As I sit here sipping a glass of 20-year-old Ramos Pinto and enjoying the sounds of a jazz trio, I can’t help but reflect on my musical life of almost 20 years ago. Before I became a career technologist, I worked as a live audio engineer in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast. For a college student from North Dakota, I had a dream job. I got into the best events, consumed much free food, and was paid to have a good time each and every weekend. The thing was that all that stuff didn’t matter — it was about the music, not the free stuff.
For the first two years or so, I was a roadie on the audio side and lighting engineer when the shows went on. The lighting part was old hat — I did theatrical lighting design in high school. The audio side was new and different, so I focused on that rather than stereotypically hitting on drunk big-haired suburban female clubbers. I learned from three of the best — Kurt, Simon, and Byrd — and together they taught me how to translate my love of music through the amplified voice of high-fidelity concert sound. I loved it so much that I seriously considered ditching my communications path to pursue a career in sound reinforcement.
Prior to college, live sound meant garage bands or heavy metal that equated to nothing more than high volume with mushy reverb and seemingly uncontrollable stage feedback. When I joined Propaganda Productions, Ltd., Kurt Parsons and Simon Fraser showed me the difference between garage sound and concert audio. First and foremost, we worked with absolutely the best gear of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I was spoiled by Beyer-Dynamic M88s, Sennheiser 421s, handbuilt British Soundcraft and massive TAC consoles, Yamaha and Lexicon processors, Klark-Teknik EQs, EAW monitors, and Meyer Sound UPAs with Meyer and Apogee subs. PPL was seriously hifi, the best of the best. Second, they taught me how to critically listen and make everything sound great; nothing should be lost in a good mix. Finally, they demonstrated to me how to let the music speak for itself. My job was not to be the show, but to make sure the musical story from the stage could be told in the right way.
Somewhere in that period I occasionally went to gigs with my roommate and met up with a recording engineer, Richard Byrd. Richard was straight from a rock and roll movie; eclectic, opinionated, and full of character. Hanging around Richard was a treat. He taught me how to catch a phrase with a delay, how to do a best-guess EQ job, and when to be and engineer rather than a sound man. I’ll never forget how he labeled the mains — “Gas.”
My first solo engineering gig was in a small dive bar with a rather lame rock band. I set up and tuned the PA, rung out the stage monitors, and settled in for three hours of alcohol-fueled mayhem. After the first few songs, I got the mix right and the crowd loved it. During the second set, I started trying the effects Richard taught me. When I first caught a phrase of the lead singer that delayed for a couple of beats, the band suddenly took notice and the crowd went wild. I started engineering and the band became energized — we were in total sync. After the gig, the band couldn’t stop complementing me on the sound. I gave them the concert sound that they dreamed of in a tiny bar on the West Bank of the Mississippi River.
From that point on, my engineering mission became to create the concert dream for the acts on stage. After that, I engineered acts such as Irma Thomas, the Gatlin Brothers, and Charmaine Neville as well as small cover bands and major music festivals. In each and every case, the story was the same — create a sound that is bigger than life; a sound for the love of music.