The entirety of Ocean Beach is as if in the grips of spring break, even though the natives don’t exactly look like college students. I’m scheduled to meet up with a sound guy at Winstons nightclub on Bacon, just off Newport Avenue. I find parking only a few blocks away, considered a lucky break here. It’s after 9 p.m. but there is something happening in almost every yard I pass along the way — cookouts, keggers, or characterless porch gatherings under ropes of holiday lights or the unsteady flickering of kerosene torches. Motorists and skateboarders share the dark streets. The beach is only a block or so away, but you wouldn’t know it, at least not tonight. O.B. at night is a noisy place.
An affable man named Rob is in the sound booth. He’s clean-cut, maybe early 20s, wearing cargo shorts and a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled. I mention the name of the sound guy I’m supposed to be meeting. “I don’t know what his thing is. I don’t know if he’s coming or not.” Rob works over a jumbo console that bristles with tiny knobs, dials, and pin lights and looks as if capable of launching an ICBM missile. He takes at least three trips to the center of the dance floor, presumably to listen. All of this work is for one guy who is onstage, a long-haired singer with authoritative lungs and a big red Gibson electric guitar. It is open-mic night at Winstons. “I’m your ice cream man...,” the singer growls in the general direction of the nine people in the audience.
Are you one of Winstons’ regular sound guys? I ask when Rob climbs back up into the sound booth. “I just do my own thing,” he smiles. In another life, Rob could be a missionary — he’s that clean-cut. I ask if I can talk to him for this story. “It’s all good,” he says. “I’m fine,” before turning back to the big console. I take this to be a “no.” I watch for a few more minutes, and I drain my Diet Coke. The smallish sound booth oversees the entire room. If Rob were a lifeguard and Winstons a beach, this would be the ideal viewing position.
The sound guy represents an odd niche in pop culture. By definition, the job description fits that person so designated at any venue who operates the sound-reinforcement equipment that amplifies and mixes a band’s (or soloist’s, or public speaker’s) live sound such that it can be heard by the masses. Live sound reinforcement is a highly specific task that requires years of experience and training and that is nuanced and subjective so as to border on being an art form. The job of sound guy is somewhat of an unspoken fraternity. There are no rules that prohibit them, but few women take up the trade, especially here in San Diego. The gig has zero benefits, the potential for significant hearing damage seems inescapable, there is no apparent upward mobility, and the way in (meaning how one learns the craft and eventually earns a paycheck) is hazy. And yet, that person ranks in importance right up there with the most talented musician onstage. No sound guy, no show.
Possibly due to the late work hours, many of the sound-reinforcement pros I spoke with appear to exist in altered time zones. Numerous telephone messages went unreturned. The job doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. Mike Kiener knows; he worked sound at Brick by Brick right up to the day the nightclub shut down. “I’m at House of Blues now,” he said to me one night, “running sound on the big shows, and I do the sound mixing on the Wednesday-night blues jam, too.” Otherwise, he was a challenge to reach by phone. “I have four jobs — I do sound, I run my own recording studio, I bartend at the Shakedown, and I take care of my parents.”
Sound check at Winstons
Justin Quiring does a preshow sound check at Winstons in Ocean Beach.
On the hottest of summer afternoons there’s a line of 500 or so teens outside SOMA in Loma Portal, waiting to be patted down before entry into the smaller of the venue’s two auditoriums. The show starts at five. It’s a mini-festival of hardcore/screamo groups. “Each band gets 30 minutes to play,” Justin Quiring says. He’s the main sound guy tonight. “They have seven and a half minutes to get their gear offstage. The next band has seven and a half minutes to get their shit on. Seven bands. Fifteen-minute turnarounds.” Quiring’s biggest concern?
