The spring of 1989 was a period of birth for me: It was the first time I ever played a gig at a club with a PA of its own. The place was Time Out of Mind in South Phoenix. Not the most reputable club, as some of you may recall, but a place that I got my first experience working with a gigging musician's best friend or worst enemy: The Sound Man.
If I remember correctly, the sound guy's name was Gary. I was very intimidated by him, but I tried to play it cool and act like I knew what I was doing when he asked me to check the mics. There were monitors on stage, and when he asked me if I could hear everything I needed to hear, I said, "Sure," I think, and we played, and that was that.
I have no recollection of how it sounded on stage -- other than loud -- and afterward, I gave Gary some of our beer, and he seemed happy. Lesson learned, I suppose, in that tipping the sound person, even if it is just Bud in a can, is still better than pissing them off. We talked to some of the best sound guys in town to learn about their favorite shows, pet peeves, and more.
Twenty-four years later, I now know just how important a good sound guy or gal is. We're pretty fortunate here in Phoenix to have some really great engineers who can make your band, regardless of style or equipment, sound pretty damn good. If you treat them well and remember that they're working to make the experience a good one for the crowd that's paying their nightly wage, they will make you sound even better; treat them like shit, and, well, that is exactly how you will sound.
Phoenix boasts some of the best in the country who have gone on to bigger and better things -- guys like Jim Coleman, who works with the Red Hot Chili Peppers now, and Jeff Hauck, who works with Soulfly, are local legends. Steve McDonald ruled the board at Hollywood Alley for years and occasionally had to convince people he was not Sammy Hagar. Steve made many bands sound much better than they probably were over the years, but he took his talent to the beach in L.A. and hasn't looked back.
A couple others who I have to mention are expatriate Arizona sound guys Grasher Johnson and Jamal Ruhe, who are both twice as talented as they are cool. And I would be remiss if I did not include the late, great Nino Notaro, who twisted many a knob in Phoenix during his life, making local and national metal bands sound great. As I talked with musicians from all around the Valley about their favorite sound engineers, Nino's name came up again and again.
As much as all of those guys deserve attention, I reached out to six of the best engineers the Valley has to offer. These dudes are working in some of the coolest venues in town and were nice enough to respond to a short survey from Up on the Sun. Here are their responses, in no particular order:
Name: Bryan Upton Age: 33 Venues you work at: Tempe Tavern. Sometimes Joe's Grotto and Club Red/Red Owl Years Mixing in Phoenix: 1 1/2 years in PHX. Years in the Biz: Nine years in live audio/studio Gig pet peeves: I really do try to not be a curmudgeon; everyone is learning at every show they play. But if I gotta pick a few, they would be: Singers "cupping" the microphone; absurd guitar/bass stage volume; drummers that take their cymbals off on stage after their set instead of getting out of the way for the next band; and last, but probably most important: sound guys with negative attitudes. Favorite Piece of Gear: The soundboard. Analog would be Allen & Heath GL Series, digital would be the Yamaha M7.
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Name: Rudy T. Reilly Age: 41 Venues you work at: Joe's Grotto, Roxy Lounge, Comerica Theater Years in business: 20+ Gig Pet Peeves: Bands that act like they've gone platinum who bring 20 people to the gig. Favorite piece of gear: Midas, Profile, Sound craft.
Name: "Ridiculous" Nickolas Marple Age: 42 Venues you work at: I work at the places that make me happy. Some of these have included, in (nearly) no particular order: Jughead's, Yucca, The Rogue, The Stray Cat, Palo Verde . . . Mostly small rooms. Others long ago in Detroit and Montana and across the U.S. throughout the years Years in the Biz and mixing in Phoenix: I have been mixing since I was a kid in Detroit, but in PHX, I have only been working live sound since about 2003. What's the Biz? I thought they shut that bar down. Wasn't it over by KY's? Gig Pet Peeves: People throwing mics on the floor or frontmen/women getting chipped teeth due to poor crowd control. Favorite Piece of Gear: Shure SM58. Cut the gain, crank the main.
