"Hey Scott! I know it may be a trivial matter for you to recall at the moment, but...How hard was I hitting you in the face last night?"
Scott Richards had a tough ride last night. He had a smile on later, in the bus. But they say he wasn't smiling during the show. To begin with, a signal cable from a DAT machine failed. The signal that he has to receive in order to send the players on the stage what they need to hear, no longer made its merry way to his console... It happened two songs into the show, and it really hung his ass out in the wind.
Scotty mixes monitors. He has a job that many working production types will flatly say is only for crazy people: only fools and congenital idiots mix monitors. The whole idea behind the task at hand flies in the face of common sense. A monitor guy's job is to walk a micro-thin trace between the lower boundaries of client satisfaction and a precipice of physics which can actually hurt people. The idea is to take a sound and (most often) make it as loud as possible through a set of speakers which are as close as possible to the same microphone that is sending the original signal. This is done for 36 or more channels of sounds including everything that comes off the stage, from vocals to digital samples.
The reason for this is that, in the high volume environment of a modern stage, performers usually cannot hear themselves adequately without this sort of reinforcement. Electric types, such as guitars and keyboards, can sometimes simply turn themselves up. Acoustic performers like vocalists, horn players, and drummers, have no hope of keeping up without good monitors. The goal of monitor mixing is to send each player his or her own mix: only those sounds that they need to hear. The balance can be very delicate. Too much of the signal (especially from a microphone), will cause the speakers to feed back. Given the volume which monitor rigs deal with, this can be a shattering experience. Combat veterans might smile in understanding at seeing people running for cover from the noise. It hurts.
Jon Lord, of Deep Purple, made the point of proper balance very concisely on the "Made In Japan" live recording when he told his monitor guy to "make everything louder than everything else."
In order to do this, these people must have a finely tuned ear, and really good equipment. High powered amplifiers are good stuff. Monitor engineers like to speak of "head room": the audio equivalent of gas in the tank. Industrial grade speaker systems are a must. They must be strong enough to withstand incredible levels of signals of all sorts, and still deliver the widest range of dynamic nuance. Monitor people work in a small fortress built of racks of amplifiers and a wild variety of electronic tuning gear. A monitor desk is often a locus of intense action, most of it taking place within a fifty square foot area, in semi-darkness, and incredibly high volume. There are cables of all sizes everywhere in sight, with hundreds of connections of a dozen types or more. An engineer deals with a shocking array of controls (hundreds of them). He needs to know exactly what to get out of turning a certain knob, sliding a certain fader, pressing a particular button, dialing a given digital preset...how far and how fast. He does this stuff in real time, within sight of the band, on demand or on cue... depending on who he is working for.
Performers can be very edgy about their monitors. Monitor engineers, on average, get fired or quit more often than almost anybody else in the business. (To quote a Scottish guy who mixed Ozzy Osbourne, "I've been fired by more people than you've worked for.") They get things thrown at them; everything from drinks to microphone stands. Scott told me a funny story about David Lee Roth (ex of Van Halen). It seems that David wanted to switch out a wireless mic that wasn't working properly. During a song, he edged toward Scott and made a motion to toss the mic to him. Scott ducked. After the show, David wanted to know what had happened. Scotty explained, at which point David made things clear: "Okay, this is the drill from now on: If I throw it to you underhand, you catch it. If I throw it at you overhand, you duck."
When the DAT machine crashed last night, Scott suddenly had a dozen confused players on the stage looking to him for the tempo data they had lost in their mixes. This was a very serious real time challenge. They weren't hearing what they need to hear in order to play their parts correctly. In the maze of connections between the stage gear and his desk, Scott was faced with an awesome task of diagnostics to be performed right now: where was the goof?
With the help of K.C. and Fred (the new keyboard guy), the problem was traced to a bad cable from a DAT machine in an onstage rack. This was figured out while listening to tour management types raising glaring, bloody hell over his shoulders about things that they don't recall from their technical days, before they moved into the phone and fax modes.
The episode set the tone for Scott's show. Later he had to deal with radical volume changes from some of the players who arbitrarily took it upon themselves to turn up in the middle of the show. They didn't understand how this would upset the delicate "gain structure" of Scott's world. The volume levels which come off the stage are arranged in a complex set of mixes at his desk. They go back out to the stage in an interdependent network: if the bass player turns up, one of the girls suddenly can't hear the drums. Once this happens, the only way to recover the situation is to get the attention of the offender and, somehow, convince him to turn down.
Musicians are as consistent about ignoring monitor guys as they are about insisting that monitor guys always ignore them.
Poor Scott. It was only after the show that I was told that the I-Beam directly across stage from him was blasting him directly in the eyes, and that he was blind to a lot of the stage through the whole night.
That's why I asked him about it this morning. He laughed it off. "Oh, don't worry about it," he said with a grin. "That was the least of my problems. I'm going to call Kris Kristofferson and see if he's ready to go out again...I may need the work."
I apologized. "Listen," he said: "Don't worry about it. I've seen you trying to keep 'em out of my face, and I know your heart's in the right place about it. You just do what you have to do."
"Just stay away from me for a couple of days."
He was still smiling.
September 12, 1992
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