When you walked out of the last gig that you were at, ears ringing either with acute tinnitus or the mellifluous sound of sweet music, what did you actually hear? This is not a rhetorical question. It is one when has long interested me both as a musician and as a sound engineer. In many ways the two tasks have similar values and can throw up similar challenges.
To nail my colours to the mast here I would like to state that I hold the conviction that being a sound engineer is not a job – it is a commitment. You may be handed folding currency at the end of the task but that does not lessen the amount artistry the task demands nor does it make you a ‘professional’. In the same way that I could never come around your house with a couple of cans of emulsion and a selection of brushes and make your living room look beautiful there are people who cannot be sound engineers. You need a certain aptitude for the job and, given my own pitiful attempts at DIY decoration, I am as much in awe of someone who can paint a straight line and not drip colour everywhere as I am at a perfectly presented soundscape.
It is not a finite thing. The first, and most basic, task of the man at the desk is to make sure you hear what is going on up on the stage. The second task is to make that sound as good, or as faithful to the band’s sound, as he can. The two things can be mutually exclusive in some cases – some bands just want to sound ugly. I watched a local band with a cello and thought how bad the sound of the cello was and how I could make it much nicer. When I got the opportunity to mix them I found she put the cello through a fuzz box to make it sound like that.
Some of this is just listening and watching. Why is that guy on stage opening and shutting his mouth like that? Oh, he is singing backing vocals and you can’t hear him – that kind of thing. There are also those ‘Where the hell is that coming from?’, moments, when a sound surfaces and you have absolutely no idea who – or what – is making it.
Then there is feedback. Probably the bane of all sound engineers’ lives. It can be a disturbing low end hum that persists despite your best efforts to locate and kill it. It can be that odd ‘hollow’ low mid ring around a voice when the sound is just tipping into feedback but not quite, or it can be the ear piercing shriek of a microphone pointed straight at a speaker. I am not going to go into the mechanics of feedback here except to say it can be devilishly difficult to deal with. Back in the 70s when I first started doing sound professionally there were spectrum analysers that cost a couple of thousand pounds and could be hooked up to a system to tell you what the frequency of the problem is. These days I have a, slightly cruder, but no less useful, version on my phone for free. Technology!
The real essence of it all, though, assuming you have overcome the issues above, is the artistry, and that is where the difference between a basic task and creation of something special lies. Have you, for instance, stood at a gig marvelling at the ringing quality of the lead singer’s voice in that haunting ballad and how his or her voice just seems to tail off into the rafters at the end of each long note? That is partly the skill of the singer and partly the fingers of the sound man riding the reverb fader. Some sound engineers seem to think it is enough to just turn on the reverb for the main vocal and leave it there. If you are lucky they turn it off when they finish singing and want to talk to the audience. If not you get this scenario: ‘Woof, woof’, ‘What’s up Lassie? Lead singer trapped down a mineshaft? I’ll get help, call someone who knows how to mute a reverb!’
Stereo placement – the decision to use the pan control on the desk to make the drums sound like they go right across the stage when the drummer does a roll. That is down to the engineer, not the band. That guitar or keyboard solo that pans from side to side – that is usually the engineer too – and the musician often does not know it is happening. When I did the sound for Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel back in the late 80s I used to cross-pan the synth and violin riffs at the start of a song called ‘The Alibi’ – moving them from side to side and keeping them of opposite sides of the P.A. I recently did a gig for a band called ‘Son of Man’ and one song, ‘Romain’, had three guitarists doing a cascading harmony line. I had one on the right, one on the left and one in the middle and it sounded great but I wonder if the audience noticed – or knew who did it.
Back in the sixties there was a folk singer turned hippy called Donovan. He went off to India with the Beatles and the Beach Boys and was a huge star for a while. Frank Zappa later said, in a song, ‘You remember Donovan, guy in a brocade coat, used to sing about Atlantis’. I did several tours with him in the 90s and he was a very lovely person to tour with – just me and him. One voice, acoustic guitar going through a Roland JC 120 amp. Not much to do there you might think. In 1966 he released an album called ‘Sunshine Superman’ which contained a song called ‘Sand and Foam’ about a trip to Mexico. In the middle of the song he started playing arpeggios on the guitar and making monkey sounds to illustrate the jungle feel. I had an echo machine in the rack beside me and start to add echoes, changing the delay time across the stereo. I did this for all of the tour. He never mentioned it and I did not bring it up either. One night, towards the end of the tour, we were sitting in the bar. ‘Don,’ I said, ‘When you do Sand and Foam and I add all those echoes, is that OK? Do you like that? I have never asked’. He looked at me and said ‘That is how I always heard it in my head and could never explain it to anyone. I didn’t want to say anything in case it broke the spell’.
Next time you go to a gig Listen out for these things and you may hear a well placed instrument, a well timed echo or sweet reverb. Turn to the sound man and give him a wave of recognition – he is doing more than just a job.