It just has to sound good – That’s all.
Story and photography by George Fuller
Central Square Records, Seaside, Florida – A few lucky ones have come early enough to nab a
wooden folding chair near the tiny stage. Maybe 20 or so. A respectable number of others, 100
maybe, are standing behind and all around them, on top of them if such were possible, crammed
into every nook and every cranny. Mashed against bins of retro vinyl. Cozying up to stacks of new
releases. And to each other, oddly with no outward signs of annoyance. In the midst of all this –
imagine two asparagus dead center in a bunch held tightly by a rubber band – are soundman Wade
Wellborn and me.
Wade has to come to amplify (it’s so much more than that as I’ll learn) 13 acts who’ve come to the 30A Songwriters Festival and were lucky enough to be chosen to play in this venue coveted for its – well, nobody can quite explain attraction but over the course of three days I come to believe this place is blessed simply with damn good juju. I’ve come for another reason: to have a peek at this man behind the curtain, this wide-respected wizard of sound reinforcement, operating the gizmos that allow the music each act is making bloom into all parts of the room and fill every ear with song exactly as each act would have it heard. I’ve come to sit beside the soundman and find out how does it.
Don’t just plop the speakers down anywhere. It’s the first day. No one is here yet for his performance. Just a few people sifting through the bins. Wade tells me the soundman’s first assignment is speaker placement. He explains: “You’re trying to cover the area where people will be. Every room has acoustic properties.” Good or bad. “You’re trying to work with the room and its properties. Set your speakers so they can work with or overcome the acoustic properties of the room.” With our stage at one end of a long and narrow room, this is first of many tall orders I observe. It’s a record store, not a concert hall. “It’s all compromise,” Wade continues. “I try to let the room be the room. Some soundmen want to impress people (the band especially) with what they know. The good ones want to get out of the way.”
Set the level in the middle. It’s all compromise. When Wade mentions that setting the sound level – not too high and not too low – is critical, this sounds to me like something a neophyte would understand. But Wade holds that many is the neophyte who will not work as hard as one should work to achieve this (read, take the easy way out) because they have gizmos called equalizers, limiters, noise gates, and compressors at the ready. “But all these bells and whistles are cool but ultimately they add noise.” And to the pro, even faint distortion that only he might hear is unacceptable. We all know about sound checks right? Even if you haven’t been on hand for one, you know they exist. And you understand their e, you know they exist. And you understand their importance. The band comes in, plays full out,and the soundman sets the levels. Well, there area couple of funny things about that. First, soundchecks typically are done before anybody arrives. “You can get close to the right level but honestly when the room fills with people, it affects the sound so you have to adjust. You just cannot get it right unless people are in the room.” This is not a problem for us. In this venue, the performances overlap. As one band or singer is moving off the stage, another is moving on. Wade has literally only a few minutes to strike on setup – microphones for vocals and whatever instruments the band is bringing— dash back to his station at the mixing board, and,as the act begins playing, begin twisting knobs and moving faders to set his levels. This is truly sound on the fly. And I can tell you it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen.
What? The band gets its own mix? I don’t want to sound like a complete idiot, but chancing it I ask Wade, “How important are the monitors?” These are the speakers that are pointed at the band and not the audience. To his credit, Wade does not roll his eyes. He patiently explains that the wrong mix of instruments and vocals pouring from these speakers can destroy a performance and conversely the right mix can propel a performance. A good soundman tweaks every instrument and microphone until each and every band member is smiling and thinking, “I have never sounded so good.” I’m watching Wade intently now as he, over the course of this 45-second sound check song, focuses on one band member at a time, communicating with them in whatever way that works – shouts over the din, thumbs up or down, grimaces, smiles. Wade wants to add one thing. He turns to me and shoots me a laser look to make sure I’m listening. He wants to make sure I understand that the big enemy here is feedback. In the monitors, in the main speakers, if you screw up even one aspect of mixing, you get feedback. I think we’ve all been on the receiving end of that and can attest to its vindictiveness. Apologies to Jimi Hendrix.
Could this be nature’s Bluetooth? As I watch Wade work while Grayson Capps and Corky Hughes are doing their sound check, I notice Wade is kind of staring into the air as much as he’s looking at his mixing board. In that moment, everything makes sense to me. The ultimate test of any sound design is the ear. The soundman wants to hear what the band and the people in the audience will hear. Maybe what we have here is nature’s Bluetooth. Every ear picking up the signal wirelessly. This signal that Wade is manipulating. Pretending his sweet ear is every man’s. I think I have it now. Our seasoned and self-effacing soundman could be blind. Who needs eyes when all you need is ears. In fact, all you need eyes for is to locate the knobs and sliders. Once there, your ears take over. Grayson and Corky are in the middle of their set and they are on fire. No, make that spewing music with Mount St. Helens-like ferocity. It’s as if they’ve chosen the eruption option for their hour here in Central Square Records. I lean over to Wade, he pulls out one of his ear plugs, and I say, “They seem happy with the sound.” He looks at me and smiles a smile of utter contentment.