Sound engineers' fiddling makes music


NEW YORK -- You've paid your $25 for the concert ticket; you've endured the warm-up act patiently, and now the time has come. The band you came to see launches into its first tune and -- yes! The sound is there, just like the album -- only this time it's so loud you can feel it.

The musicians in the spotlight, however, aren't the only ones responsible for supplying that sound. Bands (and concertgoers) have to rely on the sound engineer to translate what happens on stage into a clear, recognizable piece of music. The engineer is the person who oversees all aspects of a show's sound -- equipment setup, speaker placement, volume and much more.

During a show, engineers are the people feverishly fiddling with dials and knobs on the immense sound-mixing board, which is usually placed near the center of a hall.

Their mission is twofold. "I try to make the band comfortable, so they can hear themselves," says Jon Fausty, an independent engineer who does sound for artists such as David Byrne and Tito Puente. At the same time, he says, he's trying to "recapture the sound the audience is accustomed to hearing."

That requires equipment, and lots of it. For the current Dire Straits tour, the band brings along 10 semitrucks of gear. According to the group's long-time sound engineer, Robert Collins, there are 118 speaker boxes, 40 huge power amps that can produce 130,000 watts, and miles and miles of cable. (Not to mention stage hardware, lights, drums, guitars and instrument amplifiers.)

Mr. Collins runs the main mixing board -- the electronic brain center that connects dozens of microphones and instrument amplifiers together so that each element of what the audience hears can be controlled. Another engineer runs an additional mixing board near the stage that controls the speakers used by the band members to monitor their own sound.

All that equipment takes a host of people to set up, operate and tear down. A 10,000-seat arena show requires six to eight for a sound and light crew, 20 to 28 stagehands for moving equipment, some electricians, drivers and roadies (band helpers), according to Mark Friedman, owner of See Factor, a Queens, N.Y.-based sound and lighting company.

It also takes time. Mr. Collins and Mr. Friedman described a day in the life of a sound engineer:

* 8 a.m. to noon -- This is known as the load-in. The trucks are unloaded, with drivers and stagehands moving equipment to its proper place. The riggers start to work, pulling the huge speakers into the air with chain hoists. (The lighting goes up the same way.) "The sound crew marks where speakers will be hung," says Mr. Collins. "It's an all-day job."

* Afternoon -- The stage is set up with amplifiers, microphones and speakers. The monitor mixing board is put in place to the side of the stage. Hundreds of sound and electrical cables are uncoiled and plugged in. The house mixing board is positioned, plugged in and wired. Then, the sound engineer checks everything -- microphones, monitor speakers, house speakers, etc. -- to make sure it all works.

* Sound check, 4 p.m. -- The band comes in and runs through a few numbers so the sound crew can fine-tune the system. "Reverberation in the hall is the biggest problem," says Mr. Collins. Many, he pointed out, are "built for basketball and they're all different." When things are rushed, some bands have to miss the sound check. "It causes a few heartbeats missed," Mr. Collins says. "But some halls sound bad no matter what."

* Show time, 8 p.m. -- The sound engineer flicks off the house music (prerecorded tunes played before a concert), the lights dim and the musicians hit the stage. During the show, the engineer listens to the music and adjusts the controls so every element comes through loud and clear. If the bass sounds too boomy, he may adjust the treble control. If the singer can't be heard, he may push up the fader (volume control). "We're trying simply to reproduce what they're doing on stage," says Mr. Collins.

* Load-out, 11 p.m. -- Everything is immediately broken down. Says Mr. Friedman: "It's put in the same truck, in the same exact spot." Tearing down takes a lot less time than setting up, so by 2 a.m. or so, day is done. Then it's onto the bus for five or six hours of sleep before the next day begins.

Despite all the work and planning that go into a big concert, things can go wrong.

"Feedback on stage is the worst," says Mr. Fausty, who explains that this high-pitched squeal occurs when onstage mikes pick up sound from the monitor speakers. Other glitches include power outages, shorts in wires and the ultimate embarrassment: A musician playing when he or she is not plugged in.

Plain old experience teaches sound engineers how to cope. Though there are a few bona fide sound-technology schools, most engineers -- like Mr. Fausty, Mr. Friedman and Mr. Collins -- come up through an informal apprenticeship with local bands, in clubs and recording studios.

It teaches them that, ironically, their glory is quiet: They are the unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll. As Mr. Friedman says, "The kids aren't coming to see you, they're coming to see the guy on stage."

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