Listen up, sound guys

Last week, based on comments I received here and elsewhere, it seems that I suddenly became the best friend of sound engineers, simply by making an attempt to tell their side of the story. Now, could I get just a little more guitar in the monitor?

Seriously, though, this should be a lesson to musicians that like to stand around and tell sound horror stories: they’re standing around telling stories about us. Haven’t you noticed that when we approach two or more sound people, they suddenly stop talking and start looking down at the ground, sheepishly. Occasionally one utters a half-hearted “So, how about them Vols?” (even though the college football season is long over).

It’s too bad that my elevated standing with sound engineers is about to come crashing to the ground like a poorly constructed bluegrass festival stage, but there is another side to this sound story, and it’s from the musician’s point of view.

I got a comment last week from a sound man who got into the business of running sound because he had been a musician that had gotten so frustrated with bad sound, he decided that the only solution was to jump in himself and try to do it right. This is an admirable motive for going into that field: a desire to right a wrong and make the world of acoustic music a better-sounding place (with fewer squeals). He deserves a medal for this.

On the other hand, there are people who have gone into sound engineering for the wrong reasons. They may feel that this is a way to wield a kind of power over people that they don’t have at home or didn’t have in a previous job. Perhaps their own artistic career—let’s say meat sculpture—didn’t work out as planned, and this is a fall back career they don’t actually like.

Worst of all, some arrive at the field of sound reinforcement after a music career that didn’t work out. This is fine, actually, if they have a good ear for music and like their new role, because, as we all know, it’s an important one. But, if they resent the fact that you’re up there enjoying the easier side of the job, signing autographs after the show, while they, unappreciated by both artists and fans,  are having to tear down a P.A. system and load hernia-inducing equipment into a truck that should have been replaced a year ago, the sound person/performer relationship can be a strained one, and good sound seldom results from that struggle.

Insecurity or overgrown ego on the part of the sound person is one of the root causes of the issue that generates more complaints than any other from the bluegrass musician: the excessive mixing of the show from the board. Mind you, there are bands, some inexperienced, some with no excuse at all, that can’t “work” microphones, but for the most part, professional bluegrass musicians mix themselves: they play lead right on the mic, step back for backup. The good sound people understand this and leave the faders alone except to make a general adjustment. But the ones that either feel that they have to justify their job, enjoy the power they wield, or just like moving faders up and down for kicks, create a cat and mouse game between musician and engineer. This leaves the musician frustrated and inconsistent levels throughout a show.

Overenthusiastic mixing is usually what you get from sound companies that claim to be providing “the best sound you ever had!” On more than one occasion, I’ve had an event producer use those very words about the sound company, and I immediately start worrying, usually with justification.

By the way, after checking my schedule, I’m so happy to see that none of the sound people we’ll be working with this summer have any of the above problems.

Then of course there are just the sound mismatch situations, in which someone was hired to do sound for acoustic music without the necessary background or equipment to do the job. They’re a good and experienced rock and country sound company, which means that they’re very good at miking drums, but miking a D-28 is another matter. They seem dumfounded that you even want to do it.

This is simply a hiring mistake, but we as acoustic musicians have had to deal with this kind of nightmare, and it isn’t pretty. There also isn’t much you can do about it. When you hear your guitar referred to as “the acoustic” and the mandolin referred to as “the ukelele” or a “the lute,” and if they ask this question: “Do you guys want anything besides vocals in the monitors?,” you might as well punt. And by punt, I mean turn the monitors off completely, do what you can to make sure every instrument is at least turned on in the house, and then just do the best show you can. It won’t sound good, but it’s not your fault.

Last week, I presented a hypothetical sound check dialogue between a sound engineer and a somewhat insensitive and incompetent band, the kind of thing sound people deal with all the time, usually without complaint, just writing it off as part of their business, in the way that airline employees do with obnoxious passengers.

On the other hand, we as artists have our own sound check trials and tribulations with less-than-professional sound people, and we too write it off as one of the hazards of the field.

Here’s how it sometimes goes:

Engineer: “Okay, guys, let’s try the bass.”

Bass player plays for about 5 minutes, inaudibly, but all the while the mandolin mic is getting louder and louder until deafening feedback results.

Bass player: “I think you’re turning up the mandolin.” He knows that’s what’s happening, but uses the phrase “I think” to be polite.

Engineer: “Your monitors aren’t on yet, so you wouldn’t know what’s on anyway. That little microphone you’re using isn’t working. You need to replace it. I don’t like those kind anyway.”

Bass player: “I think you may just have the wrong channel.”

Engineer: “Just a minute” (engineer rolls eyes)

Eventually the bass is found and turned up, and they move on to guitar.

Engineer: “Can you play a little for me?”


Guitar player: “It’s on.”

Engineer (after turning the guitar way down): “You shouldn’t be miking the guitar there,” whereupon an assistant comes over and places the guitar mike up in front of the neck of your guitar, around the 10th fret, as if you’re in a pristine recording studio environment. It’s always amusing when sound engineers treat you as if you’ve never played into a mic before in your life.

Engineer: “Can we try the banjo?”

Banjo player: “I can’t hear it yet.”

Engineer: “You have to get right up on that mic.”

Banjo player: “But I’ll need to step back for backup.”

Engineer: “With that kind of mic (he’s referring to his exotic SM-57) you need to stay right up on it.”

Banjo player: “Sigh…”

And so on.

Note that if you’re in a festival situation here, and this is your sound check right before your show, this might have been a slightly helpful exercise, if only to let you know just how bad the sound is going to be. If, on the other hand, it’s in a concert situation, in which another band is scheduled to sound check after you, you just spent 30 minutes of your life you’ll never get back, because when you take the stage that night, nothing will be the same.

This is why it’s so important in matters of sound to live by the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Then just enjoy yourself and do the best show you can.

The good news is that sound companies running acoustic music have improved dramatically, just in the last 10 or 15 years. There’s better equipment, and, more importantly, better people running the equipment, and doing what is a very difficult job well. The nightmare scenarios described above still happen, but they’re no longer the norm. To keep this trend going, we as performers have a responsibility not just to complain to event producers when it’s bad, but to let them know when it’s good too. Let the sound company know as well. They have a hard job, and while you’re signing autographs and telling a fan what kind of strings you use, they’re loading that truck.