The Magic of Concert Sound

Last night I sat up and watched the documentary, “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.” Yeah, I watched it because I am a Rush fan. One of my first two “rock” cassettes (yes, grew up in the 1980s) was “Signals” and my first concert was Rush during the “Hold Your Fire” tour at the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans (1988). I saw them again a few years later and have a fairly good collection of their music on CD (and cassette). The documentary, like so many of their songs, triggered thoughts that started swirling around in my head; thoughts of “what if?”

As I wrote back in 2009, one of my jobs in college was as a live sound engineer in New Orleans. I engineered Irma Thomas during the period when she was nominated for a Grammy, had the pleasure of working with Charmaine Neville, and worked wacky events such as MTV’s “Mardi Gras Madness” (1989) and the Super Bowl (1990). I worked shows of virtually every shape and size, from an audience numbering in the tens to a couple of thousand people. I really loved crafting a live audio landscape.

Back in the day at the cusp of digital technology, “driving” a show from behind British-built Soundcraft 200B or in the wings fussing with a massive 40-channel TAC monitor mixer was a real tactile experience. Nothing was automated, so one was constantly tweaking things. You had to listen for feedback and then find the offending frequencies on the graphic EQs without blowing the mix. Wireless was new, so one had to be on the lookout for stray radio frequencies from a local radio station (that happened to me more than once) and deal with gates to cut it out. Respectable speaker cabinets were not self-powered, so that meant racks upon racks of heavy Crest Audio and QSC power amplifiers tied together with EV crossovers and Meyer signal processors. Lexicon delays and Yamaha reverbs were digital, but none of it was linked to MIDI, so getting the right timing on the delay meant thinking about milliseconds on the fly. Presets? Pah! We didn’t need no stinkin’ presets! Back then live sound was a real pain in the ass.

Even then I thought the hardware side of sound reinforcement was a pain and yet, two years into college, I found myself watching Pink Floyd’s “Delicate Sound of Thunder” on VHS in my parents’ basement wondering about the future. I pointed to a wide shot of the concert that captured the whole stage, the lighting rig, and mix position, turned to my mom and said, “you know, I want to do that.” She didn’t bat an eye. Seriously. I contemplated giving everything up to go into concert sound. Like so many things in my life, I figured out how to do both — completed college and kept doing live sound until I moved away from New Orleans.

When I saw the documentary, it churned up those thoughts once again. I really love live sound (and sadly, I have the tinnitus to go with it). There’s something very special about shaping an auditory experience on the fly. Live sound is simply magical. You literally create a vibe and can transform a crowd and have the potential to make something out of nothing. A great band can be a failure with a bad mix, and a lame band turned into something better just through engineering. To drive a kick out of a properly tuned subwoofer or slice a sax through a rock mix is so deeply satisfying to me. At live shows I often just close my eyes and wander through the soundscape of a great mix. If that mix is mush, I simply tolerate the show and at times, watch the crowd to see if it is “just me.” You know what, most of the time it isn’t — everyone else doesn’t like mush either.

I always wondered if I was a good engineer. I had the training, did the shows, and worked with the best stuff, but in the end I really didn’t know for myself. A couple of years ago, I found my answer. First, a little background: for the better part of a decade, the University of Chicago would put on a new student orientation event and, skipping the long story, there were usually three or so live neighborhood bands that would perform during the festivities. At some point we figured out that we had most of the gear to produce the live show ourselves, so we did. For one day out of each year I would dust off my concert engineering skills and drive a show. The gear was analog and still a pain, but for one day out of the year it would be okay.

Once around 2007, the drummer of the second act showed up with — and I kid you not — a 7″ toy kick drum, a trashcan covered by a cellophane paddle (snare), a larger inverted trashcan (floor tom), a couple of other random objects, a drum throne, and two unsharpened pencils for drumsticks. While staring at that mess with microphones in hand, the drummer said “I had to sell my kit.” It wasn’t some bad joke; I had to make that melange sound like the power drums of an alternative rock act. I mic’ed everything up as best I could (the AKG D112 mic was almost bigger than the kick drum itself), returned to the front-of-house console, muted the mains, and proceeded to dial in the kit using headphones. I tweaked the EQs, fiddled with the compressors, adjusted the gates, and fussed with the reverb. Drawing exclusively from my experience, I imagined a drum kit and created his kit out of what was coming through the microphones — which was nowhere near what I dredged up from the recesses of my brain. I imagined what each piece kit should sound like, had him play, and closed my eyes to listen in the headphones for the right sound as I turned knobs and adjusted sliders. Satisfied, I had him stop, unmuted the mains, and asked him “go around the world.”

He did and it sounded like a freakin’ hard rock Tama kit.

The drummer just stared at me as he hit the kick over and over again. That little 7″ toy drum was generating a sound through the PA that shook the stage. His little amalgam of basement artifacts sounded like the drum kit he never had but clearly wanted at some point in his life. People in the audience stared back. That little pile of stuff was creating a huge sound that just didn’t make any sense. The sound was right, but the visual was all wrong. Needless-to-say, they rocked and I got my answer.

I have a dream to one day live in a small town and own a club or run a gig-level live sound company that has a solid, concert grade PA. The point isn’t to relive my college days or run a bar, but rather to create the concert experience for those up-and-coming garage bands that will always be out there. Bad sound inspires no one, but once you experience the cocktail of a great live mix and a crowd that responds to it, you’ll never want to give up on music. Watch a Rush concert, look at the fans, and you’ll know what I mean.