The Soundman Chronicles

Tales of a life pushing faders


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The Soundman Chronicles
Short excerpts of life running sound, including road trips in New England, Beach Blanket Babylon, and Grace Cathedral.

Condessions of a Carry-On Abuser - On the Road with Jesse Colin Young

Soundman Rescued - Grace Cathedral, December 2001

Making the Soundman Cranky - Beach Blanket Babylon, May 2002

Star Struck - Beach Blanket Babylon, August 2002

A Soundman's Easter Story - Grace Cathedral, April 2003

Getting Intimate with Spock's Ear - Grace Cathedral, May 2004

The Prince and the Soundman - Beach Blanket Babylon, November 2005

Threshold Shift and the Screaming Blond - Beach Blanket Babylon, August 2006


A Sound God? Perhpas only in his own mind!

Confessions of a Carry-On Abuser

"Ladies and Gentleman, flight 365 with service to Salt Lake City and Boston will be boarding in just a few moments. At this time, I'd like to invite parents with small children and anyone needing special assistance to please make their way to the gate now."

I hesitated in my seat. "He isn't really going to do this, is he", I thought.

A few minutes before the gate announcement, as Jesse and I waited for our flight from San Francisco to Boston, he had told me that he would limp up to the gate when the pre-board announcement was made, making it appear as if he needed "special assistance". I was to follow behind with "The Beast" slung over my shoulder. Once we were on the plane before everyone else, I'd be able to manhandle The Beast into an overhead bin, without arousing too much suspicion.

Jesse noticed my hesitation and said, with a hint of exasperation, "Let's go! We've got to get in the plane!"

I hated this part.

I'd like to think that I had a good excuse. I was just following orders. But the truth of the matter is, I was just another carry-on abuser.

Here is my story:

I was hired as a tour manager and sound engineer for Jesse Colin Young. He is best known for his sixties anthem, "Get Together", with the Youngbloods. Others may remember his solo hits from the seventies like "Ridgetop" (a personal favorite). He still records and performs, and an evening spent listening to his music is always an enjoyable one for his audience. And many times for the manager/engineer - though not always. But that's another story.

My involvement in his career was much later than all that, in the mid 90's. Jessie was now a solo act - literally. Unless you counted me. The two of us traveled in the Northeast and the Southwest - New England, New York, and Maryland; Southern California and Arizona. These trips, three of them in all, lasted from 5 to 11 days on the road.

Any musical show requires some equipment, unless you're singing a cappella and "unplugged". We carried three guitars, one very large metal suitcase full of equipment, cords, and supplies, a couple of smaller road cases, our own personal luggage... and "The Beast". We checked all of it, except The Beast.

The Beast was a rack of electronics essential to Jesse's sound. Stuff that we didn't rely on the local sound companies to provide. It fit in the overhead bin - barely. The Beast weighed in at around forty or fifty pounds. It was my job to sling it over my shoulder, smile, act like it weighed ten pounds, and then force it into the overhead. The Beast wouldn't make it through today's scrutiny. And a good thing too. Flights are already too crowded with people and their stuff.

But a few years ago we managed to do it, most of the time. Despite the looks we'd get from the flight attendants...

The steely eyed glare of "What do you think your doing bringing The Beast in here?"

I'd look the steely glare in the eye, "What? This lil' ol' thing?"

It didn't always go like that.

We were probably getting a little too cocky when we tried it on a little puddle jumper from Boston to New York. There was no jetway for this smaller plane. As I approached the bottom of the stairway into the plane, the flight attendant standing guard on the tarmac took one look at The Beast and said, "you're not taking that thing up there, you're going to check it."

"Oh, thank you! Thank you!" I thought. It was so nice not to have to lug The Beast up those stairs and try to make it fit yet again. (It never would have anyway, on this small plane.)

I climbed the stairs with the very real feeling of a weight being lifted from my shoulders.

Shortly after I settled happily into my seat near the back of the plane, an attendant approached asking if I would mind moving to a jumper seat in the front of the plane. Apparently there was a concern with the planes' weight and balance.

