As a broad generalization, it can be said that most sound mixers get their start in live sound by one of three routes: with a band, with a sound rental company or with a club. For engineers who cut their teeth in clubs, not much in the following article will come as a surprise. Rather, this article will answer some questions for engineers who have had little experience with club sound systems. And club sound veterans should find the comments of our interviewees thought provoking. (See sidebar for background on the engineers.)
"I've always found that it's best to advance the shows," says independent engineer Gary Hirstius. "Know what you need ahead of time, and if possible get the venue to advance their list of gear to you. And try to work with what they've got, especially if you're working in a situation where there's more than one band on the show." In general, a club will expect to be contacted by an incoming act's sound and lighting engineers, and a failure to communicate indicates a lack of professionalism. "We insist that bands make contact with us before the show, and we actively seek them out," says David Wells, production manager for the House of Blues, Sunset Strip. "Our talent buyer will contract the show and give us a contact number. On local acts, it can be tougher because they're not as well-organized, and generally you're speaking to the bass player or somebody's brother."
At the very least, a visiting engineer should mail or fax a stage plot and input list to the club's production manager, along with any requests for particular items of outboard equipment. E-mail is also useful, and some clubs can be advanced over the Internet. Bimbo's 365 Club, San Francisco, for example, offers "hidden" pages on the club's Web site that are specifically designed for visiting engineers (www.bimbos365club.com/techinfo).
BUDGET FOR FXMost of the clubs mentioned in this article have a comprehensive inventory of outboard processors, but inevitably there are times when an incoming act requests a device not in stock. In some L.A. clubs, says Michael Faber, a former house engineer at the Roxy, "you get a pretty hard-nosed approach. You say, 'Look, this is what we've got. Either you can work with it or you can't.' There's not a lot of flexibility. Now, if they have some kind of budget, we'll bend over backwards and we'll go get them what they need."
However, before renting any additional equipment, it is important to determine who will cover the cost. "Mostly it would just fall in the lap of the production," says Roly Garbalosa, an independent engineer. "In other words, if I'm running production for them, I go to the promoter and say, 'Look, your act wants such-and-such. We don't have it, but I can rent it for you, and this is how much it costs.' And I'll put it back in the promoter's lap."
Even when a production is self-contained, it is generally advisable to advance the show, if only to confirm access. The China Club in New York City is on the third floor and may be reached only via an elevator. "It's definitely not the elevator size of my choice, but at least there is an elevator," comments the China Club's George Georgiades. And at the House of Blues, Sunset Strip, there's no backstage proper or loading dock, and load-in is across the dance floor and up a ramp to the stage. "The trickiest thing for us is band changes and turnaround," says Wells. "We don't have room for rolling risers and we don't have wings, so it's a precision maneuver to strike gear for the opening acts. But we have some terrific in-house backline gear, and, in the best case, all the bands will use the same drum kit and guitar amps."
"As long as communication is established before the show and you talk to everybody, then everybody's on the same page," concludes Garbalosa. "The only time I've run into problems is when people show up, I haven't talked to them, and they ask for the world."
TUNING THE SYSTEMIn general, it is safe to assume that a club will provide a house sound system adequate for the space. The premier clubs in major cities are almost certain to offer a professional-quality system, often including components familiar to touring engineers. For example, Irving Plaza in New York City has four Meyer Sound MSL4s and four 650P subwoofers per side. "We've had everyone here from Motorhead to Eric Clapton," says house engineer John Burns. "We've had thrash, heavy metal, orchestras, everything, and everybody loves the MSL4s." At the Mayan Theater, L.A., the house P.A. is a Crest-powered Renkus-Heinz system based around CE3T cabinets. The 1,500-capacity club, a restored theater, typically features local salsa acts, but it also operates as a dance club with a DJ. "There are six Renkus-Heinz subs under the stage and three on each side, right under the proscenium," says Garbalosa.
Even when a club system is made up of familiar components, it may sound quite different in an unfamiliar environment, and visiting engineers may want to tune the P.A. to their own preferences. "As a road engineer, I go through a fairly extensive tuning of the rig," says Faber. "I start with pink noise and go to a few CDs that are very well-known to me. And after that I do a soundcheck-if you're going to tune the vocal range, you'd better get some vocalists up there."
