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Dynamic Directions: Mix Engineer Sean Quackenbush On Building His Career & More

A veteran discusses lessons learned on a journey from high school theatre to production manager and FOH engineer with folk rock artist Brandi Carlile.

For so many of us, there has been that moment when, often in a flash of (stage) light, we realize that being involved in live performance is the vocational path we want to follow. For me, it was June 13, 1976 at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. Frampton Comes Alive was everywhere and Peter Frampton was on the bill with Gary Wright, Yes, and a comparatively unknown group called the Pousette-Dart Band. As soon as the Pousette-Dart Band hit the downbeat, that was it; I knew that being part of this was what I wanted.

For (then) eight-year-old Sean Quackenbush, that moment was at a Michael Jackson concert in Buffalo, NY in 1984. His parents took him to a lot of concerts as a kid but the Jackson show changed it all.

“From that day forward everything was concerts, art projects, Legos; it became life,” he says. “High school was working with bands and theatre; I went to a theatre program for my senior year of high school to learn to do tech and became the sound person.

“In high school I had a ton of DJ/PA gear and there was a battle of the bands,” Quackenbush continues. “The bands asked me to provide a system and mix the show (with monitors; I had no idea how that worked) and also do the school’s talent show a week later. I rented a mixer and augmented my DJ rig to do a band with a 16-channel mixer, got the gear a week early, sat in mom and dad’s garage and kind of figured it out. I do remember turning all the mid knobs down to get rid of feedback, because I EQ-ed the PA like a DJ rig.

“Soon after that that I started mixing my buddy Rick’s 1950s/60s band on weekends for 50 dollars a night. I was 14 or 15 years old, and also began working in any capacity for OMNItech Pro Audio in Albany NY, who brought the PA for our school plays.”

Helping Hand

Initially, Quackenbush toured with OMNItech as assistant to the sound designer and system tech for Broadway-style tours. “I would build the system, go do a few weeks of tech and then get the tour off,” he explains. “When engineers left or needed a break, or got fired, I would relieve, train, or sub on the show. I got on a bus at 17 or 18 and loved it, but the goal was always to do mainstream music.”

“We’re taking the audience on a ride, they know every song, and the songs are special to every person in their own way.”

He also did his share at the monitor desk. “Most touring acts had their own front of house,” he says, “and, eventually, I got there, too. I’ve been mixing FOH for 20-plus years now, although I still occasionally do monitors to keep myself humble,” adding with a chuckle, “Really, I just love audio.”

For 15 years with Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Quackenbush toured the world, with the funk and soul group headlining shows and festivals along with opening for artists like Dave Matthews Band, Santana, Zac Brown Band, and Eric Clapton.

“Those gigs were best because they made us feel a part of the tour,” he notes. “I never had the “get on, then get out of here” from headliners. I always went in with a good attitude; if you go in with a good attitude the headliner’s crew will see you’re doing the same as they are. And if you give them a hand, they will help you as well. If you stand around or hang in catering while they’re working, that’s just bad mojo.

“Also, I always want to learn how a new PA flies or find out a different rigging technique. Sometimes there are room tuning ideas or microphone placements that I hadn’t considered; there’s always something to pick up from other engineers.”

Currently Quackenbush is production manager and FOH engineer for folk rock artist Brandi Carlile and her group, and between tours, he’s worked with KT Tunstall, OAR, Guster, Dispatch, Blindpilot, Matisyahu, Brynn Elliott, and Stephen Kellogg. He also handled main stage FOH duties at this summer’s Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, OR.

Learning Along The Way

I ask him about going from Robert Randolph and the Family Band to Brandi Carlile – two artists at the opposite ends of the dynamic spectrum. “I started mixing Randolph when I was 25,” he replies. “I don’t think that kid would have done the best job on Brandi, but at the time it was the perfect job for my skillset. With Randolph, it was make it the best you can with what you have.

“The Family Band grew up in the church (the sacred steel musical movement came out of the African-American Pentecostal House of God) where there was little in terms of PA systems, just six-channel powered mixers and blown loudspeakers – I know because I repaired a lot of them,” he continues. “It was an ‘AC/DC style’ plug in, tune to each other, and go as loud as you can type of situation.”

Quackenbush estimates that he mixed 1,500-plus shows with the group. “We worked together; new amps, switching out mics and monitors, isolating loudspeakers on stage – we tried everything,” he says. “I loved things the band hated, they did things that I disliked, but we were all trying to get the best results at the end of the day. The show was loud, I will never deny that, but I would mix it full to make it work.

“Loud can work if it’s good but if it’s loud and harsh, it’s over, go home. Ballads could be 101 dB A-weighted at FOH, but it would move people. We would have issues with limits, mostly in Europe, but I would always let the band know (and still do!) about the limit and 99.9 percent of the time they’d help out.”

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