"I can relate", I thought, "I guess I should loose a few pounds".

I certainly didn't want the plane to flip over backwards during takeoff on my account.

As the plane droned through the gray overcast on its short hop to New York, I watched the thirty or so faces looking back in my general direction. People seemed to avoid my gaze. Even Jesse wouldn't look at me.

I started to doze...
"Ladies and Gentlemen; In front of you right now is Tom. He just attempted to bring The Beast into your cabin. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, Tom is a Carry-On Abuser"

My eyes opened with jerk.

Passive faces reading magazines, looking out the window...

I was dreaming...

Wasn't I?

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Soundman Rescued
DECEMBER 19, 2001

Responding to a distress call sent from a mobile PDA, Special Forces where sent on a search and rescue mission late last night in the remote region of Grace Cathedral known as "The Sound Booth".

The rescuers found a member of the "soundman" tribe holed up in the region during a performance of Handel's "Messiah"... Rescuers indicate that the performance was of the entire piece, played on period instruments, and was into its third hour by the time they reached the soundman.

Scattered about the area, rescuers found an empty water bottle and two crumpled wrappers of what appeared to be Apricot flavored "Cliff Bars"...

A soundman spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced shock and surprise at the discovery of the wrappers... "All I can think of is that, due to the similar color of the wrappers, he thought he had Peanut Butter flavored Cliff Bars... A tragic mistake..."

The spokesman continued..."He's a pro, he has knowledge of this type of music, and has even performed it himself in the past... It must have just been too much... A five-hour rehearsal and a three-plus hour performance... It was just too much..."

When rescuers reached the soundman, he was dazed and suffering from a severe case of "numb-butt"... Disoriented, he seemed unsure of which century he lived in, and mumbled repeatedly, "Pretty green lights... gotta monitor the feed... do we have enough tape?... pretty green lights..."

The soundman is expected to make a full recovery from the numb-butt. It is unclear how long it will take for the psychological scars to fully recede... Neighbors reported hearing him singing the "Hallelujah Chorus" in the shower this morning... Dogs and cats in the neighborhood were seen running for cover.

Nonetheless, it is reported that the soundman will be heading out in just a few short hours for more soundbooths in the region...

Reported by TDS, staff writer for "The Traveler"...

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Making the Soundman Cranky

We understand that it may be difficult to know exactly how to act when attending a zany, fun-filled production like Beach Blanket Babylon. In an effort to make your experience all it can be, while insuring that you do not go over the line and make a complete ass of yourself, we offer the following guidelines:

The announcement at the start of the show that cameras, sketch pads, tape recorders, and cell phones are prohibited does, in fact, apply to you. The cell phone thing is a pet peeve for our soundman. He practices by standing at the end of the active runway at SFO while jets take off and listening for cell phones on board as they roar overhead... He's gotten pretty good at it and if your cell phone goes off during the show, you cannot hide; he will find you.

We understand that there are times when you will find yourself with a two-foot, neon-tinted, plastic penis that lights up in a festive display of flashing color. Sometimes these things just can't be helped... If you do find yourself in such a circumstance, please refrain from displaying it during the show as it makes the performers restless... (and the soundman cranky)

We want you to have a great time at Beach Blanket Babylon, and we love it when you express your delight... However, there are some actions which constitute "going over the line", such as getting to your feet during one of the ballads, screaming something incomprehensible at the top of your lungs and then collapsing in a drunken stupor onto the table of strangers next to you.... This not only makes the soundman cranky, it tends to make the table of strangers that you have just collapsed into cranky as well... Try to avoid such behavior...

A note on alcohol consumption; An easy way to tell if you've probably had enough is if, at the very start of the show, you see two Mr. Peanuts come out on stage. One Mr. Peanut and you're fine to order another beer; two Mr. Peanuts and you should consider a trip to the bathroom and a glass of water... (Please don't ask the soundman where the bathroom is, it makes him cranky.)

