Creating the ideal mix for Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band’s endless summer sound is central to the wildly successful Margaritaville brand. From concert sound and Buffett’s Sirius Satellite Radio station (which broadcasts the shows) to video mixes for Buffett’s Margaritaville Restaurants and even mixes for game apps, front of house (FOH) engineer Rich Davis juggles it all.
Rich has been involved in the music since he was a teenager—singing, dancing and playing saxophone with Up With People—before making the switch to the mixing console. After college, Rich had a marketing job at Principal Financial Group for nearly a month. He immediately realized he wasn’t cut out for office work, though and made a beeline back into music. Since then, he’s worked with dozens of artists, ranging from Melissa Etheridge, Jackson Brown and Kenny Loggins to Tupac Shakur, Doc Severinsen, Prince and No Doubt. However, his primary focus has been working on live sound for Jimmy Buffett and, when time allows, Brian Wilson.
Between tour dates, during his busy summer schedule, I recently had the pleasure of talking with Rich and learning about his crucial role in Buffett’s good-time party culture.
[MM] How is life in Margaritaville?
[Rich] I’m in shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops nearly all the time and, for the concertgoers, it’s a fun fest. There’s always a huge party with bars in the parking lot before the show. People show up ahead of time in RVs, trailers and golf carts dressed up with fins or Caribbean-style decorations. It’s doctors, lawyers and businessmen who, for one day out of the year, totally cut loose. They want the island life—the drinks and the grilling that Jimmy personifies—and we’re the background entertainment at their party. It’s the Parrothead culture, a Grateful Dead kind of following.
[MM] Considering Jimmy’s devoted following, the fans must have a lot of expectations for the show. What is that like?
[Rich] They come into the venue, and it becomes a giant karaoke sing-along. They know every word of every song. Jimmy has recorded a lot of albums, but people mainly know him for his older material. They want to hear all their favorites and get upset if we don’t include “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” “Fins,” “Margaritaville,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Pirate Looks at Forty” and a handful of others.
[MM] How does your mix help make the party?
[Rich] The biggest challenge is that people really want to hear all of Jimmy’s shtick, the little comments he makes during the set. Jimmy will sing a song and, in the middle of a guitar solo, get on his mic sideways and start talking. Those are the things people like to hear and, unfortunately, in some of these large arenas, Jimmy is not always that good with his mic technique. He likes to turn to and talk to his musical director/keyboardist Mike Utley, guitarist Mac McAnally or someone else in the band and forgets that everyone wants to be in on his little jokes. He’s an entertainer as much as a musician, and that shtick is a big part of it.
[MM] How do you manage his impromptu shtick in the mix?
[Rich] Generally, my finger never leaves the vocal fader. Whether Jimmy’s yelling into the mic or two feet away trying to make a comment, it’s in constant motion.
[MM] What about the audience’s singing? How do you find a balance between their voices and the band?
[Rich] Everyone screams when Jimmy comes on stage and the show starts. That’s my gauge of how loud the audience is going to be. So, I know from the first downbeat, when he walks out on stage, how loud I’ve got to be. If their screams are louder than the PA, I know I better turn it up.
With our crowd, the adults sit in the more expensive seats while a lot of the kids who have grown up on Jimmy’s music are out on the lawn instead, talking to each other at the top of their lungs the entire night. The lawn sound systems are owned by the venues, so whatever speakers they have up there, you just have to deal with it. Ours is one of the few shows that usually has the lawn system going at full tilt, because it’s so loud out there. Most bands don’t pack the lawns like we do.
[MM] Do you send out two separate mixes to the venue and the lawn?
[Rich] It’s the same mix, but on the lawn, there’s a front load box, not a line array, so the coverage is different, and it’s EQ’d differently.
[MM] Does Jimmy’s set list tend to change during the show?
[Rich] Every night! Jimmy wears a mic that goes to everyone in the band, and he has a remote switch in front of his mic stand he uses to turn it on. When he changes a song in the middle of the set, he steps on it to let everyone know and then turns it back off. Then the monitor tech calls me on the intercom, and I’m immediately on my console, searching for a snapshot for the song.
