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Life As An Unsigned Band Part 3 - The Sound Engineers (FEATURE)

Wednesday, 28 July 2010 Written by Daniel Lynch
Life As An Unsigned Band Part 3 - The Sound Engineers (FEATURE)

So far we’ve seen how bands form, practice, get gigs and release music (PART 1) and how promoters work in their jobs of organising gigs, recruiting bands and advertising the show (PART 2). However, there are people working almost behind the scenes who are integral to this whole process.

This section will explore the role of the sound engineer. For anybody who doesn’t know, this is the guy who, at a gig, painstakingly mics up every single instrument, drum and voice, and balances all the volumes so that the listener can hear as much as possible with optimum clarity.

I spoke to some well established and a few up and coming in venue engineers to get their take on a hugely important, but often overlooked aspect of life as an unsigned band.

Some of those I spoke to work with both touring bands and local acts, but most got into the music industry as part of their own band, and first started doing sound at smaller gigs.

I asked Damien Kyle, sound man at Belfast’s Empire Music Hall (home of the ‘Gifted’ gigs mentioned in Part 2) how he came to get involved in doing sound at gigs.

I started playing in bandsin my teensand have been around music ever since. I think this job is something that finds you 'cos you're bugger-all use at anything else,and / or you just kind of fall into it through either interest or necessity, likewhen your mates can't find or afford to pay to have someone mix their band.’

Since falling into the job, Damien has become synonymous with the Empire and can be seen there almost every night there’s a gig on. Others like up and coming sound man Steve Jackson took direction from more experienced sound men and combined it with his own determination to force his way into the reckoning for bigger gigs.

‘I never made a definite choice to be a soundman, my two main passions are music and technology. I started recording ideas for songs etc on my computer and that triggered a good bit of interest in actual mixing and how different instruments and frequencies interacted to produce different sounds. The first concert I attended was the Darkness when I was 16, I wrestled right up to the front with my mates and was blown away with the power of the bass drum and how, compared to local bands, everything just seemed so much bigger, better and clearer, like I was listening to the album. At the time, I played in a band, and as we were young and inexperienced, we got crappy, grumpy soundmen except on rare occasions. It may just be my arrogance, but I always thought I could do a better job, because listening to the other acts on the bill was never a good experience, I couldn't understand the singer and the guitars were always too loud and distorted. Then we scored a support slot in the Rosetta when Andy was still the sound guy there, when my drummer was sound checking, I was at the mixing desk and I heard the same power and punch from the drums that I heard at the Darkness. So I started to pick Andy's brains, and tried getting work helping other local guys so I could learn what they are actually doing.’

ImageOne of those who Steve looked to for guidance was Brian Collins. Not only does he mix sound at live gigs, but as audio engineer in Belfast’s Limelight and Spring and Airbrake, offers to record a band’s performance so they might have a high quality recording of a gig to scrutinise, learn from or even release. His journey into the realms of doing sound at gigs is just as indirect as Damien and Steve’s were.

‘When I was in my teens, I started a band with some mates. We practiced in my parents’ garage and we needed to setup a small PA everyday so I took care of that. Then we needed to record our practices so I bought a small multi-track system that recorded to tape! I had no idea how to use it but I rented it out every now and again and by watching others use it, I eventually learned how to myself.

As time went by, I moved onto recording to computer drives using better gear. I then did a HND in Audio Technology in Derry. That course was really hands on and you really had to take the initiative. If you wanted to succeed and learn, no one was going to hold your hand. This was a great time for me. I recorded a lot of bands and different types of music there. I studied in Queens (Belfast) for a while on the recommendation of the tutors in Derry.

It was through having to pay for university, that I landed a job in the Limelight / Spring and Airbrake. I got recommended by the people who ran the Distortion Project (formerly a fortnightly event in Belfast). I had recorded one of the bands on their roster and as a group we had gotten on really well, so when I moved to Belfast, they had said that they would try to sort me out with a job.’

Damien and Brian, who have been doing in venue sound for longer than Steve, understand the struggle faced by those like Steve who are just starting off.

Damien: ‘I've been doing this for the best part of twenty years and seen a lot of people come and go but what is patently obvious is that there's no substitute for experience. I teach Music Technology at a local college and alwayshammer it home to my guys that they'll learn more in one night fucking things up and making their mistakes in a real gig environment than they will in a year in a classroomwatching me draw signal-flow diagrams and boring them to death with theory. But experience also teaches you that just when you think you've seen it all, something else happens that surprises you. You're never done learning.’

Brian:‘Doing sound is just about giving an opinion or expressing how you think you need to hear a band perform (usually in small rooms with conflicting acoustics) on a particular day. To be honest, on my first show, it was either sink or swim and I sank miserably! I had never done anything of that scale before in my life and it was a sold out show. Things were very different to what I had imagined and I will never forget that day because if I ever get ideas of grandeur, I only have to remember that show!’

