For something a little different this week Still Burning interviewed Aberdeen based sound technician Badger (Colin Wylie) so to help understand your backlines, line outs and even your FOH’s…… you’d best read on!
So Badger… sound engineer, what does that entail for the less technically minded amongst us?
Well the Sound Engineer is that person who stands at the back of the room with the big desk with all the knobs on it (and yes we do know what they all do!). Basically we mic up all the instruments and voices on stage, and mix them all together and create what you hear from the PA system. We also create an on stage mix for the band members so they can hear what they are doing.
How does someone get into that job? I’d imagine with experience comes confidence but what’s it like the first few shows?
The traditional route is by getting a job with a local PA company, or a venue and learning on the job from more experienced engineers. You work your way up from crewing, where you will load and unload the van and setup the equipment until the moment comes where you have learnt enough to get a go yourself. These days however, there are numerous college courses, and even degree courses which purport to teach you everything you need to know within a year or 3 years, and some venues are hiring kids to be engineers straight out of college with no experience. I personally do not agree with this approach as people miss vital knowledge which can only be found by learning on the job. Confidence does come with experience, as I remember my first few shows on my own. They were a nail-biting experience back in the Dungeon of the old Students Union.
Do most touring bands have their own SE, or do they usually use the venues resident SE?
A lot of more established acts tend to bring their own Engineer, but I am finding more and more bands would love to tour one with them, but due to budget constraints it’s just not possible. Just a couple of years ago it was commonplace for a touring band to rock up to the venue with a tour manager, backline technician and Front of House Engineer. Now the poor Front of House guy seems to be doing all of these jobs – and more, for the same money.
Can you give us a rundown of your night working with… a) a touring band who you may be semi familiar with at a venue you know well, ie Drummonds or The Tunnels?
The headline band usually arrives early and generally bring their own backline. Occasionally you will get a technical rider in advance of the event so you can have an idea of what needs to go where on stage, how many and what kind of mics you require and monitor mixes and so on. If they have their own engineer, I usually let them get on with setting up the desk and FOH area as they see fit, while I concentrate on mic’ing and cabling up. Each individual input is checked, and once you are happy with the sound and setup your dynamics processors and fx then they will usually try a song. I usually ask them to pick their loudest number so that I can determine how loud things might get later on in the night, and make adjustments accordingly. Individual monitor mixes are fine tuned to taste and then it’s onto the next band if there is time. Sometimes locals will only have time to do a line check.
…and b) a band you work with regularly, but at a venue you don’t usually, either at a localish festival or say at a venue in Dundee?
Knowing the bands songs well helps when playing in a venue you are unfamiliar with. Unfamiliar equipment also poses challenges. While out on the recent Turning 13 tour I ended up using a little mixing desk one night that I’m pretty sure was older than me! (and in worse condition) Few of the bands I have worked with outside of Aberdeen have been the headlining act, so you are lucky if you get a chance to soundcheck, but even a quick line check is enough to throw a mix together during the first number. Also being familiar with the bands monitoring requirements is a must as you often have to guess if you are using unfamiliar equipment with no soundcheck. Being a bands engineer is great as you know exactly what to expect from your band, especially if you have little to no outboard equipment. It means more work for you during the show.
What is the backline? And a line check? And indeed the different between a backline technician and a front of house engineer?
The backline consists of the drum kit, and bass amps, guitar amps etc. A backline technician is the guy you see on stage tuning up guitars in between songs and passes them onto the band members when required. They are also responsible for ensuring the equipment is well-maintained and setup correctly. Occasionally the backline tech will have to double as drum tech too. A line check is where you will check that each line into your desk has a signal before you start the show. Sometimes – depending on many factors (including time constraints and lazy / late bands) a band will only get a line check instead of a full soundcheck. In fact at most festivals the bands come onstage only having had a line check done on their behalf.
What is the basic equipment that most band playing venues provide? Anything you really wish was upgraded? Talking generally of course.
