It’s coming up on festival season, and that means live music.
And while performers get the glory, it’s good to remember that behind the scenes, sound engineers play a lead role. They set up …
It’s coming up on festival season, and that means live music.
And while performers get the glory, it’s good to remember that behind the scenes, sound engineers play a lead role. They set up microphones and amplifiers, adjust the volume and other features of the various elements, from voices to kick-drums to guitars, and create the mix, the actual sound, making it loud and proud and available to the audience.
Their technical knowledge is usually vast. They also usually haul around the heavy speakers, arriving long before the show starts to set up equipment that most people never think about.
One such behind-the-scenes audio expert is Tom Brown of Quilcene, who hopes to help with more local shows of live, original music.
A onetime sound guy for jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, Brown works the speakers at the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts, recently officially started with Centrum in Port Townsend, and does sound at Quilcene’s Linger Longer amphitheater and for the annual Quilcene Shindig in August.
“The peninsula could be the best-sounding place to listen to live music,” he said. “I keep telling people, do it for free, put out a tip jar.… People will come back if it’s good.
“There’s a million cars on Highway 101 each year. People need to know there’s a reason to stop.… I would love to get something established.”
Brown has been doing live sound since the 1970s, and local musicians often cite him as an authority in the field of audio engineering.
He likes to do live sound because “you get close to people. See them at their truest.”
STARTS WITH THE MIC
“Live sound ... is all about relationships,” he said, beginning with that of the singer to the microphone.
“The guy with the mic onstage. That’s where it starts.”
He recalled a performance by Doug Brown at the Chimacum Schools auditorium, using “a $99 mic, and it’s stunning. Guys who know how to use a mic” make the sound guy’s job easy. “But everybody thanked me.”
There is also a relationship between the band and the sound man, and between the band and the audience, which “ends up being my boss, and that’s who I really work for – and that sometimes doesn’t play well with the band or the club owner.”
Like many artists, Brown isn’t in it for the money.
“There’s a lot of really talented musicians out here.… I think we could reestablish live original music out here.”
He laments that the business part gets in the way. “What’s the investment, what’s the return.… I’m not a businessman, period.”
He’s also not a musician. “I don’t know why anybody’d want to be a musician. Bands, they’re clumsy.” He loves music – “stuff that’s good” – and absolutely loves doing sound, and being “removed out of the rest of the process.”
He’s not interested in being a performer. “I have a hard time going up on stage to put up a microphone,” he said. And, “I don’t dance. Never have.”
He recalls doing sound at a monthly contra dance in Seattle. There would be 250 people dancing and “wonderful music. Serious musicians. And nobody listened to the band!” He said he wished the dancers would stop, just for one song, and just listen.
“A lot of my friends are musicians. They need to play more.”
At the Quilcene amphitheater, “We’d like to do some experimental things, with some rather experimental music.”
He likes cover songs, but prefers original music. And he loves to record outside, “if a plane doesn’t go by and there aren’t too many motorcycles. I love outside. There are no acoustic issues outside.”
His dad was a musician, and when he and his buddies would get together to play, “from about the [age of] 6, I start turning down the guitars and turning up the vocals and trying to get the bass louder.”
Working as a sound guy for PBS in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, he experienced the sound guy’s life: “You never got credit, but you certainly got blamed for everything.”
A LESSON IN FIDELITY
One of the earliest lessons he learned was at the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland, doing sound for Dizzy Gillespie and his band. “I was pretty tickled” to be working with Gillespie, Brown said.
Brown had spent “all day” setting up equipment, and when the show started, he was sitting right in the middle of the room, surrounded by all his knobs and plugs and wires and mixing boards, “amazed at how good it sounded.”
After the first set, Gillespie asked, “Are those supposed to be on?” indicating the power amplifiers for the speakers. Oops.
“I turned the PA system on,” Brown said. “It was louder the second set, but it didn’t sound as good.”
More than a lesson in remembering things, it was “a lesson in what fidelity is.” The goal is “to get it to sound the way it really does.”
Brown traveled with Gillespie around Ohio a bit, and later worked at studios in Nashville for 10 years, until he moved with his family to Washington to “get away from it.” He became a computer programmer.
He continued to do some audio engineering; he worked for Seattle Opera and built sound studios in Seattle, including Ear Force (with Jason Brown) and McDonald Recording (now Pure Audio), the first all-digital studio in the country, he said.
In a further attempt to escape, he moved to Quilcene. “I’ve dropped anchor. I absolutely love it here. I don’t care what goes on anyplace else.”
A few years ago, he was approached by his neighbor, Franco Bertucci of the band Locust Street Taxi, who “said, ‘I understand you have a couple of speakers.’”
That was an understatement. Brown’s garage is crammed with speakers and sound equipment, and he has more stuff stashed elsewhere, too.
“[Members of Locust Street Taxi] were the ones responsible for me doing this again,” Brown said. “They’re a great bunch of guys. It didn’t take much convincing.”
The most challenging part of doing sound, he said, is trying to justify doing it. “The only buzz is when something comes together straight up.”
After a moment, he added, “Music’s a nice thing. It’s powerful.… It’s nothing but a form of communication.”
DUMP ON PEOPLE
Brown is getting on in years and would like to share his knowledge.
“I hate the word ‘teach,’” he said. “What I would like is if there was somebody as passionate about this would let me dump on them for a couple years.”
He has observed, “For $3,000-$4,000, you can go be a qualified sound engineer.… But the mix is all the same. That’s OK for pop groups doing pop hits. But you get someone up there doing expressive, or unique, or individual” music, or other unexpected situations, and experience shows its value.
“I can’t think of something I haven’t done the wrong way,” he said.
He’s surprised that there aren’t more music fans trying to learn to do sound. “I can’t believe there’s not more people like me around,” Brown said. “In Cleveland, there were dozens like me. If your snare drum sounded better, you’d have five sound guys there asking why. And you’d tell them.”
He admits he doesn’t know everything; “I’m still looking for the right way to do things.” He invokes the adage that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. “I’ve done all this stuff for 10,000 hours.” Yet he struggles with finding the right way to advise people who are clearly doing things wrong.
One thing he does make clear, after all his years: “Sound men go deaf. Period. There’s no way around it. You can’t live your life at 120 decibels.
“I have interesting hearing,” he noted. “My favorite word is ‘what.’”