Name: Mike Melanson Age: 31 Venues you work at: As house guy: Joe's Grotto. Semi-resident: Hollywood Alley, Club Red. As a freelancer: Clubhouse, Marquee, Brick House, Yucca, Rhythm Room, Goat Head Saloon, that place that used to be near LA Fitness on Southern and Mill, that place that was in East Mesa that is no more, LA, Florida, England . . . Wherever and everywhere. Years Mixing in Phoenix: 9 Years in the Biz: 9 Gig pet peeves:
- Lead singers telling me to add reverb -- it's a live gig. You mean short delay; the venue has natural reverb, you're not in a vocal booth.
- Guitarists tipping me to be louder than their counterpart -- do you really want your band to sound lopsided?
- Guitarists who think they are playing at an arena, when in fact they are playing at a 500-square-foot venue and their rig is literally breaking time and space between the crowd and PA.
- Friends of the band telling me how the band "should sound" . . . I'm working on it dude -- it's 10 seconds into the song . . . I hear it, too, it's just there are a lot of knobs and your buddy's band has a lot of issues I need to work out. Favorite Piece of Gear: On stage: A well-balanced guitar rig or tuned drums. Behind the board: a Digi D-2 or Alesis MidiVerb II -- Old skool!
- Dirty Stages. It's so hard to run a smooth show when your stage is a mess, cables are everywhere, dead gear and cases all over the place, etc. When the stage is clean, not only is the show easier because you're organized, musicians tend to care more about their performance, because you show you care about how their performance is presented.
- Inconsistent pedal/patch levels: This drives me insane! Whether it's too loud or too quiet, when you switch from tone to tone with either analog pedals or digital patches, have your damn levels worked out before the show!
Nothing worse than a rocking set, and here comes the big solo, and -- bam -- the level drops 20 dB because your distortion pedal wasn't set right. Or the opposite, you're grooving along with the band and -- wham -- this super-loud synth patch just smacked you in the face. And the whole crowd looks at me like it was my fault. "Yeah, that was me. I just felt like pushing the fader on the keyboard channel to the moon. I thought it would sound nice!"
- Not having the right cables or connectors for your piece of gear. It's rough when a musician comes to the show and expects me to have some wacky five-pin to Dual RCA connector so that he can use his whatchamacallit, and now he can't perform unless I spend 10 minutes of our 15-minute changeover time trying to come up with some crazy way to hook up this thing that he's gonna use for two damn songs. Know how your gear hooks up to a PA and have your own cables to do it. Thank you! Favorite Piece of Gear: Right now I would have to say the Behringer X32. I never thought I would say that, since it's a Behringer, but this console performs like some much nicer consoles at a quarter of the price. It allows a place with a tiny production budget to still be a capable room, sound good, and be fun to mix.
- When the singer drops my microphone for effect (it can blow a speaker and is abusive toward my equipment).
- When musicians don't have all their gear.
- When the band asks, "How's it sound?" It breaks a line between artist and viewer that (I think) shows a bit of insecurity. Favorite Piece of Gear: Aw, man, that's tough.... Currently it'd be my FOH Console (Digidesign SC48.) Being digital, it has all the toys I need built-in, and they all sound great. Put me in front of an analog console and I'd say the DBX 160 -- great compressor, especially for vocals.
Name: Brian Stubblefield Age: 36 (on Friday!) Venues you work at: Currently working for Last Exit Live, Unity Church of Phoenix, and Video West. (At least this week!) My freelance company is Jellybeans Audio and I tend to supplement Last Exit Live with a multitude of FOH sound gigs, mobile recording jobs, maintenance tech service work for houses of worship and private home studios, room analysis and consulting, and private training classes. Years Mixing in Phoenix: 7 Years in the Biz: 10 Gig pet peeves: Now here is where I show my true colors. I try not to stress over much, but I have a lot of them!
Name: Andy Winhold Age: 25 Venues you work at: Crescent Ballroom Years Mixing in Phoenix: 1 Year Years in the Biz: 4 Years Gig pet peeves: