Brendan Hines is one of those audio professionals who simply loves being on the road. From serving as the front of house tech and systems engineer on a recent nine-week Prophets of Rage tour to his work with Pharrell Williams to having spent years on the road with country music superstar Brad Paisley, Brendan cherishes the opportunity to travel and work with all kinds of artists, while ensuring that everything sounds just right at every show.
I recently had an opportunity to catch up with Brendan to find out how he manages two key roles on major tours, what his typical workday is like and explore his observations of live sound technology trends. With the soft southern cadence of his adopted home in Memphis, I was surprised to learn Brendan is actually a Boston native.
[MM] You often work as both the front of house [FOH] tech and systems engineer on a tour. Can you describe the function of each role and how they impact one another?
[Brendan] Sure. While the two positions are definitely connected, their overall responsibilities are quite different. As a front of house tech, your main concerns are the front of house position and anything to do with audio that happens from the front of the stage for the audience. The main focus is the console, mixing and how the system is tuned.
As a systems engineer, the focus is much broader. You need to be well-rounded and experienced with every aspect of putting on a show. That not only includes front of house stuff and what the audience hears, but how the system flies—how it’s rigged, powered and how you communicate with it. Of course, it also entails doing anything you can to help the guys onstage. As a systems engineer, you’re primarily concerned with audio but also have to keep other departments, like lighting, video and sets, in mind too, especially when it comes to flying gear in the air. That’s a big one.
[MM] It sounds like a lot of responsibility. Can you describe a typical show day on the recent Prophets of Rage tour?
[Brendan] We usually loaded in at 10 a.m. I would come in earlier, though and mark the floor and measure for my rigging points. At 10, the trucks started dumping. We’d get all of our motors and rigging out, so the stage could be rigged and then, about an hour later, the speaker cabinets and amplifiers would begin to roll in. We would position them in the desired locations and start to hook everything up. By about 12:30 or 1 p.m., as long as we’re having a good rigging day, the PA would be flown, trimmed, tested and in the air. Usually, by 2 p.m., everything was time aligned, room EQ’d and ready for line check, tech check and, at 4 p.m., the band’s soundcheck.
[MM] Can you elaborate on the testing process?
[Brendan] Once the system was live and wired, we would fire up the JBL Performance Manager and go through each component of each zone to make sure it was on and working like it was supposed to. From there, again via Performance Manager, we went through and used the components within it to tune the system.
Things like delay and EQ are all done within Performance Manager. System EQ, things like that, little touches and tweaks, are set and then hidden within it. We would then hand over separate control to our guest engineers, who tuned the PA for the opening act. That was our typical process.
[MM] Did you encounter any particular technical challenges on the tour?
[Brendan] Every room on every tour presents its own challenge, that’s for sure. If you realize that when you come in first thing in the day and take your measurements for the L.A.C. [Line Array Calculator], hopefully, you paid attention. When you do it properly, it’s much easier to tune the room; you can’t get it perfect for every show but you get it as good as it can.
It’s really important to know what your PA sounds like, because it doesn’t really change. As long as it’s all up, working and hung correctly, the only thing that changes is the environment you’re in. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do about certain environmental issues. Some problems you can fix, but it doesn’t always work for everybody in the venue. There’s no such thing, I guess you could say, as all good seats in the house, but again, we make the sound as good as it can get.
[MM] What kind of system did you carry on the Prophets of Rage tour?
[Brendan] Prophets of Rage is a really high-energy band, and it was nice to have a big ol’ JBL VTX PA. We tried to keep it as consistent as possible day-to-day by keeping a high box count, so we could maintain that level of energy.
Our main array included 16 VTX V25s. We also had 12 VTX S28 subwoofers and, depending if we were in an amphitheater or an arena, we would fly about another 12 VTX V25s in our auxiliary hang. We also had 24 VTX G28 ground subs with several VerTec 4886s for front fills and six double pairs across the front for fills. They were all powered by Crown I-Tech 1200HD amplifiers; we had 48 a side, a total of 96 CTs1200s on the show.
[MM] It sounds like a very powerful system!
[Brendan] The sound quality was great, with a lot of power behind it. In terms of driving a car, we didn’t have to press our foot to the floor to make it go. We just lightly put our foot on the gas pedal, and it would get up and go. It was a wonderful thing and made it easy to work with every day. If we wanted more power, it was always there. All we had to do was push our foot down. Some days, we had to put the breaks on, but the power was on tap whenever we needed it.
