In the House and on the Road with Paris Lahr
He’s the man behind the console at venues ranging from intimate clubs to sports arenas, with an impressive resume that includes pro sound responsibilities for popular venues, major sound companies and globally touring artists.
It only made sense that we’d want to tap Paris Lahr for his advice on how to mic a wide spectrum of artists at a wide spectrum of performance spaces, how to stay cool in the wake of equipment malfunctions and what it takes to succeed in the music business.
We caught up with Paris as he was packing up for a six-week European tour with the All American Rejects.
In the House
In addition to your touring duties, which we’ll get to in a minute, you’ve done house sound for a number of venues. Assuming all things are equal, what are the critical differences between miking a small club and a thousand-plus seat theater like The Vic here in Chicago?
All things are never equal. But there are definitely several things I do differently, based solely on the size of the room.
First of all, smaller rooms usually have less equipment. So, there may not be enough channels available to put mics on everything you normally would. For example, it may be necessary to split the rack toms or the congas with one mic. Instead of putting two mics in the kick drum, put one. If the stage is exceptionally small and the band is using wedges instead of in-ears, drop the overhead mic.
Second, changing the mics is sometimes the best solution. A vocal condenser might sound amazing on the lead singer in the 1000+ seat venues, but it is almost useless inside a tent at that corporate gig. So putting an SM58® on the singer for the day could save you from spending hours EQing the room and the monitors. It may give you more gain before feedback.
Third, mic placement becomes very important in larger rooms. The bigger the rooms get, the less the audience is hearing the instruments from the stage and the more they are hearing them from the PA.
If the tom mics aren’t tight, there will be a rattle. If the guitar mics are not in the right place, they won’t sound right in the PA and it will be difficult to get the mix together.
Finally, be practical. That large diaphragm condenser with the gargantuan shock mount might sound great on the 4 x 12 cabinet, but if the local guitar players keep knocking it over because the counterweighted stand you need is in his way, that mic is not of much use to anyone. Sometimes an SM57® on a Z-bar (amp-mounted angled mic stand) is the most elegant solution. It will not only stay where you put it, but it will keep the gear from being knocked over and broken.
What other considerations are there? How much do you know about the band’s music before they arrive and how do you prepare for the subtle or not so subtle differences?
When mixing in the small clubs, there really is no time to prepare for mixing all of the bands that will come through. When the agent is booking between three and seven bands a night, six nights a week, how could anyone possibly listen to all of that music ahead of time? Who’d want to?
Good locals come back and you remember them. In the little clubs, it’s mostly just “damage control” every night. As the clubs get bigger, and the equipment gets better, the best way to deal with the differences between the different types of music is to have different EQ settings prepared. The advantage of today’s digital processing, is that it can be changed instantly.
What kind of gear does the house usually provide?
It depends, but the basics are usually here. Don’t expect many venues of any size to have 6 KSM44s lying around, but almost everybody has at least 4-6 SM57s, 4-6 SM58®s, some kind of tom mics and a kick mic. Anything else is a bonus.
At what point is a band likely to provide its own sound system, mics and other gear? Is that just for huge stadium shows?
Smart bands will start collecting this gear almost immediately.
Singers should have their own vocal mics; a guitar player should have a mic for his cabinet that compliments his sound. Start there – find mics that sound good, that you like and invest in them as a band.
As things get bigger and better, carrying sound gear becomes an option, but it is always dependent on budget.
Some bands really have to carry sound gear because of the type of music they play, or the number of people in the band. If there are fourteen band members and they do two-hour sound checks, carrying a monitor rig becomes a necessity.
Most clubs won’t have enough equipment to handle that size band and it takes a long time to get all of that equipment set up and tested from scratch everyday. There’s also the amount of time it takes to arrange rental of the extra equipment needed in each city.
Touring with a monitor rig can cut the load-in and setup time down by two hours each day. This can actually be more cost-effective depending on how much labor is required.
OK, here’s a related question since we talked earlier about ‘guest engineers’. How does the house engineer work with the band’s sound crew? Can you talk about that?
I learned to read people very quickly being a house engineer. By watching how guest engineers do things, paying attention to what questions they ask, I can tell who is going to have a “good night” and who is going to have a “bad night” even before sound check begins.
What’s the division of labor? Who does what?
That depends on the band. Generally the crew is responsible for what they brought. If the band’s crew is using all of the house sound equipment, they don’t touch much at all except the desks.
As house engineer, I set everything up and then tear it down. If the band brings their own equipment, it’s the house engineer’s job to assist them, run cables and set up the consoles.
How familiar is the band’s sound crew with the gear?
Experience is everything. Some touring engineers would come in and I’d learn cool tricks from them. Other guys came in and I’d have to teach them how to use the console.
How far in advance are you likely to get a contract rider detailing the band’s audio requirements?
You might not even get one. Sometimes the band will give you one when they load in and sometimes you wing it. When I was the house engineer, I’d start looking for advance sheets from the touring band about a week out.
My general rule as a touring engineer is to try and advance one month out, one week out and one day out.
What (house sound) mistakes have you seen?
All of them. The most obvious is not enough PA, the wrong PA, or the right PA hung/stacked in the wrong place.
What are the most common problems?
Equipment that doesn’t work. Clubs that operate 5-7 days a week don’t always have or make time for necessary repairs.
You’ve got to have spare parts. The house engineer in a club that does shows six days a week needs to have a selection of spare parts, a spare sub driver, a spare horn diaphragm, a spare amplifier or at least one spare amp channel.