Although some people may not realise it, we are spoiled in Aberdeen. We have some great venues which are kitted out with plenty of equipment (some better than others!) but the basic building blocks are there. Most if not all of the common venues in Aberdeen have a fairly large PA system (as opposed to a basic Vocal PA), at least a four-way monitor mix, graphic eq on all mixes, dynamics processors and effects. They also tend to have backline (in various states of workingness). When you venture outside of Aberdeen around Scotland, the comparatively sized venues perhaps only have 2 monitor wedges (if that) with no graphics, dynamics or fx processors. Although the gear in Aberdeen appears to be tired and over used, we at least have it.
Are any particular instruments tricky to get a handle on, like an organ, violin, harp (or whatever)?
Where people are unprepared and do not have pickups on the likes of fiddles / acoustic guitars / accordions – it can be tricky to mic these up effectively in a small venue like the tunnels. Especially if there is a full backing band behind them. I think the worst I ever had was a harmonium one night in Exodus which had a rather important part to play in the middle of a cacophony of guitars drums and keyboards. Harps actually come out really well if you have suitable microphones to hand, as they are played quite loudly in the first place.
Obviously you have to get on well with the bands that you are regularly working with, but how is it when a particular band member will get your attention and point upwards… do you do so, or do you go with how the sound is in your opinion?
If the monitors have the headroom to be turned up, then yes I will happily give them more. There is no point in antagonising bands. If on the other hand you do turn up and the monitors start to squeal, then this is not conducive to a good gig for anyone.
Why does it all get very hit and miss in the larger venues like the Music Hall and the AECC?
Well it’s always a challenge to get good coverage in the larger venues. There are some people (and PA systems) that do a really good job, and others who just throw in whatever boxes and hope it makes a good sound. Also engineers that are unfamiliar with the venues may have some difficulty.
And outdoor festivals must be just something completely different all together?
Yes. As people may have heard for themselves, when the wind picks up the sound becomes “choppy”. This is mostly down to the deployment of Line Array systems on large stages, something I’m not a huge fan of. I would be much happier with a nice point source cluster, such as Funktion One.
Do you subconsciously observe gigs as a SE when you’re there as punter?
Absolutely. I always run a critical eye and ear over every gig i walk into. Many times it can spoil the enjoyment for me, unless it’s a band I really love.
Any ambitions as a SE?
I would love to be out on the road touring with a band I really like and enjoy working with. I think doing FOH for AC/DC, Deftones or Tool would make my life!
A bit about yourself now… what has been your most rewarding events in your career as a SE far?
Most of the time it’s just being behind the desk with a great band on stage with good quality instruments that know how to use them. One of my favourite gigs I’ve done was UK Subs in Kef quite a few years ago. They refused a soundcheck so went on with only a brief line check. I was bricking it, but it turned out to be amazing. Edgar Prais on the T Break Stage at T in the park was also quite a momentous one for me.
You’ve been busy with Turning 13 lately?
Yeah. It’s been great to work with the guys again. I’m so chuffed that they reformed, and even more so when I got a call from Steve Bruce asking me if I wanted to be their FOH engineer. I was always a fan and had worked with them a few times years ago. We have been out on a mini Scottish tour which went really well both for the guys and from my point of view. Looking forward to them booking a more comprehensive tour in the near future.
What do you have lined up for the rest of the year?
To be honest – not a lot! Turning 13, The Tunnels and Drummonds have been keeping me busy.
You’ll be lost without Lost?
Had you asked me that before the finale had aired the answer would have been most definitely, Now? nope. I was disappointed in how they ended it. Can I have the last six years back please?
Your five desert island tracks?
Tool – Forty Six & 2
Rush – Distant early warning
King Crimson – Red
Faith No More – Epic
A Perfect Circle – Judith
And finally… as always… your favourite flavour of crisps?
Boring old Salt and Vinegar!
And that’s it Badger! Thanks for your time fella, and we`ll see you again before long! Still Burning