PS Indepth

Oh S#*!, Now What? Tales of Dodging Live Sound Catastrophe

This article orginally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Professional Sound magazine.

By Michael Raine

They say that the best lessons are born out of mistakes or difficult situations, and, of course, these can also make for the best stories! But that doesn’t mean these situations are fun in the moment.

So, for both entertainment and education, we reached out to some prominent live sound engineers to find out their best “oh shit” moments – those times when something went terribly, inexplicably wrong. Some of them involve a mistake they’ve been sure never to make again, and others are unavoidable, freak occurrences at the hands of Mother Nature or flying beer cups.

Luckily, with the benefit of time, everyone we spoke with was able to laugh about them now and even take away a good lesson or two.

Jody Perpick

FOH for Bryan Adams

Jody-Perpick

PS: So, what happened?

Jody Perpick: This was many years ago in the analog console days and we were in Barcelona in the big arena there. We were using one of those old Soundcraft Europas, so a pretty big console. We’re probably about halfway through the show and what I thought was a bomb went off right beside me and it felt like a concussion on the side of my head. As soon as it happened, the PA got really loud. Once I got up off my knees, I realized somebody had thrown a great, big hard plastic cup of beer with a lid on it and it hit me on the side of the head. It bounced off my head and onto the console and it must’ve knocked the master fader to the roof.

The system guy, who didn’t get hit, grabbed the master faders and pulled them down. We went, “Holy shit, what was that?” We figured out what it was, I shook the cobwebs out of my head, and carried on. Well, about a minute later we realized that something is going on and we’re starting to lose stuff. Some of the faders aren’t working – there is no audio going through them – and we realized that most of that beer went inside the console, right in the centre section. So, we probably got four or five minutes out of it before it finally just quit.

Well, of course, now we can’t even make an announcement to the audience and I kind of recall that once we got on the Clear-Com to the monitor guy and told him what happened [and the band got off stage], they might have turned the side fills toward the audience and made an announcement. Of course, only part of the audience heard what happened – like, “We have a technical difficulty and the band will come back” – and so the place was getting pretty rowdy.

PS: How did you manage and troubleshoot the situation?

Perpick: Well, we scrambled. Another guy came out from monitor world and there were three of us. We flipped the support act console – I think a Midas – and one guy re-patched everything, one guy had a piece of tape and laid out the faders, and we quickly started doing some pre-EQ. Once we got it all patched, without any effects or dynamics or anything because we didn’t have time for that, I just said, “Let’s just hear the bass drum and main vocal so we know where we’re at.” So, we did that and a guy ran up on stage – boom, boom, boom – “OK, that’s good. Let’s go and get the band back out.” They went on and between two of us, one guy took the drum section and I took vocals and guitars or whatever, and we started EQing and throwing faders up one at a time as we got them and got a mix together. Probably within about a song we were there, good to go, and it was all fine.

PS: What lesson, if any, can you take from such a freak occurrence?

Perpick: Well, it’s probably just to have a bit of a backup plan. Fortunately, we had the support act console sitting out there. … [Bryan doesn’t] have a support act anymore so I don’t know what I’m going to do [laughs]. To be honest, I think now, I’d get a two-mix from monitor world and we’d put that through to PA.

Dave Gardner

Tour Manager & FOH for Arkells

Dave-Gardner

PS: So, what happened?

Dave Gardner: A few years ago, Arkells were headlining night one of the Supercrawl festival, which is set in downtown Hamilton. At that time, we weren’t in the position of carrying audio packages or lighting floor kits.

The day started off relatively smooth with a morning soundcheck on the production consoles and then we had the afternoon off … So, changeover starts and we get the band’s backline all reset and the stage re-patched. I’m about to head to FOH when I look out and see that the festival has no access to get from the stage to the mix position except for walking through a crowd of over 10,000 people on the road. No one had thought to put in your typical walkway trench you find at most festivals. We line checked and everything was where it was supposed to be…

The show started off great, then shit hit the fan. Second song into the night, Max [Kerman, singer] tells the crowd that on the count of four, their heads need to hit the sky. Well they did, and when their feet landed, all of FOH’s power went out for audio and lighting. It took a few seconds to realize that stage power hadn’t been affected and the band continued on thinking that only the lighting was out, not realizing the PA was off. Their in-ears, wedges, and stage volume were obscuring that fact. About 30 seconds later, power came back and the consoles were back to life. It seemed to take a few more long seconds to get lighting control again, but as soon lighting had regained control, everything shut off again.

PS: What did you do?

