What Sound Technicians Can Do to Help and Hurt Bluegrass
Pete Wernick-Bluegrass Unlimited February 2004
Copyright Pete Wernick
The letters printed in this issue of Bluegrass Unlimited raise familiar concerns. Other than plugged-in instrumentalists and drummers, I can't think of a more maligned and unappreciated group of people within our industry.
As with any maligned group, there are those who fit the image (insensitive, poisoned by pop/rock music, hard of hearing, audience-unfriendly, lazy, drugged-out, etc. etc.) and those who work directly contrary to that image: knowledgeable, bluegrass-loving, friendly, accommodating, hard working, etc.
I have experienced both. In particular the latter type, in the person of Frank Edmonson, the fifth member of Hot Rize for many years, who passed away suddenly in November, 2002 at a too-early age. Frank was ideal for the soundman job. He learned from our late, beloved guitar player and general "expert", Charles Sawtelle, and continually developed his skills through nine years full-time with Hot Rize (and several more in recent years with Alison Krauss and Union Station). Frank's work for Hot Rize is relevant here because we learned a lot from him about what a good sound engineer does and doesn't do.
The Descriptive Words I use to sum up Frank
Let me flesh out each one:
The job of a live sound engineer is extremely challenging. Apart from the physically difficult work of getting everything loaded, unloaded, and set up, there needs to be awareness of a wide variety of different types of equipment, how to select them, use them, and fix them. A good example is the useful device known as a 31-band equalizer (think of your "bass" and "treble" controls being changed over from a two-part to a 31-part system of volume controls over different sections of the full treble-bass frequency spectrum). Equalizers take years to learn to use skillfully. If used right, the listener will hear clear, full sound with little or no feedback. Proper microphone selection and placement, proper speaker selection and placement, understanding power requirements in different situations, all these contribute to the key element of a festival: "Does the music sound good, or not?" A traveling band's sound engineer has to adapt to the festival's system quickly and knowledgeably. Whatever its limitations and capabilities must be worked with.
Some people, including some event producers, unfortunately, are unaware of the importance of this factor. Many hard-core bluegrassers are very well aware of the differences between good and great instruments, and the subtleties of great bluegrass playing. The difference between a well-miced old D-28 and a plugged-in lesser guitar won't mean much to a burnt-out rock n roll sound person. For many true bluegrass listeners, those differences are precious, almost sacred. Same with well-seasoned vintage instruments compared with simply "loud" instruments played vigorously. If a sound engineer wants to help listeners have a great bluegrass experience, good mixing, micing, and equalization can help it happen.
Frank Edmonson made a practice of representing Hot Rize with a smiling, friendly nature. Though when our technical requirements were not met, he could become quite firm. His job was to help the band satisfy the audience, and that meant getting what was specified in our contract, and full control over our set. Our rider was not fussy about brand names, but would specify "good quality", and Frank knew what would work. When doing sound for us at a festival, he would meet early with the festival sound director, give him a fresh copy of our sound rider, the sheet outlining our needs (a copy had also been sent ahead), and project a friendly attitude and interest in cooperation toward the common goal. He'd even sometimes show up with a cold soft drink for the hardworking festival sound person. If they were short-staffed, he'd pitch right in and help set up other bands -- all to let his coworkers know that he cared, and by implication, that he expected similar consideration to his concerns.
As you can see, this has already been part of the discussion. To do all of the above means a willingness to work hard -- even if it's hot, or raining, the band had to drive all night, and conditions are less than appropriate. It's all about serving the band in helping them serve the audience.
I could go on about Frank, but you get the idea. Some of what Frank would do contrasts directly with the complaints voiced in the letters to the editor. I hope it's clear where I stand on those issues. Though re the letters, there are two sides to every story and the readers have just heard one side.
During the 1980s, Frank was the only full-time sound man traveling with a bluegrass band, save the Newgrass Revival's Richard Battaglia. His work for us was so helpful that other bands would often comment, "We need to get a Frank." That started happening, though not overnight, as sound engineers' time and travel expenses can add up. Many bands were and still are reluctant to make this sacrifice. Sometimes not having your own person at the soundboard can work out fine. But then there are the other times.
Not infrequently, Frank would discover errors in the setup of a festival sound system which had been creating problems, from feedback or distortion to annoying hums and crackles. He'd take the time to straighten things out, with the result that Hot Rize would be the first band at the festival to use the sound system at its clearest and fullest. Once, at a large Texas event, he decided that things were feeling a bit lackluster, and that he could liven it up just by raising the "master gain", better known as the volume. Indeed, from our first note, the crowd "woke up" and gave us a great response. We got a mighty fine review in the Houston Post which really helped us in those parts for years to come. Frank definitely served the band and the audience well that day. This is not to say that volume always helps, just sometimes.
By his demeanor and willingness to work, Frank helped develop a good reputation for Hot Rize as a professional and easy band to work with. Even when setting the stage for *two* bands (Hot Rize and the Red Knuckles outfit that traveled with us) in one set, he did his job quickly and correctly, and helped the festival stay on schedule. Often his work went unnoticed by everyone but us and a few backstage people. That didn't matter to him as long as he got the respect he deserved from the ones who depended on him: us.
So that is some of the tale of Frank Edmonson. I believe he maintained a high standard, and I feel bluegrass is always helped by this type of attitude, knowledgeability, hard work, and attention to detail.
It must also be said that sound engineers are often faced with tough demands. Bad weather and tight schedules can make their life miserable. Quick recovery from a hard downpour is not always possible. Sometimes there are equal numbers of people yelling "Turn it up!" and saying "Please turn it down." Sometimes naive musicians don't properly express their needs, and when problems arise, complain about the sound company directly in the mics, for all to hear. Sometimes a friend of the bass player comes to the soundboard to say they can't hear the bass, when it really is just fine. Or a person with a hearing aid comes up to say, "It sounds tinny, can't you do something about it?" Maybe another sound person's friend goes on the attack because his pal didn't get the gig. On a long, hot day, it's especially hard for the engineer to stay courteous in these situations. Little wonder why at major concerts, you'll rarely see the soundboard in a place accessible to the audience!
As a soundman before Hot Rize, Charles Sawtelle had ready comebacks for people who said "Turn it up". He'd just say, "Sit closer." Or for the "it's too loud" folks, he'd say, "Move back." If they were sitting close and said the bass is too loud, he'd suggest they move away from the woofer (the big speaker at the _self of the stack whose job is to amplify the low part of the sound). He understood that listeners often didn't know the technicalities well enough to voice truly constructive suggestions, but if he had time, he would listen, to see what he do to help them, or at least try to explain nicely why he couldn't help them.
When all is said and done, most all of what I've said is built on the foundation of event producers and bands hiring qualified professionals to help the musicians sound their best in working to please the listeners. Great bluegrass IS great sound, and the players and listeners are part of a solid community that needs to always hold high their love of the music and respect for one another. I believe Frank Edmonson would second that statement.
Pete Wernick ("Dr. Banjo") performs with Hot Rize, Pete Wernick and Flexigrass, Pete & Joan Wernick, hosts professional band, bluegrass jamming and banjo camps, and served 15 years as President of the International Bluegrass Music Association. Info at www.drbanjo.com.