Please try to intersperse your blood curdling yelps at appropriate intervals, and to instances where something happens on stage to warrant a blood curdling yelp.... Hearing "Ya' know, Snow..." followed by a blood curdling yelp (only seconds after the last blood curdling yelp) may be distracting, and can be deemed as inappropriate behavior. Please try to avoid this. Yes, you guessed it! This makes the soundman very, very cranky.

And while we're on the subject of making the soundman cranky... (yes, we know, who does this guy think he is?) Well, he insists on being able to hear the show and refuses to put on headphones, listen to the latest Aerosmith CD, and chill for awhile... All this mumbo-jumbo about "mixing" the show... Sounds like a bunch of geeky techno-babble to us too. We've no choice but to placate him, so those of you that end up seated near the soundman are requested to observe the following special guidelines for your own safety.

DO NOT stand just behind the soundman and then whistle or yell as if you were at a Stones concert... This will startle the soundman and is liable to result in injury.

DO NOT try to discuss that cute guy in the mailroom at your office during "Proud Mary" at the top of your lungs... The soundman will consider this a challenge as to who can be louder - you'll lose... And make the soundman cranky. For your talking-at-the-top-of-your-lungs enjoyment, there are several bars in the immediate vicinity that welcomes your voice adding to the festive cacophony of sound. Please visit one of these fine establishments for such activity.

DO NOT sing along... those folks on stage are trained professionals, and pretty darn talented to boot... In fact, that's why you plunked down the bucks for a ticket isn't it? Mitch Miller had a sing-along (don't worry, it was a long time ago) and there are "sing-along Messiahs" at Christmas. Beach Blanket Babylon is neither of those... However, if you insist on singing along, here's a little experiment. Get as near the soundman as you can, start singing along, and then watch him jump up like a jack-in-the-box and run from the booth... It's fun! Unfortunately, he'll come back shortly with a house manager in tow who'll tell you to shut-up and embarrass you in front of your date... (but it just may be worth it to see the soundman jump!)

One last tip; the stage is not a public dance floor. You should stay off the stage, even if you have the urge to really boogie down. Getting on the stage not only makes the soundman cranky, it makes the house manager livid, and is likely to result in a body tackle from the stage manager. Save a life! Stay off the stage.

We hope that these simple guidelines help you know how to act at a public theatrical performance. If you should have any further questions, please do not ask the soundman..

It makes him cranky.

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Star Struck -

I shook Sidney Poitier's hand last night...

That's right, he looked me right in the eye, said "Hello, Tom", and shook my hand. It was a firm handshake; the kind of handshake that means something - mano-a- mano.

Sidney Poitier...

That's right, I'm bragging

Little did I ever imagine, as a young lad in the sixties, going with my family to see "To Sir With Love", that I would one day look him in the eye and nod an awe-struck hello, and revel in a firm handshake from this larger-than-life figure...

Some would accuse me of being "Star Struck".

And to that I say, "Well, DUH!"

There are two extreme faces of celebrity that I have seen in my years spent in provincial show business, with numerous shades of these extremes varied in-between. In honor of being Totally Star-Struck in the aftermath of meeting Sidney Poitier (did I tell you that I shook his hand?) I'd like to discuss the two extreme faces of celebrity that I have had the opportunity to observe in my years tramping around Club Fugazi in San Francisco.

For full disclosure, I base my observations upon the attendance of the "subject celebrity" at a performance of Beach Blanket Babylon. Derived firstly of reports from trusted associates regarding the subject's attitude and displays of general merriment during the performance (since I am delegated to the rear of the house for performances and thus am unable to witness the merry-making, or lack thereof, first hand.) Secondly, I personally scrutinize the subject's behavior while bonding with the cast and crew backstage after the performance. This bonding is mostly with the cast, usually, and the degree to which the subject celebrity notices there is a crew makes an enormous difference in my overall conclusion of awe or awful. I can tell you that the first celebrity that goes backstage and asks, "Where's the soundman? I want to shake his hand!" will have my undying devotion... I'll buy all the albums, I'll go see all the movies, I'll forgive all the tawdry little escapades played out in public. But since this is unlikely to happen, I digress... Unless, of course, oh, let's say the Stones come to town and their soundman comes to the show and comes back to the booth (he'd never be asked backstage; after all) and says "The sound kicked ass dude", or some such appropriate one-sound-god-to-another bonding hype... However, why should I force my wild fantasies upon the reader when I come claiming anecdotal knowledge?

