I recently had the pleasure of talking with Nashville born and bred front of house (FOH) engineer Jon Loeser who, for the last four years, has worked with country music megastars Rascal Flatts. In the band’s 17 years, it has sold more than 10 million concert tickets, 22 million albums and 28 million digital downloads. Five years ago, Rascal Flatts had the honor of being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. For Jon, a self-proclaimed “gearhead” who grew up on punk rock, it has been a great gig with the “most down to earth” group imaginable.
[MM] Growing up in what’s often referred to as Music City U.S.A., was music always your calling?
[Jon] I’ve lived in Nashville all my life and happen to be one of the people who got into music that didn’t have to move here. I grew up as a musician, playing guitar since I was little, then bass through high school. I was the guy who saved his lunch money to buy more guitar amps, stuff like that. Eventually, I became the guy in the band who knew how to work the gear and started doing sound at a little club where we played. After graduating high school, I studied recording at SAE in Nashville. I quickly realized I didn’t want to be in a studio all the time, though, and got back to the clubs and started working on the road.
[MM] How did you find artists to work with?
[Jon] For almost four years, I worked for a little local sound company in Nashville then was hired at Sound Image. My first tour with them was as the monitor tech for Vince Gill. Since then, most of my gigs have been with Sound Image; they’ve been really good to me. It’s a great company, and they’re my family.
[MM] Is that how you wound up working for Rascal Flatts?
[Jon] I started with them in 2012. After many years, their previous FOH engineer left, and I got a call from Everett [Lybolt], president of Sound Image Nashville, who said, “Hey, there’s this gig—they work all the time, and they come home all the time—do you want it?” I said sure! I had worked for Prince during most of 2011, intermittently with Olivia Newton-John for almost three years and toured with Colbie Caillat on and off for about a year, which helped me get the Rascal Flatts gig.
[MM] Were you familiar with the band?
[Jon] Most of what I knew about Rascal Flatts was from other people at Sound Image who had worked with them, so I knew they were a great group of guys. I had heard their songs on the radio but never listened to their records or seen their show. I was familiar with the band, but not in an intimate way by any means. I went in knowing it was a great gig, and that they tend to find people they like and keep them awhile. The guy I replaced had been there seven or eight years. The monitor mixer has been with them since around 2001. As far as the core group, after four years, I’m still one of the new guys.
[MM] It seems like your roots are more in rock and roll than country music.
[Jon] Absolutely. Saying I didn’t care for country music when I was younger is a polite way to put it. I grew up listening to punk rock and really fast music, but I always appreciated the melodic side of it. There’s a lot of melody and harmony in that kind of music that people tend to overlook. It wasn’t until I was older that I got into other types of music and started broadening my horizons. Now I mostly listen to records, and it’s mainly 70s’ music. My tastes have evolved through the years for sure.
[MM] Moving from rock to country, did your mixing approach change?
[Jon] Not that much. With Prince, with the R&B stuff, there was a lot more focus on the drums and other instruments than vocals. But, in country, there’s more of a focus on the vocals. Technique-wise, there may be certain things that are different, but overall it’s the same job—especially with a band like Rascal Flatts, which isn’t a typical twangy country group. Musically, they’re a lot more diverse than most country music. Their songs are a lot more pop and, with some recent changes, there’s a lot more electronic music in the show—loops and electronic drums and all that kind of stuff. They recently introduced a young guy, Casey Brown, who’s a percussionist and keyboard player, but really more of an electronic music producer. Casey remixed some of Rascal Flatts’ biggest hits, and the band now uses those mixes as a basis for the live show. It’s a really stripped down approach, focusing on the vocal arrangements of the three guys [Gary LeVox (lead vocals), Jay DeMarcus (background vocals, bass guitar and keyboards) and Joe Don Rooney (background vocals and electric guitar)]. The backing music is quite different. It sounds big but leaves a lot of space.
Lights, video and special effects change every tour, but it’s really great for the music to change, too. It’s still very recognizable as Rascal Flatts and their songs, but it has made it more interesting for me. When we were in rehearsals at the beginning of this year, I actually started my mix from scratch, because the music was so different than the previous tour.
[MM] You’ve been playing a wide range of amphitheaters, arenas, fairs and festivals this summer. How do you accommodate all of the different sized venues?
[Jon] Our system is split up, so the control package—basically the audio control, the two consoles and all the stuff onstage—goes on one truck with the backline. Another whole other truck just carries our PA system. There are festival and fair dates where we don’t use our PA, so we just bring the consoles and plug into whatever system they have.
Working on a small stage with a PA other than our JBL VTX Series system definitely makes getting our desired mix more of a challenge. Those days are just not as much fun. After a couple recent fair dates, we played Tinley Park in Chicago, where we had our VTX system and plenty of space to hang it, which was great. We had probably one of the best shows we’ve had all year. I always enjoy using the VTX system, because it has a sound I like, that’s familiar to me, especially with the new waveguides—the high-end is so smooth and the high frequency extension is crystal clear. I feel like VTX has more power behind it than any other system I’ve used. There’s so much headroom. Even though my show isn’t very loud, it has a punch that’s really lacking in a lot of other PA systems.
We use Crown I-Tech 12000HD amplifiers, so having that much power and being able to control everything within the amps is really helpful. My system tech, Paul Fuerstenberger, controls the system using JBL’s Performance Manager and does an amazing job of making it sound great, dialing in our sound zone by zone, everything tweaked precisely the way we like it!
Along with Paul, the rest of our Sound Image crew—audio crew chief Jeremy Overall, Brian Westrope and Justin Walker—are key to flying the VTX system and making sure it works perfectly at every gig. They’re a great team that shows up at the venue first thing in the morning and are there until the last speaker is loaded back on the truck at night. I couldn’t do it without them.
[MM] What do you feel is the most compelling part of mixing live sound?
[Jon] In many ways, I’m just a conduit the music goes through to get to the people. But, when the show starts, you fade the music and hit the next snapshot, waiting for that first note—as a guy from Tennessee would say, “It feel real gooood!” It’s exciting to be an important part of something that big and actually control what comes out of the loudspeakers. I love listening to music, and being able to manipulate what I’m hearing is really nice. Besides, I’m just a big gearhead. I like all the gear and playing with expensive toys I don’t have to pay for! It’s a lot of fun!
Many thanks to Jon for sharing his insights on working with Rascal Flatts! Are you a front of house engineer? How do you adapt your mix when moving from a festival or fair PA to your own tour system? Share your experience in the comments.