“I don’t know. Everything’s pretty organized. The tour manager already filled me in on what gear each of the bands has.” We sit outside the venue in the covered breezeway that serves as both backstage and loading zone. There are guitar amplifiers and tour cases and drum kits everywhere stacked in orderly piles. A guitar player winds new strings onto a Christmas-present-shiny Les Paul. The tour manager hands me a pink wristband and asks that I wear it. A small black dog snores coiled in a fuzzy dog bed by the stage door. Justin, clean-head, wearing NBA shorts and a rock tour T-shirt, wolfs down a Subway sandwich while we talk.
“If a piece of equipment doesn’t work, I gotta have a solution pretty quick. I’ve tested all the lines I’m gonna use tonight. Some bands want it really loud. You can only have it so loud before it breaks speakers. When dubstep was really new, we blew up a lot of speakers. Usually there’s enough subs [woofers] that you don’t notice it right away. You figure it out later.”
SOMA, he explains, rents their giant sound-reinforcement systems from a local company named Audio Design. He says he works for Audio Design, not SOMA. “Part of our job is to make sure the bands don’t break the equipment,” says Quiring. “House of Blues owns their own PA, and the Belly Up owns their own PA, but most venues rent.”
Just then, Elmo, Justin’s intern and assistant-in-training shows up. He’ll handle mixing sound for some of the bands tonight. A musician, Elmo also works in recording studios. “A lot of how you learn this business,” says Quiring, “is following a sound guy around and not getting paid for it.”
Then he asks, “Is ‘The Sound Guy’ still gonna be the title of your story?” It’s the working title, I say. Yes. “That might offend some people.” I ask if he knows of any sound women. “Not locally. Most of the women I know who do sound work on national tours.” But no local club-level sound women? “That’s a whole other story. There are more women doing lighting than sound in town. I don’t know of any women that do sound in San Diego.”
He thinks doing sound for a national road show pays in the ballpark of $500 per day plus per diem. “But only a few get that break. It’s an equal part talent and an equal part self-promotion.”
To whom does one promote one’s talent?
“I don’t know,” he chuckles softly. Then he says that many such associations are made coming up through the ranks, by starting at the basement level, such as driving the tour van, selling “merch” (the industry term for T-shirts and CDs), and doing sound for free until that time when the band may, or may not, hit the music-industry jackpot.
We’re back inside. The first band is about to start. The side-stage auditorium has slowly filled up with teens from front to back and side to side. It is pitch dark. The stage glows red. All the oxygen in the room has seemingly been sucked dry and replaced with carbon dioxide. A visitor in the sound booth asks, when does the air conditioning kick in? Quiring laughs. Elmo laughs. The first band thunders to life. Throughout the 30-minute set, Quiring makes near-constant adjustments to the faders and knobs on the mixing console by tapping almost imperceptibly on them.
“Things change up there. It’s a human dynamic. Humans are playing the instruments. I’m always hearing something that can be improved.”
Elmo takes over for the second band. I ask him what their name is, and over the sonic power blast coming off the stage he says words what sounds something like this: “Your Face Is Tragic.” Quiring and I return to the breezeway. My shirt is sweat-soaked. The music inside chews sonic holes in the air around the backstage door. “This is all I do,” Quiring says. “I’ve been a sound guy for ten years.” He’s 39, lives alone in Normal Heights. He says he makes a decent living.
The next step up the ladder for Quiring would be to get hired to do sound for a major national tour. I notice he works without the benefit of ear protection. Has he experienced some degree of hearing loss yet? “Yes.” That said, how long can a person stay in this game? “Dinosaur Jr? Their sound guy was in his late 40s, early 50s. And they were fucking loud.” He thinks he has another 10 or 15 years in the business. “Maybe longer.”
Cigarette smoke huffs up the breezeway, a byproduct from the dozen or so teens also sitting outside the side stage.
“I’ve felt like walking away before. Sometimes, it gets overwhelming, the number of things that can go wrong. The worst thing that could happen would be if the PA went out. If something breaks down, it’s usually an electrical thing, not a sound-equipment thing.”
He says the biggest shows he’s mixed sound for include Fishbone, Sick of It All, G Easy, and the Strawberry Alarm Clock at the Adams Avenue Street Fair.
