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What’s your background in front of house?
I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. The public school system had a vocational tech program that offered a recording class. I got to spend three hours a day for the whole year in a small studio. I fell in love with it immediately. My teacher had working relationships with techs and engineers who had worked on a lot of the Stax and American Records stuff. He hooked me up with internships with several of the studios in town. I was 17 or 18, and it’s the only thing I’ve been doing ever since.
What does it take for a front of house engineer to earn the trust of his band?
That can be tricky. Fortunately, I have a long career record, so it’s easy for people to check up on me. Then it comes down to the feedback that the band hears from other people. If they talk to fans after the show and they say it sounded great, then you’re good.
Tell us about Shinedown’s equipment, setup and signal chain.
Zach [Myers] uses a two-channel rig: clean and dirty. The dirty is a Diezel Herbert into a pair of Mesa Boogie 4x12s. The clean is an Ashdown 350 bass amp. We wanted a loud, punchy, clean sound that didn’t break up. We have two Shure 57 mics on each amp; it’s the perfect mic for loud rock and roll guitar. I don’t do much, EQ-wise. I high pass to 160Hz and low pass to around 5kHz. That way I can turn it way up and it’s not piercing. I prefer to dull down and turn up so that it doesn’t fight with the vocal. I use Palmer speaker simulators in line with the clean, pan both mics to 10:00 and the clean Palmer to 2:00, add a little bit of delay to align them; about half a foot of delay. You have to play with it because it depends on any number of things. The dirty is panned more to 9:00 and 3:00 or 7:00 and 5:00. Then I bring in the Palmer in the middle and push it up until it fills. The Palmers, in this situation, are a little too bright for me, so I just put a little of that in the middle. If the mics are at 100 percent, it’s 60 to 70 percent added into the middle. The board is a Digidesign Profile rig. The onboard compressor takes a little edge off the top. I don’t use any delay or anything else on the guitars. The key to a loud and in-your-face guitar mix is to take the top and bottom end frequencies off because you don’t need those frequencies at high volume. I run a little bit of support track of strings and piano when he goes to solo, but a little goes a long way and I don’t want to be able to pick that out in the mix.
What happens when the crowd comes in and changes the balance?
I tune the PA with Soundgarden’s “Outshined,” Seal’s “Dreaming in Metaphors” and Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith.” Soundgarden is a big, powerful rock track with heavy vocals and guitars. I smooth out the high mids in the PA at the 1.6kHz–3.15kHz range. It can be really harsh, and that’s where Brent’s powerful voice really builds up. Seal gets the bottom end and lowmid stuff balanced. At that point, the Sting track should sound nice and huge and pristine, if I’ve done my job right. Then doors open, the show starts. When the set change into Shinedown comes, I use the Soundgarden track again. I have my reference with the room full and I can hear what’s changed. Mostly, the top end responds consistently. The bottom end can fool you on how it does and doesn’t tighten up.
How does size of venue affect sound?
I’m fortunate enough to get a fairly consistent mix across any sort of PA. There are concessions and compromises you have to make, but the overall sound does not change dramatically. A lot of that is in the experience of having worked with the worst bands, clubs and PA. In those situations, some days you do nothing, some days you EQ the hell out of it, and knowing how bad it can be, you suck it up and get it done.
How much of your job is technical expertise, and how much is knowing and understanding the band?
Certainly, the more familiar you are with the band, the better. You can hear what’s not there and turn up the parts that are missing. It has to be musical. You have to be able to adjust things, leave space around things and listen. I pick out what Eric [Bass] is doing on the bass, and what Barry [Kerch] is doing on the bass drum or hihat. Some people don’t listen musically; they concentrate on one guitar or one bass or one hi-hat. None of those things should be on top unless it’s time... it has to fit with the song and in its own place as well, and you have to make space in the kick drum in the low mid and put a boost from the bass so that the two instruments don’t fight for the same sonic space.
What does it take to be a good front of house engineer?
You need a solid understanding of the gear. That doesn’t mean you need to be able to take it apart and fix it, but that does help. The biggest mistake I see is in gain structure. The idea is you are transferring electrical current into acoustic output. How it goes through the chain is your gain structure. You need proper gain structure because the system protects itself along the way. Push the master fader to zero, the kick drum to zero, push it up, build around, know your limitations, don’t choke yourself in the wrong places. Again, it comes back to listening musically and knowing that your kick drum isn’t the loudest thing in the mix. It’s the foundation, and you build everything else on top of that. Technical knowledge is important, but I’ll take a guy who’s listening musically any day.