May 2011 Issue

From the Wall to the Monitors Hot Seat

How do you get from a childhood in the walled-in "island" of West Berlin, surrounded by communist East Germany, to a life on the road in the monitors hot seat and a home base just a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip? Andy Ebert, monitors engineer for Stone Temple Pilots, made the journey. But he suggests that the transition for him was far easier than it might have been for a fellow Berliner on the other side of the wall.
Kultur Shock? Not Really


Although some might assume that living conditions for Ebert, who was born in 1971, were harsh, he describes West Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s as walled-in, but otherwise very similar to life in non-communist West Germany in those days.


"We had everything that every other Western country had," Ebert says. The East Germans, including those in East Berlin, "were the ones that didn't have a lot of things that were standards for us in the West.


"Once the wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989, things started changing slowly, and East Germany got integrated into West Germany step by step," Ebert says. "All of a sudden, West Berlin became part of East Germany, because we were in the middle of the Eastern part. It didn't change much for us, but it felt different, for sure.


"For me, it was more of a culture shock getting into East Germany, where things were a lot harder to accomplish, than in the West," Ebert continues. "I first started working as a sound engineer and touring with friends' bands in 1994, when things were a little better already."


At the time, in what had been East Germany, "you found a lot of homemade PAs," Ebert says, "and a lot of things were very improvised." While he credits the former East Germans for managing to build "something out of nothing," he adds that "it was at a lower standard than what we had in the West."


By the late 1990s, however, the gap in gear quality had narrowed considerably - even if the former East Germans had a greater tendency to revel in products that Westerners had long taken for granted. "They were the happiest people when they could come over and buy things. I'm not exaggerating when I say that a lot of people couldn't afford to buy a banana - which was a luxury item before - and now they could.


"There were a lot of bands in the East that made a good enough living playing music. It was mainly cover bands, though - very few bands were able to make a living creating and performing their own music," Ebert adds.


Ebert, born in 1971, got the music bug early. By age 10, he had his first guitar. By 16, he was repping musical instruments. By 24, he had his first mixing gig and, by 26, he was on the road with Golden Gospel Singers.


From then to the present day - a 14-year span - Ebert has gotten the chance to tour with Maria Carey, Maroon 5, Guns N' Roses and Neil Young and do shorter stints with Adam Lambert and Shakira. Since 2008, he has been working as the monitor engineer for every Stone Temple Pilots show.


STP performed at the Palms in Las Vegas recently, which provided Ebert with two opportunities: to meet with FOH, and, also, while in town, to feed his dogs. Yes, he lives here when he is not touring (and yes, they're still well-cared-for during those long stretches while he's on the road.)


The Monitors Hot Seat


Ebert has had a long career as a monitor engineer - which is testimony to a combination of mixing skills, consistency and the ability to focus on the job at hand with grace under pressure. He's also very careful when getting acquainted with new gear.


"A lot of people make the mistake to start a new gig with gear they don't know well enough," he says. "As a FOH engineer, you have more time, and you can figure it out. As a monitor engineer, you have to react in an instant when the musician asks for something. You have to be on your toes at all times and watch every musician on stage so that you can change whatever they want you to change right away. A minute later can be too late. If you don't know your gear well enough so that you can react very quickly, you will lose precious time."


Consistency, he adds, is important, regardless of whether your artists are using IEMs or wedges. "You have to make it sound as close to the same as you can every night, no matter if you are in a club, in a theatre, an arena, an amphitheater or in a stadium."


Last but not least, Ebert says, "you have to have very good people skills and a very thick skin. When the artist yells at you - and some of them do that a lot - you can't take it personally and you can't let that get to you, because then you don't focus on your work anymore. If you're not focused anymore, you make mistakes, and that will get you fired - most likely sooner than later."


Being a monitor engineer, Ebert says, "is not an easy task, and you are in the hot seat at all times. Being in such close proximity to the artist and being such a vital part of his or hers performance is a huge responsibility. It takes some time to build a trusting relationship with your boss or bosses, and you have to be on your toes at all times. If you screw something up, it can easily screw up the artist, which results in a bad moment during the show, or worse, a bad show until the end. It is not a very rewarding position we're in."


So how does someone on monitors monitor how things are going, career-wise? "You usually know that you're doing okay when you are still there the next day," Ebert says. "When something is not going so well, you will know about it right away. But you will rarely get a ‘Thank you,' or an ‘It sounded great.' As long as you don't hear anything, and as long as the performer never looks over to you, you're doing fine.


"I know, this sounds a little negative right now, but it isn't. It's just the hard reality," Ebert says. "But if you are up for the challenge, it is a great job. I certainly love it and can't imagine doing anything else."


The STP Toolbox


Ebert notes that he doesn't have a problem working with a different set of tools. "I've done plenty of tours where we didn't carry any audio gear, or just carried our own mics and in-ears and used everything else locally, and I had to dial in everything from scratch every day," he notes. That said, however, he does have his preferences.


