Behind the Scenes of The Scene: Tales of an Audio Engineer
The ‘fly on the wall’ approach – as it’s referred to – is a particularly effective approach to documentary filmmaking whereby the camera plays as unobtrusive a role as possible, going as unnoticed as a fly on the wall, capturing events candidly as if a camera was not present at all. The ultimate result of the unobtrusive camera is that characters tend to forget about its presence – and act as they would even if nobody was watching.
Within the music scene, there are many people who operate with this fly on the wall perspective from within the mechanism – working hard backstage and behind closed doors to make all the onstage glamour and glory happen, but unfortunately often without much recognition for their efforts. These also tend to be the people who see things the way they really are – when the stage lights are off, when the audience isn’t watching. The aim of this series is to interview these individuals and get their take on what goes on behind the scenes. The first of the series we will call…
Tales of An Audio Engineer…
Now to an average gig-going audience, good sound is like good on-screen lighting. When it’s immaculate, it (unfortunately) tends to go largely unnoticed; but when something’s off, it sticks out like a sore thumb. “According to me, being an audio engineer is the most thankless job in the world. Very few people know what actually happens behind the board except the guys who are actually doing it”, says Anshuman Mishra, senior sound engineer at the Blue Frog, Delhi.
As musicians, however, one must understand how essential good sound and a good sound engineer is to a performance – and how bad sound can be the pitfall of a show, irrespective of how good the onstage talent is.
In addition to being a sound engineer, Anshuman moonlights as the lead guitarist for hard core heavy metal band Escher’s Knot. I caught up with him on his experiences in the music industry – onstage, off stage, and backstage.
Nirupama: Can you tell me about a few key bands you’ve worked with as a sound engineer?
Anshuman: Personally I prefer getting on board with the band – which means going for rehearsals, working on the sound they are looking to develop etc. Which really doesn’t happen in real time, as being in a venue you have to do whatever comes your way – live shows, bands, theater, conferences etc. But I have been really lucky to have worked with some really good acts and festivals. While in Bangalore I got to work with the Bangalore metal monsters, Eccentric Pendulum and Shepherd. I also mixed REM’s guitar player Ken Stringfellow on my birthday which was really memorable. Apart from that, my favourite mixes were of Torch and Social Suicide from Norway, Pommel Horse from Switzerland, Lokkhi Terra from the UK, The Cuban Brothers from Cuba, Bard from Korea. I also worked on MTV Coke Studio – the Delhi edition – and have assisted the crew of international bands like Highlight Tribe, Gotye, Jeremy Loops, Apparat, Buraka Som Sistema, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Idan Raichel Project and Shye Ben Tzur, to name a few. I have been also intensively working with Delhi based bands like The Circus, Undying Inc., Artillerie, and Faridkot.
Nirupama: What are your recommendations of things a band shouldn’t do during their sound check? Biggest sound check mistakes young bands make?
Anshuman: For me things get really easy when I mix an experienced band. They are already aware of their playing dynamics, not to mention their killer tones and tightness not leaving much room for EQing – one just has to separate the instruments, get them on the front of the house and let the band handle things from there. This for me is the biggest problem here in India. Musicians are not yet completely aware of products which can help them deliver better. I keep suggesting this to most guitar players – that their guitars need to have good pick ups and should be shielded before going into an analog signal chain, especially when it’s a high gain setup. Similarly an acoustic guitar player should get a sound hole cover which helps the engineer make it sound much better. It also helps a great deal if the band members are more focused on the check and they don’t start jamming or showing off. Only play when you are asked to.
Nirupama: Can you break down for readers what exactly a sound engineer does – when he/she’s sound checking a band? How would you conduct a sound check?
Anshuman: See, every engineer would have their own routines and steps for sound checks. I prefer keeping things really calm and positive during my checks – so on a normal day I arrive early and ensure all the back line gear is ready and in the venue, check the musician’s tech riders multiple times to know if something is missing – and then proceed to check all the monitors and the PA and make sure they are operating normally. After that we start with the line check, going through all the instruments, setting levels, FX units and any other inserts that are being used. Personally, I like setting the levels first, do the monitor mix and then move to the Master. For me, it is also a cardinal rule that those cables don’t end up leaving a mess as I am a neat freak. This helps make space for the other acts in the same night with the sole intention of minimal changeover time.
Nirupama: Can you outline for readers the role of a sound engineer in how a band sounds to their audience?
Anshuman: A sound engineer is an integral part of the band – almost like an invisible member. He’s the one making sure that all the artists in the band and each of their instruments (with their varying dynamics) sound right on the monitors, as well on the FOH [Front Of House]. This guy behind the board is solely responsible for the musical experience that an audience receives. In fact any good act will always tour with their personal touring engineer.
Nirupama: What is the biggest faux pas/worst thing a band has done during one of your sound checks?
Anshuman: Oh there are tons of stories! Right from artists arguing and insisting about using their own mics (getting condenser mics for closed indoor venue which is ridiculous, and especially after we have provided them with the appropriate mic/s for the venue) to artists telling the engineer how to do his job. Most audio engineers are familiar with all genres of music and know how to appropriately mix your band. This applies to all band members and concert goers. Also a big turnoff is when a band’s friends/girlfriends/managers come and start giving you tips on how to make their artist sound better.
Nirupama: Best bands to work with, and why?
Anshuman: I ensure that all the bands I am working with are completely geared up, i.e – tightness, a tuned kit, good tones, mind blowing vocals. That really takes care of 50% of my work. Bands I especially like working with are The Circus and Undying Inc. These guys give me full freedom on working on their tones right from the source, and of course I have their full trust and support.
Nirupama: What’s the awesomest thing a musician has ever done for you – for a job well done as their sound engineer?
Anshuman: According to me being an audio engineer is the most thankless job in the world. Very few people know what actually happens behind the board except the guys who are actually doing it. But for me and most audio engineers even a small thank you after the gig makes the whole day of work worthwhile.
Nirupama: Do you ever witness backstage musician tantrums ? Worst you’ve seen?
Anshuman: One guy actually stopped a gig midway – and it was a packed venue mind you, a full house – he stopped it midway because the vocalist’s relatives weren’t being allowed into the venue. Also we get some vocalists who say they can’t hear their monitors – although they have been given two big 15 inch monitors, and it’s blaring loud, but still they don’t budge. Absurd demands can really make it difficult sometimes.
Nirupama: Do you ever encounter attitude / arrogance from musicians? How do you deal with this?
Anshuman: I think in our Indian music scene especially, there are tons of “Rockstars” but not many good musicians. Dealing with arrogant musicians is just another downside and learning how to deal with them is as important as working the technical side of the job.
Nirupama: What are some current projects you’re working on?
Anshuman: Mostly in-house projects at Blue Frog which includes tons of Indian and international DJs and bands. Apart from that I have been working with Undying Inc., The Circus, Faridkot, Artillerie, and Nasha.
Nirupama: How does being an audio engineer influence you as a musician? Influence your performances/sound checks?
Anshuman: Handling sound and playing music are two sides of the same coin. It definitely helps me a lot especially since my job allows me to work around different musical genres. One night I might be mixing a Qawalli project, the next night it could be a metal band. Sonically I have to be aware of most genres, and have grown to like and respect some of them as well. This helps me as a musician to not restrict my ideas and to be able to enjoy the freedom of fusing different sounds, letting my own musical taste evolve in the process.