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What is your background in front of house?
I started out playing guitar in bands. A lot of techs start out that way. Being a tech was a backup plan for my “rock star” goal, and I fell I love with it and never looked back. I believe that to be a tech, you either have it in you or you don’t.
Tell us about Sick Puppies’ equipment, setup and signal chain.
Shim [Shimon Moore, guitar] has a cool setup. He uses a Gibson ES-335, two Marshall 4x12 cabs with Marshall heads, and a Dual Super Lead 100-watt head going stereo through all the pedals. I’m mic’ing the guitar twice for stereo imaging. He also uses a boost pedal. Emma [Anzai, bass] has two 8x10 cabs, with one as a sub and one full range, for a lot of low end and good stage volume. I mic her 8x10 with a Shure Beta 52 and a direct line out of an Avalon U5 DI. It’s a standard, good-sounding DI. I blend the signal between that and an onstage mic for good top and low end, and clarity. I use a Beta 58 for Shim’s vocal and a Beta 87A for Emma’s vocal. I have Shure SM 57s on the guitars. They’ve been around forever; they’re workhorse mics and they sound great. At the board I’m using a Digidesign VENUE Profile console, and it sounds great. It has everything from compression to effects all built in. It’s an awesome console. I’ve been using a compressor plug-in called Smack!. I put it on the stereo bus to tighten it up.
What happens when the crowd comes in and changes the balance?
The console has individual channels, so we can mix down. No matter the size of the venue or the crowd, you’re always going to have reflective surfaces: hardwood or cement. The crowd always changes the sound, usually for the better because they soak up the room reverb and tighten up the room. The more you do this, the more comfortable you get with the situation, and no matter how much you do this, there’s always going to be a technical problem at some point. It’s a fact of life and it happens to everybody. With experience, you learn to be calm, focused, and you know what needs to be done in the shortest amount of time. There’s no second-guessing. You just make it happen. You know how to pull channels up on the fly. You have 15 minutes to do a set change and line checks. You get comfortable.
How does size of venue affect sound?
Stage volume is really important. A lot of guitarists think they have to be on 11 for their guitar to sound good. That was in the old days. Now there’s a sweet spot you can get to with volume, but you don’t need to be as loud as you can. In a smaller room, you can get good levels onstage and not kill the people in the front row. It can be too loud even without a PA. In smaller venues, guitarists should use lower stage volume and make it up in the monitors so they don’t injure people with their guitar signals. That actually makes the band’s overall mix much better.
How much of your job is technical expertise, and how much is knowing and understanding the band?
Technical knowledge is a big part because it definitely changes the way you do a mix, and you have to know how to EQ everything. But if you’re mixing a band you’ve never heard of and don’t know their sound, it might make you want to add, for example, a lot of attack to a kick, like a metal band. If it’s country, that’s not going to work. Knowing the dynamics of when to get loud, the mic techniques—a lot of little things you might think aren’t really important actually are.
Do you control the entire mix?
It’s all in my hands. The band has a Yamaha 01V onstage for in-ear monitors, so they have monitor control. They also use wedges.
What does it take for a front of house engineer to earn the trust of his band?
It takes being with them long enough, and talking with them after the shows. They hear things from onstage that you don’t. There’s a level of comfort that can only be reached with time. You also get feedback from the fans, who say, “It sounded great,” or “This is too loud.” That feedback matters.
In some rooms, every band sounds horrible. The audience walks out complaining that the band “needs a new sound guy.” It all falls on you.
Yes, in some places it does, because a lot of times the sound of the actual room is the last thing that club owners think about. They have concrete or tin walls and roofing, or they didn’t spend a lot on a PA. That’s always the last thing they think about, ironically. You work with terrible PAs and the worst possible rooms. I’ve toured for eight years, and there’s almost never a perfect situation. Most clubs don’t sound good. You have to work through it and learn tricks along the way. You do your best, but there’s only so much you can do with the potential of the room you’re working with.
What does it take to be a good front of house engineer?
That’s a really good question. I think knowing sometimes when less is more, knowing that it’s not always about adding. It’s about subtracting what you don’t want, for example, stage volume: knowing when to back down and balance instead of turning up. Also, having a good gain structure. We just did nine shows in a row, and on our off day today, we’re doing an acoustic show and then driving 700 miles to the next city. There are no sick days, insurance or 401ks on tour. You’d make better money and have more benefits working at Home Depot. You really have to love this to do this.