For STP, Ebert relies on an arsenal of gear that includes, among other things, an Avid Venue SC48 console and a variety of Heil mics, and he's currently putting a new Line6 wireless mic to the test. And for IEMs, he opts for Sennheiser wireless, and he's also a beta tester for Ultimate Ears.


Ebert first became acquainted with Heil mics when he was mixing monitors for Velvet Revolver. Back then, he says, "Slash was using the Heil Sound Talk Box. Bob Heil came by our rehearsal room one day and dropped off his line of microphones for us to try out. We had Slash's tech playing a riff over and over and recorded it to Pro Tools with the mic we used up to that point and with a variety of Heil mics."


The mics sounded different, and the difference was dramatic enough that "we changed all guitar and bass mics to Heil Sound mics the next day."


Today, STP is touring with PR-40s on guitars, PR-35 on all vocals, PR-31 for bass and overheads, PR-48 on the kick drum, PR-20 and 22 on the snare and PR-28 on all toms.


"I used the RC-22 capsule with Adam Lambert for vocals, which worked great with his voice," Ebert added, also crediting Bob and Sarah Heil for "amazing" service and support.


Although Ebert says the STP stage is "very loud," he says there haven't been any issues with the low frequency response on the PR35.


"Dean DeLeo, the guitar player, doesn't use in-ear monitors. He is old-school and loves his wedges and sidefills. It is quite a challenge, and I have to double and triple up a few channels to have enough options of different EQs and level changes for IEM and wedges," Ebert notes.


"Mixing Scott Weiland's in ear sound is keeping me busy throughout the whole show, and then I have to watch Dean the whole time as well to adjust his guitars according to where he is on stage," Ebert adds. "It never gets boring, and I have to be 100 percent on my game every night.


"None of the Heil Sound mics are giving us any problems at all. I have to run the high-pass filter on the vocal mic at about 170Hz though to get rid of some of the low end."


A Preference for IEMs


DeLeo may have his old-school preference of for wedges and sidefills. But if it were up to Ebert, everyone would be on IEMs.


"I came from a home studio background and mixed FOH before I started mixing monitors, so I knew how to create a whole mix, like a CD sound," he notes. "I love mixing sound for IEM because it so much more creative to actually create a CD mix instead of ‘just' making it really loud in the wedges. It is an art to get wedges really loud without causing any feedback throughout a whole show, and it is fun, too, but I'm more into the creative part of mixing sound.


"With Neil Young," Ebert continues, "I had to mix a CD sound as well, but he was only using sidefills. That was a whole new challenge for me at the time. It was a very, very hard gig to make him happy, but once I figured out how to keep it consistent for him, I was golden, and the shows went very smooth without him ever asking for any changes in his mix. The signal path didn't change, and you still have to know gain structure and so forth, so ultimately the changes aren't that dramatic. More and more bands are now using a combination of in-ears, wedges and sidefills. Finding the right balance here and making it sound even is the important part here."


Lately, Ebert has been putting a new Line 6 wireless mic to the test. "It has an exchangeable capsule feature, so that I can use the Heil Sound RC-35 or RC-22 with their handheld transmitter," he says. Once an initial glitch was worked out, the mic has performed admirably, with Ebert crediting the gear for its frequency range - 2.4GHz - and compander-free design to transmit the signal, which, Ebert says, results in a "much cleaner sounding signal. The handling noise of the handheld transmitter is so much better than what I've used so far," he says, and "for an unbelievable price."


The preference for Avid's Venue SC48, meanwhile, grew out of a situation where Ebert, handling monitors for Guns N' Roses in Europe, found that the analog console he had been using had been maxed out. "For the U.S. tour, we had to add even more instruments, so I ran out of input channels," he recalls. "Our FOH engineer used the Venue console already, showed me around the surface, and I decided to use one myself. The advantage of plug-ins and great sound qualities made it an easy decision for me." He adds that "the GNR guys were very happy with the way the console sounded and loved the fact that they could let me know which plug-ins they used in the studio and that I could do the exact same thing for our live shows now. I've been using the Venue or now mainly the Profile consoles since and still prefer it over all the other digital consoles."


Life on the Road


Ebert and his girlfriend met while touring with Neil Young. "I was Neil's monitor engineer, and she was taking care of the dressing rooms and catering. We got together at the end of the U.S. run and spent all our days off together. "After that tour," Ebert continues, "she went back to her main gig and I started working for Stone Temple Pilots. That was in April, 2008."


Though often apart, "we both love what we do for a living, and we both know exactly what life on tour is like," Ebert says. "That makes it very easy for us to understand each others' problems and concerns, as well as the fact that there can be very busy days and, sometimes, 8 or 12 hour time differences from each other's locations. We both got very lucky that we found each other and accept each other the exact way we are," Ebert adds. "We both didn't have to change the way we were." 

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