As a practicing sound engineer, who do you listen to before, during, and after sound checks, performances, and recording sessions?
Spoiler Alert! The short answer is everybody. So now you can skip this advice column and read about the latest Chinese microphone that bears a Germanic sounding name. Enjoy.
OK, you’re still with us. Right. So in real life what do you do when the lead singer’s significant other wants to sack you because the vocals are sitting in the mix at a level she no like? Or a guitarist’s friend/father/squeeze/manager/neighbour is sure that he sounded way better when he was practicing in his garage before the band hit the charts?
But worse: the Mother! This dreaded creature arrives telling you it’s too loud before the system is even turned on: "Hello Mrs X. Sorry, but that’s just the stage monitors. I don’t control them. Would you like some earplugs?" "No young man! Just turn it down now, I said!"
It’s hard enough making magic night after night without having to cope with friends and family members (not to mention litigiously minded ‘companions’… but that’s another story). Unfortunately, coping with the people who invade your space is a reality.
Here’s a few thoughts for keeping the wolves and wolverines at bay:
Girlfriends and boyfriends require a special touch. Blood is thicker than water, and romance is headier than sonic quality. If a few contrite sentences for what your predecessor may (or may not) have screwed up on last year’s tour doesn’t do the trick, start by asking Girlfriend if she has a sister (or brother, depending on your tastes) who might be willing to stay with you to guide your fader moves during the show. This will confuse her and she’ll probably walk away wondering what happened. But if she’s persistent, you can fall back on the age-old routine that served early soundmen for decades. Example: “Do you want me to raise his vocal/guitar/keyboards by 3 dB babe?" (Incidentally, you can be more respectful and call her ‘Ma’am’ if so inclined).
"Or maybe you’d prefer just 2 dB? By the way, is his amprack/DI/RF mic/keyboard a bridging source or a 600-ohm matching source? Is it +4 out, or +8?" – you say with a straight face. With any luck she’ll quickly realise she’s out of her league and will walk away.
A slightly different tack might be worth considering when the production manager and album producer gang up on you to talk to you about the deficient and depraved practices you’ve been engaging in. Probably a good idea to listen and make adjustments, in this case. But start by placing the blame elsewhere: “That Beta 58A on the kick is shot, I think. Anyway, it was on the input list from last year’s tour. I’m going to change it to a D-12 right away. Let’s see what we all think after the change.”
Perfectly reasonable, right? Who can argue with a proactive approach that’s meant to rectify a problem? And if that doesn’t do the trick, blame it on the monitor guy (or vice versa, depending on your position). Never blame it on the act. That’s suicide, even if the production manager dissess them right, left, and right again. His prerogative mate, not yours.
If any of these stout and articulate volunteer critics are unknown to you, it won’t take investigative research protocol to suss their identity. The blonde (boy or girl) who politely asks, “Shouldn’t the drums be louder,” is almost definitely not the bass player’s current squeeze – unless they had a big row last night and he/she is considering defecting. Keep options open!
Another good one is this: “I couldn’t hear Jon’s acoustic last night.” Immediately ask, “Where were you sitting?” “Oh, backstage I think.”
Fortunately, that one can be solved without much fuss. Merely explain that most loudspeakers project sound in a directional pattern, and backstage is where all the leftover bass ends up to be swept away by the cleaning staff after the show. She’ll then blame it on the bass player. But if the syndrome persists, put a couple of small, full-range speakers back there to cover the hen and rooster house, and all will be well.
Feed those speakers through a special matrix with an emphasis on Jon’s guitar, and she might just defect from the music camp to the crew camp (once she realises that Jon doesn’t really play well). Show her a few licks on your travel axe and who knows, you might just end up on the other side of the microphones. This is a particularly good strategy to consider if her dad owns the label.
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