With the Band
Now let’s look at the flip side. You’re on a 20-city tour that includes 5,000-seat venues along with a few small clubs. How do you make adjustments for venues that vary in size and acoustics?
Experience. You get to know “types”. Similar rooms have similar problems, so if you know what frequencies are bad in which rooms – and in which PAs – you’ll have a jump on EQing the room and you’ll speed up your day.
How much time do you allow for sound check?
As much as the band needs. Every band is different. I only dictate the scheduled day of show and cut the band off once we have reached a point where we might have to hold doors.
If the crew is good, and the band is comfortable, I can knock out a sound check in one song or less. If the band needs a little more “mental reassurance”, I might schedule two-hour sound checks.
What about the mechanics of touring – packing up and loading in?
Less is more.
Everything you carry costs money. Shipping costs money, backline rental costs money, time is money. The less gear on the truck, and the lighter it is, the less time it takes to load in and load out. The less it costs to ship cross-country. There can be fewer hands on the labor call and they can be there for less time.
No one learns this in school. What guidelines can you offer in terms of staff, timing and logistics?
Find a good crew, hire them away from the bands they work for and don’t let them go. Take them with you when your current tour ends, and the new bands tour starts.
Having good help is the best thing you can do for yourself. If I can trust the techs to pack everything we need to do a last minute fly date, I can be worrying about getting that gear shipped around the world and not whether the tambourine for the keyboard player made it into the work box.
Is there much “advance work” involved? Are you often working, at least by phone, a couple of cities ahead?
As far in advance as possible. I like to leave for tour having all the advance work done. My phone bills are ridiculous.
In the past, you toured with The Donnas. What kind of gear did you travel with?
They’re a great example. The Donnas traveled extremely light. This made some shows possible that otherwise would have been a nightmare. We flew with two guitars, two bass guitars, a snare drum, a kick pedal, a stick bag, and a two-space in-ear personal monitor rack.
With four in the band and four in the crew (including a drum tech, guitar tech, FOH engineer, and myself doing monitors and tour management), we could fly anywhere in the world with two pieces of luggage each. That included personal bags; we were still able to remain underweight and undersize on everything.
In each city, all we needed was a Marshall quarter-stack, an SVT bass rig and a four-piece piece drum kit. DONE! We were able to fly across the country and around the world without having to ship gear via cargo. This really helped the budget.
What have you learned (on tour) that might help one of our readers who is just starting out?
I will give the same piece of advice my first Tour Manager Drew Menard gave me: “Mellow gets you gigs.”
About Paris Lahr
I’ve done everything from house sound to touring monitor engineer and drum tech. I started out as grunt tech for a small sound company in Peoria when I was still in college. I did lights for a year and then I started doing audio.
I moved back to Chicago to work a “real job” for a few years, but I quit in January 1998. I got a job as an engineer at The House of Blues early that summer and for the next eight years, I rotated around nearly every venue in Chicago. I worked as the main house engineer in some and as a sub in others, including The Bottom Lounge, Double Door, Elbo Room, Subterranean, The Vic Theater, and Park West.
Gigs: Production Manager, Stage Manager, Crew Chief, FOH Engineer, Monitor Engineer, System Engineer, Recording Engineer, Lighting Engineer, Rigger, Runner … you name it.
But whenever I could, I’d take tours.
On Tour with Paris
My first tour was as Monitor Engineer for Papa Vegas, opening for The Verve Pipe around 1999. A friend of mine from the HOB brought me out on that tour.
Since then, I’ve toured with: Bender, Kill Hannah, Rickie Lee Jones, Fountains of Wayne, The Donnas, Plain White T’s, Panic! at the Disco, the All American Rejects, and lots of others.
On the touring side, I’ve been a: tour manager, production manager, stage manager, FOH engineer, monitor engineer, and I’ve even teched drums in a pinch (even guitars once–and only once).
I’ve also worked for several sound companies: Big Audio, Diversified Audio Group, Sound of Authority, Clearwing Audio, and Sound Investments.
The most important skills required for this job: Patience, organization, people skills and a critical ear. Be able to do more than just one thing well. It’s great that you can mix, but can you tour-manage? Handle monitors? Arrange hospitality? Book hotels? Drive? Fix flat tires? Comfort a band member with a broken heart?
Be calm, cool and collected until the end. If the band perceives that everything is great because you’re confident, they’ll believe everything is great and have a great show. (This despite the fact that there are four blown drivers in the PA and the monitor engineer has to whack the desk once in a while because mixes will cut out for no reason.)
Sometimes you just have to deal with a bad situation, and getting the band upset is only going to make your life harder.
My advice to newbies: Only about 10% of what I do is technical. 90% is political. You’ve got to have great people skills.
Of course, you have to know the technical side backward and forward, but if you can’t relate to other people, it’s going to be difficult.
Talkin’ Shure. Favorite Mics and Why
The perfect overhead mic, the perfect ambient audience mic, the perfect Leslie cabinet mic. Works great for choirs as well. Gives a perfect stereo image of the drum kit in the in-ears. Fewer phasing problems.
My favorite new vocal mic. Great, crisp condenser sound, without the bleed problems of other vocal condensers.
Less expensive than the KSM44. The last 4×12 guitar cabinet mic you will ever use. Also great on floor toms, congas and as a general percussion mic. (The KSM27 has been discontinued. Compare with new SM27.)