Running With Sound (Be Careful!)

The Board
The Board

While I tend to throw around the phrase, “I ran sound for…” quite often anymore, after I received a few questions about what this meant, it occurred to me that this may require a bit of illumination for those who don’t spend a lot of time in recording studios. I say I’m Running Sound when I handle the technical end of a live performance at KPSU. While this might not be the exact terminology that a real Sound Tech might use to describe what he does, in my experience real Sound Techs are often complete assholes, so I don’t take much of what they say very seriously. I would also recommend that you do the same if you find yourself having to deal with one.

The Job Itself: When I get a sound request for KPSU, I show up as early as possible so I can greet the band when they show up. This way I can prep the gear as best I can, meet the band when they show up, let them know I’ll be the one helping them out. I’ve found this to be the most important thing you can do, for a number of reasons. First, being early is invaluable if you actually want to do a good job. (If that’s not a priority for you, then maybe you shouldn’t be a Sound Tech.) Second, being there to meet the band right away will set both you and them at ease. Radio gigs can often be wearisome for bands, and if the Sound Tech is the person that stands between them and sounding awesome on live radio. If the Sound Tech is there when they get there, then they know he is taking the job at least as seriously as they do.

Most of the time, showing up early seems moot to a lot of Sound Techs; very rarely does a band ever show up on time, and more often than not, they are very, very late. However, this is where being prepared comes in very handy. The more setup you can get ready before the band arrives, the easier it will be to accommodate late bands. I’ve gotten to the point where I can do setup in just a few minutes if need be, provided the band does not mind sounding terrible, and only gets to play one or two songs live.

As the band begins to set up their gear, I find it important to ask questions and try to get to know the band. It doesn’t matter that I will not be interviewing them, or that I will never see them again. In some cases, when it is clear that the effort will be pointless, I don’t even try to like them. But I do try to be as friendly as possible, preferably by telling a lot of jokes and getting them to laugh. A stiff, nervous, and uncomfortable band makes for terrible radio. However, a band that is having a good time, feeling at ease, and laughs at dumb jokes, is ready to rock. Strange but true. There have only been one or two occasions where I had trouble with a band that took themselves too seriously. I probably don’t have to tell you how bad those performances were.

Once the drums are set up, I start setting up mics. KPSU doesn’t have anything too fancy, but we have all the usual mics and stands that your average venue and uber-cheap studio would have. I use SM 58s on vocals, and 57s on amplifiers. We have an assortment of other mics for the drums, and a huge cache of DI (Direct Input) boxes if we’re circumventing that kind of stuff in the first place. I usually set up vocals first, amps second, and drums third. Drums are always the hardest, and I can spend all the time in the world trying to get them right, so I always save them for last. All of this runs into a snake (an input box that runs to the board pictured above).

Once the band is set up and the mics are in place, and if there is time, I like to let the band do a sound check. This is as much for them as it is for me; the room bands play in is pretty funky, and does not sound great. Of course, nervousness combined with the strange environment and unusual sound can be difficult, so the more of a sound check the band gets in, the better they will sound. This is also why it is nice to pal around with the band first. They will play better if they are comfortable. Honest. While they are sound checking, I’ll get a rough mix ready and record it in Sound Forge. Again, if there’s time, I’ll play it back for the band, get their input, then do the final mix based on their input. Hopefully, there’s enough time for both the band and myself to sneak in a cigarette before they go live.

I will be honest: I don’t exactly know how all the gear works. I know we have a feedback destroyer wired into the board, and that helps tremendously with loud bands. We also have a few different effects boxes in a rack next to the board, where I can coax out a little reverb if needed. But on the whole, I don’t play with effects much. The bands that care about effects will bring their own, and being Live on The Radio is about being Live on The Radio. Adding a bunch of weird effects rarely helps, and often just covers the fact that your band sucks. We also have a pair of monitors that we can put in the room so bands can hear their vocalists.

Once the mix is ready, I set up the computer to record a stereo signal from the board. This same signal gets sent to the Broadcast Room, where the DJ hosting the show can broadcast it live. At that point, I step down and take my cues from the DJ and the band. I do monitor the performance throughout the show, and do some on-the-fly adjustments if they are needed. (And, with live radio, it is often needed.) But once I get to that stage, it is often easy going, and I can run on auto-pilot. I’ve noticed that some Sound Tech’s completely check out one the band goes live, going so far as to check their e-mail or read to pass the time. I call bullshit on that. If you want the band to sound good, you need to be attentive, you need to illustrate that you are trying to make them sound good, and at the very least, just watch and listen. Your job is to manage sound. If you are not listening, then you are not doing your job. Period.

Once the show is over, the last thing you have to do is tear down the gear. I generally burn a couple copies of the performance while this is happening: one for the band, and one for my personal archive. I found out, early on, that bands LOVE getting these kinds of board recordings, and they often end up being used as demo recordings, tour CDs, or sometimes, on an album. I then go about putting away the gear, zeroing out the board, and wrapping cables. It often takes about 30 minutes to make sure it’s all done right.

I’ve ran sound for over 100 bands now since 2006, and have really enjoyed doing it almost every single time. Perhaps there were two or three bands that were really hard to deal with, and maybe only one that were really dicks who I would have a problem working with again. But more than the bands, the real dipshits have been other Sound Techs. I have met and worked with a number of totally horrible examples of human beings, who have no respect for the job, for music, or for other people. I like to pride myself on being the “Nice” Sound Tech, and to be honest, I have only met a few others that are worth their salt. For some reason this kind of job attracts some real losers with terrible social skills, and while I have been fortunate enough to avoid those kinds of Sound Techs in the last year or so, I regularly hear from bands and performers that they had never met a Sound Tech before who was as nice and attentive as I was. It’s become a point of pride.

So, that’s the job, really. For some bizarre reason I enjoy it. I won’t say that it is always fun; it is often stressful, and even the nicest band can become a pain in those situations. But when everything is going smoothly, I have a great time, and really, really enjoy it. Perhaps that is the surest sign of how crazy I actually am.

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