“At nightclubs, I do both lighting and sound. The bigger jobs, there’s a monitor guy, a sound guy, a lighting director, and a stage manager. Here [meaning SOMA], everybody’s respectful. In clubs, you add alcohol and everything changes. Yes, people come to me and make requests. They think I’m a deejay.”
“Hi, I’m the sound guy. My name is Amy.” Amy Duffy, 31, relocated here from Michigan a few years ago. “That’s how I introduce myself to the bands. It gets them laughing. That’s a good way to start things off, because people are always surprised to find out when the sound guy is a woman. They don’t expect it.”
Duffy’s main gig is stage management at the San Diego Opera, but every so often she fills in and mixes live bands at the Tin Roof, a Gaslamp District restaurant.
“Sometimes, a little sexism will pop out. Like, they don’t expect that I know what I’m doing. Once, a musician called me sweetie within the first five minutes. I said, ‘You would not call a guy some kind of name.’ We’re friends now.
“I started mixing live sound at Martini’s Above Fourth,” a nightclub in Hillcrest. “They do a lot of awesome shows there. At that gig, I met someone who put me in touch with the Tin Roof. I sub. They’ve got their regular full-time sound guys. I have a woman friend who mixes live sound for stage musicals. Part and parcel, it’s the same technique as mixing sound for a band.”
Duffy says her friend could do live club sound if she had the inclination. “But I honestly don’t know why most sound guys are men. And most of the sound guys I meet have mentioned that they don’t know many women who mix live sound. Then again, I don’t know many men who are stage managers; most stage managers are women. I love stage-managing. I love what I do. But it’s a tough way of life, freelancing. There’s zero security, no pension plan, no benefits. I’ve been doing it for eight years professionally. I’m at the point of wondering if I can keep doing this.”
“See that guy that’s running around? He’s the guy that’s keeping it all together for us tonight. He’s the sound guy.” Scott Bruce, Symbolic’s front man, yells this out to the audience from onstage mid-performance one night at Brick by Brick. Symbolic is a heavy-metal band with a drummer who generates steady blasts of well-timed percussive sounds that are what I imagine artillery strikes at close range sound like. The guitar and bass do a fine job of keeping up. Bruce works in the higher atmosphere of the Bruce Dickinson–Iron Maiden vocal range. “We wanna give a shout-out,” he extols, “to Frank Torres.”
But just getting Symbolic onstage was an ordeal. First, there was the matter of switching out the opener’s mountain of gear through Brick by Brick’s small back door. In the midst of all this heavy lifting was Torres and his stage manager. In the late summer heat, the club feels like a sweat lodge. Individual microphones are positioned next to all of Symbolic’s drums and amplifiers. Each must be tested, every drum and cymbal, the bass guitar, the lead guitar, and, finally, the vocal microphones. It is a tedious process. The 65 or 70 people in the audience seem grateful for even the most mundane activity on stage.
Finally, Symbolic launches in a salvo of strobe lights. But soon after, the singer’s microphone goes completely silent. Torres is on it immediately. The show resumes. The audience cheers. Torres is back inside his fortress of a sound booth, a raised black box with steel reinforcement and a tinted perimeter window. Suddenly, one or two of the sub-woofers, (the series of 15-inch speakers mounted in the wood frame below the stage at floor level) apparently malfunctions. Torres and his sidekick attempt to sort out the problem. How they can hear anything specific is a mystery to my own plugged ears, but somehow, they know. Torres runs backstage and fiddles with a small lighted console. He wears no ear protection. Nor does his assistant. Nor does pretty much anybody in the audience that I can see. The band is so loud as to render all conversation near impossible, but people have a go at it anyway.
The band is loud enough that music seeps through the block walls of what was once a rug-cleaning plant and fills the surrounding alley in the form of a muffled throb. Inside, the walls of the sound booth vibrate, positioned as it is in a back corner facing stage left. At large-scale concerts, sound is almost without fail mixed from the dead center of any venue. But at nightclubs, it is a different story. Sound-mixing equipment is tucked into a corner on one side of the room or the other. Dan Ratcliffe, a veteran local sound guy, will explain why that’s not a problem: “Sometimes, it’s okay. You need a break from the barrage of sound.”
