There are a lot of people that aim to have a successful career touring, and I’ve gotten a lot of questions on how I got to where I am in the touring field. It’s a pretty simple answer, but at the same time not really an easy or simple path. Was there some defining moment at which I knew I had ‘succeeded?’ Not really, but at the same time, there were definitely times when some network or some connection really helped me make a definite move in a new direction.
The question is always ‘what was your big break?’ And answer isn’t as simple as anyone would like it to be. Most people think that they should be on a tour bigger than the one they’re working, and that they’ve earned that next step, but at the same time, doesn’t thinking you’re better than your gig tell you something about the attitude you have towards gigs in general? My big break, was thirty or so small breaks, that all were the steps up this crazy ladder. Honestly, skipping any of those steps would have probably resulted in me faltering on the next, though at the time, I didn’t think so.
Lets start from the bottom. I had been playing music and playing live shows for years prior to ever touching a mixing desk on a tour. My understanding of the dynamics of a live show had been learned from playing a few hundred shows a year as a guitar player in a band. I had learned what it is that a musician needs to hear on stage in order to perform, I had also worked with fantastic sound guys, and guys that couldn’t have cared less. Working with both the good and the bad really showed me what was important, and 90% of that was attitude, demeanor, and ability to handle problems and complex situations. I also had been recording and mixing records for years prior to ever touring. Now just because that sounds big-time, really truly doesn’t mean that it was at all. I did demos for many of the young hardcore bands in Boston, some of them were good, some of them I’ve looked back upon, were awful. The truth is though, the awful records taught me the most.
The next step was doing sound in an awful tiny little club with a PA that was threatening to blow up at every mention of the word band. It was the kind of club, that glued your drinks to the table when you put them down, just from the decades of residue that had been built up upon every surface. It was the kind of club that only had enough of a sound system to handle the basics, half of the microphone stands were taped together, and no one knew if the XLR cable you picked up would even work. It was the perfect club to make every mistake I possibly could, and learn from them. I learned very quickly that less is more. If you wanted to hear kick drum in that system, you’d EQ it so that the attack made it through the tops, and there was an inkling of punch in the subs. But if everyone could hear the attack, they could hear the drum. Snare was too loud in the room anyway, so I just put snare reverb through the house. Guitars were always too loud, so they were almost never in the system, but there was never a show wherein I didn’t mic them up. Imagine being the guitar player, and having your sound guy tell you that you’re not going to be in the mix. Creating that sense of comfort and trust was probably half of the gig, sound IS a service industry. I made it through a couple years there, and did sound for hundreds of rough shows, and a handful of fantastic artists that happened to play this dive, including The Counting Crows, Powerman 5000, and The String Cheese Incident. How or why they were in this place, was beyond me.
And then one day someone that was working with me on a record asked “Hey you do audio stuff right?”
To which I replied with a slightly confused look, since the answer seemed obvious “well yeah?”
“Why don’t you come out and do sound for us on tour?”
Knowing full well that I had never done anything of the sort, I said “Sure.”
It was only a handful of shows, but the truth is, I had never really played with any system outside of the club I had worked in, and the small speakers on sticks type rigs that we had brought places for my own band shows every once in a while. In that handful of shows I learned more than I ever imagined, and it’s likely simply because I walked in, and was honest. I told the house engineer that I have only done a handful of shows with the band, and that I would trust any and all suggestions and comments he or she had.
The things I understood:
What I wanted everything TOGETHER to sound like.
What it did sound like.
How to use EQs and gates.
The things I didn’t fully comprehend yet:
What an individual element needed to sound like to fit in the mix.
How to capture an instrument with the least bleed.
How to tell a musician that his or her tone wasn’t working in the context of the mix.
What a PA system can and cannot handle.
How to use compression and system tuning.
Most of these things are things that you learn over time, just by doing shows. There is no easy path to understanding in this case. Plenty of people can tell you, take out 400Hz in a kick drum, and add 2-5kHz for the click, but until you have a vision in your head of what that instrument needs to sound like to fit in the overall picture, it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing with the EQ. It’s all just guessing. You want to learn this? Do more shows, and mix more songs.
That tour ended, and one of the people on that run asked me to do another with another band, and that next run another new person I met asked me to do another, and each tour was a step and learning experience. Immediately it was apparent that the network you created, are the gigs that you can get, and that network (almost solely) is your path. It’s also clear that in touring, everyone knows everyone (as they should). It’s a pretty common thing on tour to hear people ‘talking shit.’ Maybe it empowers people to be able to say ‘this sucks,’ maybe it makes them feel better than whatever it is that sucks. Maybe it does all of that, but it absolutely makes anyone that knows that band, or that guy shut down, and you just lost a whole new network.
Each tour I had subsequently was a bit larger than prior, and the truth is, the baby steps allowed me to learn along the way. Every time I’ve thought, I should be doing so and so’s tour, I had to step back, and realize I hadn’t been asked to do that tour because I hadn’t been ready yet. When you’re ready for it, the opportunity will come.