"Oh my God! Did you see the Architects at the Demo this weekend? I can't believe how great they sounded! Favorite show of the month, hands down!" -- some concertgoer.
We hear stuff like this a lot, for every type of music and in every club or concert hall. And naturally, on-stage talent plays a major part in how much an audience enjoys a show. But a live sound engineer is a coconspirator who contributes a great deal to that musicgasm in your ears. The dude sitting behind you at the table with all the flashing buttons? He's not playing with his massive vintage Lite-Brite (though that would be cool). Nope, he's the band's secret weapon for achieving just the right balance of voice, bass, reverb and a million other things that make your favorite act sound so smooth.
Despite being integral to any production, live sound engineers don't get enough mad props for what they do. So we asked a few of St. Louis' long-time sound guys about why they toil at such a thankless job and what they bring with them that makes everyone sound so damn good.
Years in the business: Nine or so. I started mixing weekends at the Way Out Club in 2003, I think.
Venues: I'm the production manager at Off Broadway mainly, but I pick up some freelance gigs every so often.
Favorite piece of live gear: A positive attitude. A show just runs better when everyone's on the same team. A good flashlight comes in handy, too.
Favorite band you've live-mixed: I couldn't choose; every show is different and has its own rewards. I have gotten a few thrills, though, working with bands I admire. Dale Watson is a pleasure to mix. Murder By Death, the Spring Standards and Ha Ha Tonka are friends. Joe Pug puts on one of the most amazing shows you'll see. There are also my St. Louis friends I've worked with for years, like Kentucky Knife Fight, Pokey LaFarge, Fattback, the Blind Eyes, Rats & People and so many more.
Best tip for making a show sound good: Don't make it any louder than it needs to be. The name of the game is sound reinforcement. Nobody is impressed by the compression you have on the snare drum. They want to hear the words.
One thing the public doesn't understand about your job: I don't have total control of the way a show sounds. If the guitar players are taking paint off the walls or the drummer is going after the cymbals like they owe him money, it's going to be hard to get the lyrics out. I'll do what I can, but there are limits to what a PA can do.
Worst thing that's happened while working a show: Total system failure. I've had it happen due to a faulty console power supply, due to a fog machine tripping the main PA breaker (I'm looking at you, Bug Chaser!) due to jackasses messing with stuff they shouldn't. The list goes on. There's nothing like watching a stage go dark in front of a sellout crowd and having to fix it immediately.
Years in the business: 25
Venues: Blueberry Hill and others
Favorite piece of live gear: Martin speakers
Favorite band you've live-mixed: Chuck Berry. He is the father of rock & roll.
Best tip for making a show sound good: Be prepared, have a good attitude and have good gear.
One thing the public doesn't understand about your job: Everything.
Worst thing that's happened while working a show: Talent discovers "Yes, his hand is really broken."
WILBERT "PANCHO" LICHTENBERG JR.
Years in the business: 42
Favorite piece of live gear: Behringer X-32 digital mixing board.
Favorite band you've live-mixed: I have a lot, but the Who Band here in St. Louis is one of my favorite bands to mix live. I am from the time when the Who and Led Zeppelin were touring, and I love that style of music. The energy in the music makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, even though I don't like it when bands play too loud. I like to be able to make them sound the way I want them to without having my hands tided by loud stage volume. I really like mixing outside where you can really have more control of the sound.
Best tip for making a show sound good: That would be for the band not to play so loud onstage and for the sound man to mix the band in the PA system where he doesn't have to try to battle the loud sound coming off the stage. Singer-songwriter acts seem to sound the best because they have the lowest stage volume.
One thing the public doesn't understand about your job: How good the concert sounds depends a lot on how good the band is and how much the band listens to what the sound man tells them to do. Most of the bands that have been around awhile usually get it. Some of the new bands fresh out of the basement don't always understand why they can't play as loud as they want. That one thing about volume on stage can make or break the sound of the concert. When something sounds bad a lot of people look at the sound man, but when something sounds good, they usually look at the band. Many people don't understand what the sound man does, and sometimes the sound man gets no credit for all his hard work. But the good bands usually thank the sound man at the end of the evening, and that makes all the hard work worth it.
Worst thing that's happened while working a show: I was working a show at Blueberry Hill and there were two female friends of mine in the sound booth. I normally don't let anyone up there, but I hadn't seen these friends for a long time. They started drinking, and towards the end of the night, one of them spilled a cup of beer on the right side of the mixer and the mixer went crazy. I stopped the show for about five minutes to clean up the mess, and luckily the mixer started working again with only two of the channels not working, which I could live with. From then on, no more drinks of any kind in the mixing booth while I am working.
Years in the business: A bunch.
Venues: Production manager at Old Rock House
Favorite piece of live gear: Anything that gets the job done.
Favorite band you've live-mixed: Toots and the Maytals jumps out at me right now because I'm a huge fan. I've had the privilege of working with some great acts over the years and am very thankful.
Best tip for making a show sound good: Actually paying attention and caring about what you do.
One thing the public doesn't understand about your job: If its not fun, it's funny. There is a lot of stress, and it can be very thankless. That's why we do it -- for the love!
Worst thing that's happened while working a show: I've almost electrocuted myself a couple of times.
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