Skill or Arrogance

I recently had the occasion to visit with a friend of mine (Steve Wilson) who has been touring as the sound engineer for the Kentucky Headhunters. When we arrived at the venue to see the performance I noticed something a bit odd. The band that preceeded them was playing, and in the sound booth was the typical large format mixing console. In this case a PM5D (for the techie readers). It’s a technological wonder. Very sophisticated, large, heavy, expensive and impressive looking. A staple in the live touring sound business. But sitting a few feet in front of it was a diminutive looking mixer that was unoccupied. Anyone knowledgable in the field of live sound would have taken one look at it and either dismissed it or thought it was some kind of joke. It looked like something a trio playing in a coffee shop might use. Nobody would actually use such a thing to mix a real concert. I said out loud, “I’ll bet Steve is going to mix the show on that.”

It’s not unusual for different mixers to be deployed for different bands at concerts. Back in the old days, before they were all computerized with memory and files that could be carried around on USB sticks, bands often toured with their own boards. Getting a good sounding mix is a complicated and time consuming endeavor. Having to start completely from scratch at every show is difficult enough that it was usually worthwhile for bands to carry their own desks, which they’d leave set from the night before as a starting point. Sometimes different mixers are used nowadays as well, but it’s often more about what the engineer is used to using, or some personal preference.

It gets better. When I got close and realized what the little mixer actually was, I had to laugh. Not just small and unimpressive looking. The brand name on it was most definitely not one that’s accepted in the world of touring live sound, or anywhere in pro audio for that matter. Its price tag a small fraction of the mixer sitting behind it. Further, it’s a brand new product that nobody really knows much about. Live sound guys are not big on being on the cutting (bleeding) edge of technology. They want things with known track records. Thousands of people in the crowd aren’t going to hang around while the sound tech gets on the phone to tech support to find out why the product isn’t working right.

This product is so new that Steve couldn’t have had it for more than a few days. Kinda’ risky, and highly unusual, to switch to a brand new, untested, unimpressive, questionable brand product in the middle of a tour. Some would say it’s totally crazy. On top of that there were so many bands playing that day (all of the others using the PM5) that nobody had a proper sound check in the morning. But Steve is really good. He has enough of a handle on things and is sharp enough to improvise when he needs to. He had the confidence he could do it.

Steve mixing on the Behringer X32.

So Steve mixed the show on this tiny, unimpressive looking little mixer. It sounded fantastic. Very hi-fi sound. Big and powerful, without being bombastic and deafeningly loud. As long as I’ve been in the business and been around I know there is always more to learn, and watching/listening to Steve mix is invariably one of those times where education happens. I learned a few cool things, and got some neat ideas (which I’ll probably never put in to practice because I don’t mix live shows anymore).

We had a good laugh about the reactions of the sound company and the sound technicians for the other bands playing that day. When he got the board out and told them what he wanted to do they all looked at him like he was crazy. I’m sure they were saying to themselves and each other, “Look at the doofus from Kentucky. What idiot covers up a PM5 to mix on a…what the heck is that thing anyway? Behringer?!! Are you kidding me?!! Oh, gawd…” Of course later, as they stood around the general proximity of the sound booth in the obligatory arms folded across the chest as if to say, “I could do that,” fashion, the sound he had coming out of that PA was undeniably beautiful.

Again it was proven that the equipment is there to serve the man. Sure, good stuff helps. But skill trumps all in the end. And arrogance… Well, you could say Steve might have been a little arrogant to attempt what he did. But he did pull it off, and quite well. Maybe it’s arrogant to laugh it off before hearing what a skilled master can do. How many sound guys truly have enough confidence in themselves to step out from behind the security of using the big, impressive looking desks that everyone else approves of? Not many. All of the posturing those guys do is really insecurity. Skill trumps that too.

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