"I've got 15 or 20 EQ programs that I've saved from outstanding evenings," says Georgiades, listing some of the notable engineers who have worked at the China Club. "A lot of people have come through, and I've saved their curves, so when they want to come back, there it is."
"Generally they just use my curve," says Mike Willemain at the Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville. "Occasionally, they'll have a really odd mic package, and that's really when they'll tune it a little bit more for their mics. I've got a graphic that I keep for myself, and for visiting engineers I've got another graphic-rather than chop mine all up, I just say, 'Well, here you go. Just use this one.'"
"The house EQ at the Mayan Theater has pretty much stayed consistent throughout," says Garbalosa. "Some people come in, and they look at the curve and they say, 'You know what, we'll leave it.'" The Mayan's equipment list includes digitally controlled analog EQs from Yamaha, so recalling and restoring EQs is easy.
I GET AROUNDBefore getting too far into a radical re-EQ'ing of the house system, it makes sense to consult the house engineer. "The first thing I tell them [about the Mayan Theater] is that the mix position is not in the ideal position," says Garbalosa. "Walk the room to find out what it sounds like," offers Wells of the House of Blues. "I always tell guys that mix here to get out of the booth and walk around, during soundcheck and during the show." As those who've mixed at the HOB, Sunset Strip, are aware, the room features second-floor bars that swing open right before showtime to reveal the balcony. During soundcheck the bars are closed, presenting a reflective surface about 30 feet directly in front of the stage. "Visiting engineers need to be aware that the sound of the room changes dramatically once the audience comes in," says Wells.
As several interviewees pointed out, the house engineer will more likely be aware of any deficiencies in the system or peculiarities of the room. A visiting engineer "should work hand in hand with the house engineer," says Hirstius. "He knows the room, he knows the gear, he knows the limitations. In the end, the house engineer's going to help you get your best sound.
"At the Roxy, we were dealing with sometimes six bands a day, seven days a week, and that gets to be quite a few acts after a few years," continues Hirstius. "One day we would have Bowie coming in with an acoustic guitar and a stool. And the next day we'd have GWAR coming in. So it was varied, it made you sharp and honed your skills."
IS YOUR TRIP NECESSARY?Many acts intersperse club dates with regular concert appearances, and their engineers may prefer to use familiar gear rather than the club's. "Most people coming into clubs understand that, 'Hey, we're playing in a club,' so already the mentality is, 'We're going to work with what's there, as long as what's there is decent,'" says Garbalosa. But there will be situations when the club's equipment is not best suited to an incoming act. "Occasionally an act will bring in their own front-of-house console and effects, just because they've got their act already dialed up," says Willemain. However, at Bimbo's 365 Club, because of limited space at the mix position, Scott Burke prefers visiting acts to use the house console. "It's a minefield," comments Burke. "We'd like them to use our console, but if they want to bring in something better, then I usually don't say no."
In some situations, substitutions are just not possible. "Here [at the House of Blues, Sunset Strip] we are not set up for an outside P.A., so hardly ever do our stacks and racks go away," says Wells. "The system is dead hung-it's not on motors and chains-so we're not really equipped to make any changes." In a situation in which a visiting engineer is unhappy with the house system and cannot replace it, a possible compromise may be to bring in a pair of the preferred brand of speakers and set them up alongside the house system as a reference.
IS IT TOO LOUD?One area in which there may be no room for compromise is loudness. Irving Plaza, for example, has a 115dB SPL limit at the mix position, a result of recent noise ordinances in New York City that call for $1,000 fines if noise levels exceed a certain figure on the street. "Everyone knows beforehand," says Burns. "We stamp the contract that there is a dB limit, and we don't have any problems. We have a lot of professional engineers come in, and they go according to the rules. Plus, most of the time they realize that it sounds better at a lower SPL. In my opinion, once you get past 115 it doesn't sound good sonically. It's just a lot of noise."
Wells quotes a 110dB SPL limit at the House of Blues ("If you're peaking at 110 at the booth, it is really loud," he says), but most clubs leave it to the house engineer's discretion. "I try to keep the levels at about 102 and 103," says Willemain. "At the Wildhorse, the system will only do probably 105 to 106, and I'll let peaks go through at about 108 to 110, but I don't like to get it too loud. This is a family entertainment venue, and people will bring their kids."
