The LIVE SOUND MIXING
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M-m-m-my Generation Gap
©1998 Duncan R Fry
It's been an interesting month. Someone actually paid money to have the Old Farts On Heat play at a gig - proving once and for all that there's no accounting for taste (or lack of it). And someone else dragged me out of semi retirement, paid me to miss out on the evening's TV and get out and mix a couple of bands. Tim Rand, ARX's guru of cool and mixer to the aurally challenged found himself double booked, so he kept the best paying one and handed the other one over to me.
The gig was at a club in Collingwood where I'd previously worked with Bo Diddley, a bunch of heavy metal bands, the Pete Best Beatles, making this the fourth revision of the original layout that I've worked with. And the worst!
Do you ever ask yourself 'where does all the old equipment go?' We used to say Perth or New Zealand - not to be nasty or anything, but geographically they were the places that tours down this end of the world typically ended, and selling off the equipment was often a far more profitable option than the cost of shipping it back (I bought a purple Marshall speaker box Pete Townsend left behind after The Who's 1969 tour).
A fair amount of old stuff seemed to have never left the state and ended up at this club, too! At a rough estimate most of the equipment was older than the bands, starting with the Yamaha 916 mixer, never very high on my list of favourites. Built like a battleship and weighing about as much, I guess some people must like them, but I hate mixers with switchable gain. The -35dB setting is too low and you run out of headroom easily, but the next setting is -20dB - too high and there's not enough grunt.
The mixing desk was the least of my problems, though.
I'll be the first to admit that I may not be the best mixer in the world, or even the 30th best, or whatever. (Such modesty is unbecoming, Dunk. Ed) But I know what I like to hear, and I can make a pretty good stab at what the audience likes to hear.
It's like that old joke about comedy. You say to someone "Ask me 'what's the most important thing in comedy?' ."
So they say "What's the most important thi - "
"Timing" you interrupt!
Well, if timing is the most important thing in comedy, then being able to hear what's going on is the most important thing in mixing. Can't hear, can't mix.
Look, I can mix on a bad system; I can mix with a hard limiter set on -10dB by the headline band; I can even mix with a noise meter that shuts off with the on-stage level before I've even touched a fader.
But before I can do any of those, I've got to be able to hear what's going on.
At this club, the mixing setup was at the side of the stage. Not just at the side, though, but tucked away inside what would have been the DJ booth in the 80's, surrounded by plexiglass windows that pulsed in and out in time with the bass. Perhaps we Live Sound people have been a little harsh on DJ's in the past, because now I know what they had to put up with!
Mixing inside this little booth was like mixing inside a 44 gallon drum and sounded like shit. It was truly impossible to pull any kind of a decent sound out of the system.
No wonder Randy took the other gig. This one was truly a lose-lose situation.
Why any band would want to play there is beyond me.
But what about the Old Farts' gig, I hear you ask?
Well, that was a bit more fun. I've no idea how it sounded out front, or anywhere, since the first few crashes of the drummer's ride cymbal in my ear left me with a a case of temorary hearing shift that lasted a couple of days!
It was a combined gig where we would be the support act to a band of young spurters fronted by both our other guitarist's son, and our drummer's son (drumming, naturally. A dose of father and son bonding over a discussion of what sticks to use! In the interests of them still talking to me I'll refrain from IQ jokes here!). But jeez you know you're getting old when you play in a support band for your kids!
The concept worked tolerably well; we played nothing with more than three chords for folks to dance to, and the young guys played a selection of music to jump off bridges to while we perved at their girlfriends!
The highlight of the evening was planned to be a super session with the Old Farts and the Young Spurters playing on stage together. So, we all got up there, plugged in, looked at each other and said "Um, er, what'll we play?"
Bruce, our bass player, grabbed the bull by the horns as he could see the audience was getting restless, and said "OK, let's play Johnny B Goode."
"Huh?" said the youngsters
"Johnny B Goode - it's a Chuck Berry song"
"Just a 12 bar in A"
"A 12 bar - you know, a 12 bar blues?"
"Forget it; just follow us!"
Well, call me a traditionalist if you like, but what are these guys learning? I just can't imagine any kind of musician not knowing what a 12 bar is. I know what it was that night, though.
It was chaos at a truly excrutiating SPL!