Audio at the Gates of Hell

by Baker Lee
in FOH at Large

Illustration by Andy AuIt’s been said that an audio technician’s job is long hours of boredom and mundane work followed by short periods of frantic maneuvering. It’s also been said that “sh*t happens,” and when that does occur, we have those small bursts of frenetic behavior as we try to stave off a descent into chaos and disorder. We stand as guardians at the gates of hell as we do our best not to allow the doors to swing open and release the multitudes of demons and devilish imps that lay waiting on the other side. We are vigilant on our watch, being aware that even the smallest opening is enough space to allow the devil to escape and unleash a reign of terror down upon our show.

The opening in the gate might appear as a moment of self-doubt or a lack of preparation before arriving on site; it may be ignorance, negligence or just an error on the part of one person or technician. However, let’s be very clear on this matter. Once the opening is created and a demon is released, there’s no telling how or when this evil spirit will be contained. Generally, when a breach like this takes place, the technicians on watch have about 30 seconds to rectify the situation and get the mischievous sprite back behind locked doors, because after 30 seconds, the damage is cumulative, and the terror increases exponentially for all involved.

» Thirty Second Grace Period

Thirty seconds of time does not amount to much in the grand scheme of our majestic universe, but 30 seconds of dead air on radio, television or during a live concert is enough to make even the strongest of hearts grind to a halt. If the dead air time progresses beyond the 30 second grace period, one should expect that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth on behalf of all concerned parties. Friends and compatriots will turn against each other and the general audience — in its helplessness — will become agitated and ugly in pursuit of solace from the emptiness of dead air and the broken connection to their release.

The recent electrical blackout at the Super Bowl comes to mind as a true 30-minute descent into technicians’ hell which, ironically, was caused by the failure of a piece of equipment that was put in place to protect against exactly that which occurred. If the gates of hell should swing open, it’s always easy to take an “holier than thou” attitude as an observer to someone else’s torment. Unless one is a technician who walks on water, it would be prudent to take a compassionate view of these situations since — at one point or another in our storied careers — we have all descended into the depths of eternal misery; albeit a mere 30-second eternity.

» J’accuse!

It’s easy to point fingers and cry “J’accuse!” as we identify any culprits who drops their guard while on duty as sentinel at the gate. Yet we have all been there when a crucial piece of equipment fails, or the gates are opened due to a lapse in judgment or protocol. Over the years, I have had more than a few panicked calls from various parties whose consoles crash during a show, or who claim a wireless unit requires immediate replacement. In the case of it being a piece of gear I rented to a client, the finger is pointed at me and, despite the fact that the failure was due to user error, it becomes my problem — my descent into the depths.

A woman once called me in a frenzy, complaining that the wireless microphone she rented from me was feeding back and needed immediate replacement. I tried to tell her that wireless microphones don’t feed back — people feed back. However, she was having none of that explanation, since — according to her — the engineer she had hired for the evening was a professional. In the case of console failure, it has sometimes been the case where an engineer has locked themselves out of their scene and cannot get back in. A split snake as a rental item can often be a sure way to open the gates, because if the technician setting up the snake doesn’t seat it properly, there will be intermittent channels and even some that don’t show up at all. This then causes the technician to tell me I had allowed demons into their show.

» Speaking of Darkness

Every now and then, there are exceptional shows that we remember. Yet for the most part, the shows that really stay with us are the ones that didn’t quite go as planned, and darkness fell upon us as the demons ran rampant. Speaking of darkness, this reminds me of a show I did years ago with the band Soul Asylum. At the time, I was running a club in Manhattan by the name of “Tramps,” and I had been badgering the owner to upgrade his electric service to accommodate the demands of the major acts that were playing the room. The building was old and the room had a 100A three-phase panel allocated for ice machines, room lights, blenders — and lights and sound. Soul Asylum needed to bring in a light show and a larger sound system to provide for their needs.

I suggested getting a generator, but the owner was having none of it as the cost would eat into his “small profit margin,” so I brought in an AC distro and we tied into the panel. Sound check went well and, as there was a big buzz regarding the band playing at the club, the place was sold out, and there was a viscerally excited atmosphere in the venue. The band came on the stage in the dark and the MC — with a small spotlight on him — said a few words and then gave the introduction, “Please welcome Soul Asylum!” On the downbeat, the lights went up, the band hit their big opening chord, and the room was plunged into darkness as the less-than-adequate power was tripped by the surge.

The gates of hell had opened! One thousand people standing in the glow of the emergency lights while staring at a stage of bewildered musicians; all of whom then turn their eyes on me as I have already used 40 of my 30 seconds of terror. Needless to say, it took me more than 30 seconds to resolve the problem, and it was certainly not a comfortable experience, nor one I wish to repeat.

As engineers, we are on the front lines, and even if there is a problem that is beyond our control or not our fault, we are the visible ones, thereby making us culpable by association. All we can do is to try our best to prepare for our events by having the proper gear, electric, schedule and labor. Usually, money is the reason for cutting corners and, all too often, to avoid the 30 seconds of terror we may encounter, we have to fight with promoters, clients or even the bands themselves to make sure we can keep the gates of hell closed and the demons contained. Sh*t happens, but hopefully not too often, since none of us like to be put in awful situations filled with panic and dread, standing in plain view with our pants down and our shorts flapping in the wind.