By Ken “Pooch” Van Druten

Recently I worked with a client that is a band that has been around for 30+ years.  You would think that a band that has been around that long has seen it all and perhaps knows a little more about what it takes (from a sound perspective) to put on a rock show.  This is the part where you would be wrong.

It’s almost better to work with a band that is newer and hip to the latest technology.  Rock stars of an era that have grown up with older technology really don’t know what the latest and greatest sound equipment brings to the table and that lack of understanding can be a serious detriment to your show and your sanity.

EXAMPLE: Line array’s are being built with more and more effective off-axis rejection.  This means standing BEHIND the big stack of speakers you get little splash back of what is pouring out of the front of the thing.  To a band that has been around for 30 years, this is foreign.  They cut their teeth touring when speaker systems poured large amounts of decibels onto the stage. Younger artists expect to hear monitors and very little of the main PA hang on the deck. But veteran bands have have come to expect that wash.  It is unnerving for these artists to stand directly below what appears to be a large stack of speakers and not hear anything coming from them.  This can, and did in my case, lead to all kinds of issues.  

One problem is that the artist does not know where he/she is hearing things from.  In my case, what the guitar player described as a “thin” guitar sound, and blamed me for, was actually a result of sound coming from several monitor mix sources including side fills interacting with each other.  This is the part where I describe the human nature aspect of this.  

As we get older, we tend to become more stubborn, and not want to hear from someone else that what we are saying is wrong.  In this case the guitar player would not concede that what he was hearing during the show was NOT in fact the house PA, but monitors.  It got to the point where, during a sound check, I had them turn off the monitors and had him stand in his usual place.  

He kept saying turn it up to show volume.  I did… and then some.  Still not believing me, he said “THAT is not show volume”, I said, “Yes, indeed it is,” but he would not believe me.  Finally I turned his guitar up in the house so loud (upwards of 115dB A-weighted) that everyone setting the chairs for the show, ran for cover.  He still insisted that it was not show volume, and I muted the console to have a discussion with him.  Unfortunately he got so frustrated that he threw his guitar and stormed out of the building.  

Yikes.  What now?   Well, there are just sometimes that you have to throw your hands in the air and say, “I surrender.”  

The other thing in dealing with artists that have been around for a while, is sub information.  They are not used to the high SPL output of subs these days.  Never in my days have I met a bass player that didn’t like low end, but recently I encountered one.   Luckily there are some things you can do to fix this problem with cardiod sub arrays and the such, but this baffled me for a couple of shows.

Virtual sound check is a very valuable tool.  I wouldn’t want to do a show without it these days.  It allows me to really zero in on problem areas in my mix and get them right.  It also allows for an artist to come hear (sort of) what the house mix sounds like.  That’s great if they like what they hear. It’s horrible if they don’t. But you have to believe in yourself and have the balls to ask members of the band to come hear the mix so you can discuss tweaking.  

The worst case scenario is an entire band at virtual sound check that does not get along with each other anyway, and only communicate with each other offstage via their lawyers.  They are civil to each other, but just prefer not to interact.  Like a bad marriage, they act civil, but the undertone is dark.  Having all of them at my console was, for me, a perfect storm. You would think that a band that has been together for 30+ years would have the overall picture in mind.  Here is where you would be wrong, again.  Instead it turned into drummer wants drums louder, guitar player wants guitar louder, bass player wants bass louder.   Boy, that was a fun experience.  Not my favorite of days.

So what does this have to do with sound?  ABSOLUTELY f%$^ing nothing!  This has EVERYTHING to do with politics and people skills.  

Ninty percent of my job is being a marriage counselor and psychiatrist who works with insane people.  Ten percent is about sound.   The reason for my success in this business is not so much that I can mix something better than somebody else.  God knows there are FANTASTIC mixers out there.  But, maybe, what I am especially good at is navigating the politics of a band that really needs a life coach/baby sitter.,

IMPROVE your people skills.  Figure out what it takes to stand in a room of insane people and navigate the politics.  If you do this well, you TOO, can work for all the crazy folks, and get to do what we actually love to do, be creative, and have one of the best sounding shows ever.

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So… What percentage of YOUR gig is actually about audio? Comment below…