Sometimes We'd Use The Sounboard Like a Weapon
by Jay Allen Sanford 04.14.07
Self described "sixties survivor" Billy "Jimbo" James has spent a great deal of time studying the effects of music on human hearing and perception. Currently a mechanic at a North Park auto shop, he traces his audio research back to his days as a concert engineer for The Grateful Dead in the late sixties and early seventies, helping sonic pioneers like Augustus Owsley Stanley III in designing the Dead's wraparound psychedelic sound system. "Yeah, Owsley, the one who made all the acid. He was living in Watts, around '66 or '67, and The Dead came down from San Francisco to stay with him. He'd collected all this electronic equipment and he'd hook things up together in these strange configurations. He'd have, like, sonar screens and all this stuff, and the goal was to create this holophonic wall of sound. The engineer would be able to sculpt the sound and send it in any direction he wanted."
He reports that Owsley was often addled but nearly always "Brilliantly imaginative. He talked about using microwaves to beam the rhythms directly into people's brains or something. He studied how the percussion might affect the audience's blood vessels. Maybe, he figured, you could connect to the vascular rhythm of the heart and affect the pulse with musical notes. Like the music of the spheres."
James' own job description was grounded more in technology than alchemy. "[Owsley] hired me out of a club I was working on Sunset. What I did was create these relay pots. This was back before computers. I'd tune in a pre-set sequence that would let me pull out a specific instrument or one mike and send that sound from speaker to speaker in a loop, just by turning a knob. I could alter the volume of the signal at the same time with another knob. Some were set for vocals, some for Jerry's guitar, and some would be set for the drums. I mean, nowadays that's not hard to do, but back then it was like magic. To be able to build a solid sonic atmosphere like that in an outdoor setting, it was like space age technology when most bands were working with stone age equipment. When Bear [the Dead's longtime engineer] took over the sound, things got more technical and less, I don't know, metaphysical."
James has a decidedly new age theory, inspired by Owsley, about how sound systems should be designed for musical events. "For a perfect sonic environment, you have to consider low frequency noise that comes from sources other than the amplifiers. Ambient background noise, for instance. At an outdoor show, that can include traffic sounds from cars and planes, birds and insects, industrial noise and things like that. You have to incorporate this into the sound rather than simply drown it out. Indoors, you have to work in the low frequency hums that are caused by plumbing, electrical systems, machines, air conditioning and concrete vibrations."
"The upper limit of human hearing is around 20kHz. Anything higher than that is considered ultrasound. But just because you can't technically hear ultrasound, doesn't mean that it can't affect you somehow. It's in the background all the time, affecting our moods and the way we hear audible sounds. When the wind goes through plants and between buildings, it's creating ultrasound. When you're doing sound at an outdoor concert, you have to factor that in 'cause it's part of the sound fabric."
"You also have to consider infrasound, which is at the other end of the sound spectrum. That occurs at low frequencies. Our subconscious is aware of a much wider spectrum of sound than what we literally hear. Match amplified sound with infrasound and ultrasound and something intense happens, something mind altering. The problem comes when the audience provides their catalyst. I mean internally," he says, referring to psychedelic drugs.
"The Russians did experiments like that where they used LSD and music to control people's minds. I never dropped acid when I was working. A little pot, sure, but I hate tripping and being around trippers. There were times I'd be running the board and the audience would just piss me off, they'd be so stoned. They wouldn't catch the rhythm. We'd take the sound up to a certain point and just bludgeon them with it. Sometimes we'd use the soundboard like a weapon. We'd bring them close to peaking, to cumming, then back off and then bring it back up to fever pitch. Girls would drop their clothes and everyone would sway like they were having group fucking sex. By running the sound, we were really running the scene."
Jeff Kelley - who has drummed for Price Of Dope - is known for the local firm he started years ago, Audio Design, an equipment rental center. He began operating sound systems for bands years ago, while still a teenager in the midwest. "I'm a musician so I was always interested in sound, in getting loud...everybody else was out partying, I was at home soldering mike cables." Moving to California , he met up with partner Jeff "J.J." Jacobson and began investing in equipment. "Just a bunch of junk that hardly even worked, just garbage... I had the equipment, he had the work, we got together and started doing shows while we were working for a small rental company here in town."
Eventually, they both quit their day jobs and opened their own store, running sound in the evenings at places like downtown's Worldbeat Center . They weren't making a lot of money with most clubs only paying from $50.00 to $100.00 a night to rent a tech and a sound system. "I remember when I got my first real mixer, a Yamaha MC3204. I spent like five thousand dollars on it and saved all my money up...it made the company look a lot better when we were out doing the shows because it sounded better than everyone else."
The business grew after the addition of a well monied third partner, Larry Ashburn. "He had done installs in Buffalo Joe's, he had a five year contract with the Casbah, installed the system down there. He installed the system in the G Lounge. He came to us with interest in getting into the same sort of business that we were doing...then we had money so we could go out and get more equipment to get some of the bigger shows. For big shows, you need a twenty-four to thirty-six cabinet sound system, and all the power amps and everything, with each cabinet costing three to four thousand dollars."
