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.”