production blocks” together. Some groups, for instance, end up chasing after a bunch of lighting or audio gear in the belief that snappier “technicals” will win a bigger crowd. This is not the case, however, because just making something flashier does not mean that the core, emotional ride is one that the public wants to go on.

The ride starts with the basics of the song.

A better arrangement gives the song more engaging sonic textures and pathways.

Better audio production translates the first two elements into the audience more readily.

Better lighting acknowledges and accents the journey of the song.

Better staging makes all the previous elements work more smoothly and naturally.

If the core isn’t all that great, though, then plugging in a giant lighting system and a PA that can call elephants from halfway around the world isn’t going to do squat.

There is a blues, funk, soul, and rock-n-roll band from around these parts that came through my former gig for about five years. When I started working with them, we had minimal lighting. Because of issues with stage acoustics, we basically ran without subwoofers. Do you know how many people complained about those things? Zero, that I can remember. Also, the gigs with less production? They were just as full as the later, better-produced shows. People appreciated what was added on, but they wouldn’t have cared if the fundamental experience had been lackluster.

Somewhere near you, tonight, a big-production gig with all kinds of flash and flair will be less than half-full. A few miles away, a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, a couple of small speakers on sticks, and no lighting to speak of will have a line around the block. There are all kinds of reasons that might be the case, but consider that all the gear money could buy didn’t guarantee a capacity crowd for show #1.

…and this pulls us all the way back around to the start. Musicians and crew who are not making the holistic product better, for whatever reason, need to go somewhere else. The cliche of the fans being what matters is around for a reason. The fans are who ultimately enable the writing of checks. If some member of the group is fixated on some aspect of the production that is dragging down the gestalt experience for the fans, then that group member needs to be corrected. If they can’t be corrected, it’s time for them to find some other group. No matter how much they know, or how much they can do, they aren’t good enough to be in the band.

A Message To A Concerned House Tech

Take things personally, but not too much.

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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You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. This is mostly because you’re not any particular person. You’re an aggregate character, an archetype that makes a regular appearance in one form or another. You have many avatars. These avatars ask questions, sometimes in person, sometimes on the Internet.

You’re worried.

You’ve been trying to do good work. You’re conscientious, always trying to get a better handle on your craft. You’ve had a string of shows that you felt good about, and then “it” happened. A band was booked at your place of work, and the results were nightmarish. The whole night felt like moving a rope by pushing it. You couldn’t get your mix to behave. The different parts wouldn’t blend together into a satisfying, holistic sound. Instead, you sat through several hours of sonic “Whack A Mole,” where one thing would be too loud, and then the next thing would be too loud, and then a whole other thing would be too loud.

In short, the show “fought” the whole way.

It was a roaring storm that improbably managed to combine shuddering murk with piercing shriek, and it made your ears hurt. It made other folks’ ears hurt. If you could have visualized the sonic splatter, it would have made a hyperactive toddler armed with pureed carrots and applesauce seem quite manageable.

You’re wondering if you’re any good at this audio stuff. You’re wondering if your reputation, and the reputation of the room you work for, have now been irreparably damaged. You may be storming around, barking exasperated questions like, “Why won’t musicians help me out? Why won’t they listen to me? What am I doing wrong?”

It’s good that you’re taking things personally. The truly awful people in the noise-louderization business don’t take any responsibility at all. They don’t bother to even consider if they should worry. They’re always right in their own mind, and you have managed to dodge that bullet. You want quality, and you’re willing to try for it. It bugs you when other folks aren’t on board. It worries you that maybe you don’t have a magic touch with audio; If you did, wouldn’t you be assured of perfectly consistent results?

I’ve been down this road. I still travel across it from time to time. I want to tell you to keep worrying, but not so much that you can’t put the worry aside and enjoy things.

Because, especially in live sound, you can’t fix stupid.

I realize that sounds very harsh. We’re supposed to be friends with, and respect musicians, and to say such a thing might bear the appearance of contempt. But it’s not contempt. It’s simply recognizing that the life of an audio human is to translate to the audience what’s already there (especially if you’re in a smallish room, where the band’s acoustical contribution is overwhelmingly high). If what’s already there isn’t much good, then everybody’s out of luck.

Our profession has a tendency to be compared to studio engineering. We use very similar tools. The basic vocabulary is the same. Shouldn’t we be able to overcome any difficulty? Get any drum or guitar sound we like? Tame any runaway sonic event? Massage any fractured ensemble into a respectable, even enjoyable gestalt?

Well, no, actually, because different disciplines can share both tools and vocabulary.

I have said this many times, but I will say it again. We are at the mercy of limited power, limited volume tolerance, and limited gain-before-feedback. The studio guys get to live in a world where all the audience hears is what comes through open-loop, after-the-fact playback. We, on the other hand, occupy that portion of the universe where life is realtime, where every part of the system interacts with and potentially destabilizes some other part of the system, and where completely reinventing the band would require us to be so loud as to require everyone to wear both earplugs and gun muffs.

The way the band sounds naturally is pretty much how they’re going to sound with a PA. A great PA, with truly top-shelf FOH control, in a very big room (or outside) will give you more options, but not infinite possibilities. Physics is a harsh mistress, because she makes no exceptions, but she is also a fair and ultimately predictable creature – also due to her not making any exceptions. As you get better and better at your craft, you will more readily identify just how much you can help a band along with what you have. You should use this power tastefully and wisely. You should ask yourself if you’ve done everything you know how to do, because that’s part of being a pro.

But you shouldn’t agonize, because you can’t fix stupid. None of us can. I have never, and you will never make a bad band sound good. It’s physically impossible. If you “make” a band sound good, the band probably wasn’t actually bad. (Remember that last bit. It’s very important.)

So, keep being conscientious. Keep asking yourself how you can get better. Keep showing up on time and doing your homework. Keep taking a personal interest in a show having a great outcome.

And realize that there will be things you can’t fix. As long as you did everything that was prudent to do, you can’t blame yourself. There are people who won’t get that, but most of them probably won’t be signing your paycheck. Let the rough experiences sweeten those times when the band is so good that you can’t possibly screw it up.

Keep on mixing.

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?