Hugh Johnson

What does Vince Gill need from his front of house engineer?

Vince is not alone in his perception of what the front of house should do, but he is in the minority of guys who have very little say about what I do. He trusts me completely. Early on in our relationship he got a lot of feedback from producers and management that I was doing what needed to be done. I get very few complaints. He does meet-and-greets after the shows and always gets good reports of how good it sounds, so he’s never asked me to do anything other than what I do, and over the years that hasn’t changed. He has a somewhat different relationship with our monitor engineer, Sam Parker. Vince has more interactive comments with Sam because of the nature of the monitor mix. As front of house engineer, my primary duty is to be the conduit from band to audience in most all situations. My job is to deliver what the band is playing, and hopefully to do that in a way that is as consistent as possible throughout the room, so that the people in the front row aren’t blasted and the people in the back row are able to hear.

Vince has always had very good bands. Some of them have been with us since the beginning. They’re all studio-quality players and they give me the ultimate gift every night of great sounds and not having to do a lot of polishing. Other than that, the biggest challenge is tuning the PA. Sound Image supplies our equipment and is the best sound company in the world, in my opinion. We carry our monitors, monitor board, front of house console, microphones, stands, cables, etc., but we depend on the venue or promoter to supply racks and stacks—the PA and amplifiers— to our specifications. I tune the PA so that it lines up with what I want the band to sound like, and I don’t have to adjust every single input on the console every day.

Tell us about his equipment, setup and signal chain.

Sam and I both mix on Digidesign Profiles, a great digital console that provides us with an almost unlimited amount of resources. From a sophisticated snapshot feature to plug-ins that emulate some of the best studio-quality rack gear on the planet, and great sounding preamps, these consoles have just about everything needed to mix, without using any outboard gear. We have had a Shure microphone endorsement for about 15 years and exclusively use their products…. I recently began using the KSM313 [ribbon microphone] on Vince’s guitar amps in conjunction with a standard SM57, and wow, what a great combo. Great low end with just enough bite, and very little EQ.

As far as blending the guitars together—our steel player, Russ Pahl, also plays electric, our acoustic player, Jeff White, also does background vocals, and our rhythm guitarist, Tom Britt, is also a soloist—they take care of a lot of that. I can only manipulate the sound of what they’re playing, so I make sure they fit together. It’s not unlike any instrument: they all have to fit. The method I’ve learned over 35 years of mixing is to take certain frequencies out of one instrument because another instrument needs that range. You weave frequencies together and find separation in the sounds so that tones don’t overlap.

The other thing that’s very important about guitar sounds in particular is mic selection and placements. I find the right mic and the right spot on the cone and move things very little after I find the sweet spot. For example, on most guitar speakers, the most air is moving near the outside edge of the speaker cone; to be more specific, the most low end comes from the outside edge of the cone. Generally speaking, the closer you get to the middle of the speaker, the thinner the tone. Since most guitar players—at least ours do—stand with their guitar amps on the floor, pointed toward the backs of their legs, their tone tends to be thinner than you would want in the PA. So I always go for a spot right on the outside edge of the cone, get the warmth I am looking for, and have to take less of the high-mids out of the channel EQ. For a few years now, my favorite guitar amp mic is the Shure KSM32, but I am quickly moving to the new KSM313/SM57 combo.

I’m very specific about mic placement, as it is one of the most important parts of the job. Our crew is very good about duplicating what I’m looking for every day. That also goes for drums, the Leslie cabinet connected to the B3, everything. Vince doesn’t use 100-watt amps much anymore. He uses Fender Deluxe, Rivera, Goodsell and 65Amps. His choices are mostly based on the venue. His stage volume has come down considerably over the years. It’s different when you have to fill up an arena. We did an acoustic tour in 2008 and they all played very quietly onstage. He really enjoyed the lower volume.

Vince plays hard, especially the electric stuff, and that’s why you see him change guitars on just about every song—he plays hard enough that he plays them until they are out of tune. Our guitar tech, Benny Garcia, is tuning all night. Vince has an arsenal of guitars at home. But on the road he carries probably six electrics: Fender Strats and Teles, Gibson 335s and Les Pauls, and a couple of custom jobs, and four or five acoustics: Martin 000s and Gibson J-200s. His main guitars are a ’53 Tele and a ’64 Strat. He has a couple with alternate tunings.

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

The answer sounds overly simple: good ears. Not necessarily good hearing, although that is important, but knowing how to put sounds together, being able to take what the band gives you and make it work for the audience in the environment in which you’re playing. With Vince, I’ve always got a great band to work with, so that is seldom a problem. Acoustical challenges are always a part of the job, and being able to deal with that on a daily basis and being consistent with your tuning is very important. Being able to take the left and right brain functions, the art and technical sides of mixing, and making them work together—that’s what it takes.