Shawn Hammer

What is your background in front of house?

I studied music theory at Youngstown State in Ohio and was playing in bands. By default, I was always taking care of the sound. I started recording my band, then I began working in a studio, and then doing house sound at Forward Hall in Erie, Pennsylvania. That was my first front of house job. I did monitors and front of house, and I was the only guy, so I took care of all the technical aspects for every band. When I first worked there, there were more instruments onstage than I could ever have imagined— horns, organs, vintage keyboards—and any challenge that you can imagine was thrown at me.

Adelitas Way is a two-guitar band, with Chris Iorio playing lead and Keith Wallen playing rhythm. Tell us about the equipment, setup and signal chain.

Keith has an amazing Soldano HR-50 with a Marshall vintage 30 cab. He’s got a couple of Les Pauls, and his tone is great and easy to work with. Chris plays an EVH 5150 with EVH 5150 cabs. He’s more high-gain and out there, and his leads stick out. Both guys use Dean Markley medium-gauge strings. When I mix, I try not to do much EQ. I roll off a little top end to make room for Rick [DeJesus, vocals] and the bottom end so it isn’t muddy. I fix things here and there, but I keep it simple. Keith’s chain is straightforward: tuner to amp, no frills. Chris uses a TC Electronic delay pedal, a chorus pedal and a wah for his solos. Chris is a more ’80s-style guitarist who was raised on Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses. Keith is a straight-up, modern rock and roll guitarist; no frills, just solid rhythm and background vocals. Derek [Johnston] is endorsed by Spector, and he is now playing a new NSJ2R bass that has improved our sound dramatically. He’s running it through an Ampeg rig, a classic 8x10 and SVT-3Pro he’d like to upgrade. We’ll work on that as we go. The guys don’t do much as far as effects, and I only use compression out front, especially in this situation where we have the Digidesign Pro Tools rig.

How do you like the VENUE Profile?

It’s great! My mix is ready, and Smack! is an amazing plug-in. The compressor is an emulator of a distressor, which is a favorite of mine in the studio, and now I can use it on the guitars, vocals, bass, kick, snare, everything. I don’t have to do much during soundcheck. My settings are saved and I’m ready to go. On a tour like this, with four bands [Cycle of Pain, Adelitas Way, Sick Puppies, Shinedown], all the compressor and gain are usually taken over by the headliner. With Pro Tools, everyone has enough to use. I prefer analog, and the knobs and changing things immediately, but I got acclimated to this and it’s almost as fast as an analog system.

What about mics?

I’m using a Sennheiser e902 on the kick, e604s on the toms, classic Shure SM57s on the snare and guitars, SM81s on overheads and hat, and SM58s on vocals.

What are the challenges of mixing a two-guitar band?

Having two guitars can make things more cluttered, and it’s harder to find space for everyone. There’s also more competition to keep the vocals out front. The leads are out there with the vocals, and the rhythm guitar I keep with the bass and drums to keep the music moving. Keith and Derek are on stage left, Chris is stage right, Trevor [Stafford, drums] is in the middle and Rick is everywhere. I advise the band. They change the volume levels to their comfort. Unless you carry wedges, you’re not going to guarantee the same sound every night. I try to give each guy his own mix. I want it to sound as full as possible onstage, but a bit more aggressive live than on the CD. I definitely help push that.

How much of your job is technical expertise, and how much is knowing and understanding the band?

It’s definitely a balance, but technical knowledge is more important. Knowing the band and their music puts the polish on the whole thing to make it accurate, but you can’t get that far without at least the basic technical knowledge.

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.

When you have those sound systems, there’s nothing you can do. You make what you can out of it and you get around it in ways, such as only pushing what you need through the PA and using the PA for sound reinforcement and not clutter. The room has a lot to do with it as well. If it has a lot of reflection and noise, it’s challenging. At the same time, it can be fun to pull it off. It’s definitely rewarding when you walk into a bad venue and terrible PA and at the end of the night you think, it kind of sounded good! We’ve been spoiled on the Shinedown tour. After this, it’s back to whatever house console there is, and sometimes the challenges are so great that you ask yourself, “Why are we doing this?” But in some places, the small dives, you find amazing old gear and it’s exciting just to see it; to see a vintage console or a vintage effects unit. I know it sounds strange, but those challenges are my favorite part of the job. I enjoy troubleshooting, and it’s a main skill in this job. That and crisis management: finding the problem and fixing it quickly.

What does it take to be a good front of house engineer?

Patience and a good ear. Recognizing a problem when it happens, catching it before the crowd notices it, and remembering that you can always do better.