Kelley feels that Audio Design is presently "just as big if not bigger than [our competitors]. They just have better and more accounts. We have to resort to doing more of what we use the term of shit work. To get the money to get those accounts...we do a lot of stuff for Bill Silva, Universal...symphony shows at the Sports Arena...rentals for 4th & B, bringing in drum kits, keyboards, guitar amps, stuff like that."
Different events call for different setups. "If it's a punk show, you know what I mean, you don't bring nice stuff...you have people hit the mikes and break the mikes. We've had a couple of things stolen at shows....people always break mike stands constantly." Other common hazards include "bad electricity, speakers blowing up and buzzes from other people plugging into your electricity."
Rock concerts are amplified very differently from, say, jazz shows. For rock, Kelley provides a "loud hurt-your-ears kind of sound system. It uses a big two inch horn that has a magnet on the back of it that weighs about forty pounds. It's huge. It's geared toward volume." He says that people don't realize how bulky and heavy the equipment is, never consider that somebody has to haul it all in, set it up and tear it down, often several times a week. Large cabinets such as "stadium boxes" can be four feet tall, two feet wide and weigh two hundred and sixty pounds apiece.
Besides its storefront on Ronson Road in Kearny Mesa, Audio Design also once expanded into a second store on El Cajon Boulevard . "We just opened that location right next to pretty much our competitor [Music Power] that we used to work for. I worked there a couple of years, J.J. worked there a few years...[when we moved next door] they gave us a lot of grief, got in our face and told us 'fuck you' and all kinds of crazy stuff."
Eric Denton, owner of Music Power back then (as well as the old Guitar Trader) differs. "I never said 'fuck you' to them. It's kind of funny. J.J. was, uh, he's starting to concern me a little bit. He's definitely feeling very guilty about what he's doing. It's obvious...I took really good care of them. I mean both those guys [Jacobson and Kelley], took them out to dinner...I used to let them, for no charge, take the gear out of Music Power and they'd run off and do their shows and I didn't charge them a penny."
He says he's disappointed in the way things went. "It's extremely uncool to go in there and start your own business and steal someone else's customers...obviously, he gone on to try to emulate everything I've ever done. When he moved in there, I thought 'okay great'...he just wants to go in there and apparently tap off what I've done."
He acknowledges that conflicts occasionally arose. "I don't know if you know about 'Pawn Detail'...whenever we buy anything used we have to hold onto it for thirty days. Take fingerprints, all that." In search of stolen property, The Pawn Detail, a division of the police department, does spot checks at stores in order to inspect equipment, serial number records and receipts. In the SDSU area, there are several pawn shops and music stores which buy and sell used equipment, all within a few miles of each other. "They [the inspectors] went into Guitar Center , they went into our store, then they went into J.J.'s place [Audio Design]. About an hour later, I get this phone call, just irate, from J.J. 'Goddammit, what are you doing, you're pulling all this shit, you're sending the cops my way, what are you doing that for?' And I'm just, like, 'Whoa, no J.J., you know better than that, they're making the rounds.' 'No, they came out of your place, you sent them over here.' "
Denton says he wasn't interested in sparring with Audio Design, and that his unwelcome new neighbor didn't really pose a competitive threat. "Every time I walk by there, they have no customers. They have very little gear there. We're open seven days a week, we've been around over twenty years, we have employees that have been around years and have lots of experience. We have better gear, we have newer gear...we have better name brands, our website...we have so much more to offer, so far I'm not even that worried about them."
Pete Pisaturo, who ran sound for Audio Design several nights a week, said that "Between Jeff and J.J. and Eric [Denton], I think there is some ill will there...when Jeff and J.J. started their own company, they took a lot away from them [Music Power] in like their live sound." He says he has no problem with anyone at Music Power himself, and that he even worked there briefly. "For a few days. It was like a menial amount an hour kind of job. Then when they found out I was working nights for Audio Design, they canned me. I asked them, 'Is this because I'm working for Audio Design or is it just because I'm not cutting it here?' and they were like 'it's a little of both.' "
Asked about Pisaturo's brief employment at Music Power, Denton says "Around that time there was a lot of espionage going on, stealing of customers. We had hired [Pisaturo] before J.J. started his own rental place. And then one of my guys said 'You know he works for J.J.' And I said 'Well then this isn't cool.' So I won't contest that."
One thing that many folks who work in sound seem to have in common is concern about damage to their ears. According to the watchdog organization which keeps track of occupational safety, OSHA, anyone exposed to 90 dB sound levels for as little as a half hour could experience permanent hearing loss. Tinnitus is the auditory ailment most likely to affect people who are exposed to loud noises or percussive explosions. It's usually evidenced by a whining buzz or vibration in the ear, sometimes evolving into a sound like bells or even (in cases sometimes linked by psychiatrists to dementia) voices. Physicians suggest that rock musicians like volume-inclined guitarist Pete Townshend (whose tinnitus was much publicized) and others who spend a lot of time at concerts suffer hearing problems which are usually the result of localized damage to the cochlea.
