CHICAGO ROCK CLUB SOUNDMEN BREAK THEIR SILENCEBy John D. Thomas. Special to the Chicago Tribune (July 99
If you ever wanted to know the initials of a rock club soundman, wander over to the obligatory video game that sits bleeping and blooping near the club's entrance. Soundmen spend an awful lot of time waiting for bands to show up for their pre-gig sound check, and their initials inevitably dominate the games' high score lists.
On a recent Monday evening, soundman Gary Schepers is busting up the Bust A Move game at Lounge Ax, Lincoln Park's sonic dive. The night's headliner is the popular punk rock act Superchunk, and Schepers has been pumping quarters into the machine for about an hour waiting for them to show up. When the band rolls in, quick salutations are exchanged and then Schepers goes to work, helping the band load in their equipment and then placing microphones in front of all their instruments and amplifiers. In addition to helping the band set up and break down, a soundman's job entails making sure all the instrument and vocal levels are set properly at the sound check and then re-creating that vibe during the show.
A soundman's primary piece of equipment is a mixing board, which in essence is an oversized version of your house stereo with rows of bass, treble and volume knobs.
"Having a good soundman is really important," says Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. "Gary has toured with a lot of bands and he has done sound for us here a couple of times and he knows what we sound like. It always helps when you show up at a club and the soundman has some idea of what your sound is.
"With us, the vocals aren't that high in the mix. Gary would know that and wouldn't have the vocals sticking out too far. There have been times when we have played in clubs and the sound has just been all vocals and all bass drum or something. So a soundman can really make or break the show."
Drummer Steve Goulding of the Waco Brothers and the Mekons agrees. "A good sound person can make or break a gig. Generally, 10 percent of the gigs you play will have good sound, 1 percent will have great sound, 20 percent will sound like a herd of rhinos mating in Soldier Field, and the rest will fall somewhere in between. And you can tell the minute you walk into a place and meet the sound person what the gig will sound like. If he's friendly and interested and knowledgeable about your music, it'll sound fine. If he talks a lot and makes terrible jokes, or if he's really late, cram your ears with cotton and advise the audience to do the same."
Soundmen in general have a reputation in rock circles for being cranky and underappreciated, and Goulding says the worst experience he ever had with one occurred in Philadelphia when he and Sally Timms were opening for Marc Ribot. The soundman was two hours late and he hustled them rudely through their soundcheck. Then, when they were only three quarters of the way through their set, the soundman shouted that it was their last song because Ribot was waiting to come on.
"An argument ensued, and finally the wretched man turned the PA off," Goulding says. "The undercurrent of violence that had been brewing all through this show erupted, and Jon (Langford) and I leapt off the stage, barging through a slightly perplexed crowd towards the sound booth. As Jon attempted to turn the PA back on, I tore the soundman's hat off and began slapping him about the head. Order was eventually restored, and we played the rest of the show to a hushed, appreciative and somewhat terrified audience. The soundman was sacked, and the rival promoter who booked my next show there congratulated me -- people had heard the story and decided to play his club instead. Moral violence works, baby!"
But if musicians frequently have to deal with unprofessional soundmen, soundmen often have to put up with temperamental musicians. Schepers, who tours with Son Volt and has done sound for everyone from Max Roach to the Afghan Wigs, has seen his share of tantrums.
"I try to make it as easy as possible, but sometimes people just want to be hard to work with," says Schepers, who also plays tuba in the Bloodshot Records retro trio Devil in a Woodpile. "Probably the guy I had the most serious trouble with was Jonathan Richman. He is one of the most narrow-minded people I've met. He's not a bad guy but part of his shtick used to always be giving the soundman nothing but grief during the show. One night at Lounge Ax he just gave me such a hard time. After the show I sat down with him at the bar and said, `If I'm part of your act you gotta pay me, otherwise you gotta make it so I can do my job right.' The last time I saw him he had his own soundman to abuse and he gave him a hard time."
Pravda Sound owner Stan Doty, who runs the sound systems at both Lounge Ax and the Empty Bottle, is considered by many to be the dean of Chicago's rock club soundmen. Now 42, he has worked with everyone from Ringo Starr to GWAR, and during the busy summer music festival season, he has about a dozen soundmen in his employ. Doty says to be a good soundman you have to be able to communicate well with bands and you have to have a good natural ear for music.
"When I run into a new band, I ask, how do you want your vocals to be in the mix. Do you want it above? Do you want to have total articulation or do you want it to be laid back in the mix? The bands know how they sound better than the sound guy, so you have to talk with them. Also, every instrument sounds totally different. Take kick drums. Your jazz kick drum sounds different from your blues kick drum which sounds different from your heavy metal kick drum. Even older style rock and roll kick drums sound different from newer ones."
Having a good ear is also important when a soundman is mixing a show, i.e., when he's setting and changing the volume levels so that the different instruments and vocals are emphasized properly. Doty says the acoustics in every club are unique and you have to be able to hear well enough to mix accordingly.
"Sound is a very physical thing," he explains. "It's pushing airwaves. It's making airwaves vibrate. Therefore, every environment is going to sound different. For example, Lounge Ax is a very long room. The front half of the room sounds different from the second half. But when it gets full, those physical properties even out. So you base your sound on how full the room is. The Metro is a fantastic place, but you hear a lot of stage volume where the mixing board is. Therefore, you have to mix so that you won't be too loud."
While most local soundmen only make between $50 and $125 per show, Doty owns his own business and makes a comfortable living. He enjoys meeting and working with musicians but also admits that a soundman's hours can be pretty insane. "It wears you out," he says. "The long hours are tough. Sometimes you have to be there at 9 in the morning and right about that time the next morning you're unloading back at the shop and you've had Doritos and Mountain Dew for breakfast."
During his more than 20 years in the business, Doty has hired and taught many of the people who are doing sound in Chicago's rock clubs. And while doing sound has always been a male-dominated business, Doty says these days more and more women are getting into the game. A good example is Shelia Cronin, who got her start working with Doty and whose credentials include touring with Liz Phair.
Cronin says that because she's a woman there have been occasions when bands have second guessed her. "Some people love it and other people are like, well let's see if she knows what she's doing. You definitely get that boy's club attitude. Nowadays, though, there's a woman in every band so it doesn't really matter as much."
Actually, Cronin believes that being a woman may be an advantage. "Women are used to being compassionate toward somebody else's situation, whether you appreciate what they're doing or not. Whereas a guy might say, Ugh, I hate pop music, I don't care what it sounds like, a woman might try to give the band a hand. But I think that's a trademark you find in most successful sound engineers, the fact that they're compassionate. But there is a definite feminine quality to the job."
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