By Ben Stowe, “Sound & Lighting Guru”
This past week I was mixing sound for a nationally touring act at a fairgrounds grandstand. After supervising the load-in and setting of the arrays I set about tuning the rig and putting settings into the mixing board. I’ve found that little things like the way I soft-patch the inputs into an order and typing names or descriptions (ie: Stage left guitar) into the board so it appears with the channel information is very helpful, especially when mixing an act you are not very familiar with.
The mixing board looks like something you might use to launch a space shuttle, and it draws a fair amount of attention from audio and gear lovers. They seem to sense its presence and start materializing seemingly from everywhere. I recall being one of those people, a starry eyed teen who wanted to ogle every piece of gear I could. I also remember some of the interactions I had with the people responsible for that gear. Most of them weren’t especially pleasant. They either shooed me away as though my eyes would somehow damage the gear, or pretended as though I was not there despite repeated attempts to ask questions about the gear. Being mindful of these interactions, I try to be pleasant and patient now that I’m the guy standing over the board.
To say that a fair draws a wide variety of people is a bit of an understatement. I encountered all walks of life during the few hours before sound check. One young woman stopped by to gush about a song that happened to just be in my “passing the time” playlist. It was her jam. Another teenage boy came over to talk about mixing boards. He introduced himself and said he ran a 24 channel digital board at his church. Then he asked how many channels my board has. “96”, I replied. “96?!”, He repeated while drawing in his breath. “Wow. That’s cool”. “Yeah, and it has 35 busses” I replied with a grin. I was enjoying our geeky bond. Shortly into the conversation I learned that my company had sold his church the board he used. He was very excited to learn that we had this connection, and returned a half hour later with another teenage boy to show off the board. The conversation was essentially repeated verbatim.
I’m pretty used to those types of conversations. There is no shortage of people who use pro audio equipment, and I think nearly all of us have a passion for it. I enjoy meeting others that have that passion and just talking a little geek. Plus, it helps pass the time.
It was the next conversation I had that left me somewhat stunned and reflecting on life a bit. I noticed a couple scoping out the mix area from the grandstands behind me. When they saw me notice them they turned to walk away, as though embarrassed that they had been caught looking. I called out to them, “How y’all doing?” “Oh, fine” they replied. “Are you interested in sound?” I asked. “Yeah, I do some karaoke” the man replied. “Well, come on down here and talk a bit” I said. They obliged, walking around the grandstand and down to where I was. We exchanged handshakes and names.
We chatted a bit, and I followed his eyes has he took in the board. I told them I thought it was cool that they did karaoke and asked them what songs they liked to sing. After a while I told them I had to get back to putting in some basic EQ settings and other dynamics in preparation for sound check, but they were welcome to stick around while I did.
A short time into that process the man said to me, “You have to be able to read to use that board”. I laughed and replied, “Yeah, it’s hard to find sound guys that can read”. I thought he was joking. He matter-of-factly replied, “I can’t read”. I was stunned. I stared at him for a second, not really sure what to say next. “I only have a 3rd grade education” he said. I asked him if he had thought about taking classes, and he said that he tried some here and there. I fumbled together some encouraging words and wished him well. As they prepared to move on to the mecca of funnel cakes and cheese curds they smiled warmly and thanked me for letting them hang out. I smiled back, and then turned back to my board. I now saw the board in a different way… it suddenly seemed huge… the whole world seemed huge. I tried to imagine what life is like when you can’t read.
A short time later the band arrived, we did sound-check. Then the crowd started filling in. Soon, there were thousands of screaming fans ready to get their faces rocked off and the band delivered. As we got underway I went about the task of managing the various parts of a mix, deftly flipping through layers and screens to make adjustments as the night went on. The board again seemed small… a simple tool that does what I command of it.
However, after load-out I had time to reflect again as I watched the lines on the highway twist away in an endless fashion. My mind went back to the couple. The woman didn’t really say anything except her name, but my impression is that she was pretty much in the same boat he was. I tried to comprehend their plight. I still can’t comprehend the bravery they must employ to simply get up and leave the house every day. I recalled the time I was working in Tokyo. We didn’t venture too far into the city during our time off because we couldn’t read the signs and were afraid of getting lost. We thought of it as an adventure, but stayed within our comfort zone. That was only a few weeks, not a lifetime. It’s tough to imagine the impact being illiterate would have on your ability to be employed, maintain a household, or most of the other things we take for granted.
Since this encounter, I’ve decided that nothing can be taken for granted. I started thinking about the abundance of gifts and blessings I have in my life. It’s easy to forget them and to focus on the challenges we face. It’s also easy to forget how much harder those challenges would be if it were not for those blessings. Last night my young son asked if he could stay up a little bit later to read. My wife dutifully mothered him by saying, “No, it’s past your bedtime. Go to bed”. I quietly leaned over towards her and said, “Please let him read. I’ll explain why in a minute”. She agreed and informed him of the reversal of her decision. I walked by his room, and quietly watched him read for a moment. He didn’t notice because he was so engrossed in the book. I then walked back to my bedroom and told my wife of the encounter I had at this show. She smiled understandingly. I started thinking of all the things I was thankful for. Many were things I just always thought you were supposed to have, but now I understood they were blessings. As my eyes grew heavy and began to close, my list included a random couple that had walked by my soundboard to help me understand how blessed I was.
Everything in our life is a gift and a blessing. Use them to bless others.