November 09, 2012, by Ken DeLoria
Fate brings people down many paths, and more than a few seem to converge in the multi-faceted world of professional sound. Mitchell Holman began his career as a musician, as did many of us in the audio industry.
But while many future engineers played cover songs in local bands, Holman became a bona fide rock star in 1968 with a gold record hanging on his wall for his work as the bassist in the band It’s a Beautiful Day, best remembered for the hit song “White Bird.” It’s a staple of classic rock radio stations today.
I recently caught up with him at “West Coast Live,” a weekly radio show that he serves as audio engineer. The show is live-on-the-air Saturday mornings from a variety of locations in (and around) the San Francisco Bay area, and it also occasional migrates around, traveling to gigs as far as Ireland.
One show was even run “live-to-DAT” on a steam train in Alaska. The content varies greatly from week to week, which is a big part of the attraction for Holman.
We slid into comfortable seats at the Goldman Theatre in the David Brower Center in Berkeley, CA just as the live broadcast started. This particular show included interviews with several provocative book authors (a major component of each week’s show), interspersed with performances of three bands – The Dufay Collective, Uncle Bonsai, and Arann Harris & The Farm Band.
The Goldman Theatre is a small, beautiful auditorium populated that day by a lively audience of about 150. While West Coast Live has been a long-running independent fixture in the Bay Area, the privately funded show is also picked up by National Public Radio affiliates, reaching a weekly audience of about 1 million, plus an Internet audience of several hundred thousand.
Following the show I talked with Holman, who has worked the show every Saturday for 16 consecutive years.
Ken DeLoria: What made you change from playing music to sound engineering?
Mitchell Holman: I didn’t change! Working as an audio engineer supports my singing and playing habit (laughs). I still write and play, but I’ve also been involved in audio since the early days of rock when you had to literally build everything yourself. In those times it was rare to find any solid advice on how to properly interface equipment, so I learned it on my own.
KD: You’ve been doing West Coast Live for a long time. How has content of the show varied over the years?
MH: Not by much, other than to stay contemporary and to focus on interesting and provocative guests that might otherwise slip under the radar. It’s always been a variety show – one of the very last that still thrives in the radio medium – and it probably will always remain as such.
KD: Do you work other shows as well?
MH: Yes, I’ve done many industrials including Banana Republic, Apple, Google, and Charles Schwab, but I have steadily moved away from that highly competitive world over the last few years.
KD: What are the challenges you routinely face with this show?
MH: The first is that I need to provide three mixes at a time – house, monitors and the critically important air mix. This show doesn’t have the budget to provide separate mix positions, let alone an OB truck in the parking lot, so it all falls to me.
If something goes awry, it’s my responsibility, even if it’s the fault of an intern who’s helping me, or a house sound operator in a particular venue. You might call this a “self-equalizing” course of action.
KD: You work with interns. Is this a normal part of the weekly process?
MH: By all means. Part of my mission is to teach interns to run sound. Over the past few years, I’ve trained at least 10 regulars, some of whom have gone on to tour with major acts.
Second, I always load-in the morning of the show, and my assistants are volunteers or interns. Some have knowledge of how to mic a stage and run cables, while others do not. I rarely know what to expect. Third, this is a not-for-profit company, so I’ve got to be exceptionally careful about how money is spent on audio equipment.
As a broadcaster, we must always provide a clean, clear signal, and we strive to ensure that the tonality is of exceptional quality. To help keep costs down, I prowl eBay and even pawn shops. Recently, I found a large-diaphragm RØDE condenser mic at a pawn shop for pennies on the dollar, which I immediately grabbed and added to my mic kit. It’s perfect for certain vocal styles, as well as numerous instruments.
KD: Do you carry PA?
MH: Often I‘ll use the house PA, depending on the venue, while other times I provide a PA of my own design. The biggest trick is getting all three mixes to work for all performers during the two hour show. Never, never can I let the house PA or the monitors show the slightest hint of feedback while the show is on-the-air.
KD: Would you rather be touring and mixing national or international acts?
MH: Not in the least! In the past I’ve toured as both a musician and as a sound engineer, and while large-scale events have a certain draw, I’m very happy with what I do at present. That isn’t to say that I wouldn’t get back on a tour bus if the right circumstances presented themselves, particularly as a performer, but this small, steady Saturday gig provides a sense of satisfaction that I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere.