What's going on behind you at the sound board while you're looking at the stage?
When Rudimental bounded on stage yesterday at Voodoo at Le Plur, the audience used to DJs hovering over laptops behind desks seemed unsure. Who are these people, and what's that guy saying? Kwesi had a mic and gestured to the crowd excitedly, but nothing came out.
“That’s my pet peeve,” says sound engineer Andrew “Goat” Gilchrist. I want what you see onstage to translate. If you see someone playing an instrument and you can’t hear it, I suck. Gilchrist owns the studio The House of 1000 Hz, and he currently handles road sound for Maceo Parker. He has worked for years with the Neville Brothers and does spot sound gigs for friends at festivals - the Alex Chilton tribute and Calexico earlier this year at Jazz Fest, and Supagroup and Star and Dagger last year at Voodoo. No matter the band or type of music, mixing at a festival on a strange board is always an adventure.
“You get into battle mode,” he explains, which translates in his case to tunnelvision on the task at hand - figuring out the board. They’re fundamentally similar, but they’re all just different enough. They’re set up at the start of the day by a house sound engineer, who first assigns mics to channels. “Fight with that guy and you will lose,” Gilchrist says. To help get a sense of the board and the set-up, he tries to see an earlier set from board to understand what’s where.
“When I walk in, there’s 25 drum kit channels and I only need six,” he says. “You want your bass d.i. [direct input] on channel eight and they’ve got it on channel 16 - too bad. I’m not trying to get things to go my way; I’m trying to get music to the people as quickly as possible.”
If you’re not the headliner, you don’t get a soundcheck in most cases. For Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails and The Cure, a festival date is just another tour stop, and they’re using their own gear, their own consoles, mics, and back line. For most bands, the first song genuinely is the soundcheck. “The first song is always a disaster,” Gilchrist says. “Sometimes if I’m really, really lucky, the second song through the end will be okay. Other times, it never sounds like I want it to.”
The matter is complicated these days by digital soundboards. He carries a thumb drive with his “festival patch,” which he can theoretically plug into a board and have it load in his settings, but it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes gates and limiters that affect the sound on a channel are hidden in menus, just like any computer program. The attention spent figuring out why the snare doesn’t snap can force soundmen to look down from the stage. “You can be going through menus trying to adjust the reverb time; meanwhile, somebody’s dropped their guitar and you don’t even know it,” he says.
For indoor shows, the room sound can minimize the need for effects. Outdoors, they’re important. “A lot of the time if you don’t use reverb, it sounds like the snare is sitting right next to your head and the vocals sound like somebody’s way too close to you,” Gilchrist says. “You have to open it up in ways.” When The Neville Brothers played indoors, he rarely used overhead drum mics since room acoustics and all the open vocal mics onstage meant the drums were heard just fine; outdoors, the overheads became necessary.
Missed parts and sound that isn’t getting to the audience as it should is one thing; other sound issues are subjective. At one Neville Brothers show at a winery in Napa Valley, one fan complained that the music was too loud for the wine and cheese evening he had planned with his wife. At almost the same time, another fan approached him to complain that the music was too quiet to dance. In Europe, Maceo Parker is often booked on Sunday nights as a good-time closer for festivals, sometimes following bands as heavy at metal band Rammstein. “When Maceo comes on, it’s not going to sound like that.”
When a singer sings into a seemingly dead mic, there can be reasons out of the soundman’s control - mic died, it was patched into the wrong channel, or bad cable to name a few. But it could be because the soundman didn’t notice the guest jump onstage. “Keeping an eye on what’s going on is part of the gig,” Gilchrist says. “I’m the last link in a carefully put-together chain; now I could make their night awesome or a drag. I take that shit very seriously.”
For more coverage of Voodoo, see our stories on
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