Think you don’t have any control over your sound at a club gig? Think again. Own your tone with these tips from veteran house engineers.
BY BLAIR JACKSON
Bobby Crown, chief sound mixer at the legendary Troubadour club in Los Angeles, figures that sometime this June he will mix his five thousandth band there. Over the course of eight-and-a-half years, he’s handled front-of-house or monitors (or occasionally both in the early days) for every sort of act imaginable, from the most delicate singersongwriters to thrash bands who had his ears ringing for days.
Up the coast in San Francisco, Lee Brenkman has mixed . . . well, who knows how many acts since he started doing sound work at the beautiful and venerated Great American Musical Hall way back in 1972. These days, he doesn’t mix shows there as often as he used to, but as head of the sound department for both the Music Hall and Slim’s nightclub nearby, he oversees a cadre of 12 freelance mixers.
Since both veterans have worked with so many young acts of every genre through the years—occasionally seeing those young pups move up to Big Dog status—we thought it might be interesting to talk to each about the vital relationship between sound pros and live bands at the club level and perhaps peel away some veils of mystery in the process.
Brenkman: At the Music Hall and Slim’s, we’re basically dealing with three levels of bands. Bands that could be and are playing larger venues, but sometimes play smaller places, like ours. Sometimes they’re cramming an arena rock tour into this small room, trying to cram 20 pounds into a 10-pound bag.
Then there are bands where this is their job, literally. They’re club bands or medium national touring bands. Those tend to be the ones that are most organized, yet also most flexible. They know the situation when they come into it, and they know how to make it an easy day for themselves and the house staff .
And then at two extremes, there are bands that are bar bands and bands that are programming their music on their laptops at home. Some of those have no idea how to perform live. They have no concept how to interact with an audience or walk onstage.
We’ve also got baby bands who, right out of the chute, want a level of technological sophistication from the venue, at the venue’s expense, that many headliners aren’t even asking for—a dozen stereo monitor mixes, or, ‘How come you don’t have the same $3,000 condenser microphones to put over the cymbals that we used to cut our demo?’
Crown: Some bands come in and they’re really knowledgeable about all their gear, but they lack the social skills to communicate effectively with the sound person. And there are some bands that come in that don’t know anything about their gear, but they can play like no one else, and they can or they can’t talk to you well.
Crown: In the best-case scenario, the band or their management will fax an input list and their advance sheet to the promoter, and most of the time it will state whether they have their own sound person, but you can’t presume that. Many nights, I don’t know until the band arrives if they have a sound person.
Bobby Crown setting up for a show at the Troubadour.
The input list is usually comprised of every instrument the band has or needs in order for their show to happen correctly. But those are often wrong. Someone will fax a 24-channel input list, and if the band doesn’t have a sound person and they’re not there yet [for sound check], we always set up what we call a standard grid, which is a basic five-channel drum package, two guitar microphones, two bass microphones, two keyboard DI’s, an acoustic DI, and three vocals up front and one on drums. That whole input list falls in 16 channels, which most bands can fit into. Even if a band has an input list that might have two snares or two overhead channels—things we don’t include in our input list—if they don’t have a sound engineer, we’ll make it the way we want it. We don’t run overheads in the Troubadour because it’s a small room. And we don’t need two mics on anything. Sometimes people will come in and have this extensive list. We’ll try to cut it down, not to take anything away from them, but just because it’s not needed. If a headliner comes in and they have a sound guy, we’ll follow exactly what he wants, but we’ll also try to convince him not to use overheads or double-mics, unless he has his entire mic package—then he can use anything that he wants.
Brenkman: Almost every band will give you an input list and a stage plot. Only the absolute bottom-of-the-bill, “Gee, we’re thrilled to be anywhere other than our neighborhood bar” bands don’t. Some bands will send you, in addition to an input list and a stage plot, either a spreadsheet or some sort of graphic representation of how they like their monitors: “Okay, in the singer’s monitor, he wants 100 percent of his own voice and 75 percent of the background vocals and a fraction of keyboards. And the keyboardist wants to hear his vocal on top and all the other vocals underneath.” Not very many do that, but it does help as a starting point.
BRINGING IN EQUIPMENT
Brenkman: A lot of bands at all levels bring in their own mics. That’s not a problem. When it becomes a problem is when they bring their own mics but they expect the club to provide stands and cables that they will not share with the other bands on the bill. You have a headliner that says, “Once our stuff is set up, we don’t move it.” Or, “We’ll take our mics on your stands away and the other bands will have to deal with what’s left.”
Or, they bring in their own mixing consoles—both front-of-house and monitors— and won’t share. Especially now that bands are touring with digital consoles—what we call medium-format consoles. For years, people who have in-ear monitors have brought in their own small digital consoles for the in-ear mix, and that’s not a problem because they’re usually prepared—they have their own splitter, so they plug the mics into their splitter, which splits the signal into their monitor mixer and off into the house. But when a band shows up with their own mixer and their own in-ear rig and no splitter, it makes for a very complicated night if there are three other bands on the bill.
Crown: Generally, most younger, local bands don’t bring in their own microphones. Touring engineers might have their own package that they carry with them, especially vocal mics. In fact, I’m surprised that people who use different mics every night don’t spring for the $100 or whatever to have their own mic that sounds good and is clean. We clean out vocal mics as much as we can— usually like three times a week we disinfect them, and we wipe them with alcohol every day—but there’s something to be said for having your own reliable mic for every show. It’s not that expensive.
