One Christmas in the 1990s, I made a collection of mix tapes for my sister Sarah. Having more time than money, this was the prefect way to give a meaningful gift without breaking the bank.
I think there were six of them covering the whole spectrum of available music at the time and I remember giving each tape a creative title. One tape, made up of predominantly bands from Eastern Europe I called Czech’s Party Mix – I thought I was horribly clever.
Around the same time, I was somewhat involved with my friend Mick’s band. Mick and I had worked together at a software company, and after I left to go work for Crest Audio, a few months later I hired Mick to join me there.
I do not play any rock-n-roll instruments and after a single gig in college (that did not go well) the universe decided my singing skills do not belong on the popular music stage. My use of the word “involved” was intentional because I was not actually in the band, but rather the person who helped lug the gear and twiddle the knobs. I was basically a roadie and the sound guy.
Being twenty-something and healthy, I was able to lift and transport heavy things. Additionally, my paying job as a writer of user manuals for a professional audio electronics company, more than qualified me to set-up and run sound for a band.
Over the course of about a year, I spent a great deal of time in the studio with the band, as the recorded new material. Once the CD was finished and released, it was time to literally “take the show on the road.”
We played many gigs all over the “Metro New York Area” supporting the new album including appearances at, The Court Tavern in New Brunswick, NJ, Maxwell’s in Hobokken, NJ, and the world-famous Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. For these shows I was asked to “mix” the band from the controls of the sound system found in each venue.
Mixing sound in a rock-n-roll club is a real crap-shoot for a band engineer like myself, here’s why:
- Club sound systems are typically about as modern and well maintained as their bathrooms
- The in house “sound guy” at the club is rarely cooperative with a band that brings its own engineer
- You never get a sound check or proper set-up time
- Did I mention club sound guys hate band engineers?
When we got to the gig at the Stone Pony, I had a typical interaction with the house engineer. I always brought my own headphones since that was one variable I could control, and to be honest I don’t ever want to put headphones from the club on my head (see bathroom comment above).
I got behind the console at the Stone Pony with my “gig bag” full of the gear I would bring to every performance. I pulled out my Sony MDR-7506 headphones and as I reached over to plug them into the mixer, the house engineer smacked my hand and said “I don’t allow outside headphones to be plugged into my gear!” I pulled my hand back and politely said, “I prefer to mix with my own headphones.” His expression did not change as he retorted, “that’s too bad, you will use mine and it doesn’t matter anyway since I can already tell your band is gonna suck.” They hadn’t yet played a single note.
His headphones were so nasty that I chose to mix without them – this would be the same as your doctor choosing to perform an exam without a stethoscope. An incomplete approach to be sure, but I was not putting those things on my head.
After a string of successful gigs in support of the new record, we secured a date at the legendary Lion’s Den in Greenwich Village. Not only did we score a Saturday night slot, but also we had it on good authority that the critic from The Aquarian was going to be in the audience.
For those who don’t know, The Aquarian is THE music rag for the entire NY-NJ-PA-CT scene. Sure the mainstream New York papers, and even the Village Voice were larger, but for a band trying to earn street cred in the market where they performed, the Aquarian was where you wanted to be.
When we arrived for the load-in around 5:00pm on Saturday, we learned that the schedule had been shuffled a little and instead of being the second of five bands for the evening, we would be the first of three. This was good for two reasons:
- Being first allowed us more time to set up and maybe even do a quick sound check
- Since there were only three bands for the whole evening, we would get to play for longer improving the chances that the Aquarian critic would catch some of the set
As soon as we started unpacking the gear it all went straight to hell.
On the stage were three large guitar amps that belonged to the club. The amplifiers our two guitar players had along were much smaller by contrast but that didn’t matter. Normally what you do is place a microphone in front of the guitar amp and pipe it through the sound system. This gives the guitar player complete control over their sound, but not too much control over how loud they can be.
The two guitar players started talking about using the house amps instead of their own. I hopped up on stage and strongly discouraged this. They went back and forth weighing the pros and cons. It sounded to me like they were leaning towards using the amps they had brought, so I walked over to check out the mixing console.
I stepped up onto the platform where the person mixing would stand, and began trying to figure the system out. Thirty seconds later a gruff voice came at me from behind saying, “um, can I help you?”
“Oh, sorry” I said, “I’m Steve and I’m the engineer for the first band tonight.”
He stepped up onto the platform shaking his head and said, “you know I really hate it when bands bring their own engineer, but if you want to do it, you can do it, but I’ve gotta warn you, this system is a really finicky bitch.”
Here we go again.
The house engineer held his hands up in a surrender, walking backwards slowly his eyes locked on mine. “She’s all yours,” he said as he turned and planted himself on a bar stool.
As the band continued to set up I settled in to my job. The mixing console was old; so old that I did not recognize it. I looked towards the top where I would expect to find a brand name or a model designation – nothing. As my eyes traveled down past all the controls I noticed something else. Not only was there no indication of brand or model, there were no markings at all. Not one knob was labeled and all the markings one would normally find around each knob were completely worn off. It was a sea of black knobs on a black panel. This was going to be FUN!
I looked over at the house engineer sitting at the bar (it was clear he was waiting for this moment) and as I did he raised his beer glass, giving me an evil smile. I didn’t bother asking for help.
I figured things out as well as I could. Once my setup was finished, I went back up to the stage to see how the band was making out. I was discouraged to see both guitar players hooked up to the large house amps. As I had been working on the puzzle of a sound system, they had taken their smaller amps back to the van, several blocks away. Great, just great!
I finished all the final setup steps and we started a quick sound check. It was a complete disaster.
As I expected, the guitar players were too loud. I asked them to turn everything down, but if you’ve ever known a guitar player, you know what a waste of breath that was. No matter what I did, I could not get the other parts of the mix to match the way-too-loud guitars. We finished the sound check, but I had a bad feeling.
In the hour before the show was to start I managed to get up on the stage to turn both guitar amps down to a reasonable level, but once the band started playing, that lasted about half a song.
The crowd was large, the critic was there and the band sounded horrible.
After the set was over, the two guitar players thought it was the best show they’d ever played, which makes sense since all they heard for the preceding forty-five minutes was the sound of their own instruments.
We loaded out the gear and stayed to enjoy the following two bands that did not use the house amps. They sounded better, but still not great.
I went home, enjoyed the balance of my weekend and didn’t think much of the whole thing… until.
Around 12:30pm Tuesday I was sitting in the Crest Audio lunch room enjoying whatever I had crammed into my brown bag that day when Mick walked in holding the brand spanking new edition of the Aquarian. All of a sudden I wasn’t so hungry anymore.
I looked up at Mick and meekly asked, “Well, did they review the show?”
Chuckling he replied, “You’re going to want to read it yourself.” He tossed the paper onto the table. Now, I don’t have a copy of the paper from that day, so this is a paraphrase, but what I remember the review saying was something like this:
Saturday night I attended a three-band show at the famous Lion’s Den in Greenwich Village. After truly enjoying their new CD, I was excited to hear the New Brunswick Power Pop band [insert band name] live for the first time. Alas my hopes were dashed when the engineer at the controls turned out to be a graduate of the Helen Keller School of Sound Mixing.
Mick wasn’t mad; he actually thought the whole thing was pretty funny. I mixed a few more shows for the band, but not long after Mick left the band and so did I.
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that, despite our very best efforts and experience, end up as a complete shit-show. When that happens, I suggest you walk away, grab an old mixtape and rock out with your favorite headphones. At least there you know the sound will be good.
Here is a classic Far Side cartoon that sums up that night in Greenwich Village nicely.
Copyright © 2015 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.