If you turn your browsers back to 1966 and The Beatles playing the Shea Stadium you will see a band on an isolated stage in the middle of a baseball pitch. Four diminutive figures with a basic drum kit and 3 Vox AC 100 amplifiers. There are no microphones on the drum kit or the instruments and, more to the point, no P.A. systems in sight. The absolute minimum of equipment for, arguably, the biggest band in the world at the time.
[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ow fast forward to a modern gig of that scale – say, at the O2 Arena and almost any band and there will be thousands of pounds of electronic equipment dedicated to the reproduction of the music on a grand scale. Go to any small to medium sized music venue in the UK and you will see more equipment in use now than the Beatles had at their disposal back then.
The intervening 49 years has seen an explosion in the technology used in the entertainment world and, although it is unlikely that very many people heard much of what the Beatles were producing back then, the sound equipment being unable to compete with the sheer volume of the screaming girls, you might be forgiven for thinking that the sound heard at many venues now is no better.
Back then, with no dedicated P.A. system, vocal microphones would have been plugged into the guitar amps or, in the case of the Shea stadium gig, into those trumpet like speakers that dotted all big venues at the time and known, generically, as ‘Tannoys’ (after a company that manufactured them.
[pullquote_left] … the whole thing was passively crossed over and powered by the HH S500D 1000w stereo amplifier (originally designed to swivel Bloodhound missiles around for the Army) [/pullquote_left]
It was not only the equipment that blossomed and grew in the years since the 60s saw the debut of electric groups. The people that had to deal with the bands and their increasingly sophisticated collection of electronic devices also multiplied.
From the primitive start of a ‘mate who had access to a van and was willing to drive the band around’, known then as the band’s ‘roadie’, the steady march of progress introduced a new breed who would see themselves as ‘technicians’ – a term introduced by the American road crews but adopted with enthusiasm by crews the world over seeking some new kind of status in the hierarchical rock and roll world. (Mind you, for Frank Zappa the roadie was still depicted as “an evil barbarian with a wrench in his pocket”, albeit in a more humorous mode.)
I became a sound engineer by accident. I was singing in a band called Dogwatch in the late 70s and our bass player had a small system which he also hired out at the small gigs around London. When one of those bands, ‘Dire Staits’, achieved universal soporificdom and went off to send audiences to sleep around the world, he left our band to tour with them.
He sold us the P.A. and I taught myself how to plug it in and mix and then resumed hiring it out. It was not a very sophisticated unit. An HH 12 into 2 Mixing Desk, a Binson Echorec (a kind of echo machine that consisted of a spinning disk with a magnetic track around its edge, a record head and a few playback heads), a couple of 4560 ported bass bins and some horns. I contributed a couple of homemade 2 x 12 mid range bins and the whole thing was passively crossed over and powered by the HH S500D 1000w stereo amplifier (originally designed to swivel Bloodhound missiles around for the Army).
When you work with this kind of set up you really need to learn how to listen and how to tweak the primitive EQ to get the best out of everything. When my band folded I moved on, mixing sound for bigger acts and using bigger and better equipment. As I was moving up the ladder the equipment was also improving as well but, all through my touring days, there was still a natural way to learn the job.
There was a bit of money around in the 80s, before the bottom fell out of the music business, so a sound crew for a fairly professional band would usually have a minimum of three members. A Front of House engineer to deal with the audience sound, a monitor engineer, to deal with the band sound and a rigger who was learning the ropes and might get to mix the support act. Learning on the job and learning how to listen, how to ‘hear’ a venue and know what difference filling a dry echoing space with a bunch of sweaty punters would make to the sound.
[pullquote_right]Four diminutive figures with a basic drum kit and 3 Vox AC 100 amplifiers. There are no microphones on the drum kit or the instruments and, more to the point, no P.A. systems in sight[/pullquote_right]
These days it is a different world. Many people go to college and get a ‘degree’ in sound production, they can probably fine tune a compressor far better than I can (but then I try not to use compressors anyway because I don’t like them) but they have not been through that slog of going from venue to venue, from echoing swimming baths to soft cotton wool like deadness as those of us who served our apprenticeship in the cab of a 3 tonne truck hauling ourselves around the fleshpots of Europe.
I go to a lot of gigs and, in the last few weeks I have seen house sound engineers constantly texting on their phone during a gig when the vocals were inaudible, sitting back and having a drink while the band complained of a low end rumble of feedback that I could hear (and identify as 200Hz) from the audience and I saw one duo, piano, guitar and two vocals, where the piano drowned out the vocals. How hard can it be to mix four or five channels?
Being in charge of a desk is being entrusted with the audience’s enjoyment for the night. If you want to earn some money and not care, go and work at a supermarket. Don’t pretend to mix the sound for a band I have paid to see.