Thus are my two faces of celebrity:

Come backstage thoroughly drunk and corner the star as she's still strapped to the big hat and start to give notes. Be aggressive and finally force the crew to tell your spouse that you have to leave... But that's okay, come back and see us! And when you do, take your seat in Producer's Row. (Probably comped, but who cares, your filthy-stinking-rich anyway and you can afford it even if it isn't) Make sure you show just how much contempt you have for this sorry-ass small-time production by putting your feet up on the table before the show starts. (We'd like to ask why you bothered to come back at all, but well, you know, like... whatever.) Thanks for coming back; we won't bother you with another invitation to come backstage to meet the cast. Oh, and don't let the screen door hit you on the way out... And, ok, I suppose if you really tried hard you could actually act your way out of a paper bag.

Sharon Stone... Whoops! Did I say that?

On the other hand, you could arrive, be calmly and respectfully seated well before the front of house crew takes up position. Then you smile, laugh, and clap and maybe even "raise your arms up to the rafters of Club Fugazi" (though you are a little embarrassed about this, which is entirely appropriate). Next, go backstage and talk of the "talent and gift" of all involved. Considering your own towering gift, talent, and achievement, this statement of our humble little production exemplifies your generosity - You pull it up instead of pull it down. You shake hands with everyone and everyone is having a moment, we'd like to believe you are as well. We'd actually like it if you could stay a little longer but I suppose you really have better things to do...

Thanks for stopping by and showing us what a real class act is like.

I suppose it comes down to that... No class versus class.

It's more than that when you're star struck, I guess. . It's meeting the legend and not being disappointed, but being inspired...

Real class and grace actually do exist!

Have I mentioned yet that I shook Sidney Poitier's hand? I did!

We endure the Sharon Stones of the celebrity world; we delight in Sidney Poitier.

There is, of course, only one Sidney... The likes of Sharon are a dime a dozen. (Unless, of course, you've just hired her to act her way out of a paper bag...)

The two faces of celebrity, as I have known them.

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A Soundman's Easter Story

Let me set the stage (apologies to those who already know how this works).

The Easter Choral Eucharist starts with a procession to the Great Doors at the back of the Cathedral. There the procession stops and all is silent. Then we hear three sharps knocks on the door -




The Great Doors are swung open revealing the Bishop in full regalia and staff. He moves forward to the Baptismal Font steps.

At this point I am ready for my first cue of the service. My instructions for the cue are to "not worry about over-micing this; it is a moment that should sound big!"

When you say something like this to a soundman, you'll oftentimes see a slight smile spread across their face, a slight swell in their breathing, an increased excitement to their countenance.

After all, it's what we do.

"You want it Big? I can give you Big!"

So back to our story:

The Bishop steps up to the Baptismal Font and exclaims: "Christ has risen!"

I can just imagine the Bishop and the Soundman both thinking, as the Bishop approaches the steps, just one word - BIG.

I didn't have an SPL meter handy, but my estimation would be a peak of around 100dB.

Rock and rollers among us would perhaps say, "Dude, I eat 100dB for breakfast!" To which I would reply (in a slightly elevated voice), "Yeah, man, and you're deaf as well".

Let me just say that 100dB is loud, and when a short burst of such level rings through the granite magnificence of Grace Cathedral, only dying away after many seconds, it is an awesome thing indeed!

Near me I heard a man utter under his breath "Jesus Christ!" as the force of the proclamation hit him.

I can see it now, the triumvirate - The Bishop, God, and the Soundman - winning lives for Jesus!

Or at least scaring the hell out them.

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Getting Intimate With Spock's Ear
May 2004

My career took a new trajectory today. Now, before everyone's imagination runs awry, please allow me to explain.

This morning marked the end of another season of Sunday morning forums at Grace Cathedral.