Gardner: Knowing that the stage wasn’t affected nor the power to the PA, it was quickly figured out that FOH power was the problem. The production staff raced to the power distro where everything was reported to be fine. Then someone decided to mention that FOH power was not a straight run and that there was a connection mid-crowd near the sidewalk. I yelled a few obscenities and sent a local hand to find the connection, wrap it in tape, and then watch the rest of the show from that spot over the connection. So, basically what was happening was the crowd’s jumping disconnected the cable enough to cut power, but also enough to reconnect it.

PS: Was there any lesson you took from the situation?

Gardner: A few lessons: always demand a UPS for consoles, whether the tour is carrying them or they’re locally supplied. A few extra questions can go a long way, such as, “Where is the FOH walkway trench and when is it getting built? What’s your cable path to FOH? Do you have cable mats?” Never assume things are or will be done correctly.

Michael Walsh

Audio engineer at the Stratford Festival

Michael-Walsh

PS: So, what happened?

Michael Walsh: If you’re using a [Digico] SD10 for a musical, you need the SD10T [software] to get what they call the “theatre package.” I’d heard warnings before that the native software and the theatre software don’t really play well together. It’s not to bash Digico, but that was just the word on the street at the time.

We had about 200 cues in the console for A Chorus Line, which 90 per cent of the time, that mostly just reassigns channels to control groups so I have whatever I need for the scene in front of me. I remember earlier in the rehearsal process, I’d changed the label on a control group using the native software and not the theatre software and then had this weird thing where I could never get rid of it again. But I was like, “Whatever, that’s one of those quirks apparently,” and it wasn’t the end of the world at the time.

So, somebody had died mid-season and we were going to have a memorial on the Sunday coming up in the Festival Theatre and a colleague of mine was going to run that event. We’d already done all our checks and stuff and by like 12:30 we’re kind of done and out of the way, so I offered to refresh my colleague on how to use the SD10. So, using the native software as we were both sitting there in the cockpit, I was like, “Look, it’s pretty easy. If this is your podium mic channel, you can just assign it to a control group here.” So, I assigned it to a control group and I unassigned it.

So, we’re doing the show and I’m in the opening scene, and it’s just mostly the band, so nothing had showed up as weird or bad at that point. So, when I got into in the first scene after the big musical number where it’s a whole bunch of people talking, all of a sudden, all this feedback starts to take off. So, I back off, went back a scene to try to suss out what was going on without stopping the show, and realized that a whole bunch of channel mutes came off but they weren’t assigned to their control groups, whichmeans they were just flying straight into the PA.

I started to go, “Whoa, wait a minute, what’s going on?” Now, I thought maybe just the first cue got screwed up or something, so I eased back into that scene just mixing them on faders and avoiding the control groups. While I was mixing that scene, I started looking through the grid that’s in the theatre package and everything was messed up.

PS: What was your initial reaction? Was there a moment of panic?

Walsh: Oh, totally. It was full-on. But what was extra panic-y was that the problem was totally illogical. It would just randomly unassign some programming you already had in the show and every cue was messed up a bit and not in any logical sort of way.

PS: How did you manage or troubleshoot the problem?

Walsh: I basically mixed the whole rest of the show, reprogramming a scene ahead from memory, so when I went into that scene everything was going to work properly so we could get through the show.

PS: Was there any lesson you were able to take from it?

Walsh: I mean, I would never do it again, but what I did in showing this colleague that thing, it’s something I believe you should’ve been able to do. It’s not like I rerecorded a bunch of cues to show him how to do that and potentially messed up the show. If I’d been messing with it that much deeper, I would’ve known enough to recall the show. I’m not stupid.

I sort of felt that it was maybe my fault, but then it wasn’t really. How could you have expected that to happen?

Part of me, too, was a little bit proud. Not proud that I got into the situation, but that I was able to keep calm and deal with it. Not to brag, but a lot of my colleagues, like the sound designer and head of audio for the space, were kind of impressed after I explained the whole story and were like, “I probably would’ve had to stop the show.” I don’t know that it was my best show ever, but I feel like, except for that little bloop at the very top, probably most of the audience didn’t know any better.

Joel Livesey

FOH for Dashboard Confessional, Carly Rae Jepsen, Matthew Good & others

Joel-Livesey

PS: So, what happened?

Joel Livesey: I was doing an outdoor show early in my career with a band that was well established and, as such, my nerves were high and I was eager to do a great job. It had been raining most the day, so we prepared the stage in case water started coming on deck by wrapping our downstage boxes with plastic. Almost immediately when the band walked on stage, the rain turned into a torrential downpour. Three songs in I started to hear buzzing coming from some of the inputs.

PS: What was your initial reaction?

Livesey: My first thought was that the mic splitter must have gotten water in it and that I would start losing all the channels as the show went on. Panic mode engaged.

PS: How did you manage and troubleshoot the problem?