“I go by Dan Porter Ratcliffe, actually. There’s a famous actor named Dan Radcliffe. He’s the guy who plays Harry Potter. I was, like, 14 when I got interested [in sound gear.] I always loved stereos. I loved to go to yard sales and buy electronic gear. People gave me their old speakers. By the time I got to junior high school, I was running the sound at school functions.” Ratcliffe says he comes from Maine. “I grew up in a town with a really awesome sound company not five minutes from my house.”
His highest-level sound gig to date? The president of the United States. “I did sound for Obama,” Ratcliffe says. “In 2007, during his first campaign. Hillary, too. I worked the console. The campaigns contracted different sound companies for different regions. Some of them were arena-sized, like concerts. Did I have a security clearance? No. The only thing was, a bomb dog would sniff the gear.”
At the Tin Roof, the mixing table is a digital console that links via Wi-Fi to a tablet that Ratcliffe will later use to make small adjustments at stage level. The main rig sits upstairs on a table in a spacious loft. “This is a line check, right?” asks the band leader.
Ratcliffe is tall and musician-lean. He doubles as a guitarist in Lady Dottie and the Diamonds. He wears just enough beard to look trustworthy. He’s dressed for work in cut-offs, flip-flops, and an untucked print shirt. “You never have to dress up for this gig. I’ve done sound for lots of conventions, music, the San Diego Symphony once, when they had Kenny G. He had his own sound guy.” Ratcliffe assisted.
“One of the things I wanted to [talk about] is the under-representation of being recognized as an employee. You can be there every night, but they still [tax form] 1099 you,” meaning that sound guys are treated as independent contractors under the eye of tax law. “We’re taxed as a company, but treated like employees” — within limits. “Clubs can decide they don’t like the shirt you’re wearing and you’re out of there. The sound gear’s always the property of the club, but the sound guy is still an independent contractor.” Still, he says, the show can’t go on without a sound guy. “I’ve had to do shows when I was really, really sick.”
He describes the sound guy’s conundrum: “Some people think of it as a thankless position: if the band sounds good, it’s the band. If the band sounds bad, it’s the sound guy.” Ratcliffe’s worked Humphreys, Winstons, Donovan’s, and as the band Rockola’s sound guy. “I’ve gone on smaller regional tours with Derek Trucks. And Susan Tedeschi, too, before they were married. I was at Humphreys every night when I wasn’t gigging. Most sound guys are musicians. I have a degree in music from the University of Maine.” Ratcliffe is 28 and lives in Ocean Beach. “I lose more hearing as a musician than I do as a sound guy. I’ve been doing sound in clubs since I was 17 or 18. They never really asked me if I was under age. I was always tall.”
Aaron and the band perform a live sound check. Ratcliffe’s fingers fly over the console. Whatever he is doing is almost faster than the eye can track as his fingers roam the knobs and sliders. He speaks to the band via a microphone. They can hear him through the floor monitors at their feet.
Ratcliffe says, “Watch this.” He moves a control on the virtual display on the tablet and the corresponding real control moves in response. “All that bass? It’s coming from those two cabinets.” The bass guitar is indeed booming. “I asked him to turn down, and he said no. I’m, like, ‘I’m looking at the numbers [he gestures with the tablet] and they’re wrong.’ Like, ‘I’m here to ruin your show?’ I used to get pissed off. I don’t let that bother me anymore.”
We move to a table outside in the downtown humidity. The band is visible through Tin Roof’s showcase window. We can hear them through the glass. We talk at length about life with Lady Dottie, about life as one of her Diamonds, about mutual friends, about growing up in Maine. Suddenly, I hear a wailing noise that sounds like one those old Ricola cough-drop ads. It’s Aaron, the band leader, and he’s outside now, too, walking up and down the sidewalk and blowing on a conch shell for all it’s worth while the bassist and drummer hold on to a bluesy vamp inside on stage.