[MM] You’ve been with Jimmy for more than 20 years—how have the audiences’ tastes and expectations changed through the decades?
[Rich] Because we’re in this MP3 era, and everyone walks around with their iPhones and earbuds listening to music—and expressly with people paying $130–$200 for a ticket—they expect the show to sound as good as the record. If they can’t hear Jimmy or his shtick, they complain. People want it to be perfect.
[MM] And 20 years ago it wasn’t like that?
[Rich] It’s a huge difference. Twenty years ago, we were still using a front loaded speaker box. In some of the arenas, it’s 350 feet to the back and, with a lot of those old speakers, the high end would start dropping off at around 150 feet. Audiences didn’t expect a great mix all over the venue. Now they do.
[MM] What about your current rig; how does it enable you to achieve that coverage?
[Rich] Well, fortunately for me, unlike a lot of bands who don’t want to pay for an adequate number of speakers and try to get by with the bare minimum in the arenas, I carry 76 JBL VTX 25 top boxes and 24 subwoofers. I think that the more you have up there, the better the coverage you’re able to put into a venue.
We use the Crown I-Tech 120000HD amps with them. I was talking to Brian Pickowitz from HARMAN recently and told him that I couldn’t think of the last time I had to swap out an amplifier. They have them working great, the software works great, no issues at all, which is nice.
[MM] Considering the audience’s expectation for great sound, do you try and emulate Jimmy’s studio albums?
[Rich] Actually, I try to make the shows sound like his live albums. The band doesn’t really play the songs the way they do in the studio. Where Jimmy may have used an electric guitar in the studio, he may play an acoustic live or vice versa. He has a number of live albums, so I try to emulate those more than the studio albums, unless he’s playing a ballad. With ballad songs, I can try to emulate the studio recordings.
[MM] Do you record a lot of the shows?
[Rich] Every night I record a two-track, which is just a left-right mix from my soundboard, and I also record 64 tracks into Pro Tools, in case they want to make an album at some point. Also, every show is broadcast on Sirius Satellite Radio on the Margaritaville channel, so I send them a mix. It’s the same left-right mix, but we add in audience mics, so it sounds live. That way, when the crowd is screaming, you actually hear them instead of the dry board mix.
I also have two separate mixes going to our video people. They want a dry mix and an audience mix, but they want a different level of audience than the Sirius people want. And, we shoot every night, too. There’s stuff that gets released, and they play concert footage at all of Jimmy’s Margaritaville Restaurants. A few weeks ago, I got a call looking for song stems for an app that the band is going to be part of—kind of like Rock Band, which we also did. Altogether, I probably have eight different mixes going out at every show.
[MM] In recent years, you’ve also spent a fair amount of time with Brian Wilson as his FOH engineer. How different is it to work with him than Jimmy?
[Rich] I love Brian’s work and going from Jimmy’s show to his is like going from a bar scene with everyone screaming and drunk to a listening crowd. At a Brian Wilson show, people want to hear the harmonies and all the subtleties, and that’s really fun for me. I did the Pet Sounds and Smile tours, and it’s amazing, because there are so many little details, different parts that people are playing. Making sure the audience can hear all of it is a wonderful challenge. It does seem like all the bands that want to hire me have a lot of players. Jimmy has 11 and Brian has like 13 or 14.
[MM] Different FOH engineers have different styles of working, how would you describe yours?
[Rich] I’m not one of the guys you see standing behind the board talking to people, that’s not what it’s about. You plan your whole day to do the best possible job and, when the first beat comes down, hopefully the butterflies are going in your stomach and it’s, let’s go! I’m in the zone then, concentrating on what I’m doing, so I can put my best effort forward without distractions. Mixing the show is always what it’s all about.
Many thanks to Rich for sharing his insights on working with Jimmy Buffett and Brian Wilson! Are you a front of house engineer? How do different kinds of audiences impact how you manage the mix? Share your experience in the comments