Livesey: I used our comm system to get in touch with the monitor tech and had them start looking over the mic split. While they were working to troubleshoot that, our backline tech informed us that one of the upstage boxes was sitting in a puddle of water. The box in question was upstage and I had assumed safe from any water; in reality, the roof had sprung a leak and water was literally pouring through.

PS: Was there a lesson you took from the incident and how you handled it, either technically or personally?

Livesey: I learned that day to always keep all my stage boxes elevated from the deck and wrapped in plastic when rain is likely. No matter how covered you think you are, there is always a chance of something unexpected happening. Dealing with issues calmly and logically is one of the best skills any live tech can have.

Tom Wood

FOH for Shawn Mendes, Florence and the Machine, Liam Payne & others

Tom-Wood

PS: So, what happened?

Tom Wood: I remember a few years back when I started working with Shawn Mendes and we were on the Jingle Ball Tour. It’s essentially a touring festival with a long list of artists that have a 20- to 30-minute set each. Shawn was nowhere near as big back then, and as a result I was handling PM, FOH, and playback duties. No monitor engineer either. I might as well have ridden around on a unicycle while mixing!

The audio set-up was pretty simple – Shawn, a few different guitars, and some tracks. We were getting into a pretty good rhythm of things leading up to the Madison Square Garden show. Of course, management decided that since MSG was the most critical show of the tour, we should bring out the big guns. This meant updated production, a full band, and a guest. The cherry on top was a 10-minute soundcheck during the day for a show we hadn’t had time to rehearse.

Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden is broadcast live and then recorded for release later in the year. So, due to the incredibly tight nature of the schedule and the added broadcast element, the touring engineers are not allowed to line check for themselves when their artist is up. This duty rests with the local audio team.

When the host announces you, your console gets un-muted in the system and you go live to air, whether you like it or not! With the local crew now finished line check and the seconds ticking down, I could tell something was not right. I wasn’t confident that I was seeing Shawn’s guitar. I believed we had around four minutes to get this figured out, but due to the nature of live television, we got bumped forward and it was go-time.

Now, for anyone that has never had the pleasure of opening a channel that is swimming in bad RF, the noises can range anywhere from aliens landing on Mars all the way up to an arsonist hosting their birthday party in a fireworks factory. Unlucky for me, Shawn’s guitar sounded like the latter. Our guitar tech swung into action with the back-up guitar. As I’m picking up shards of my ears from the floor, I quickly muted the bad guitar and opened up the spare. BANG! This time it’s more like a drunk elephant in a munitions dump.

For anyone troubleshooting this in their heads right now that has realized that both guitar packs were on the same frequency – gold star.

PS: What was your initial reaction?

Wood: Run for cover. Seriously though, I want to be completely transparent about this, I panicked. I truly love what I get to do for a living and in those few seconds, my career flashed before my eyes!

PS: How did you manage or troubleshoot the problem?

Wood: A Clear-Com call to the stage coupled with a quick-thinking local audio tech who had figured out what was going on. He changed the conflicting frequency and our guitar tech got an axe back into the hands of a super-patient Shawn.

PS: Was there a lesson you took from the incident?

Wood: The overriding lesson is that even though the problem got fixed, it wasn’t good enough that it happened to begin with. I went over all of the events from that night again and again and there are several points where the issue could have been caught before we went live. I take any audio issue that happens personally and it doesn’t matter if it falls into the realms of an RF tech or guitar tech. Audio crews work in a way that means we all get an opportunity to check each other’s work before we agree as a team to start a show. If everyone involved agrees that a line check was successful and then something goes wrong, I see that as a team failure. At the moment that things went wrong, I was leading that team.

I could have done better that day and owning up to Shawn and myself was really important. I got up the next day with a tenacity to have a better show that night and then a better show the night after that and so on.

Maxime Brunet

FOH/monitor engineer for Jully Black, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Wolf Parade & others

Maxime-Brunet

PS: So, what happened?

Maxime Brunet: It was my first day working as FOH engineer for a new artist who was on an opening slot on a tour’s first day. We arrived at the venue early and started set-up. The headliner was carrying full production and ended up having issues with pretty much all aspects of their set-up, so our soundcheck time was significantly shortened. The act I was with was carrying an IEM rig, which they had set up during rehearsals. When we powered the units on, the [Midas] M32C wouldn’t connect to the [Behringer] S32 rack. We tried changing AES ports, changing the Cat-5 cable twice – nothing. At this point, time was running out and the venue had a house [Behringer] X32 monitor console, so we loaded the IEM file into their console and had the venue monitor engineer re-gain each channel as we’d changed preamps. I made sure the lead singer’s vocal sounded good, both in his ears and in the house, and while the band played, I dialed in a rough FOH mix, and then we had to get off stage to let the local opener set up.

