Thursday, April 5, 2012

Swappin Stories: My Life As A Sound Guy

Through a little back and forth about what he should write about next, I got our current resident guest poster Karl Maciag to spin us a yarn about how he got into audio and progressed through the business.  While writing drafts he confessed that he was up to 1800 words because he hadn't realized how long our careers actually were.  He dared me to do it in under 1000 so here's my attempt. (Not counting this introduction of course.)

Midas mixicus
I've always been interested in sound.  From the rudimentary sound system at church as a kid to my Dad's tape recorder and stereo it was all goodness.  I even managed to craft a few different oscillators on my Radio Shack electronics kit.  I used to build my own distortion pedals on a breadboard that I still have. By the time I was in high school I had befriended an alumnus who was a DJ on a cruise ship and got him to sell me some gear.  I had to convince my parents to let me spend some of my college money on it and looking back we all agree it was a worthwhile expenditure.  

I was really terrible as a DJ because I only wanted to play rock and none of my friends wanted to hire me.  I played a lot of bonfires for $20 or free beer.  Eventually I landed a couple high school dances but at best I was doing ten gigs a year that actually paid anything.  Eventually some friends formed a band and while jamming with them I was pocketing princely sums, sometimes in excess of five whole dollars for all my labors, the whole time noticing that sound guys for bar bands were making $100 a night at least and they got theirs before we got ours. So between some of my gear and some of the band's we started teching our own shows.  

A couple years later I was in college studying theatrical lighting design and realized it wasn't for me, but that doing sound was like breathing.  Cutting sound effects for black box theatre on Otari two and four track tape machines for playback in seventeen speakers was a rush! There was a production major just starting up in the Music department and I transferred.  The program was aimed at turning out record producers and boy am I grateful for that fact.  I learned a lot about studio gear but what I learned a whole lot more about was critical listening (piled on top of some heavy duty visual skills from the theatre department).  Gear is important, but ears are more important, yours and the listeners'.

While studying there I really got going on live sound.  I invested in more gear.  It was 1997 so I bought a Mackie 24-4-2 and some Carvin cabs and went to work.  Everybody in the Music building was in at least three bands.  If you wanted a bass player for your metal band you had to play guitar in his salsa band and so on.  In the two years I was there I think I mixed about 300 dates.  Add that experience to the stories I heard from the profs, who were all heavy hitters in the New York recording scene, and the pumps were primed.

A lot of my friends stayed in the NYC area to ply their trades.  I really wanted to move back home because that's where I wanted to live and raise a family.  All in all it worked out pretty well, they make three or four times what I make, but their parking spaces are more expensive than my mortgage.  At any rate I moved back home, went back to work building houses for the family business and mixed a ton of bar gigs on the weekends.  The first year I was home I think I did over 100 dates.  It was a great place to be because I really sucked and was still just murdering stuff.  But I made enough to keep buying gear and I was slowly improving.  I remember one night my system got hired but Tim Mark was going to mix on it.  He was fresh from a Goo Goo Dolls tour and made my $5000 worth of stuff sound like a million bucks.  I almost hung a For Sale sign on it and quit.  But I pressed on and that was one of those quantum leap moments for me.  It drove me to improve.

I landed one national tour about this time.  I had just gotten married and as soon as I got back from my honeymoon I jumped in a school bus with four other guys and made a lap of America on a self-booked tour.  It was a crazy experience and we didn't starve but we didn't make any money either.  So that put it slightly above the 80th percentile for touring experiences. I learned a lot about politics, keeping it sane under insane stress levels, and a ton about shoe horning into strange venues.  There was also no life line so I had to be prepared and then get creative when preparation wasn't enough. As time went on I got offered other tours, but with a family in the picture at this point, I couldn't afford to pass on the money I was making to go on the road.  Getting in to touring is best done when young and unattached.

Periodically the scene would change and I found myself mixing a lot of showcases in the local hockey rink.  That work turned into outdoor festivals, then it gave out.  I mixed in coffee shops, for theatre productions, church events, you name it.  What was really nice was getting adopted by a band.  I've been able to form some great relationships where they really trusted me with their ideas and would listen to mine and gave me the freedom to experiment.  One of those was with the band Last Conservative.  They were playing gigs in high schools for a foundation and I must have done 300 of them.  I learned so much about how to approach different rooms.  Between that group and some others I got dragged along to some pretty cool gigs, big stages at festivals, football stadiums, even a Bon Jovi arena show where I got to mix monitors for an opener.

I did a bunch of four and eight track garage recording but also tracked a lot of stuff live in venues. Some of it was just so the bands could hear what they sounded like.  As some of the local acts got signed and started to tour, some of my work was used to shop bands around and one night's recording even went to DVD. Those were some great experiences for learning how different things sound without room interaction and how to make tracks on tape, er computer, sound like a live show.

Theatre work was slowly expanding for me.  These days I have three different community groups that claim me as their own.  The lessons I learned about room acoustics and gain structure while mixing twenty-six channels of wireless were golden.  Coordinating RF on those gigs was a good skill to pick up as well.  It's a whole different kind of politics too and the organization in theatre is different, all good things to have in my back pocket.

Then the economy went in the hole and I managed to keep afloat via all the great relationships I had built.  I've never claimed to be the best at what I do, but I do work hard on being the easiest to get along with.  One of those connections paid off when Karl couldn't help out a band at a church where he used to work.  They needed a guy to go to Michigan with them for a weekend.  They called me on a Tuesday and we left on a Friday.  We hit it off and when we got back they put me up for the job at the church.  Shortly thereafter I started working there as a contractor and eventually got hired at the full time audio and lighting director.

Now that I finally do sound full time (and focus lights and build sets and shoot movies and cut them and print the labels and... yeah) it's really freed me up to spend some time perfecting my craft.  This blog is just one aspect of it, trying to pass on some of the stuff I had to learn the hard way. And that's my story... all 1350 words of it.

--Start words that don't count for the tally--
So that's mine... what's yours?  SNR is always open to submissions and I happen to know the editor has a real soft spot for write-ins.  So get busy on those keyboards in between sets and shoot your story over here!

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