[MM] What keeps you on the road touring year after year?
[Brendan] The best thing about this job is that it’s different every day. You get to work in different places with different challenges. Working with the locals, different people are involved on a daily basis. Sometimes you know a few of the guys, because you’ve worked with them before, and others you become acquainted with. It’s also great to be able to travel without doing it at your own expense. You don’t always get to spend time everywhere you go, but every now and then, you get lucky.
I also really like the pace of working on tours. I’ve had office jobs before, and it was hard for me. My wife says that when I come home from a tour, it takes about three days for me to re-acclimate to living a normal home life instead of being on a bus with 10 other guys or gals. Being on the road is a very different world, and I really enjoy it.
[MM] Are there any technology trends that are having a significant impact on your work?
[Brendan] The most important trend is that you’re expected to keep up with technology as it changes. In the last several years, there have been huge changes in our industry, especially with digital amplifiers, processors integrated into amplifiers and the implementation of networking. Networking has been around for a while, but these days, to do your job, you need to be an IT guy as well as an audio guy. To be successful, you have to keep up with the times; otherwise, you’ll fall behind and become a dinosaur.
Digital technology has changed a lot of things. Line arrays and speaker technology have developed dramatically in the last 10 years. Not that there was anything wrong with the old technology, but efficiencies have transformed a lot of things. Even though the Prophets of Rage PA sounds huge, if you were to try and replicate it with what bands used to carry, you would have to almost double the amount of gear—especially at a distance of 200 to 300 feet. Ten years ago, you couldn’t do it nearly as well as you can now.
Another major change is that there’s more of a visual component that has been introduced to live audio, especially with Performance Manager. You can bring Smaart Live up in the background and see it overlaid with your system. You get used to looking at that kind of information. You make judgments by looking at a screen and interpreting what you’re seeing into what you’re hearing.
Even though I love technology and how it can make things much quicker and better, a lot of people over-glamorize it. Sometimes, you have to get rid of the technology and do what your ears tell you. Technology isn’t always right.
[MM] In your job, is it more crucial to have well-trained ears or the ability to understand the data?
[Brendan] You could have all the data in the world, but the fact is, what we’re doing is subjective. It’s no different than taste or smell. What smells good or tastes good for you may not smell or taste good to me. Audio is the same way. What I like, you may not. You may think the sound is a little harsh, and I might disagree. We can sit there all day, comparing graphs and curves and so on, but when it comes right down to it, sound is very subjective.
Keeping the technical stuff in perspective is really more of a philosophy than anything. It’s how you approach and go about your work. I lean toward the “keep it simple, stupid” style. You have to think about that in troubleshooting all the time. Instead of looking for the most complicated answer to solve the simplest issue, sometimes the easiest answer will solve the most complicated problem.
[MM] How is it, working with a range of front of house engineers? Are their methods and processes very different from one another?
[Brendan] Oh, very. The uniformity is really in the end product. There are a hundred different ways to get there. None of them are wrong; none of them are right, and that’s the really great thing about getting to work with different people. It’s about seeing how they each approach their job. It can be a real eye-opener because, as I said, there are many ways to do the job.
Working with various front of house engineers, you’re exposed to a variety of products and combinations of products. You get to see the pros, cons and differences they make together or singularly. There’s so much variation between different kinds of DSP, consoles and PAs. For instance, working with both VTX V20s and V25s, you gain an understanding of the many ways to approach live sound.
[MM] How did you learn to do your job?
[Brendan] It has been a long road for me. Basically, my background comes from the school of hard knocks, trial and error, and lots of experience. I started out working with a cover band and toured with them for about five years around the United States, doing events from weddings to bar mitzvahs to frat houses. From there, I worked for a small regional sound company, Proshow Systems, here in Memphis and grew with them. I became their operations and shop manager and touring engineer, which is how I gained most of my experience working with medium to large size PAs. I eventually moved to Sound Image and have been with them for six years. One of the great things about Sound Image is that the company is pure audio. They haven’t chopped themselves up into different divisions. They eat, live and breathe audio, and I really enjoy that.
Many thanks to Brendan for sharing his tour audio insights! Are you a systems engineer or front of house tech? Share how you stay up to date with new technologies in the comments.