Surviving The Great Unknown As A Budding Engineer: The Club Gig
Success is in both preparation and quick thinking at the venue.

January 18, 2013, by Nathan Short

Homage Sun

It’s a slate gray spring afternoon and I find myself crammed in the back of a creaking Econoline van making its way across the Midwestern prairie to a club gig tonight in central Iowa.

We’ve gone from the man-made peaks and valleys of downtown Chicago through the bland sameness of the northern suburbs and now find ourselves looking out across thousands of square miles of dormant brown fields that occasionally yield to exit ramps and truck stops.

Only three hours to go…

I’m not really thinking about the terrain, but rather, tonight’s gig, where I’m going to serve as sound mixer with my van mates, a hard-working melodic metal act called Homage Sun.

I particularly love working with these guys; they have an unconventional, down-to-earth professionalism, great showmanship, and through many gigs together, we share an uncanny trust of my sometimes oddball ideas about live sound.

My primary concern: have I done everything possible to make sure we have a successful show tonight? Have I done enough homework?

What are we really walking into, in terms of the room and its system capabilities? As with every gig, I want this one to be the best, or at least go as well as humanly possible given factors outside of my control.

“Vocals will always be heard, I’m a kick drum “Nazi,” and guitars/bass will then be added as allowed.”

I’m a relative youngster in this business, but have been schooled at the sound department at Columbia College in Chicago. At the same time, my experience is dramatically enhanced by mixing (and sound teching, gear schlepping as well as playing chief nursemaid and bottle washer) at hundreds of live gigs just like the one I’m facing tonight.

The only part of this equation that can really be known is the band.

What’s the best way to prepare to mix a club gig? At times, the process of contemplating an approach to this particular art form seems to serve primarily to inspire a good headache.

Multiple variables and angles are the rule of the day. It’s rare that two shows - even those with the same act in the same venue - are usually exactly alike. My survivalist tendencies, and love of this business, have resulted in an approach that is followed so religiously that it’s second nature.

Preparation makes perfect, or at least respectable. The time leading up to the gig should be spent making sure everything that can be controlled from a sound perspective is indeed under control, because in the live mix process, you’re asking the mind to critically analyze an amazing amount of data from your ears’ nerve receptors and make the right changes and enhancements on the fly.

When show time comes, it’s all juice - endorphins, adrenaline, sweat-glands in overdrive… the reason we do this, and usually too late to do anything more than tweak.

Every show requires a little bit of “old boy” and “new blood” networking. I start by asking my elder (and presumably, wiser) mentors what problems they recall with the room I’ll be working.

But it’s also advantageous to check in with the young guys and gals that have either mixed or recently attended a show at said establishment.

The two sets facts or fictions give me a better overall idea of what to expect.

If there’s at all a chance to visit the venue ahead of time (such as when it’s much closer to home than a six-hour drive to Iowa), I take in a show.

Combine the elements of my preliminary research and then just listen to the room, system and show.

I make it a point not to bother the house sound person, but do try to introduce myself and make acquaintances, and also get a first-hand look at the gear.

Serious notes are jotted down regarding the system’s problems, but I’m careful about sharing these observations with the house person.

They likely already know of the problems and may be bitter about not being able to fix them (budgets!). Why run the risk of unnecessarily offending the person? No need to make enemies before the gig has even started!

Sometimes prepping for a club gig inspires a big headache.

The tough part is hypothesizing the “problems” I believe are correctly analyzed and then approaching them from alternate viewpoints. Every console and piece of outboard gear, through wear and tear, has its own personality and quirks.

Also, every sound reinforcement system pieced together squawks a little differently from the others. And finally, we don’t mix in cushy rooms with lots of acoustic treatment. The room will almost always put up a fight.

Returning to thoughts on the Iowa gig - a bit surprisingly, one of my friends at school had mixed there previously.

He relayed that it is mid-sized, about 500 capacity, with a small stage and perfectly parallel walls. Load-in happens up a flight of deadly metal stairs.

The venue also has a web site, and I printed out a copy of their technical specs and gear list.

An acceptable console with two sweeps, effects that cut the mustard but are a big harsh-sounding in my experience, unmentionable one-third-octave equalizers, four monitor mixes from my position, a mixed bag of non-pro amplifiers, and a monstrosity of small, slapped together main loudspeakers.

Needless to say, but I wasn’t very exited about this particular sum of ingredients.

In the following band meeting, I explained my misgivings about the lack of quality I expected to encounter. That said, the band also knows my priority when working in a non-optimal setting: vocals will always be heard, I’m a kick drum “Nazi,” and guitars/bass will then be added as allowed.

We roll up to the club, “meet and greet” goes just fine, and then I quickly head upstairs for my initial first-hand look at the room and tools that will serve us over the next few hours. Yep, a long room with parallel walls, along with unfinished ceiling - actually, a bare tin roof.

The house guy is extremely accommodating, the systems are arranged as we requested, and he lets us have a two-hour house and monitor system tweak-fest.

Right away, I high-pass the entire system at 45 Hz to “save rail” on the subwoofer amps.

The subs, housed in monstrous boxes that look like modified Altec “Voice of the Theatre” systems, are loaded with new, and rugged 15-inch cones.

Dual 12’s carry out the order for mids, and a raw, gigantic JBL compression drivers sit behind two-foot horns on top of each left and right speaker pile. 

Mike, our monitor engineer, suggests we aim the two guitarists’ (four by 12-inch loaded) cabinets at the rear corners of the stage to help control stage volume. Good idea, and I readily agree with the approach.

We gave the house wedges and side fills a real workout. I checked the lines up front, and Mike called back the monitor cuts. Side fills carry guitars, kick, and high notes of the bass. The center wedge handles lead vocal and more guitar.

The bass was put on a custom DI that I had modified with silver wire, silver solder, and a transformer surrounded by ferrite. Still, the “slap and ping” of the bass had to be fine-tuned, along with beater click of the kick drum between 4.5 kHz and 6 kHz.

The house AKG D112 large-diaphragm microphone was applied to kick drum, while the Shure SM57 mics on guitars were tailored to sacrifice frequencies from 1 kHz to 4 kHz, helping with vocal clarity up front.

While the house guy fought feedback while mixing the warm-up bands on the bill, we had a smooth show. The mains sounded much better than anticipated, and surprisingly, my mix was much easier to pull together than previously assumed.

Our bass and kick drum relationship melted together nicely, helped by a parametric EQ slaughter of everything between 200 Hz and 600 Hz. The only thing I have to compromise for the entire mix is pulling some top end out of the snare drum because vocals are (as always) the high priority of the night. 

The locals, owner and bartenders noted they hadn’t heard the system or room sound quite as good before. And in fact, it’s wasn’t hi-fi, but it was clean, loud and feedback free, definitely not among the worst gigs I’ve had to work.

It was a cold night in Iowa, but the system was as dialed-in as we could get it, the crowd got rowdy and the metal music was hot and flying. It sure did make for a better, but still cramped, ride home… I’m wondering,, where’s our next gig? I wonder what the system’s going to be like? Can we do any better than tonight? All I can think is you’ve got to try.

Nathan Short is a working mixer in the Chicago area.

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Surviving The Great Unknown As A Budding Engineer: The Club Gig