Knowing several weeks ago that this forum's guest would be Leonard Nimoy, and being in charge of the sound engineer schedule, I saw to it that I would be the engineer on duty for Mr. Spo... er.. Mr. Nimoy.
He was attending with the curator of a museum that is currently producing an exhibit called "How Artists See God". Mr. Nimoy is a very accomplished fine art photographer and his work is on display in the exhibit and was on display for us attending the forum - his theme being images of the feminine side of God that came from his upbringing in an orthodox Jewish community.

It started in the usual way for me, the guests and Alan Jones, the moderator came over to me and I helped them with their microphones, which attach over the ear with a tiny boom extending down along their cheek. It went something like this.

"Hello Mr. - (don't say Spock you idiot!) - Nimoy, this is your microphone and will attach to whichever ear is most comfortable"

Leonard (we can call him Leonard now since I am about to get intimate with his ear) offers me his left ear and I go about my business of putting the mic on him.

He stands patiently as I fumble with his ear and says, smiling; "Now, no ear jokes"

I respond, "It never even occurred to me", smiling back. In my mind I am thinking, "probably a good thing I didn't show up in my Star Trek tunic and ask him to autograph my Starship Enterprise blueprints.".

Mixed sound for the Rolling Stones? That's nice.
Chief house mixer for Carnegie Hall? Great.

I've attached a microphone to Mr. Spock's ear.

Live Long and Prosper...


PS - For the record; I do not own a Star Trek tunic. I do however, have the blueprints for the Starship Enterprise.

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The Prince and the Soundman
November 2005

I almost feel sorry for the Prince. It strikes me that he may be an introvert deep down (not really that deep down actually) – being a card-carrying introvert myself, I think I can recognize one when I see one.

In any case, the level of media attention that descends upon any place that is visited by Prince Charles on Tour is something quite remarkable. An experience I recommend just to enjoy the surreal nature of it all. Once.

Across the street from the club there was a grandstand constructed to contain the 250 or so press. Satellite trucks where everywhere. The street was secured.

By the time I arrived back from dinner on Sunday night, it was a “hard closure” (up from the “soft closure” for most of the day). I had my badge and my picture id (I was told about 465 times last week to make sure I always had a picture id with me. Duh…)

So at the first line of defense the guard has my wallet and is studying my id, and studying me, and then back to the id. He then asked what my zip code is.

Zip code? What’s that?

Fortunately, the brain fart lasted only a moment and I said the first thing that came to mind. Happily, it was, in fact, my zip code, so I was allowed to pass to the next level of security. By the third guy I had my id out and just said “I’m the sound engineer” and the guy just smiled and said, “I believe you, you’re fine – but thanks!”

I smiled sheepishly and moved on. I guess by they time, if I wasn’t who I said I was, I’d be dead.

The building had been completely secured down to the two snipers on the roof.

Can you imagine what life must be like when just coming to see Beach Blanket Babylon requires such effort? I shudder to think…

In any case, I did not personally meet him, but upon his entrance, which was prefaced by the constant pulsing blue flash from the hundreds of cameras firing from across the street, he walked within feet of me on his way to the royal table. I remember thinking that he looked like he did when I say him on “60 Minutes” last week – he looked like himself.

Apparently I think dumb thoughts in the presence of royalty.

The whole theater stood and stared at him as he moved uneasily to his seat.

That was as close as I got to him. It was out of our hands who he’d meet. After the show he went briefly backstage. Then a select group of performers went out to the lit stage and the press was allowed in. General handshaking and picture-taking ensued.

Only four technicians were allowed to meet the prince, and certainly it would not include the front-of-house crew. We had been told the night before that we were to remain in our booths until told we could leave, which actually makes sense considering we had operational control of the sound and lighting systems in the building. A little disappointing I admit, but completely understandable.

Soon it was all over.

There goes Charles getting in his limo (as I watched on the 11 O’clock news later that night - I was still sitting in my booth listening chatting on headset at the time) when he is asked how he liked the performance. “Great fun!” He says as he waves unenthusiastically to the assembled press multitude, gets in his limo, and is off.

And with it the bright white-hot gaze of the world media.

