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 mic: “WHOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMM!!!”

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.

  • Cliff Abbott

    EQ-ing the bass is sometimes fun, too. Thinking “bass = low,” the unknowing sound guy cranks up the low frequencies while dialing down the mids and highs, resulting in giving your $4,000 older-than-you instrument the tonal qualities of a First-Act bass from Wal-Mart. Then, there’s the infamous “I can’t figure out your $600 condenser mic, here, let’s roll this SM-58 in this old piece of drapery I found and cram it under the tailpiece.” Of course, a few more scratches won’t matter on your “old” instrument “1938 fill in the blank…”

  • blue ridge sound

    Hey Chris, John Holder here. I have thoroughly enjoyed your Bluegrass Today “soundman” stories. You have accurately portrayed both sides of the coin, and I commend you for it. Both artists and production people have horror stories on each other for sure, but I think you touched on the heart of the problem when you spoke of the difference of hiring a sound company that has acoustic music expertise, and the one who does drums and amps well. There is as much difference between these 2 as between a dump truck and an 18 wheeler. You wouldn’t haul coast to coast in a dump truck nor would you deliver a load of gravel to a persons home in a semi. There are production companies that do both equally well, but doing sound for acoustic music correctly is much more difficult at festival volume. The artist and the engineer working together always ends up with the best results. And then you get into the dynamic between the “traveling” engineer and the sound company………

  • Chris Jones

    You’re quite right, John. I’m glad you all don’t hate me after this one. I’m mostly having fun with the issue, but there’s a serious side, and I know very well how tough the job is, especially in the festival environment.

  • Dennis Jones

    “WHOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMM!!!”

    • Sheri

      Hahahahaha!!!!

      • Dennis Jones

        Or that pitch so high only dogs in Ireland hear it at first…then finally causing the fellow in the campground with two hearing aids to drop his last hotdog….*WHHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!*

  • Lisa Jacobi

    Nice.

  • Wes Lassiter

    As a wise man once said been their,done that. Chris your spot on this situation. We just went through it big time when we played a whole set not actually knowing what was going out to the crowd. It was scary. It was fortunate the sound guy had the sound acceptable going out but what we were hearing sounded out of Grimm’s Nightmare. I liked the sound guy as a person and he was really trying so I told him I wanted him to come to our theater and work my sound board. He did and I instructed him not to touch the first knob but just to sit their and listen to how we worked the mics and what it was supposed to sound like. After the concert, I turned all the knobs back and made him reset it. It took a couple hours but he got it!!! Hopefully their is one less sound man who will cause that kind of chaos for us Bluegrass artists again. Thanks for the great read.

  • Tom Feller

    More very good points here. Being a musician and a soundman, I am able to see and understand all these points from both sides. Coming from a very musical family, I have always considered myself both a musician and a soundman and not one or the other. Just as a musician would grow and become more seasoned and mellow with time and experience, the same has happened to me as a soundman. I’ve been “that guy” on the soundboard,starting out as a 12 year old kid. I have certainly made my share of mistakes and still do on occasion. The thing I do realize, though, is that you never stop learning as a soundman. Many sound engineers who feel they know everything or have seen every scenario are likely just fooling themselves and trying to fool other people. Musicians and sound engineers have to have a mutual repect for each other and consider each other equals. There’s musicians I’ve known for nearly 30 years that I consider family members. We have a great mutual respect for each other and understand that there’s always off-days for both musicians and engineers. My main reason for staying in the sound business all these years has been the people. It’s certainly not the money. Musicians and the bluegrass fans are the best people in the world and they’re like family. Sound is just like playing, you have to keep it fun and not take yourself too seriously. Good stuff, Chris.