As mentioned, Steve uses the experience and advice of more experienced soundmen to learn and establish important contacts which may lead to higher profile gigs in the future:

‘I'm very lucky to have met Brian and have him like me because he gets me a good bit of work, often with acts I otherwise would never have been able to work with.

Brian has been a great help, along with others such as Paul O'Shaugnnessy (also from the Spring and Airbrake) and Dougie Smith. I even got to chat with Big Mick (Metallica's sound guy) at their Belfast shows last month, he was a wealth of information and very nice too. As with playing musical instruments, there are many different styles of audio engineering, from microphone choice and placement to processing and effects. I like to think of the people I work with as influences from which to draw and I think I have my own style of mixing based on their technique and that of others.

As with any occupation, if you put the work in you will get help from those already big in the game. The guys I've worked with have all been supportive, I put it down to being willing to do the hard work as well as the easy work and keeping in a good mood.’

As with the bands and promoters, being a sound engineer comes with its own unique challenges and struggles. Most of these are beyond the control of the engineer, but frequently he is looked to for a solution.

Brian:‘There are many things that make me unhappy when it comes to my job! Things like badly run shows, bad equipment, people who don’t know how to use their equipment, bad acoustics and quiet singers are common. Budget is always a problem but the biggest challenge is TIME! Try sound-checking 4 bands in less than an hour with all of the above mentioned in place and then get back to me!’

Steve:‘With equipment, a lot of local musicians are attached to certain pieces of gear which are bad or which they don't know how to use effectively. A lot of the time, this leads to instruments sounding mushy and indistinct and I get the blame. Many musicians take offence when I suggest better ways to set their gear up or ask them to change something, they don't get that what sounds great in the bedroom won't necessarily sound good in a band’

Dee:‘Well at our level the challenges are many and varied. Bad PA equipment, through which you're expected to work miracles, bad band backline forwhich the old equation 'shit in=shit out' was written and probably worst of all - scatterbrained musicians in general.

I mean, I've actually had musicians stand on stage and ask me if there's a spare guitar anywhere in the venue they could use as they've forgotten/lost/left theirs at their girlfriend's house. Of course the problem with me not doing something to help is that it'sMY time they're wasting by just standing around staring at the floor because I have three other bands to sound check and doors are in fifteen minutes. I've lost my temper at people I consider my friends before and it's not a good feeling, so that's the real downside, yeah.

The other challenge is a personal one in that you have to have a thick skin because it's a small town and people talk. Mostly rubbish, but they still talk. Some think you're absolutely shit and that your ears are painted onand others will think you're an absolute genius. The trick here of course is to realise that the truth is somewhere around the middle.’

With many different instruments, technologies and techniques available to modern bands, even at the bottom of the ladder, I asked if the engineers enjoyed the challenge of working with bands who had strayed from the traditional bass, drums, guitar and vocals format.

Steve:Personally, I love working with bands with a brass section, it's probably because I played trumpet in the school orchestra. The line up of the band is only a real challenge when the band can't play with each other dynamically. As you can hear from listening to a CD of any band, some instruments are the focus and some are 'filler'. With acoustic ensembles such as orchestra, choirs and jazz bands, the musicians have to balance themselves so soloists can be heard, the main challenge is compensating for musicians who can't or won't do this. A good band is great to work with and can easily be made to sound great.’

Brian: ‘I love Pocket Billiards (NI based 9piece ska/punk band.) They are a joy to work with and are actually pretty easy to do, if you have enough mics! They have grown in profile over the last year and it’s great to see as they put on a great show every time. Lovely people who were used to very little in the way of production and are grateful for anything you do for them. Easy band to mix! I like mixing most stuff to be honest and all for very different reasons. I mix using different techniques and different microphones sometimes for the same instrument. I do enjoy mixing bands that have more instruments than most though. Sometimes it is very hard to make a 3-piece sound full. I also am a fan of using a vast array of strange effects on vocals and am not afraid to 'break rules.'’

Part of the job of being a soundman is to blend into the background and allow the band to reap the rewards of the engineer’s hard work. However, this work is not just the sound check of the band. Before the band even arrives at the venue the engineer will have been working for hours in preparation for the gig.

Dee:‘My job as the house guy is to facilitate B.E's (sound guys touring with bands) in all aspects of their band's technical needs with regards to the venue systems both FOH (main PA) and monitors.

If there is no engineer travelling with the band/s, then it's my job to do everything.’

Brian: ‘If I am doing a house show in the Spring and Airbrake for example, I am given dates and line ups for the performance. Then I contact each performer to see what their technical needs and stage plot are. That usually consists of instruments and number of vocals onstage etc. I will find out if any other sound engineers are coming with the bands and talk to them also to determine what will work for them too.’

Steve:‘Before any sound check can take place, the PA system has to be set up. Depending on the venue this may involve anything from bringing in a full PA system to just bringing in a mixing desk or some mics. After the PA is set up, the mics have to be positioned and wired in and the backline has to be set up.