The band was able to play with their new roughed-in monitor mixes and I kept working on the FOH mix as the band started the set, and the show happened.

PS: What was your initial reaction?

Brunet: “Oh, fuck.” Having issues with a new artist on the first day of tour is not my idea of a good time.

PS: Was there a lesson you took from the incident?

Brunet: Always carry a spare Ethercon cable – yet another thing to add in my Pelican. The show must go on. We should have changed over to house production quicker so we could have had more time to work on their in-ear mixes.

Matt Blakely

Production Manager & FOH Engineer for Billy Talent, Owner of Bear1 Productions

Matt-Blakely

PS: So, what happened?

Matt Blakely: This one goes back to the late ‘90s or early 2000s, but it was pretty epic.

So, I was working as a contractor for Bandworld Productions when that was still a company. We were in Windsor, Ontario, right across from the casino just after it had been built. They were doing a gig in the parking lot across the street from the casino, right on the water. That night, The Guess Who was playing, or at least Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings, and during the day was Teenage Head and couple other of those ‘80s- and ‘90s-style bands.

We had two Soundcraft Series Five analog consoles out at FOH. There was a four-post roofing structure over audio and behind us was a scaffolding structure that had four spotlights on it. Mick Schmidtmeyer was mixing The Guess Who that day and he’d already done his soundcheck and we were onto some opening bands. Then this micro-burst tornado – like a real small, quick tornado – picked up on the waterway and came in. The wind came in really fast – I’d never seen anything like it. The sky turned purple in a matter of minutes and you just started seeing the PA swinging back and forth. Since I was based on the stage, I didn’t really get the scope of how much wind and storm was coming.

I was much younger then, so I’d gotten some tarps and I’m trying to cover up the console and throwing sandbags. As a kid, you’re not worried about yourself; you’re more worried about saving all this friggin’ gear. We had [Meyer] MSL-4s and 700-HP subs for side fills, and I saw them get blown off the stage. They literally went flying. And the old Jason Sound J17 monitors, one of the heaviest wedges ever made in Canada, they were just flying off the deck. So, I looked up and I see no one is left and people have all run away and I am still trying to tarp up the console like an idiot.

So, now I’m standing at FOH and I hear this creaking sound, like metal rubbing together. I turn around and I see the whole lighting structure that’s behind me is about to fall on front of house. I could literally hear creak, creak, creak. So, I dove out the stage-left/house-right side of FOH as the whole lighting tower fell on to the audio consoles. This thing landed with a huge crash and I ended up in a big pile of tarps and the roof skin that was on this thing. I thought I was dead.

Then, of course, as fast as the storm came, it was gone. Two minutes later it was clear and sunny again. It was so crazy.

PS: What happened once the storm passed?

Blakely: So, my buddy and the lighting guy went out to FOH and they all thought I was dead. They pulled the scaffolding and stuff out, and I was just sitting underneath. What had stopped me from getting crushed is that on the back of the old ECM-built cases for the Series Five consoles, they had a reinforced steel doghouse on them. So, when the tower fell over, the pipe and steel landed on the doghouse of one console and landed on the other console on the other side. It folded one of the Series Fives up like a “v”, which was the headliner console, but the other console survived because it landed on the metal frame of the doghouse.

So, now we’re staring at these two consoles. The one that we’d done soundcheck on was wrecked and that was The Guess Who’s. We’d also lost a bunch of side fills and gear on stage was gone. Like, there was a drum kit in the other parking lot. It was just shit everywhere and utter chaos.

Of course, I remember, like every great promoter out there, it was like, ‘Can we save the gig?’ Like, ‘Obviously there is no way we’re putting on a show tonight, right?’ But, we cancelled all the other bands and The Guess Who guys rallied and the guys from the casino lent us some monitors and a monitor console. Then myself and another guy, using an air compressor because obviously rain came with it, too, pulled a bunch of the rails and channel strips out of the broken Series Five and dropped them in the other console that got wet and had some fried channels. So, we took two consoles that were broken and built one console.

We did a light line check again just before the band came on. The people all showed up at the gig and we somehow put on a show.

PS: Is there any lesson to take from such a crazy and unpredictable situation?

Blakely: This was long before all the different stage catastrophes we’ve had in recent years. Like, if you asked me about saving gear [now], I wouldn’t be there one second after that storm came. Times are different, especially with guys who are out there now. No one asked me to do that. I was just young and inexperienced and, obviously, when you’re a young kid getting your shots and you’re out doing these bigger gigs as a tech and whatever else, you couldn’t fathom ever losing a piece of gear on your watch.

END

Michael Raine is the Senior Editor of Professional Sound.

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Michael Raine is the Senior Editor at Professional Sound. He is also a co-host of the popular Canadian Musician Radio weekly podcast.