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The author "slinging an axe" prior to getting behind the console for a gig at the Superdome in New Orleans.

Hunting Gremlins: What’s Old Becomes New Again

Treading ever so heavily on a sacred stretch of ground that has been detoured around for the past few decades – being in the band and dealing with newer (less experienced) and/or “attitudinal” sound people.

Much pro audio industry humor revolves around techs versus musicians. By their very nature, techs are knowledgeable problem solvers.

The flip side of this nature are musicians who “don’t let knowledge get in the way” of their artistic pursuit. Hence the endless put downs:

“Can you read music? Not enough to hurt my playing.”

“What do you throw a drowning guitarist? His amp.”

“Why did the drummer leave his sticks on the dashboard? So he can park in the handicap zone.”

And on and on…

Musicians aren’t clever enough to think up tech jokes, so it remains a one-sided affair. But to be fair, without musicians, techs would have nobody to work for (or pick on). Therefore one needs the other (and vice versa).

Where I come in is I’m that rare breed of musician and mix engineer. I decided early on in my music career (age 10) that I’d better pay attention and figure out what all those knobs do or I would be forever at the mercy of stage hands, janitors, and AV geeks to make sure the mic was on, didn’t feed back, shock me to death, or sound like a bullhorn. This would most certainly obliterate my “unusual amount of talent and artistic creativity” – some music critic’s quote, not mine.

I became so adept at the tech side that when I decided to retire from my night gig as a guitar gunslinger in my mid 20s, it wasn’t long before former band mates started calling me up to run sound for them. This quickly led to building my own loudspeakers in the garage and then going on the road with some popular bands of the day, such as rockabilly rebel Commander Cody (“Hot Rod Lincoln”), new country star Emmy Lou Harris, and Nashville singer songwriter Larry Gatlin, to name a few favorites.

After 30 years or so, instead of taking up golf, I decided to get back to playing in a rock band. (Your fingers never forget.) With the “equipment revolution” in full rage, I could get all of the sounds and portability that we lacked in the early 1970s. No more lugging around a Marshall stack, a pair of Altec A7s, a 200-pound rack of power amps and effects, and a piano (or Hammond B3). We’ve now been playing for several years, covering all of the old terrain from clubs to concert halls, outdoor fests to opening slots with national headliners.

Old Is New

And in this process, I’ve become the musician we all dread: the person in the band who thinks he knows about sound. I’m the grouchy old dude who has seen it all and tells the local sound company what I want, the way I want it, and I’ve got the road bacon to prove that I’m right.

The reason I’m laying this out is that I’m going to tread ever so heavily on a sacred stretch of ground that has been detoured around for the past few decades. I’ll probably make some of you mad, but for the greater good. The primary focus is being in the band and dealing with newer (less experienced) and/or “attitudinal” sound people.

When I started mixing in the early 1970s, there were already plenty of “seasoned pros” in this industry. These were cats that had been doing it for as long as five years and thought they knew a lot. My neck hairs used to stand up when these folks would come at me with their crazy ideas.

I was the “new kind of tech” who knew about bi-amping, hypercardioid mics, graphic equalizers and a whole slew of (then) new technology – very much like the young people of today, who have digital everything, are ISP and MIDI savvy, and can text with one hand while drinking coffee (or Red Bull) with the other.

So with all of this technology, knowledge, and super-duper gear, why do I run into the same old basic issues that have been around since the first sound tech unrolled the first snake? Because just like the common cold, the same gremlins haunt our industry to this day.

Here We Go

A few years ago, I walked onstage at a Chicago summer outdoor fest. You know the setup: five stages, lots of food vendors, drink tickets, wrist bands, too many bands with too little changeover time, and multiple sound companies all subbing gear from each other to cover the event. All varieties of loudspeaker boxes, amps and consoles, all of the name brands you read about on this site or in Live Sound International magazine. (As I always say, “There is no bad gear any more.” Even the worst stuff today was somebody’s A-plus rig just a dozen years ago.)

Suddenly comes the dreaded POP-BOOM-THUD. The house music stops and a hush falls over the PA. We all know that feeling of time standing still when the PA goes completely dark.

Now, I don’t panic because it’s not my problem, I’m just in the band. I go about getting my band mates onstage and set up (in other words, herding cats), then hand off our stage plot to the monitor engineer, asking him to take a look after they get the rig running again. No pressure. A few minutes later THUD-BOOM-POP as the PA springs back to life.

It’s easy to say “those guys are idiots.” But that’s neither the real issue nor the solution. Turns out the digital console was sitting on some road cases, and when the house tech returned from a BBQ break, he tripped over the power supply’s AC cable. Console off. Any of you who work with digital consoles know they take a while to boot up again.

But as a mere guitar player in the band, let me tell you that it doesn’t matter if it’s a guitar amp or a house console: get a UPS, run the power cable where it can’t get stepped on, and tie it to an immovable object so it can’t get unplugged.

You can have the highest tech gear in the world, but if it gets unplugged, it doesn’t work. That’s why the troubleshooting portion of every product manual from a washing machine to a hairdryer says “is it plugged in?”

Listening Is A Skill

Long ago, a famous acoustic guitar picker I was so looking forward to working with told me to give him an SM57 for his guitar. But I’d already made a special trip to borrow a really nice studio condenser mic to use on his legendary pre-war Martin D28 dreadnought guitar. “I’m really going to take care of this guy and show him how it’s done right.”

He took one look at that high-end mic and said, “Nope. I want an SM57.” After I gave him all the reasons why the mic I brought would be better, he replied, “I like an SM57. I know what it does. I know where to stand. I know what it sounds like in my monitor. Just put a 57 out there for me and I’ll take care of the rest.”

By giving him a mic he knew, he was able to perform at his best without having to worry about an unfamiliar pickup pattern and strange overtones from his monitor. He could just play and forget about the tech side of things. Lesson learned.

So, a few weeks later, I’m setting up my guitar amp, which I’ve spent years tweaking to get all of the sounds needed for this band. My volume level is sound tech friendly, and all of my pedals are tuned to stay within a few dB of each other for subtle dynamic and tonal changes. The mix engineer gets an optimal signal and thus can spend his afternoon ignoring me and running the faders for the other musicians.

The sound company’s mic of choice was a popular contemporary dynamic model that’s simply too full and warm for the sound I’m going for within the context of a seven-piece blues rock band that includes sax, harmonica, a fat B3 organ sound, as well as two folks playing percussion at times along with a drummer.

This mic was fine for the multiple 80s tribute quartets that had been on before us. You know these bands: guitars, bass, oversize drums, and an androgynous lead singer. Everyone in black T-shirts in the brutal Midwest sun, “Ready to party!”

I asked the young stage tech to give me an SM57 instead. Incredulous, he responded, “This is for the house engineer. This is what he wants.” I replied, “I’m the guitar player; this is for me. My amp sounds best with an SM57.”

“We don’t have another one,” came his caustic response. Me: “OK, do you have an SM58 (basically the same mic with a windscreen)?” He gave me the evil eye as he left to scrounge up an SM57, which he basically threw in front of my amp. (At least he put it on a stand, instead of just hanging it off the amp handle.)

Moments later I sound checked my amp through the PA, running through my five most used tones in about two minutes. The house engineer reports back through the wedges, “Perfect. Next let’s hear some keys.” A recording of the show confirmed my guitar sounded like it should. I rest my case.

If a player in the band makes a reasonable request for a specific mic, try going with it. Maybe that musician has done the research and knows from years of experience just how it works – or maybe it’s superstition or wanting to feel secure. Whatever the reason, try listening and then collaborating, and you just might get a better show and an easier day.

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