Worst Audio Experiences
In response to Andy Stewart’s editorial in Issue 39, readers have written in to remember the times they’d most like to forget. So without further ado…
One mistake I will never forget occurred when I was 18 years old. On the strength of a demo tape I was given the keys to (what was then) one of Brisbane’s biggest and flashest recording studios, to dabble in after hours. “Go ahead and fiddle around”, they said. “Learn as much as you can”. Wow! What an opportunity.
So one night, I went in to fire up the studio, but unfortunately, my ‘firing up’ became a more literal event than I’d hoped. When I laced my tape up on the Studer, pressed play, and pushed up the faders on the console, nothing happened. No sound at all. The big, expensive console was on… “Hmm, must be the amp.” I mused. So I turned around to the racks and saw a couple of amp-like things with nothing but on/off buttons on the front panel. “Ah… easy,” I thought. I pushed the ‘On’ button on both boxes – still no sound. So I pushed them again… repeatedly, in fact, and at high speed. Probably on about the 20th button push, I heard a pop, then a sizzle. When I turned around to investigate where the strange noise had come from, to my horror I saw smoke rising from the fader slots of the console! As it turned out I’d been ‘pumping’ the console’s power supplies – not a good idea. After promising God that I’d devote the rest of my life to the poor if he’d only turn back time (and being unsuccessful – He must have known I wouldn’t really do it), I called the owner of the studio and told him that smoke was belching out of the console. His reply was “F**k!”, then he paused. It was an awkward silence. “You didn’t do anything weird did you?”, he asked in desperation. I replied in my best honest voice… “Um, no.”
Dex (real name withheld!)
I was doing a mix for a local up-and-coming band in a venue whose owners were absolutely paranoid about even the merest hint of feedback! The gig was going fine and starting to cook, and we’d been sneaking the levels up to boiling point, when the idiot behind the controls (that’s me!) touched the wrong button on the feedback destroyer, causing it to reset itself. I can still hear the shrieks now – or is that my tinnitus?! And, of course, the only way to get some semblance of sound control back was to let the bloody thing squeal away until it re-learnt the problem frequencies in the room! Moral of the story? Don’t fiddle!
Also, years ago at the Darwin Amphitheatre, I was pulling faces and gesticulating to a mate, trying to indicate how terrible I thought my mate’s band (The 50 Gummed Papers) was sounding. Little did I know that I was being observed by the FOH engineer who was looking down at me from the sound booth. Next thing I hear is: (Engineer) “Hey kid! You know this band?” (Me) “Well, yeah!” (Engineer) “Get up here and mix them then!” (Me) “Okay!” A few moments later I’m sharing the sound booth with a (strangely familiar looking) dark-haired gentleman who directed me to the controls of a Jands 32-channel desk, saying “See what you can do…”, only to realise that the Top End Sounds’ 20 Concord bins, and the complete lack of subs, was gonna sound pretty ordinary no matter what I did. Fool! At least I caught the moment when Colin, the lead guitarist, screamed into his microphonic guitar pickups as an effect at the end of the set – there’s a lot to be said for knowing a band’s songs. The Engineer turned out to be Howard Page… [Only one of the world’s foremost live sound engineers for those not in the know.]
John V Cougar
Channel V Crossing
My worst experience was a very painful moment I had working in live television. I work for Foxtel as an audio assistant, mostly for Channel V. I’m an overly keen type of guy, always telling my boss that I could easily handle being an Audio Director: I mean come on, I’ve done the courses, I’ve used digital desks, I understand how the whole broadcast system works. Anyway, I got my chance – an initiation of sorts. My boss calls me through my comm’s: “Get up here and do these next few links, I have to sort something…” This is it, my moment of glory, my first time behind the desk. “All you’ve got is Host RF mics and the clips to deal with, maybe a phoner if I take a while… good luck!” adds my director.
Sweet. I can deal with this – just watch my levels and ride the live television roller coaster. All is going well when Andrew G and James Matherson start talking; nice sound, really want to touch the EQ but probably shouldn’t. Then ‘zap’, in an instant Andrew is mouthing words and nothing’s coming out. Oh shit. It’s almost surreal… time slows to a standstill when live TV is going wrong. The whole control room spins around to me in unison: “Where’s the f**kin‘ audio gone, where’s the real director?” Oh crap. I scream down comm’s, “where’s the boom? Grab the boom, we’ve lost Andrew!” Oh crap. Where’s the fader for the boom? There it is. What? Crap. What sub-group is it assigned to? Sweat… large beads of sweat. I look up, they’ve thrown to a clip. I blew it. My boss comes up: “What happened, mate? Actually, I think it was my fault. I was changing RF on another receiver, it must have gone through Andrew’s channel and cancelled his out. Did you find the boom?”. “Yeah”, I said “sort of”.
