If you were at the Nanci Griffith concert at The Egg in Albany last month, you’ve heard Ryan Ghent’s work.
Or maybe you frequent Revolution Hall in Troy, catching Adrian Belew a few months ago, or one of Project/Object’s shows. In which case, you may have seen John Chiara moving about the club or standing behind a large, black console toward the back center of the room.
These men are sound engineers. They toil behind the scenes at every concert, be it rock ’n’ roll, jazz, hip-hop, blues, folk, country or any other genre, helping to create the sounds audiences hear at their favorite shows. And although they’re an integral part of any concert, they often go unnoticed.
“Most of the times, the nights where I’m doing a stellar mix, and it just sounds so perfect, and the artists are happy — nobody knows who the sound man is that night,” said Ghent, 33, during a recent interview in Saratoga Springs, where he lives.
Ghent has been working with sound systems since he was playing in local bands at the age of 14; he currently works as the assistant sound engineer, or A2, for The Egg and freelances full time for numerous venues in the Capital Region, including the Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs and, in the past, The Linda Norris Auditorium in Albany.
“At the end of the night, [the artists] will be like, ‘Let’s thank the sound man,’ and people will be like, ‘Sound man? What’s that?’ ”
Live sound engineers, simply put, take the sounds coming off the instruments, amplifiers and microphones onstage and mix them for the venue’s speakers. In addition to the live sound coming off the stage, the sound coming from the speakers is what the audience hears at a show. In many ways, it’s similar to what recording engineers and producers do when they mix down recorded music to make a finished album, with the most obvious difference being that live sound engineers only have one shot to make it right.
However, mixing a band, the sound engineer’s “craft,” is actually only a small part of the job. Because of the amount of equipment that needs to be set up, the sound engineer is usually one of the first members of the crew to begin work on the night of a concert, and is often the last person to leave when the show is over.
At a typical show at a venue that has its own equipment, such as The Egg, Ghent will start work anywhere between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. He will set up the monitor speakers, monitor desk, microphones, cables and other equipment onstage according to a stage plot sent ahead by the band or musician performing.
“Ideally we have that done right about the time the band is showing up at the loading dock, and then we’ll go down there and we’ll unload the equipment that they’ve got, either in their bus, or their trailer,” he said.
After the band’s equipment is set up, he will talk to the band about any changes made to the stage plot. Many national and international touring acts travel with their own engineers, in which case the house sound engineer will simply do stage work that night. If the band does not have its own engineer, Ghent’s next job is the sound check.
“What I try and do is make sure they test every one of their possible configurations at sound check, every instrument that they have, every amp, every possible guest artist,” he said. “If it’s going to be an acoustic player, we make sure we get someone in front of that mike; if they’re going to be plugging into an amp, we make sure they flesh that out so there are no surprises at the show time.”
Ghent only works about one or two shows a month at The Egg. Josh Pechette, 31, is the audio department head, or A1, at The Egg, and ends up working most of the venue’s 300 or more events a year, including dance events and corporate events. However, it’s the music shows that Pechette enjoys most.
“The music is, it makes you feel like a real engineer,” Pechette said during a recent interview at The Egg. “You get to meet some amazing people. Some of my favorite shows were, just recently, Sully Erna was here, from Godsmack, and he carried no engineers, so I got to mix front-of-house for him; [it was] a really great experience, I was all hands-on for the whole show.”
After sound check comes the actual show, where the sound engineer’s expertise comes into play. For Chiara, 53, who’s been engineering both in live settings and in the studio since 1971, having a reference point to work from is the most important thing when mixing a band.
“If you don’t have a good reference, and you don’t have experience creating that reference from scratch, you’re pretty much shooting in the dark,” Chiara said, while fixing his monitor speakers at Revolution Hall, where he works as the head audio engineer.
“For instance, if you have somebody who’s only mixing live sound, and they’re mixing, say, country bands, full-blown country bands . . . and then they go out and mix a three-piece duo with an acoustic guitar. If they don’t have a good reference for what a three-piece duo with an acoustic guitar is supposed to sound like, they start making it sound like the country band, and then you end up saying, ‘Well, gee, I can’t really hear the guitar, and I can’t really hear the vocals that well, and I can’t really hear this that well because the kick drum’s really loud, because it sounds like a rock band and it’s not a rock band.’ ”
Unlike Chiara and Pechette, who both work for a specific venue, Ghent gets most of his work on the freelance circuit. He has his own PA system, and if he needs to bring this equipment to a gig, he’ll start early in the morning in order to load his van.
“Depending on the pay I’m earning on that gig, I’m either doing it all by myself or with one assistant,” Ghent said. “Then driving — these days, I’m not really going much more than three or four hours, but I’ll go wherever the work is; recently I was doing a small festival up by the Canadian border. That was an 11 a.m. start, so we hit the road by 6, got up there at 9, loaded in the gear and set up.”
Needless to say, that’s a lot of work for one show, and many sound engineers don’t bring their own equipment. Pechette doesn’t do freelance engineering work very often, but when he does, he “white gloves” — he will mix the sound only.
“I don’t carry PA anymore; I don’t own PA gear, and I won’t put it up,” Pechette said. “I don’t want to destroy my back; I’ve learned from a lot of the audio engineers in this town who have owned their own PAs for so long.”
When the show is over, the sound engineer will help the stage crew take everything apart and load the vans. If
Ghent is freelancing, he’ll also have to pack up his equipment and drive home.
Ideally, things go according to this plan. However, as with most lines of work, sound engineers have good nights, and they have bad nights.
“I worked for Jerry Jeff Walker a number of years in a row, [and] I had to change Jerry Jeff’s mike cable in the middle of the show; the thing was just crackling, and I isolated that as the source,” Ghent said. “So I’m there, and I’ve got my ear right in front of him, and he’s muttering, you know, ‘[Bleeping] sound guy, piece of [crap] mike,’ and I’m like, ‘Heh heh!’ You know, I’m in front of 400 of Jerry Jeff’s audience, and just keep smiling, keep smiling, you know. And those are the nights when I’m like, ‘Man, I’m going back to college, forget this.’ ”
However, for Ghent, the good nights, though they may be few and far between, stop him from throwing in the towel.
“I had the pleasure of working for Levon Helm at his original Midnight Rambles, and the night that he sang for the first time in front of an audience, I’ve never, ever experienced, never before and never since, such an eruption of just heartfelt emotion from the audience,” Ghent said. “The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and when he opened his mouth for the first time, it was, it scared me. I literally jumped, my hand came off the mixing board, and I had to regain my composure in a split second to get back to work, because it was just so powerful. You know, he’d been saving his voice, he had the battle with throat cancer, and it was a miracle.”
“There are those rare moments when the stars align and I get to do what it is about this that I love, and that is paint with sound.”