Does Ratcliffe see himself as a lifer in the sound business? “Yeah. Probably. I almost always knew I was going to do this. I was always into gadgets. But it’s about having an ear. Rule number one is about making it not painful for the audience. That involves a lot of taking away — the taking out of frequencies that you don’t need to reinforce. It takes a long time to learn. Being good in this business means having so much experience under your belt that nothing surprises you.”
I remember Johnny Ciccolella from an evening a few years ago at Twiggs. He was the sound guy there. That night, my girlfriend and I were sitting outside chatting up Carlos Olmeda, the singer/songwriter. He was scheduled to perform but there were only four of us there for the gig and the little theater was stultifying. Why not play outside? Ciccolella carted out some sound gear and Olmeda went to work.
Now, years later, Ciccolella and I sit under a canvas shade umbrella in a South Park backyard. He’s the sound guy for a house concert-benefit show today. He brought all the gear needed, including speakers, a mixing table, and cables and microphones.
“That amp’s 500 watts — way more than you need for a show like this,” he says. A medium-sized dog named Blue climbs into my lap while I take notes. “Justin Burkett and Frances Bloom are among the performers,” he says. They’re expecting around 200 guests today at the house concert.
“I manage the tones for the audience. I manage the sound that gets folded back to the musicians so they can hear each other,” meaning through a series of monitors that he has placed strategically on the floor of the stage area. “Big shows have a guy who does just the stage monitors and another guy that does the main speakers.”
Ciccolella is 57. Remnants of a New Jersey childhood flavor his words. He plays flamenco guitar, piano, and violin.
“I had an intern named Carrie. She went to UCSD. She only lasted a year. It’s not easy dealing with bands and musicians night after night,” is what he says when I ask why there are no women working sound in local venues.
“One guy wanted to fight me because he heard feedback in his monitor. This was at Mueller [College]. I thought it was resolved, but he came back later and started calling me a ‘fat fuck.’ ‘You need to get him out of here,’ I told his band. He was the sax player, this skinny kid.”
There are sound people, Ciccolella says, “and then there are sound people. A lot of people fall into this work through luck. It takes aptitude. If you don’t have it, you can’t learn it.” Meaning, sound guys are born and not made? “Yes.” He says there are people who can hear sound the way people see color. How did Ciccolella learn the craft?
“I read the Sound Engineer’s Recording Handbook. It actually has the math problems and algorithms for how sound works, the metrics for how your ear works.” For example: “Your brain will imagine something that should be there but that is not there. Your brain will perceive things louder than they actually are, even though they are not. Vocals, for example. Your brain is dying to hear the words. It will make them seem louder.”
Blue shifts on my lap and licks at my chin. I ask Ciccolella to explain the mixing console. “It only looks complicated. The board has 16 inputs, but I’m using 8. Each of these paths is an input.”
Each channel has a white nob that slides up and down to increase or decrease volume for that particular sound. Then there are colored little knobs arranged in rows above the white sliders. Ciccolella loses me with words such as “sends,” “returns,” “gain,” “reverb,” and “clipping.”
I inquire about his hearing. “It’s good. I always reserve the right to leave the room. I don’t go to that many loud shows. We get the occasional death-metal show at Mueller College [they have a small venue inside their Adams Avenue location called Across the Street], but mostly it’s singer/songwriters.”
What’s the future for a sound guy? “I can’t imagine the average sound guy makes more than $25,000 to $35,000 a year here. I love the work, but I have other sources of income. Sound design for video games is really a great bet for employment,” he says. “And there’s a number of sound companies in town. They provide the gear and someone to run it for larger tours. That’s a good way to get into the concerts biz.”
“You want to know what changed my life? When I was nine years old and I watched the Woodstock documentary. I didn’t want to be Jimi Hendrix — I wanted to be the guy standing on the side of the stage next to him. He was this guy who was doing something, holding a rope or whatever. I thought, Wow, all that and he gets to see the show, too.”
