You’re the head sound engineer at the Jack Singer Concert Hall at the Epcor Centre. What exactly does that entail?
I’m responsible for a lot of different things. There are some shows that I’m actually mixing; it’s my responsibility to keep the sound system up and running and also to redesign when it’s time to replace (which we did in 2004). I’m responsible for the acoustic treatment in the room so making sure it’s appropriate for whatever the particular show is. It’s a variable acoustic in the room — we have drapes that move in and out. I’m also responsible for suggesting people to hire for crew to work with and monitor people and all that kind of stuff. As well I do sound in the Engineered Air Theatre which is the 185-seat room in the other side of the complex.
So you’ve got a lot on your plate then.
It keeps me very busy and entertained. That’s what I love about the job — there’s such a huge variety. One day I may be recording a classical show the next day I may be mixing a rock show they next day I may be helping a folk show get up or a major touring show get their equipment in.
I’ve heard rumours that you’ve been doing this for 25 years?
As a matter of fact this is the last day of my 25th year.
So how does it feel doing it for 25 years? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment?
I love this room and I love my job. You can’t do one thing in one place for 25 years unless it gives you a reason to get up every day.
How did you first get into sound engineering?
I was at the University of Calgary getting my bachelor’s of music and started doing electronic composition working with synthesizers and stuff. Because I had background in the recording gear that went along with that I ended up starting to do sound with the drama department. I went from there to live sound and from there to the bars and from there to regional touring. I started here 10 years into my career. So I’ve been doing it for 35.
Was your beginning at the Epcor a response to a job posting or were you recommended the position?
I heard about it. At the time I was working for a company up in Edmonton so I drove down for the interview. I had seen the room one time when the company I was working for brought Katrina and the Waves in and I went “this is really cool.” Because my background educationally was in classical music finding room where I could make use of that education but still do sound was my goal from when I started. I had set myself a hard deadline that I had 10 years to get a real job in the industry something with a pension and benefits and a salary and all that stuff. Literally it was 10 days less than 10 years when I got this job.
Was there going to be some sort of punishment for yourself if you didn’t make that cut?
I was going to go into a more normal field like mathematics and teaching or something like that ’cause I also did really well in that in school. This was my first love and I got lucky and found a job that let me do it.
You’ve mentioned that the acoustics of the Jack Singer are really impressive both when you first heard it and now. Could you tell me a bit more about what makes the room such a standout place to perform and record?
The thing about it is that it’s purpose-designed for acoustic symphonies. Unlike for instance the Jubilee Auditorium this room is specifically designed for an acoustic orchestra. One of the thing that makes it very much different is that it doesn’t have a proscenium arch which means the stage is in the same room as the audience. It’s got a much more interactive feel. As a result even comedians enjoy working this room because they get a real sense of the audience. But that same interactivity makes it very tricky to do louder things in this room.
What are some of the challenges when there are louder shows?
The issue really is that the way the room’s built is to reflect sound back towards the stage and up towards the roof and create a strong reverberant feel with something as quiet as an acoustic symphony. It’s not silent but relative to a rock band it’s pretty quiet which means that the room is quite active. When it gets really loud onstage it can be very difficult to maintain clarity because the room will bark back. When you’re doing really loud shows in here — I’m thinking of Jethro Tull — that didn’t work out all that well. We had a Neville Brothers show that had a bunch of challenges because they didn’t soundcheck ahead of time. You can get away with that in a dead room but in a live room you’ve got to be really sensitive to it and take advantage of the musicality of the room without trying to overrun it. It’s 18 inches of poured concrete everywhere.
Were you aware of these “issues” from the beginning?
I’m actually the second head sound technician here; the first guy was here from ’85 to ’90. I started as his assistant in ’88. They offered me the head job when he left. I was pretty clear about what it needed and that’s why I was able to successfully design a system that would work well for it in 2004 when we finally did a major upgrade.
And what did that upgrade specifically consist of?