You will often see the sound guy playing music rather loud, playing pink noise (similar to white noise) and making feedback. This is to 'tune' the PA to the room so you don't get feedback or a honky sound or a boomy sound, different frequencies resonate in different rooms and using EQ an engineer can compensate for difference in the room shape and structure.

Now the band can start making noise, usually we get the drums going first and work our way through to the singer. Gates, compressors and EQ are used to help everything sit and get rid of any signals that are unnecessary, e.g. drum ring, excess bass in the guitars and vocals, basically anything that will cause feedback or make the sound muddy.’

Brian:Depending on what mood I am in will determine what I start sound-checking first. If it is an acoustic type group, then I will start with the vocals firs if it is a rock band, then the drums. Dance music will usually be backing track or synths. This is all to determine how loud the overall mix will be for the night.

When I started mixing live, I did mix loud. I have been looking for ways to bring the volume level down ever since! I’m usually told by other engineers that I mix very loud but it is usually the other way round to be honest! I like to have a very full mix and I will 'cheat' with my equalization to make this work. I also use compression to a great deal and my master output levels are usually incredibly low. Also, I am not one of those people who think that the bass drum should be the loudest thing in the mix. My mum once told me that 'if you can't hear the vocals, then what is the point?

When sound check is over, we will set up the next band to check. We try to have checks done at the very least 15 minutes before the opening of doors. The first act will usually go on 45 minutes after doors opening and then we will have a changeover time between bands of anywhere between15 to 30 minutes. Each band will have a set-time of 30 minutes with the headliner(s) anywhere from 45 upwards.’

Steve:The gig is the fun bit, you have to judge the audience and room to know the appropriate volume for the show. The main challenge is making sure the words are heard, having a good strong singer and a controlled band is the ideal situation, but when neither are present you have to dig in to a few tricks that help them stand out more while constantly preventing feedback.’

As with most things these days, technology has greatly enhanced the art of mixing live sound. Prior to these advances, analogue mixing desks were used but have since been replaced by computers, touch screens and endless assortments of effects.

Brian:‘When I first started in Belfast, digital technology was starting to show up more and more at shows. Before that, you would have to write every setting on the desk down with a pen and paper in case you had to change a setting for another band. This was a pain in the ass.

I usually work with Yamaha digital desks these days which do the job and aren't heavy and cumbersome either. If I am doing a show on an analogue desk, I will use my laptop to run effects which I would usually have on the Yamaha desk. This means that I can at least have some of my usual tools to get it near to what it should be.’

All three engineers I spoke to all concurred that the music the bands produced was of an exceptional standard, despite rookie mistakes in live environments.

Steve:‘You notice bands and musicians 'evolving' for want of a better word, first timer bands are almost always bad. There were some musicians from first timer bands that I worked with when I started 3 years ago who I have seen join and leave various bands, mostly always for the better. It's good to see as this weeds out the hangers on and leaves the talented. Bands have to be ruthless when deciding on line ups, ideally, every musician should be at the top of their game and it's good to see a band being held back by a bad musician, or just one with a bad attitude removing their problem and replacing them with another musician who works hard and previously could not get a good band to play with. I like to think that those who put in the work get the reward, and working with a good band makes all the hard work worthwhile’

Brian:‘Being from the south (Galway), I was blown away when i moved to Belfast. I couldn't believe how good some bands were up here. The standard was and is still is way better than anything I have heard coming from the south. Over the last 3 years I have seen some massive changes. I remember ASIWYFA (As I Watch You From Afar) starting off, I remember General Fiasco playing Glagowbury (a local music festival) the first time and thinking 'who the hell are they?' When I’m not working, I like to go to local shows too (Call it research!). These days, bands are moving away from the traditional Drums, Bass and guitar setup and implementing more electronic methods. They are also focusing more on fashion too I reckon. The local scene is pretty healthy considering how hard times have been in the last while.’

Dee:‘Oh, absolutely. The standard of musicianship is frighteningly good these days compared to when I started in the early 80's.

One of the reasons for this is that the recording process has been demystified and far more accessiblethese days with decent quality computer-based hard drive recordings being knocked out from people's bedrooms where before you had to pay a fortune to go into a studio and have some bored old duffer plug your bass guitar directly into the line input on his desk and not quite grasp the nuances of the guitar sound you're after. The proliferation of good quality low cost rehearsal spacecan only be a positive development too.’

It’s rare that sound engineers get the recognition they deserve. When an audience enjoys a gig this is often due to a high quality of mixing, but it is the band who are congratulated. However, when things don’t go according to plan, it is the engineer who is often first to be blamed. Engineers do a difficult job involving precision, discipline and maybe most of all patience. Without them, many famous bands may not have been able to play the gigs that have got them to where they are today. However, recently being ‘signed’ has become a very different thing to what it used to be, and may not be such a desirable end product, as Dee points out:

‘Bands should forget this almost mythical status of being 'signed' too. It's a fancy term for being in debt up to your eyes.

Do it yourselves, it's all out there, especially with this new-fangled Interweb thing to act as a platform.’

You heard it here first!

Part 1 - The Bands
Part 2 - The Promoters

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