Larry Ashburn is the most recent of three partners to join Audio Design, a company that specializes in live sound reinforcement headquartered in a retail storefront near San Diego State University. “We’re a rental company. We can handle everything from a mom picking up a speaker on a stand for a Girl Scout meeting to the main concert stage at the Del Mar Fair. Our gear is out most of the time. We did two of the smaller sponsored stages for the Vans Warped Tour for a couple of years.”
Each time I’ve phoned, Ashburn was just about to get on a plane to fly off and do sound somewhere.
Audio Design's Larry Ashburn
Larry Ashburn shares soundcheck experiences.
“The smallest percentage of our business is corporate, like an audio-visual presentation at a convention center or a hotel. But that’s probably where the greater percentage of money is available in this business. The bulk of what we do is concerts and setting up for special events in San Diego.” He and the other two owners are sound guys.
“I’ve never worn earplugs because if it’s that bad, what’s the audience gonna think?” He thinks he’s lost a few ticks off the higher registers of his hearing. Ashburn got his start as a roadie.
“Lucy’s Fur Coat — remember them? They were one of San Diego’s post-Nirvana contributions. There was a wave of bands being signed here. And when those guys got signed, they needed a new drummer that could tour with them. They called me and asked if I knew anybody.” He did. “And then I said, ‘Do you guys need a roadie?’ I told them I had experience and that I knew what I was doing. I totally bluffed my way into the job. I dropped out of college and went to recording school so I could know what I was talking about when I got out here.” They broke up in 1995, but by then Ashburn had set his sights on a more stationary gig.
“I used Lucy’s Fur Coat to meet Tim Mays, the Casbah owner. I told him I could build him a new sound system. Another total bluff. I had never done anything like that before. I read the Mackie Mixer Company instruction manual. It had a diagram in the back that showed you how to wire up your whole sound system. I borrowed $30,000 and I built the system at a loss. When I was finished, I turned it on and everything worked. I couldn’t believe it.” He says he’s invested at least $100,000 into the system in the days since 1996. Ashburn was the Casbah’s sound guy for a year a half. “I basically bought myself a job. But mixing live sound was something completely different.”
How Ashford learned the business: “The recording school I went to offered a live-sound class. The teacher happened to own some gear; it smelled like beer. I drove and schlepped that stuff up flights of stairs for free in order to learn.” He compares the workplace of live music to that of a construction job site. “The vibe and the language.” He says he’s known of a couple of women who mixed live sound, but they were with national acts such as Sonic Youth or the Bangles. He says Audio Design had a female intern for a while. “The younger guys kept trying to get her number.”
Ashford thinks a tour sound guy working for a national act such as U2, for example, may earn as much as $20,000 per month. “Most sound guys are part-time. It’s seasonal work. In the winters, there aren’t as many shows.” He describes the job as being able to produce an accurate representation to the audience of the actual sound of the band onstage. “But you could be sitting home for six months, too. It’s a nervous lifestyle. You don’t ever hear about sound guys having huge houses. I turned down touring. The downside of touring is that you don’t go home. You’re on the bus for 14 hours or whatever to get to the next gig.”
What’s a big audio gig on the home front look like? “An Adams Avenue Street Fair? By the time it’s over, you’ve been up 22 straight hours.” Ashford says a local sound guy can earn from $800 to $1500 per week, “for a minimum 10- to 12-hour day.”
How have things changed since the middle 1990s when Ashburn entered the business? “The first Casbah only had a 500-watt sound system. Lucy’s Fur Coat played through that, and so did Nirvana and all those bands. And that was fine for everybody that came through there. Now, it’s 6000 watts because the bands demand more. The industry is going digital and wireless. You have to be more than a sound guy if you want to stay busy and not go crazy. Sure, you could get stuck in a club. You could really dig yourself a hole. For me, it’s about wearing many hats. Understanding staging and lighting. I can build a stage, lights, I can bid on jobs. I can walk a client through a project. Just doing sound could be reckless.”