A Sound Man – An Interview with John Chiara

The role of the sound engineer is overlooked during live performances, with attention given to the musicians performing on stage and the product of the lightning designer’s illumination. Having good sound is an important component to the live music experience in tandem with these two, and a factor that can ruin a show experience without the proper attention or sound engineer behind the board. Local sound engineer John Chiara from Albany Audio sat down with and provided insight into the local Albany music scene, hinted at what it would take for a potential new venue in the Albany area, and the challenges that are presented in running a sound business.

Pete Mason: Growing up in Upstate New York, what was the first music that piqued your interest?

John Chiara: I grew up in Amsterdam. I used to see bands like 805, Dove, and lots of Western NY show type bands so I developed a liking for high production acts even in the club scene.

PM: How did you first get into running sound?

JC: My first band had one microphone. I became the singer and the sound engineer at our first rehearsal! We purchased a solid state Bogen 3 input mixer/amp and 2 4 x 12″ column speakers with Paisley grill cloth.

PM: Over the past decade in particular, how have you seen the music scene in the Capital District rise and fall and rise again? Is it rising again?

JC: The scene has not been great since the late ’80’s. Most kinds of original music are not very actively supported by fans in the local bar scene. A few genres have ‘survived’. The hardcore bands pretty much support themselves, meaning that most band members actively attend other shows and can produce enough revenue to keep bands working, even though the actual audience makes up a very small percentage of the club going public. The Jam scene is really the only one that functions somewhat normally, meaning there is a structure that a local band can get into that allows them to profess from local to regional, and hopefully beyond.

Music mainly happens in restaurants so it usually is not the top priority for owners. Therefore they seek out less expensive and less risky options. Local party bands dominate for those reasons. Seeking out original music is not that popular so original bands, which are necessary for any real music ‘scene’ to exist, are not encouraged or rewarded and become a tough sell. I believe that a locally subsidized venue is necessary to revitalize the local music business. I have been working on this but right now the process is stalled until 2015.

PM: What issues does the Capital District face in trying to open up new music venues? Will we ever see a venue akin to the former Revolution Hall?

JC: The overhead of a for-profit music venue is pretty much overwhelming unless an investor gets involved for the sake of the music, understanding that it will take many years to establish a reliable reputation and clientele. Club Helsinki in Hudson is a good example. While not exactly a rock venue, the fact that they spent literally millions on the building, which may never be recouped, and host national acts show what’s needed to be competitive.

Revolution Hall was a unique situation, with me taking all that risk and while a great place to see shows could not generate enough profit to survive on its own, at the end it was actually at a place that I believe could have turned profitable, but ownership changes pretty much destroyed that possibility.

PM: In what way are sound guys a critical component to putting on a full live music experience, in a way that might not be obvious to fans?

JC: In my opinion, the ‘sound guys’ should be the most important and valued component of a live show as they are in direct control, hopefully, of what gets presented to the audience. Their first job is hospitality to the performers and making them feel comfortable so they can put on the best show possible. After that, they are supposed to then ‘perform’ themselves and contribute to the ‘magic’ of the performance.

A little aside here: this is what I see lacking in most performances, both local and national. I can’t count how many shows I attend and walk away thinking “Wow, the lights and video were really together and well done and the audio was, meh.” It’s a different skill set. The lighting and video can all bed pre-programmed to look and move in predetermined ways, but lived audio cannot, so the mixer must ‘perform’ as well. Most bodies behind the mixing boards got there because they were loyal employees that showed up on time and worked hard, .valuable traits but has nothing to do with having the knowledge and skills to mix music. Kinda like rewarding the busboy for 5 years of service by making him the  Head Chef! I offer classes and private sessions to teach these skills at all levels.

PM: What bands that he has seen grow from the local scene into having the greatest potential?

JC: Phantogram, Eastbound Jesus, Sean Rowe, The Chronicles. I am sure there are others. Success is mostly determined by a good plan, ability and willingness to work endlessly, travel, work with good managers, booking agents and promoters, and being flexible enough to adapt to changing possibilities.

PM: How did your sound business develop over time and what venues do you most enjoy running sound at?

JC: My sound business grew into Revolution Hall out of necessity. I have worked for other companies on and off over the years. I started a portable sound company a few years back and quickly found the local market. The musician side of the market was completely saturated and because of that no one was charging enough for actual sound gigs to generate enough to make it a profitable business. Most companies also do online sales, installations and other self contained projects that subsidize the actual live show work. While this makes sense financially for the business it is also a contributing factor to the overall, in my opinion, low quality presentations at local live shows.

I was not successful because my skills, making the music sound great, did not fit into that type of business plan, as crazy as that sounds. My explanation for this is a form of ‘trickle down’ skill sets. If the company owner is not an expert at certain skills, he probably will not value them as highly as someone who is.  I am often asked what I think about live shows I attend. I explain my visualization of the situations like this. For me, it is like The Terminator, where there is a little checklist that comes up in my left eye and things get checked off as being good or bad. I can identify, in order of importance, what changes will make the most impact of the result. This overview comes from doing nearly 5000 shows and pretty much seeing it all and understanding what works and what doesn’t. I assume a chef eating at a new restaurant does the same thing. He tasters the dish and immediately rifles through all that ingredients in his mind and evaluates what needs to change. The hard part is when the cook in the kitchen only knows about using salt and pepper and the concept of a cupboard full of spices is lost. My experience tells me that even the use of salt and pepper is enhanced by knowledge of the other spices.

PM: What makes running sound for shows a rewarding experience?

JC: Having the performers and audience members enjoying a great experience. I have had some great shows lately that were greatly appreciated by all involved and resulted in others requesting training from me. Usually this comes from less experienced techs who actually realize the value of advanced knowledge. Their perspective is enhanced by the fact that they are not worried about job security so they can be honestly curious and willing to learn. I am lucky to do a wide variety of different kind of acts, and I believe that getting a gig doing sound for popular local cover bands, while overall financially viable and predictable, is a great recipe for stagnation, with no real pressure to improve your skill set and get progressively better at the job; kind of the ‘cubicle’ job of music mixing! Revolution Hall was great because I got to mix all kinds of stuff in and environment that I had control over. I could eliminate variables and concentrate on the music and performance. Most gigs are predominately making sure the gear gets set up, works, and that nothing breaks! Not exactly a creative environment!

PM: What are your favorite places to go for shows?

JC: I like the big theater at Proctors. I mixed a show there in August and it is a really good theater setup.

PM: What influences had the greatest impact in your understanding of sound and sound mixing?

JC: My main knowledge source is studio work. I read all the time but without the studio to actually practice what I learn, I would not be as comfortable and willing to take chances in a live setting. I try things live because I know from studio mixing what results should occur from certain actions. Most mixers who don’t practice their skills in a setting where they can check results will never push themselves. It really amazes me that the musicians all learn their instruments, practice their instruments, rehearse with the band, work on arrangements and parts, etc… and the person mixing the show, the person with direct control over how the performance is presented to the audience, usually never moves a fader except during a show! It really doesn’t make sense, but that is the norm. I think people think that the ability to comprehend a complex process, examine and judge all their variables of a live show, interpret how to put all these variables together into a coherent mix, in what is usually an inhospitable environment, is something that is just going to ‘come’ to them magically! I have NEVER seen an example of this! I teach private and group classes for live mixing and offer on site consultations and system service. This is a great starting point for bands running their own sound as well. Just email john@albanyaudio.com!