Although he is still quite young, Webster Tileston already has a wealth of experience under his belt. For more than 10 years, he has worked as both a studio and live audio engineer. Webster has long been fascinated by methods of sound manipulation and the adaptation of complex studio sounds for live performances. Most recently, he spent a year crisscrossing the U.S. as the front of house (FOH) engineer for country music star Kelsea Ballerini.
By the time Webster was in middle school, he was working FOH at his church in Springfield, Virginia. After high school, he enrolled in the Audio Engineering Technology program at Belmont University in Nashville and devoted himself to the studio process, engineering demos, singles, EPs and albums. By his senior year, however, he returned to his passion for mixing live shows.
During his final semester at Belmont, Webster also interned at Morris Light and Sound in Nashville and, after graduation, was hired by the company. Soon, he was sent out on his first tour, working as an audio tech for Chris Isaak. During the four-month stint, he absorbed everything he could from Isaak’s seasoned crew and fell in love with life on the road. After the tour, Webster worked as an IT and Inventory Manager at Morris Light and Sound, and as a freelance studio and front of house engineer until he joined Kelsea Ballerini’s team.
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Webster while he had a few days off the road.
[MM] How old were you when you first started mixing live sound?
[Webster] I first encountered live sound when I was about 12 years old. One Sunday, the youth pastor at my church said, “We need someone to run sound. Go back there and do it.” I stared at the mixing console and had no idea what I was looking at, but within a month or two, it became my passion. By the time I was 13, I knew I wanted to be an audio engineer for the rest of my life. It was really cool.
[MM] What do you think your pastor saw in you that led him to choose you to do sound?
[Webster] I think he genuinely needed someone to run the board. But also, I was always that kid who would rip things apart to see how they work and then put them back together. I think he felt that I would enjoy it.
[MM] Did he offer you any guidance?
[Webster] Not really. But when I first started, the head audio guy at our church was about 19 and had grown up doing what I was beginning to learn. I remember asking him for advice, and his response was twofold. First, he told me to listen to as much music as I could, analyze it and learn to hear the details. His other advice was to take the time to twist knobs and push faders until something breaks! It cracks me up now, but 12-year-old me was thinking, you’re kidding!
It’s funny, though, whenever I talk to someone who’s starting out, I give them almost the same advice. The best way to improve as a mix engineer, studio or live, is just working at it, doing it over and over, until you really hear what’s happening and changing it each time you do. To get to where you really know how to mix, you first have to fail and break things and mess up. That’s how it goes in this industry.
[MM] What was it is about audio that captured your imagination and drew you in?
[Webster] The fact that I grew up playing drums and was exposed to a lot of music from a young age was a big factor. Some of my fondest memories are of driving with my dad and listening to music in the car. My dad played drums and grew up listening to jazz, but his tastes were extremely eclectic. Jazz morphed into rock, funk and soul artists like the Allman Brothers, Michael Jackson and others. Subconsciously, I probably started noticing the sonic differences between the genres and songs. Whether I knew it or not, I think I was intrigued.
What later drew me in was the ability to manipulate the sound I’m capturing, whether it’s being amplified for tens of thousands of people in an arena or recorded for a CD in a studio. Being able to take sound and make it my own, put my own fingerprint on it, has been very cool and intriguing for me.
[MM] Putting a fingerprint on sound is an interesting image. Can you elaborate?
[Webster] One thing that has always stuck with me is that everyone hears things completely differently. Everyone’s ears are biologically different. It’s like a fingerprint for how you hear. The main task of a recording or front of house engineer is to use their knowledge to determine the auditory middle ground that appeals to everyone. With any artist, my goal is to amplify their unique sonic identity, to help take their musical vision beyond them to reach their key audience and evoke the emotions they want to evoke.
[MM] Is there only one way to capture that sonic identity?
[Webster] Not really. An engineer’s process can be very individual. What sometimes gets missed in front of house and studio engineering is that it is truly an art. A lot of people get hung up on textbooks and what is scientifically true and correct. I’m one of the nerdiest guys in the world, but at the end of the day, I don’t care how you got from point A to point B. If your mix is great, that’s all that matters. If everyone hears differently, and it’s completely subjective, who am I to say someone is doing it wrong?
[MM] What kind of technology helps you amplify an artist’s unique sonic identity?
[Webster] Every piece of gear plays a role in evoking emotion and capturing what you’re trying to capture. I put a lot of time into microphone choice and placement. If you choose the right microphone for what you’re trying to capture and correctly place it, it can save a lot of work achieving the sound you want on the backend.
The really cool thing is that I first started working in live sound on analog. The entire signal chain was that way, from the source until it came out of the loudspeaker. I like that I started there, because I have a dual understanding of what analog was like and how digital has played its role. I love that digital technology has been introduced, because it has made things more efficient and brings a lot of power to the engineer’s fingertips in a smaller package, at a better price. It has unlocked the ability for engineers to have a lot more control in every situation, which I believe leads to more artistry.
[MM] Are you referring to mixing consoles?
[Webster] Yes, with the introduction of digital consoles, you suddenly had so many different tools under one roof, right in front of you. EQ and dynamics on every channel, as well as on-board effects, are included in one really compact package, without needing racks and racks of gear—at least in the live realm.
Early on, engineers who used studio plugins and effects in the live realm intrigued me. As a kid still learning the basics, I was amazed by the ability to use the same thing that was used in recording on the road and recreating the same sonic experience for a live audience.
As someone who has worked in recording studios for a long time, I’ve invested in many different plugins. For three or four years now, I’ve been using Universal Audio plugins almost exclusively. In my opinion, there’s nothing even close to them in terms of sonic quality. When I found out that Soundcraft had partnered with Universal Audio to create the Soundcraft Realtime Rack to run in a live setting, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I don’t know if Kelsea Ballerini’s team used Universal Audio products in the studio, but having something familiar that is sonically superior to anything else in the market was huge and helped me bring new life to her music and to her set!
[MM] Kelsea was your first major front of house client. How did you connect with her?
[Webster] In August 2015, Kelsea was a relatively new artist. None of her songs had really taken off yet. I was having dinner with friends, and one of them had just landed a gig as her electric guitarist. I casually asked him if and when she needed a front of house engineer, if he would put my name in for the job. He didn’t think it would happen for a while, but a week later, Kelsea’s first song went to number one and her management called to say they heard I was interested in front of house.
I joined the tour for two West Coast dates as a trial run. Other than their backline, the tour wasn’t carrying any gear, so they had me mix their monitors and make sure the patch was right for the house console. As the band started playing, I would sprint to the front of house and quickly throw a mix together.
I was really interested in working on the tour, but Kelsea needed someone right away, and I had to give Morris Light and Sound two weeks’ notice before leaving, so the timing didn’t work out. But, in June 2016, her management called again and said they needed someone to join Kelsea on the Rascal Flatts tour in three weeks. I gave my notice and worked with her for just over a year.
Many thanks to Webster for sharing his insights on audio engineering. Are you a live and studio engineer? How do recreate studio sound live? Share your experience in the comments.