There was some residual hoopla as reporters interviewed cast members to ask what it was like to meet Charles and Camilla, but as quickly as it all came (for real anyway, and not the manic anticipation of the previous week) it was gone.


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Threshold Shift and the Screaming Blond
August 2006

I feel I must start this with a disclaimer: I have nothing against blondes as a subgroup of the human species. I understand the stereotype blondes engender – vapid, empty, self-absorbed, etc., and it just isn’t fair - usually.

I’ve known many blondes – and I’d like to offer a special “hello” to the blondes to which I have the honor of reading the soundman chronicles – you are all intelligent, attractive, warm and caring.

But, alas, ‘tis not always so.

As the principal soundman for the whacky and popular Beach Blanket Babylon, I have occasion of using my sense of hearing to effect what I hope is a pleasurable aural experience for patrons of our humble little production.

To that end, I am required to use what is generally known as “critical listening skills” in an effort to combine the various vibratory sources between 20 and 20,000 cycles per second present during a performance into a pleasing mixture of sound. There are many fancy and cool tools to assist me in this task, and I could not do my job without the help of these tools.

I am reminded of the time I was in upstate New York with Jesse Colin Young. It was a stormy Saturday night – no really, it was. Rain and wind whipped the trees outside the little club Jesse was to perform in that evening. About 20 minutes into his first set, we lost power. I sat there critically listening, entirely useless, as Jesse continued acoustically.

But I digress.

The point is that, even though my job requires a basic set of tools to accomplish, the principal tool I have is, of course, my hearing.

Huh? What’s that you say? (an old soundman joke, you’ve probably all heard it before… get it? heard it before… a pun on an old joke…)

Don’t worry - we’re getting to the part about the blond.

“Temporary Threshold Shift” is a phenomenon that we have all experienced. More pronounced examples are after coming home from a very loud rock concert and looking quizzically at a friend as he silently mouths words as if he is actually talking. The fact is, he is actually talking and you, dear rocker, have temporarily brought on mild deafness in your mad desire to rock on.

Fortunately, it is temporary, at least for awhile, and your hearing returns to normal, your friends start actually speaking the words once again. It is nature’s way of protecting your hearing so that you may rock another day. (Incidentally, it isn’t just rock musicians that have had issues with hearing loss. Try sitting in the middle of the brass section during a Wagner Opera… Huh? What’s that you say?)

Really, the part about the blond is just around the corner.

Being an experienced critical listener, as I claim to be, I am very familiar with my own personal patterns of temporary threshold shift, and count on it as I carry on my duties at Beach Blanket Babylon. Our average time-weighted SPL (sound pressure level) for the ninety minute performance is about 86 or 87 dBa, with transient peaks of over 100 dB. It’s loud, but not quite rock concert loud.

My hearing adjusts for the amplified level of the show material and I base my sound judgments – don’t you just love all these puns? – on my temporarily shifted hearing.

The biggest threat to my delicately balanced threshold shift is – you guessed it – screaming blonds.

More to the point, screaming blondes sitting at the table right next to the sound booth.

Even more to the point, screaming blondes sitting next to the sound booth that scream like a banshee at random intervals during the show, moved to said banshee-like screaming by some alcohol-fueled internal trigger, and not any apparent external action – such as the show up there on the stage.

This isn’t a loud guffaw at some hilarious joke, or the excited whoop of experiencing the exceptional talent on stage. No, this is the high-pitched Eiyeeee!!!! of someone that has just stepped into the path of a grizzly bear, or some other form of unexpected and imminent death.

By the end of the night last night, this may not have been that far from the truth: death by enraged soundman.

But no, I am a mild-mannered sort, so I endured. Of course, with each scream, the threshold shift in my left ear increased, altering my finely balanced hearing, making it more difficult to critically listen and accomplish the task at hand.

But I am a trained professional. I can take it.

However, there may come a time when the odd sight of a bearded, gray-haired man chasing a blond out of club Fugazi comes to pass.

It isn’t what it may look like. It’s just the soundman whose threshold has been shifted just a little too far.


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