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What is your background in front of house?
I have been interested in live sound since I saw the front of house engineer for the band that was playing at my high school prom and decided he had the coolest job ever. I moved to Atlanta in 1987 to pursue the goal of getting the coolest job ever. I met Richard [Turner, bass/vocals] and Brit [Turner, drums] shortly after that. Since then, I’ve mixed the bands they were in, and Richard and I have become business partners in our own audio production company, Fly By Night Audio Inc., so I’ve really been working with Blackberry Smoke even before that was their name.
What does it take for a front of house engineer to earn the trust of his band?
Don’t let them see you do anything stupid. You could come highly recommended and have an excellent resume. These things help get your foot in the door. Really, though, the best way is to do a good job consistently over a period of time in a number of different situations.
Tell us about some of Blackberry Smoke’s equipment, setup and signal chain.
We’re making the transition from wedges to ear monitors, so we’re carrying our own mic package, a new PreSonus StudioLive 16.4.2 mixer, a really powerful little machine, and some Shure PSM 700 wireless ear monitor systems for Richard, Paul [Jackson, guitar/ vocals] and Charlie [Starr, lead vocals/guitar], and Shure PSM 600HW Hardwired systems for Brit and Brandon [Still, keyboards]. Our goal is to give them some consistency from day to day but still be super portable and musician friendly. The console is a Digidesign D-Show Profile. All effects, processing and EQ are on the console. The console feeds XTA 226 processors, which splits the signal according to bandwidth to feed the proper sub, low, mid and high power amps, which feed the appropriate components in the speaker cabinets. All the power amps are Lab.gruppen fP 6400.
Richard plays a Zemaitis BMF-DCPJ Metal Front Black bass, Fender Jazz Bass Special Neck with Precision Body with hipshot, Gibson 1971 Goldtop Les Paul Signature and 1971 Les Paul Recording bass through an Orange AD 200B amp and Orange OBC 115 and 410 cabs. He uses GHS Flatwound Long Scale Plus strings, Mogami cables, a Cherub Metronome and Boss Tuner. Charlie plays a ’56 Les Paul Jr., Dan Armstrong Plexi, Fender B-Bender Telecaster, a Performance Guitarsbuilt (1989) Haggis Custom Tele and a gold Gibson SG through an Orange Rockerverb 50 head and cabinet. He uses GHS Boomer medium strings, a Boss Tuner and MXR Phase 45, Dunlop Crybaby and Expandora pedals. Paul plays a ’79 Les Paul Standard, Gibson Firebird VII and Fender ’52 Reissue Telecaster, using GHS Boomer medium strings, through an Orange Rockerverb 50 Combo, with Boss Chromatic Tuner Pedal and Boss EQ Pedal.
What happens when the crowd comes in and changes the balance?
The balance you get during soundcheck is a starting point. Obviously, things change after the audience comes in, but since these variables are also variable from night to night and place to place, there are no hard and fast “put knob here” rules. I just try to react to whatever changes have taken place as fast as I can.
How much of your job is technical expertise and how much is knowing and understanding the band?
Both are important. If you have some kind of musical common ground with the band, they will probably be more inclined to feel that you are presenting them to the audience in the way that they want. But your technical skills are going to allow you to actually do that, and that is what will keep you employed.
The audience wants the live show to sound like the album. How do you accomplish that and make the mix more dynamic and powerful?
I think on a good night a live band playing through a nice sound system can sound better than a CD. The dynamic range of a band is more than that of a CD, and most professional sound systems will go louder and lower than most home and car stereos. The best way to accomplish this is to pay attention to every little detail throughout the entire day, starting with hanging or stacking the system to cover the entire audience evenly, mic’ing everything properly and so forth. It’s kind of like painting a wall. The bulk of the work is in the prep. The actual knob-twiddling is easy if you’ve done a good job before you get to that point.
What are the challenges that come with mixing two guitars?
Having two guitars worth of stage volume. Actually, the Blackberry Smoke guys are all very conscious and reasonable about their stage volume. I would say just making sure that they can both be heard at all times and that they both occupy their own little space in the mix, whether it’s a dual lead thing or one soloing with the other playing a rhythm part. I try to stick to a less-is-more kind of mix with Blackberry Smoke—just some basic dynamics and a little bit of reverb and delay on the vocals. They’re a rock band. They don’t need me putting a lot of makeup and perfume on them.
What does it take to be a good front of house engineer?
The ability to deliver high-quality audio consistently in all types of situations, and being able to keep a level head. Understanding at least a little bit of all the other facets of the show, such as lighting and video, so that you can work with them or around them. The technical ability to get a good mix together fast is important, but when it’s time to open the doors, the people are there to see a show. If you’ve demanded that the mix position be somewhere that makes it hard for the lighting guys to see the stage, and then made the band nervous by telling them how hard your day has been when you see them in the hallway before the show, you’re probably not a good front of house engineer.