A sound dude – in the beginning
The first sound console I ever operated, a Peavey PA-600, sported huge rotary knobs instead faders. It could withstand a beer (not mine) spilled into its internals and keep on “passing audio” as we like to say in the biz.
I was the soundman for a cover band called “Easy Blend.” Don’t judge.
My buddy Mick played bass in the band and they practiced in his parent’s garage. Yes, for all you youngsters born after 1985, this is the what “garage band” really means. There was no app for that back in the day. There were no apps. We had knobs.
Mick and I graduated from high school. Mick worked in the family business, I tipped my toe into the local community college.
Mick had the bright idea of starting a sound company. He contributed transportation and the four Yamaha S4115H speaker cabinets, each with a front-loaded horn and a 15″ subwoofer. We’d stack them 2 per side for the “big” shows.
I provided my mixing and engineering “talent” and the rest of the rig. Or my parents did. Whatever talent I muster is debatable, but I wouldn’t be here without my parents, nor would the rig have ever made it out of the store without their blessing and a loan.
Our new live sound system consisted of:
- 10 SM-57 microphones
- Three Crown amps
- A used Altec 1/3-Octave EQ (built like a tank and probably now a collector’s item)
- Four Cerwin-Vega wedges (stage monitors)
- A 100-foot snake (try cleaning a snake after an all-day “festival” held in a farmers pasture)
- A Uni-Sync Trouper 8-channel mixing board with an 8-channel sidecar for a total of 16 inputs channels, each with 3-band EQ and 2 aux sends (1 pre-fader, 1 post fader)
- All the cords, mic stands, and other accouterments required to survive in the rough-and-tumble world of live sound.
With that and the fearless optimism of youth, “Roar Sound” took on the world.
I learned a lot.
After the fourth or fifth blown high-end driver I learned why it’s good to have a limiter between the amps and the speakers.
After the first set mixing an “anarchist” band called Prairie Fire, I learned the value of compression between the mics and the board.
I learned how to explain the difference between echo and reverb. I experienced, in person, the inverse square law (but then, we all do, every day). I learned how to ring out monitors.
The countless times I took our $8000 sound system into dark, steamy clubs full of people, noise, and alcohol consumption I learned why it’s best to never panic and at least act like you’re in charge.
One of the most important lessons was about people. It still is.
Fast-forward about 38 years and a lot has changed. Live performance sound engineering has, to my mind, come into its own as an art and a science.
It is still based on the fundamental skills in sound and music that I learned as a lad. Mixing garage bands, playing trombone and piano, and venturing forth with my buddy Mick. Have sound system will travel.
Unfortunately, there remains a legacy of the “good ‘ol days” that does nothing for the art, science, or humanity of this industry.
The electric chair
Have you ever sat in the electric chair? I have. Thousands of times. The electric chair is the seat in the sound booth at Club Fugazi. Anyone that can last 90 minutes in the electric chair has my respect.
Not everyone can. Some wash out.
One of those for whom I have the most respect, both as a sound person and a human being, is Claire (not her real name). Claire is a young woman, a single mother, and one of the kindest, most grounded people I know. This, in a business that is often not kind and rarely grounded.
One of the “fun” things about getting older is watching younger friends and colleagues mark their path in this world. In the summer of 2013, I trained Claire. The night she “soloed,” I gave her words of encouragement before curtain and walked away.
She did not wash out.
About halfway through Claire’s solo debut her predecessor, we’ll call her “May,” stood with me as Claire navigated the electric chair. Now moving on to other things, I had trained May in 2009. She, as well, did not wash out. After the show, Claire, May, and I had a celebratory drink.
I’ve worked with a bunch of sound dudes over the years. Some were assholes, others became friends. But Claire and May are my angels.
Claire does not only work with me. She actively pursues her own sound education. I guess like I did 38 years ago.
Yes, I’ve mixed a rock band. Why do you ask?
Recently, Claire took on a gig at a popular local venue for a senior citizen’s dance, mixing a four-piece band. When she first talked to the band’s drummer and alleged leader, she was forced to answer questions instantly challenging her competence, based on no more than the sound of her voice:
“What sort of experience do you have?”
“Have you ever mixed a rock band?”
A couple things:
- A rock band? This is a four piece band for a senior citizen’s dance.
- If it had been me, with my straight, middle-aged white-guy voice, would this guy, let’s call him “Bubba,” have asked me these same questions? If so, would it be the first thing, right out of the gate? I think not.
And here’s why.
Blinded by an agenda
Despite the aggressive tone from this stranger, Claire maintained her composure. To help assuage Bubba’s concerns, Claire arranged for Bubba to meet her and venue staff for a pre-event walk-through.
At the meeting, right after the appropriate pleasantries, Bubba launched into his broadside:
“I mean no disrespect, but I have no confidence in this person.”
“I think we should just hire a sound company to supply a sound system and a guy.”
Bubba wasn’t about to have some girl mix his rock band.
The thought percolated through Bubba’s lizard brain. Emboldened by Claire’s diminutive physical stature, Bubba thought he would roll over her with his substantial middle-aged paunch.
Bubba peppered Claire with questions, expecting to trip her up. So blinded by his sexist agenda aimed at shutting this little woman down, he got all tangled up. He simply did not know how to respond as she calmly answered his questions and pointed out his flawed logic.
Venue staff finally pulled him away, admonishing him in hushed, urgent tones to what I expect was essentially to stop being such an asshole.
“Like I said, I mean no disrespect,” was his attempt at an apology. Too little, too late.
Sound Gods and sexism
The world is full of jerks, of course. Perhaps I don’t get out enough anymore, but I’d thought that the legendary “Sound God” attitude peaked in the 80s.
Back when analog still ruled, large-format sound consoles were 10 feet long, surrounded by a half-dozen racks 10 feet tall (and 19 inches wide), filled with all manner of signal processing. Knobs, levers, faders, switches, and dials glowing in the dark.
Managing all that does admittedly tempt “Sound God Syndrome.” Haughty, abrasive, know-it-all arrogance. That may work for awhile, but there isn’t a Sound God worth her or his salt for whom the devil has not reached up from sound hell and brought down such arrogance.
It’s a hard lesson. One that some forget, only to relearn in a humbling display of fractured sound.
As for the overt sexism, Bubba is just a caveman. Especially when matched with the poise and grace of my friend and colleague “Claire.”
Apparently, Bubba ran his own sound company “for years.” For some reason, I doubt he hired many women.
I’ve got my angels.
For more, check out the Soundman Chronicles