- by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Regional Slants
For more than 30 years, Third Ear Sound has served the San Francisco Bay Area and grown with the technology supporting the needs of its clients. The staff of eight has an average of more than 20 years of industry experience. “Everyone is our audience” is the company slogan, and they mean it.
Artists served by Third Ear include Michael McDonald, Bill Cosby, The Temptations, k.d. lang, Gladys Knight, Robert Cray, Smokey Robinson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Boz Scaggs, Etta James, Jimmy Cliff, Bobby Caldwell and The Radiators. The company has the privilege of taking care of some of the area’s biggest, most prestigious festivals, including the Monterey Bay Blues Festival, live concerts at Wente Vineyards, the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, the Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival… oh, and the world’s largest free jazz festival — the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest.
“We do a lot of events for people who are amazed at how closely we pay attention to the details,” says co-owner Raul Suarez. “We put a big emphasis on pre-production planning, which results in a production going very smoothly.” Recently, Third Ear did one of its typical radio station events that involved a quick changeover from two very diverse groups: Selena Gomez and LMFAO, which went “perfect because we spent a lot of time planning” the transition, Suarez explains.
Audio Geeks Rule
Suarez grew up in the Bay Area, and his career path is a bit of a jaunt. He spent a year attending a school in Wales and studied math, then law, then music before planting his feet firmly in pro audio. “In college, I was the audio geek,” Suarez proudly proclaims. He played guitar in a band, and when the band broke up, he started renting the P.A. to other bands around U.C. Berkeley in the early 1980s. “We did a lot of dorm shows and concerts, plus dorm parties and worked with the seminal punk bands happening at the time.”
Doing the circuit, he kept running into David Trinchero, who was doing similar things, but for longer and with more gear. “What was really important was that he had [warehouse] space, and I thought my dad might appreciate me not hauling PA gear into my bedroom at four in the morning,” Suarez laughs. So they partnered up, taking on Trinchero’s company name, Third Ear Sound. (About 20 years later, Don Albonico would become the third partner in the operation.)
The company grew with every trend that hit the Bay Area. “Early on, we got to work with STP [Stone Temple Pilots] and the Dead Kennedys, and later on we worked with alternative bands like They Might Be Giants, Porno for Pyro, etc. Then we branched into R&B and worked with Luther Vandross, and then a bunch of Eddie Money gigs.”
Along with R&B, alternative and heavy metal, Third Ear Sound got known for their support of blues events. For 27 years, they’ve done sound for the Monterey Blues Festival, and for 20 years, they’ve dialed the knobs for the Santa Cruz Blues Festival.
Today, the operation is based in the city of Hayward (on the Oakland side of the bay), where they moved in 2010. The company required a bigger space with improved amenities and a loading dock worthy of the work they do. Also, Third Ear needed more room to do an increasingly big part of their business: repair work.
Definitely a Hit
Every member of the team wears many hats and does whatever needs to be done, and, in general, Suarez handles sales, Trinchero accounting and Albonico production planning and system design.
Third Ear Sound’s success is simple, starting with the foundation of the trio partnership. “We divide the workload evenly, and all [the partners] get along well,” Suarez says. “I feel like sometimes you can’t control that aspect, sometimes it’s hit or miss, but we definitely hit it,” Suarez notes.
The three partners share a dedication to customer service that goes even beyond the client, Suarez adds. “It’s not just the client, but it’s also the band, the people at the venue, the audience — you have a lot of people to please down the line. Some people are just worried about the person who writes the check, sometimes just the audience… but you have to take the blinders off. You can’t have tunnel vision.”
Third Ear Sound was among the nominees on the ballot of FRONT of HOUSE’s 2012 Hometown Hero regional awards competition, and, like all hometown heroes, they take care of their neighbors, including neighboring schools and clubs requiring audio installations. “It’s a secondary part of the business, but it’s growing,” Suarez says.
Keeping up with the gear is, of course, a “constant struggle,” Suarez admits. “It’s always a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. But when you can only own so many consoles, then you really have to know which ones to own. For a while, it was Yamaha, and no one was making digitals besides them — now it’s more complicated!” he laughs. “Everyone has caught up. But you have to support what your client wants.” The company still has plenty of Yamaha consoles, but also some Avid and Midas boards.
Third Ear is primarily a JBL house, with a lot of VerTec and VRX speakers. “I love JBL equipment, and I love that they’ve been upgrading presets and keeping the product value up,” Suarez says. “I have a good relationship with the people at the factory, and they’ve been incredibly reliable, always offering outstanding service.” Microphones found around the warehouse include a lot of Shure and Sennheiser wireless, plus some AKG.
But a key to success is to “never stop upgrading and buying equipment, because there’s always something new. One year it might be microphones; another year, consoles; then speakers. Then something big happens, and you have to buy it all, and where do you come up with the scratch for that? The revolutions have been in digital consoles, and before that, line arrays, and who knows what will be next?” Suarez says.
Going forward, Third Ear Sound plans on increasing the installation side of their business. “It’s been secondary for a long time, but we’re going to expand on it. Also we’re going to continue to develop our repair department. We’ve been increasingly taking on a lot of audio and keyboard repair, and it’s been good for us and good for the community.” Third Ear has also been looking into diversification, such as adding on backline and/or in-house video services; or perhaps pursue partnering with other people.
Staying busy is the order of the day. San Francisco’s annual Fleet Week activities keeps them busy every fall, and have for several years. Meanwhile, festivals, winery series, especially big parties, and supporting artists like Huey Lewis, Al Jarreau, Al Green, Steve Miller, Greg Kihn and many others who come through keep Third Ear largely out of trouble — and presumably out of their parent’s house.
For more information about Third Ear Sound, visit www.thirdearsound.com.