"When it comes to sound pressure levels, the [visiting] mixers generally listen to you," says Hirstius, "especially if they're making a board tape and you tell them, 'Well, if your band plays that loud, the guitar's not going to be on the board tape.' That'll shock them into submission right away."
THE HIDDEN HANDIn addition to persuasion, there are other less direct methods of controlling the SPL, as Faber explains. "In the last five years or so, many clubs have taken to bandwidth-limiting, post-crossover. You're coming out of the crossover into a brick-wall limiter that will not allow the system to exceed a certain point. And depending on the band engineer that comes in, you can get pretty delicate with it. You can shut him down to a point where he's not going to get much over 100 dB, or you can open up for the guy who seems to know what he's doing and needs the breathing room."
"There's limiters every step of the way in the JBL processors," says Georgiades of the China Club. "Plus, I have a Klark Teknik quad compressor/limiter that's hidden behind a blank panel. Even with that, I had to fire one sound guy that was clipping all the amps during soundcheck. The room was empty, and I said, 'Okay, where you going with this? When the room fills up, where are you going to go with this?'"
Of course, appropriate loudness is a subjective issue. It is, after all, the band's name that sells tickets, and their fans may well be more enthused by volume than fidelity. "There's been a couple of times when I've let the guest engineer bury himself," recalls Faber. "And somebody from management would come and say, 'It sounds horrible.' And I'd tell them, 'Well, here's why.' If they want to make the band sound like that, that's okay; I don't have a problem with that. As long as they're not hurting the rig, they can do whatever they want. It's a question of taste. What sounds good to me may not sound good to you."
MIX WOULD LIKE TO THANK THE FOLLOWING FOR SHARING THEIR EXPERTISE AND EXPERIENCES:
Scott Burke is production manager at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco. Formerly an independent tour manager, Burke was "always in the music business in one fashion or another. Either playing, or something." He wound up at Bimbo's after being introduced to the owner by a mutual friend.
John Burns was house sound engineer at New York City's Irving Plaza for four years before joining Jeff Webster in the production office. "I helped put the system together," says Burns. "I built the monitors and monitor system."
Michael Faber got his start in a Grand Rapids, Mich., club and mixed for B.B. King, The Temptations, the Four Tops, "and a lot of the Motown stuff," before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-'80s, where he began mixing at the Roxy. Now working for Fairview AFX, an A/V company based in Tulsa, Okla., Faber was most recently on tour with Manhattan Transfer and Bette Midler.
Roly Garbalosa is an independent engineer based in Los Angeles, working mainly at the Mayan Theater, a restored legitimate theater that specializes in Latin, salsa and "tropical" music.
George Georgiades is originally from Ohio and was involved in setting up sound for the original Agora clubs in Cleveland, Columbus and Akron. On the road with Billy Squier at 17, Georgiades is now production manager of the China Club, New York City. "We opened June 23, 1985, and I was there from day one." Of the club's booking policy, he says "It's A to Z. I go from not doing a band for two weeks to doing five bands in one night. One of the owners got married recently, and we had a cover band, and then we had Irish bagpipes because he's Irish, and then we went into a swing night."
Gary Hirstius, who now lives in Annapolis, Md., worked for seven years as a house engineer at Lou Adler's Roxy Theater in Hollywood, Calif. He also toured with Rick Nelson for seven years. He produced punk bands in the '80s and recorded the Circle Jerks, X and the Dead Kennedys. Hirstius has now been working for Don Was as both a live and recording engineer for nine years.
David Wells has been production manager at the House of Blues, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, for five years. A musician, band tech and self-taught sound engineer, Wells started doing sound in clubs and has toured with David Lindley, Los Lobos, Ry Cooder and Joe Walsh.
Mike Willemain is chief audio engineer at the Wildhorse Saloon, a Nashville concert club with extensive audio and video recording facilities. A 1998 ACM Club of the Year, the Wildhorse features entertainment seven nights a week and is frequently used for film and video shoots for broadcast. "The whole house is really production-friendly," says Willemain. "I've got co-ax, tri-ax, and audio runs all over the house, a three-way audio split and we even have facilities for cameras and audio on the outside of the building. It's really rigged for media." Willemain's experience includes 11 years as a professional musician and 12 years in sound reinforcement and recording.