Kelley says that he's definitely experienced some problems. "I've got to turn up the TV a lot more. I try to wear earplugs as much as I can but the volumes we're around...you're talking 140 dB, 130 dB every night, you put an earplug in and it's a 20 dB decrease, it's still not enough. The Black Crowes was an extremely loud show. We've done some other pretty funny acts like Ronnie James Dio and some other acts that [were so loud] it was just ridiculous." Why would the bands want to set the sound at such ear splitting volumes? "Because they think they're fifteen still? I don't know, because they think they're cool? I have no idea." Does he worry about losing his own hearing? He pauses several seconds. "Somewhat. But everybody gets old."
For those undaunted by the prospect of permanent hearing loss, there are plenty of schools which offer courses geared toward long and noisy careers in sound technology. A good list of recommended colleges, internships and apprenticeships is available from the Audio Engineering Society, a group which publishes its own trade journal and "encourages and disseminates new developments through annual technical meetings and exhibitions of professional equipment."
Roy Pritts is the chairman of the group's Education Committee, and he's often asked about how someone gets started in the sound biz. "Interviews with people who occupy the position you want to work toward are good for starters. Once you know the scope of the program requirements for the job, you begin gathering information from education providers to see how close you can get to a fit. Your need may be for a specialized course on a specific topic, or it may be a series of courses that will prepare you for a career change."
A sound engineer's training has to include detailed knowledge about the basics - tables showing amperes per 1000 installed watts and required AC service in order to avoid blowing out electrical circuits and electrocuting performers, for instance. Schools which offer advanced courses in sound engineering also have to constantly upgrade facilities, due to advancing technology. Every few months there are new programs and mutant "hot-wired" programs and system gadgets that even Owsley would have difficulty keeping up with. "No one can
know everything," says Pritts, "and it would be a useless effort to spend your life trying to know everything. The dynamics of change in our industry would find the rate of change faster than the rate of learning."
Locally, media classes in audio theory and engineering can be found at San Diego City College . The single semester course includes access to radio station facilities, as well as film, television and multimedia production facilities. At L.A. 's University Of Southern California , a four year course in Music Recording will earn you a B.S. which includes emphasis in music performance technology and theory.
Serious students of sound flock to Boston 's famed Berklee College Of Music, which has an eight semester B.M. program that includes production techniques and fundamental training in acoustics, audio and midi. The school is considered top of the line for sound techs, offering hands-on production experience and access to synthesizers, sound design equipment and multimedia production facilities.
Privately run non-accredited training courses are also available, such as Music And Sound For Multimedia, a nine month program at San Antonio 's Audio Engineering Institute. Their facilities include a computer based MIDI and digital audio editing and sequencing station. The multimedia lab offers training in synths, samplers and SMPTE synchronization equipment. Students who go through the whole course come away knowing (and understanding) arcane sounding equations such as "0 dBV equals 0.775 volts," "0 dB SPL (the threshold of hearing) is 20 micropascals of air pressure" and "a change of 10dB equals a perceived doubling in loudness."
Practicing and aspiring soundmen have trade magazines available to them which provide up to date technological information and corporate contacts - EQ Magazine, Live Sound!, Mix and several others. But the best training, according to everyone I ask, seems to be going out and getting the experience, no matter when and where. "I mean we do this every day and night," says Pisaturo. "We do everything, all the Adams Avenue festivals and the PB Block Party...anything and everything."
The downside to the constant hustling, he says, is that "It sucks your life away from you. I work day and night, seven days a week. Multiple setups." Why is there a constant need to set up again? Why not leave a stationary sound system installed? "Stuff gets ruined, especially stuff sitting in clubs. People spill drinks all on the speakers, stepping on this and spilling on the back of the processing rack. Stuff just gets ruined."
There are other aspects of his job he dislikes. "A lot of times, when you're doing a touring band...we'll go there and set everything up and then another guy will come in and mix. There's been a couple of times where they were driving our system too hard or had to be told to turn down. Everyone always takes an attitude. It's like you break your back for these guys and go in there all day and set up and just try to get it to their liking and then they come in and just complain and bitch about everything."
He remembers one particularly complex six hour setup at 'Canes for Ronnie James Dio's band. "Dio, he sounded great but his crew, his sound guy and his monitor guy, they were kind of assholes. Just because I guess in the eighties these guys were playing stadiums and arenas and now all of a sudden they're playing like nine hundred person venues."
What then are the best perks of his profession? "It's almost not like a real job. It's a lot of hanging out. A lot of places, the bartenders will give me free drinks. There's a lot of promoters out there who are really cool to us. They're usually nicer to the sound than they are to the bands because the sound is like dudes they work with. The bands are just these guys coming through and giving everybody attitude."