To this day I reckon he did it on purpose to test me and stress me out… it worked on both counts.
The worst mistake I made in the studio was the day I accidentally erased a vocal track. Back in 1998 I ran a small studio and one of my clients at the time was an ill-fated twosome I’ll call ‘The Duo’. They came in to record the main vocal track. Unbeknown to me at the time, the ‘Professional Singer’ had had her tonsils out a few days before. What she was doing trying to record vocals that day I will never know. The vocal track took only five minutes to record and before I could stop the multitrack, she started coughing quite heavily, slammed the headphones down on the microphone stand, mumbled something about having to go home and left the studio with the other member of ‘The Duo’.
Sometime later I accidentally erased the vocal track (which was unusable anyway). Two days later when they came back to listen to the recording I explained I had accidentally erased the take. At that moment all hell broke loose and I was threatened with a lawsuit and that would see me lose the whole studio.
I tried my best to make amends and but in the end we parted company – it had been, frankly, one big hassle from start to finish. I nearly lost the studio for the equivalent of about five bucks in studio time and since then I’ve learnt to be more careful about backing up data.
In 1985, I was the system engineer for a rather large (45-foot) and reasonably new mobile truck back home in the US. On this infamous night, myself and the rest of the team were recording Sheila E live (who was supporting Prince). We were all set up and ready to go, and after the soundcheck, I did one final alignment on both MTR90 tape machines, disarmed all tracks and went to dinner.
Okay, so now it’s five minutes to show time. David Tickle is in the ‘big chair’. The stereo mix is getting to the video truck. Sheila’s stage manager informs us that she’s making her way to the stage. David says, “roll to record”, I hold down the red record button and push ‘play’. Sheila hits the stage. The band fires up and is (inevitably) louder than during soundcheck so all hands are tweakin’ the inputs. Halfway into the first song, things begin to settle down. I back out of the business end of the truck and settle into my keep-my-eyes-on-everything-and-everybody position. Then I glanced at the MTR90: “Oh shiiiiiiiit!” The little red lights under the VU meters were not on! I had to reach over Tickle to get to the remote to throw the arming switches! Doh! Boy was I the goat that day.
Let’s see… with well over 40 years of f**k ups in the studio, the one that still haunts me is the day I was rushing around the studio on a ‘mission’ to deal with some major problem (in hindsight, it probably wasn’t much) when… scrunch, I stomped on the neck of John Sebastian’s vintage Gibson Les Paul guitar. My life flashed before my eyes as I saw my career coming to an abrupt and painful end! I was sure that life, as I knew it, was over! Although the guitar probably shouldn’t have been lying on the floor (we were in the middle of a tracking session), it was my job to be vigilant in the studio. From then on I became known as ‘Snowshoes’ and the name has stuck with me ever since. These days I’m very, very careful where I put my big feet in a studio. I should add that, as always, John was the perfect gentleman about the incident and has since remained a friend for several decades.
John ‘Snowshoes’ Haeny
The following may not necessarily qualify as a ‘worst audio engineering experience’ but it sure as hell put the wind up everyone in my old band including the roadies and our sound guy. It was the early ‘80s in western Sydney. I was in a four-piece outfit and we’d just gone through the laborious process of replacing our worn out bass player with a new one. Mick had rehearsed with us for a couple of weeks and we figured we were ready to hit the road with him. He wasn’t so sure – he was a sweet guy, with an attitude, but he was also deeply spiritual and a little superstitious.
The night of his first gig was in front of a big crowd at Penrith Leagues and we were all optimistic. Except for Mick. Just before the first set he came up to me in the green room and told me he had a bad feeling. I laughed, told him everything was cool and on we went.
First set, third song: Mick’s second string snapped. Fourth song: two of my guitar strings went. No worries, we finished the set and left the stage to let the roadies restring. Mick by now was certain his premonitions were coming to pass.
Second set: my guitar amp blew up. Fortunately I was also DI’d to the desk but I was pissed off.
Third set: our keyboardist’s Yamaha grand slid off its stand – we avoided a near disaster, but the crowd was having fun.
Fourth set: the main desk packed it in and the drummer split his snare head.
We finished up and went for a drink at the bar while the crew packed up. Over a few beers Mick spilled his guts claiming responsibility for being a Jonah for the band. We gathered around him and gently admonished him for being such an old woman, or words to that effect.