Lee Brenkman oversees 12 mixers at the Great American Music Hall and Slim’s in San Francisco.
Some bigger bands are tied into their own small monitor consoles and in-ears. If you’re doing that, you want to have the same microphones night-to-night if you can so you don’t have to change much; it’s more consistent.
Brenkman: It’s still up to us to decide who we let the good stuff out for. For example, at both clubs we have three tiers of SM58. You put the really nice one out for the singer-songwriters you can trust. You have a middle class that you use for everybody. And then there’s what we call the Trent Reznor autograph model, which only goes out for the hardcore and thrash bands. You don’t want to put out a crisp, ball-never-been-dented SM58 for somebody who’s going to throw it at the audience, stomp on it, or stick it in a bodily orifi ce. All of which does happen.
Crown: Once the band is set up, we obviously like to do an extensive line check and make sure everything is correct. Then we ask them to do a verse and chorus, so they can hear a soft part and a loud part immediately and tell us what they need to make the monitors perfect. I explain to them through the talkback that the house [P.A.] is going to be off until the monitors are perfect, then we’ll turn it on, but there’s always some person who’s listening who’s saying, “I can’t hear the vocals” or “I can’t hear the keyboards” and I have to explain that there’s a strategy to the way we work.
When we get the monitors perfect, we work on whole songs. Usually, at that point, if the monitors are dialed in and they have a pretty good example of what they need in their wedges, they’ll play a song and be happy. We’ll tell them, “It sounds even better when the room is full of people, but it’s a good start.” And we get to hit Save [on the club’s Avid SC- 48 FOH console] and they’ll know how things are when they return.
Brenkman: One thing every band needs to know is that sound check is not supposed to be rehearsal time. So you sometimes have to decide how long you let them continue and when you say, “Hey, we’ve got three other bands to sound check before the doors open.” And when you’re one of those other bands, it’s gun-and-run. Sometimes it’s just the headliner and the first band on the bill getting a sound check. Everybody else gets to put their amps on stage and do a tap check: “Okay, this works, this works.
Usually, monitors almost always take more time. Because with front-of-house you’re dealing with one system; monitors, you can have up to a dozen people up there, who all want something else. U2 has four people mixing monitors!
With bands that have been playing in really small clubs or in their own basements, the perceived volume of their backline stuff in a larger space sometimes doesn’t feel right to them until it’s too loud. After working at places where, if they’re lucky, the vocals are almost audible onstage, suddenly they can hear everything and they tend to overdo to it with the monitors. Even at a place like the Music Hall or Slim’s, if the vocals exceed a certain point in a monitor wedge, the audience is actually hearing the wedge bouncing off the back wall of the stage as much as they’re hearing the P.A.
DURING THE SHOW
Crown: As they’re doing their set change and we re-mike everything, we go back into the booth and we look and see what’s been done. Usually the drummer is done first and the guitar players are still setting up. We’ll go through the line—“Can I hear the kick again?” If it’s saved, when I un-mute, he’s going to hear exactly what he needs to and I’m going to hear it the way I left it, and we’ll make a little bit of adjustment usually. I won’t un-mute any channel unless I’ve verified it. If all the lines are verifi ed, there shouldn’t be a problem during the set, though obviously you’re still usually making minor changes.
From time to time with upcoming bands who are getting their chance to headline— they’re playing L.A., all the agents are here, their friends are here—they want to look pro, but for some reason “pro” to these bands is not going out and setting their stuff up and doing a line check. Sometimes, without mentioning anything to us, they actually expect us to remove their drums and move pedal boards and move things around. We’ll move the wedges, move some guitar cabinets, but we still need to check everything. Some bands think that because I told them it was okay and I hit Save, they can just walk down and turn it on and it works. Sometimes it does work, but if they don’t line check, they’re asking for trouble. I’ve been known to go up to the dressing room and say, “Hey, I need someone to go through the channels with me.” They don’t want to be seen setting their gear up. But if things get mis-patched, for instance, we have to fix it during the set, and it ruins the essence of the magic trick that everybody wants to see.
The Devil’s In the Details
Small Issues That Can Add Up to Trouble
Lee Brenkman: One thing that can be trouble is singers and instrumentalists who want to play with a microphone through effects. A singer will say, “I want to run my vocal mic through this delay stomp box,” and they’ve gone to Guitar Center and bought a cord that has an XLR connector on one end and a 1/4-inch connector on the other end, and they don’t understand why the output of the stomp box is noisy and not very loud, because they forgot that they need a transformer to convert the microphone level to the instrument level and impedance that the stomp box wants. Worse yet, they buy a delay pedal the day of the gig and they want to try it out at their sound check. This is not the place to try out new toys. The best thing to do is stick with the stuff you know and you’re familiar with.
Bobby Crown: With some of the new electronic bands that make everything at home with Ableton Live or Reason, they don’t have a subwoofer in their house to really hear that low end but they know they want it. So they push that in their mix and it sounds fi ne in their headphones, but then they bring it out live and there’s so much bottom end that the engineer has to compress it, key filter that out, highpass it out—do anything he can so he can bring the mids and the highs up, but then that takes stuff away. It doesn’t translate well, and it can really throw things off .