Basically we completely replaced the sound system all of the sound gear most everything except the front-of-house console (and we replaced the front-of-house console two years later). When they originally designed this room they thought it would only be used for acoustic symphony work. As a result there wasn’t a single mic line onstage; there was no place to plug a microphone in without running it through a hole and crawling into a pit and making the connection. So we put upwards of 400 lines in various places. It was a pretty comprehensive thing. And the room isn’t dark long — it’s quieter in the summer and we ended up only getting three weeks to do everything I just described to you. We used every minute of those three weeks but we got it done.
Have you had the chance to work the room with musicians that are personal favourites?
Absolutely. The number of musicians that have come through here of all different genres has just been amazing. I actually made a list because it’s too hard for me to remember. In the classical field Itzhak Perlman Yo-Yo Ma. In the pop/rock field Xavier Rudd Mark Knopfler Barenaked Ladies Hawksley Workman Bruce Cockburn. It just goes on and on. In the jazz field Dizzy Gillespie all three of the Marsalis brother — Ellis Branford and Wynton — Diana Krall. In folk Emmylou Harris Buddy Guy John Hammond Ruthie Foster Spirit of the West. And some absolute legends too — Ray Charles Dave Brubeck. We actually did a standup show with Jim Carrey the year that The Mask was released. That was the last time that Jim ever did any significant amount of standup touring so we got his very last tour. And we got Celine Dion’s very first tour of Canada. And we had The Band in. You can almost name a name and there’s about a 75 per cent chance I can tell you “yup they came through.”
[A few years ago] finally I got to work with my absolute favourite artist in the world: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. It was really really cool. The guy knew that I was a big fan because I’d talked to him about it ahead of time before he came in. I had everything but one album by the Flecktones recorded from the beginning to the end of their career. That one was completely out of print you couldn’t find it anymore. The sound guy mailed me his copy when he got home at the end of the tour. It was very very cool. Bela Fleck was here right at the beginning of my tenure in a different band altogether called New Grass Revival. The same guy who was doing sound for them two years ago was the guy who was doing sound for them then. We both remembered each other from 20 years previous.
Would you say that such an experience reflects the greater sense of community that’s found among sound technicians?
Yeah absolutely. If you’re good at what you do and — especially as a venue technician — you’re really focused on whatever it takes to get their art out to the audience they remember you. Every once in a while you get a quote from one of the guys and you go “that’s so cool.” When we did Dave Brubeck his guy halfway through soundcheck said “you know what? This is what Carnegie Hall should be.” “OK dude whatever you want for the rest of the day not a problem.” It just means an awful lot when somebody is that positive.
I heard that you went to Europe to try out some new equipment recently.
Germany. I went to the Sennheiser factory to take a look at how they manufacture their microphones. They took me; they haven’t been particularly successful selling me product so they wanted me to see the entire process and try to get me more on side as an end user.
And what was the verdict?
I’d rather not say. It was a wonderful trip and they treated me like gold. I told them before we left “if you want to do this that’s great and more power to you. But the trip isn’t going to make any difference to the decisions I make. If you’re cool with that then I’m happy to go to Germany with you.”
How much longer do you see yourself doing this for?
As long as I’m grinning most days and the hairs come up on my arms three or four times a year when I’m going “oh my god this is so cool” — I’ll do it as long as my ears hang out.
Anything else that you’d like to add?
Obviously I’ve hung here for 25 years and we’ve got a pretty good reputation so I’ve done pretty well with my career. But the reason is the people I work with. It’s a wonderful group of people and everyone’s really supportive. There’s not a war behind lighting and sound and stage and everybody’s trying to do their own thing. It’s all about what’s best for the show and that’s a culture that’s been in place — not since I started but the management team that’s up above me right now have been there 10 or 15 years and they are really about being the best that we can be. For everyone of us our target is to be the best experience an artist can have in the world. You don’t make it every day but you sure try. The people around me are as important to my success as the opportunities I’ve had and all of that stuff. If you don’t have support from the guys up above and them believing in you and turning you loose to do your system designs and all of that kind of stuff I wouldn’t be anywhere nearly as successful as I am.