What follows is an awesomely painful story of a tiny technical problem that destroyed an entire concert.
I share it with you to illustrate one of the most important points that Darryn De La Soul made in our interview: Don’t panic.
As sound engineers, you know that anyone working on live events has ample opportunity to lose their shit. Aside from the technical problems that can ruin a show, there are lots of egos bumping into each other and other elements that easily combine to create a perfect storm of emotional stress. Starbucks has spent over two million dollars on its employee training program. New employees learn how to deal with stressful situations by writing down exactly how they will respond. If a customer gets upset and starts yelling, how do you respond? Can you handle it?
Working in live audio is a lot like working at a Starbucks; a Starbucks that’s on fire, and careening down the highway at 105mph. This is a service industry and it is as much about managing people as it is about fixing technical problems. As you read Darryn’s story, imagine yourself in her shoes. What would you do?
Crackle, Snap, Pop
by Darryn De La Soul, from the January 2012 edition of FOH
I am not a Roman Catholic, but I imagine this is what it feels like to enter the confessional. To expose my sins and hope fervently for the forgiveness that will make the rest of my life livable.
What follows is a tale of woe, destruction, humiliation and anguish. I wish I could say it has a happy ending, but it doesn’t.
It all began a long, long time ago. I was young and I was cocky. I was also the newly-engaged assistant house engineer for a venue in East London.
Up until then, I’d been a studio-bod, but I’d managed to talk myself into this live job, not realizing how different the two environments were. My boss (and engineer-extraordinaire, who shall remain nameless lest my shame taint his relationships with the currently hip and famous) was due some annual leave shortly after my appointment.
Before he went away, he took me to one side to discuss the upcoming gigs. One in particular was very important — a fans-only gig for a band that was just making it. Twenty-four hours later, I had enough experience to know that this should have set alarm bells ringing, but on that fateful day, I was still green, and no such jangling occurred.
Fortunately for me, the band has since dwindled into obscurity, but at the time, they had just crossed the channel, having played live on mainstream French radio to an audience of millions. They were on their way back to London triumphant, preparing to give succor to their fans by holding a non-ticketed, invite-only, intimate performance for 350 of their most rabid followers.
Oh, the arrogance of youth!
On the advice of my now-absent boss, I got a freelancer in to help. Not on the advice of my boss, who recommended a “more experienced live engineer,” I called on the services of a best friend and studio-mate on the brink of starvation and in need of the dollar.
Said starving mate had much experience on the noise-making end of the microphone (he now works for a superstar in the studio), but at the time, he’d never engineered a live gig in his life. Nor has he since. I wonder why.
Anyway. The soundcheck goes without a hitch. Most of the support band goes without a hitch. Until the last song, during which an ungodly crackle, straight from the maws of Satan himself, sets up home in my system and proceeds to eat up bits of audio.
As it had only happened in the last song, and because I was a dumb-ass, inexperienced fool, I chose to ignore its presence during the changeover. With all channels now mercifully muted, the hiding-head-in-the-sand policy seemed to be working, and I got my stage rearranged in readiness for the much-anticipated main event.
The headliners amble onstage, looking every bit as cocky and pleased with themselves as a band-on-the-rise, at the end of a very successful European tour can, and should, be.
“Good evening to you, London!” cries the front man.
“Bad evening to you, Darryn!” cries the infernal crackle that has now trebled in volume and noticeability, is painful to the ears and is proceeding to devour all sound anyone would have paid money to actually hear.
The band braves it on through half a song. I brave it on through half a song. But God is getting even with me for something I really can’t remember doing, and my night of hell starts its steady decline from purgatory to the roasting fires, spewing brimstone (what the hell is brimstone, anyway?) deep into my soul.
To make matters worse, the devilish cackle is intermittent, but every time someone on stage moves (which, um, is quite often, really), this unbearable crackle rips through the room.
I have no idea what to do. Thus far in my month-long live career, I have fixed Röyksopp’s sampler, I have lifted a few earth switches and soldered a few cables. I have not, however, faced a situation in which God and the devil are conspiring against me in an act so unnatural, horror movies should be made of it.
In the cold light of the following day (oh, the glory of hindsight!) all I needed to do was mute and/or PFL channels until I found the channel that was exuding the aforementioned corruption and filth. In the glaring, hot, sweaty light of the moment, all I did was panic.
I froze. A rabbit in the headlights has more chance of salvation than I did that night. And then I made the error to beat all errors. I followed the advice of everyone who was screaming at me.
A little list — People Who Were Screaming At Me:
- The Band — from the stage, over the microphone. “F*cking sort it out! You useless c*nt!” etc etc. Constantly, and at length. Since then, I have had the presence of mind to mute the microphones of people who speak to me like that — I’m such a bad engineer, jeez, I can’t figure out why you’ve gone quiet all of a sudden?!
- The Baying Mob — following the example of their idols. Did I mention I was mixing on a balcony? Built purely for the mix position. Normally, this is my least-favorite mix position. On this occasion, I have never been more grateful for a physical divide between myself and the audience who, by now full of beer and anger, were turning on me. God bless the security team who literally prevented me from being lynched that night.
- The Band Manager — “It’s the kick drum, it’s the kick drum!”
- The Support Band Manager — “It’s the guitar, it’s the guitar!”
- Other Random VIPs who had access to my balcony — “It’s X!” It’s Y!” “It’s your aunty’s brother’s dog!”
- The Band — again and again, over and over.
An even littler list — People Who Were Not Screaming At Me:
- My half-starved studio mate, who was panicking in the background and hiding as far away as he could.
To cut a long story short:
The gig limped on for a few more devilimbued crackly songs until the band gave up and the whole thing fizzled out.
A blessed bartender (may there be a place for her at the right hand side of God for this act of charity) brought me a VERY large whiskey when events drew to their excruciating close.
I drank said whiskey very quickly, and the same made-in-the-image-of-God angel gave me the rest of the bottle.
The next day, I had some facing-the-music to do. A deluge of complaints was coming in via email and over the phone. I understand much cash was refunded. Upon investigation, we discovered that a freak, untimely accident of beer-pouring by a member of the support band had combined with the only shoddy bit of soldering in an otherwise immaculate installation. This had caused liquid, copper and the-powers-that-be to join forces, resulting in a short that only connected when someone stood on a particular part of a somewhat springy stage.
Yes, I should have identified the channel and muted it, but I didn’t. Yes, I should have told all the “engineers” around me to f*ck off and give me time to think and investigate, but I didn’t. Yes, I should have been more in control, but I wasn’t.
But, as much as this incident still haunts my every professional move, I have come to realize a few things. The world was still intact afterwards, the earth still spun, and the laws of nature had not been abominated. What we do is entertainment. It is not the be-all and end-all of life as we know it, and if it sometimes goes wrong, then so be it. Really. Get over it. There is more uproar in our modern society over a buzzy PA than in the seemingly daily rise in petrol prices. More people complain about a poorly audible vocal than the continued instability in the Middle East.
And let the person who has never had a bad day at work cast the first stone.
Bek Varcoe says
Fantastic story, better even than my worst-ever gig. May I post a link for my Live Sound students on the above website?
Nathan Lively says
Sure, where do you teach?