Bean Blossom – a view from the board

This article is a contribution from Tom Feller, one half of the bluegrass performing duo Feller & Hill, studio operator and musician, and a skilled and experienced live audio engineer. It’s a follow-up to a piece he wrote in 2014 offering comments on what he experienced running sound at Bean Blossom. Now, two years later, he’s back with an update. Though intended as a tutorial of sorts for stage entertainers, we think that fans will enjoy reading his comments from behind the sound board as well.

Tom Feller running sound at Bean Blossom 2016 - photo by Lula GabbardYou know it must be time for Bean Blossom when you find yourself scrambling to finish all the projects and chores that must be finished before leaving on the ten day trip that occurs every year in June. I recently found myself in this situation, after a very slow winter and hardly any studio work or travel dates. It seemed like everyone decided at once that they needed to get their projects finished before Bean Blossom. I don’t mind the work, but it gave me little chance to rest in the month leading up to the 50th Annual Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. This, in addition to my self-imposed “Road To Bean Blossom” daily mandolin video series, made for a very busy month.

I received an overwhelming response to my article, in 2014, regarding some of the issues I encountered with sound and band-related things, while running sound at Bean Blossom. I’m happy to report that since the previous article was published, I’ve seen major improvements in organization and cooperation of the bands who elect to carry their own sound equipment and engineers to a festival. Does this have anything to do with people reading that article and taking my advice? Not necessarily, but I’d sure like to think so.

This year at Bean Blossom, the majority of the sets were limited to 30 minutes and the schedule did allow us 5 minute changeover times. I have modified the sound system and programmed it to have a “home scene,” which I use for every band when they start. This is a starting point that I have personally tested and used many times and it has proven to be effective to get a group up and running in just minutes. This is important when trying to keep a show on schedule and it allows the bands to spend more time playing and less time checking the microphones. As mentioned in my first article, audiences can grow very impatient if a group takes more than just a couple minutes to do their sound check. At Bean Blossom, this is what the audience has grown accustomed to and, trust me, I hear about it if a group takes any longer than 5 minutes for a sound check. Audience members are quick to seek me out while I’m walking around and let me know how they feel about it. It’s not always negative, though. I get some folks saying they’re sure glad to see me back on the board, after that “so and so,” from “that one group” got finished, which I think may be some kind of compliment to me.

One of the biggest things I’ve noticed is better organization of the groups who carry their own gear. Nearly all of the groups that came through this year’s Bean Blossom were well organized and had everything they needed, including microphone stands, batteries, cables, and most of the necessary items that one should have on hand, when carrying personal sound equipment. All of the “outside engineers” that I encountered were very pleasant and easy to work with. These are both great improvements over what I encountered just a few years ago.

I really only have a few things that I noticed where groups really need to think ahead and pay more attention.

1) Working on a show with 30 minute sets and 5 minute changeovers may not be the ideal place to try out your fancy new microphone or favorite new piece of gear that you’ve never used before. I had a few acts bring in equipment that had just been purchased and were fully expecting to use it, not knowing exactly how it worked or what the results might be. I would call this gambling. It’s a better idea to “break-in” a new piece of gear on a show that has more of a “controlled environment” and allows the time needed to produce the desired results that a shiny new “silver bullet” has to offer.

2) When you know you only have a 30 minute set and 5 minutes to set up and sound-check….BE PREPARED!

There was one group in particular, who hadn’t been playing many, if any, recent shows. They were scheduled for 2 sets. After already having their microphones set up in the appropriate configuration, I had to go backstage and retrieve them for each of their sets. When they finally “wandered” out to the stage, it was a bit like herding cats, trying to get them to quit tuning and socializing amongst each other long enough to get a quick sound check done. There were many signs posted backstage and even onstage, this year, that read “Attention all bands, your set time begins the minute you walk on stage, not after your sound check!” Combine this with dead space and tuning/socializing between each song and a band may find themselves playing only 4 or 5 songs (or less) in a 30 minute set. The majority of the bands abided by this and we stayed very close on our schedule for most of the week. My advice to this is to appoint a bandmember, ahead of time, to keep track of exactly when you need to be out on the stage and how to facilitate and organize a quick sound check so that you can get the most music in as possible to be fair to your fans.

After becoming somewhat frustrated with this particular band having this happen on both of their sets, I reminded the emcee that we have a schedule to stick to and that he need not make any special accommodations for this group who had not properly prepared to play this festival, by giving them extra time. I generally try not to get involved with when a band comes off stage, but after seeing their lack of respect for the show itself…and the fans…I felt it my duty to be fair to the other bands who actually were prepared and wanted to play for their fans.

3) Occasionally, I will come across a band who has a member or maybe even two, who also happen to be sound/studio engineers. After 31 years in the bluegrass sound business, I feel like I know most of them who fall into that category and am actually very good friends with many of them. However, there was a particular bandmember at Bean Blossom, who I believe appeared with a couple different bands, who I just couldn’t seem to please. I received a fair share of sarcastic remarks over the microphone and I could sense the eye-rolls directed towards me, beneath the dark glasses. I try hard to get along with and please everyone who comes across the stage, but there are times I feel that the musician/sound engineer just has a chip on his/her shoulder and no matter how smoothly things are running, or the fact that 70+ other bands have played their sets earlier that week over the same PA with nothing but smiles and compliments, there just wasn’t enough volume/tone on their instrument/vocals to please them and that perhaps they know more about amplifying acoustic instruments, at a tender age, than myself, after 30+ years of experience.

I received a compliment via FaceBook from someone attending the show last week. Someone else who was also at the show quickly commented that they were also there and felt the bass was too loud and complained about a solo that wasn’t heard. I thought about just letting it pass, but I ultimately replied to the complaint, explaining that the first thing I learned in the sound business is that you’ll never please everyone. All you can do is try to be as consistent as possible and please as many artists, fans, and promotors as you can. I am, after all, still human and I will make mistakes from time to time.

My advice is this:

You have a five minute sound check and 30 minutes to play. Make the best of it! There’s a very good chance that it will not be perfect, but fans can sense when you become fouled because your mix isn’t exactly as you would like it.

Which do you think will sell more CD’s, a perfect monitor mix, or a smiling face?

Overall, I have to say that the week was a huge success. Aside from a few exceptions, nearly all of the bands were organized and a few of them, who normally carry their own equipment, elected to leave their equipment on the bus and use our equipment, which saved us time and kept the show on schedule. One group even elected to leave their soundman behind, trusting that I would do a sufficient job for their set. I can’t say that saved us any time, but I think it does speak something for the integrity of my reputation with some of the traveling groups out there. I’m happy to see that the groups are becoming better educated and organized with their equipment and sound folks and it certainly does make for a better show. Only two storms passed through and we were only shut down once, due to inclinent weather. That’s pretty good for Bean Blossom. I look forward to it each and every year and hope to continue working there as long as they’ll have me.”