I offered to drive our truck back to my place so I could do some work on the guitars the next day. So at 3am Shane (our drummer) and I piled into the truck and hit the Great Western Highway. Halfway back to Parramatta, Shane suggested we stop at a service station. I complied and, after pulling into a nice clean servo, we parked the truck at the pumps intending to refuel after picking up a snack. As we entered the shop, Shane’s wife Wendy glanced back at the truck and let out the most mind-shredding shriek I’ve ever heard. I turned around, and there by the bowsers was our truck belching flames and smoke. Shane and I didn’t say a word to each other, we just bolted to the truck grabbing fire extinguishers as we ran.
Three minutes later the fire was out and Shane and I, the truck and most of the driveway were covered in foam. We stood panting nervously while the servo’s manager strolled towards us. “Good job lads”, he said making us feel a little better about the fiasco. “That’ll be 40 bucks for extinguisher refills”!
Our truck was undriveable, so we called for a tow. At 4.30am we were heading home, sitting in the tow truck’s cabin discussing whether Mick was really a pariah. Shane was a great bloke – a bit of a philosopher with strong arms and a terrific sense of humour. “It couldn’t possibly be Mick”, Shane said. “It’s just an unfortunate convergence of circumstances… and poor truck maintenance.” Shane laughed and said that if Mick was really that bad surely some additional catastrophe would happen before the end of the night.
As we pulled up outside my place the tow truck driver said out loud that “some poor bastard” had “copped it”. We followed his gaze across the road to where Shane and Wendy had parked their car earlier that night. It was a write off. The full length of the right hand side of the car had been demolished after a hit-and-run driver had ploughed into it during our absence.
Mick lasted another four months with us before he left to join a monastery, leaving us to find yet another replacement bass player. I lasted another 12 months before I got married and the band staggered on for another year or so. But even now, my ears always prick up when someone tells me that they have a “funny feeling”.
Anyone for a Cuppa?
A few years ago, I had a ‘near-death’ experience at my modest home studio that I lovingly call Cup of Tea Music. For years I have threatened my band mates, their girlfriends, clients, my wife and even my own kids with certain retribution, should anyone place their respective drinks – be they beers, wine, coke, bourbon etc – anywhere near my Roland VS 1680 recorder or the other gear stacked up in racks or on amp heads etc.
Because of this I’ve been repeatedly called an “anally retentive twit” and “totally paranoid.” But regardless, I have always diligently warded off any potential liquid stuff near my gear because I’ve worked too bloody hard to have my modest setup ruined by some slobbering singer tipping a Coopers ‘overboard’. Funny how things haunt you though… became my own worst nightmare eventually came true, and the culprit? Me.
You see I was going for a really ‘important and quick’ fader move one day during a recording session, and as I swung my right hand from table to fader I managed to clip a drink that some idiot had left near the mixer. Alas, to my shock and horror it was my said drink, a cup of tea in fact.
I can still see it so clearly, and in super-slow motion; the tea lifted out of the cup like an evil serpent water spout, and performed a perfect 12-inch swan dive through the air, across and onto the mixing console, landing ‘splat’ into faders six through 11 on the Roland 1680 (which was playing back a touching, quiet moment of one of my clients’ songs at the time).
F**k?! and far out. The screen died, I ‘died’ and for a time the room and the universe stood still; the delicate song ground to a rapid halt… and all went quiet. Despite my shock I quickly reacted and managed to turn off the power, and instinctively picked up the whole VS1680, tipped the whole thing upside down like King Kong and drained out the evil liquid serpent!
“Ian you bloody idiot!”, I said to myself.
I said a prayer and began babbling and chanting mantras – you know the ones that you use for spillage into any recording equipment – a rapid fire assortment of Aussie slang, Hindu chants and hippie gibberish. It went something like this…
“Holy shite did you see that? What the *&%#… come on baby, don’t do this to me… I promise to never say those things about your pre’s again… shite… where’s the vacuum cleaner… where’s the lifejacket… did I pay for the insurance on this thing? Come on baby, don’t die on me now.”
All mantras were babbled in the space of five seconds (or was that five lifetimes?) and coincided with the traditional dance which involved shaking the VS1680 like a giant Cabassa while held on a 45-degree angle, thus releasing (draining) the said ‘spirits’ – in this case, the tea.
After a certain amount of exorcism and 15 minutes later, I held my breath and gingerly turned the VS1680 back on… and amazingly it all fired up.
“WWWhhhhooo! That’s my Roland Baby! Whew!… There is a God!
And better still, I continued on with the session, with the newly acquired understanding of a true professional!