The Emotions of Live Sound: An Interview with Pooch Van Druten (Part 1 of 2)

I recently had the great pleasure to speak with Ken “Pooch” Van Druten, live sound engineer for Linkin Park. As a sound guy myself, I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with Pooch about some of his experiences. In the first of what will be a two-part blog set, I am sharing Pooch’s thoughts on why he loves live sound. Pooch has done both recording and live sound in his career, and he shared with me some of his thoughts on how they differ, and the opportunity he has to evoke emotions with live sound.

[SKD]: You’ve had the opportunity to run live sound for some of the biggest acts in the world. What’s that like? And how do you help the audience engage in the experience and really evoke emotions in people?

[POOCH]: There is no other feeling in the world like being part of an event where 50,000 people are screaming for something you are doing and reacting to something you do. It’s the reason that I’m a live sound guy. I started as a recording engineer and worked in the record industry in the late 80s and early 90s, and then found live sound. And the reason I love live sound is the dynamics that we can do.

There is a great thing that you can do with dynamics as a live sound engineer. One of my favorite things to do with Linkin Park, for instance, is to draw the audience in to a really low volume level, like 90 dBa weighted, and then immediately hit them with an impact of a chorus or an 808 kick drum that hits them at 102 dBa. You can watch the entire crowd, and it’s like a wave that washes over the entire crowd. The dynamics that we get to do as live sound engineers is what I love, because it causes emotions to happen with people.

[SKD]: So is that different from recording? I know you’ve done both, so how does what you do compare to what they do on records, regarding dynamics, etc.?

[POOCH]: Unfortunately, people that do records these days, they don’t get to mix dynamics anymore. It’s whatever is the loudest possible without clipping. It’s that way regardless if it’s a low section of music or a high-impact section of music. People are using expanders and compressors to make things just be a solid volume, and so as a live sound guy, I think that’s one of the greatest things that we get to do is to create dynamics and cause emotions with dynamics.

[SKD]: I think it’s really interesting how people’s tastes and expectations have changed. For recorded music, people do seem to prefer uniform—if over-compressed—sound these days, which has certainly affected the way recording engineers mix. What about live sound? Have there been changes over the years that have affected what you do?

[POOCH]: I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and 25 years ago, we were all high-fiving when you can hear the vocals. Now, a live sound mix is a record-quality mix with impact. The tools we have, like JBL speakers, that allow people to be able to hear the nuances and hear all of the parts of a vocal and hear all the parts of a record-quality mix, even if you are sitting in the nosebleed seat of an arena, you get that now. You didn’t get that before, and that’s simply due to improvements in technology. Technology has really raised the bar in regards to emotion, because now you can hear all the nuances of a mix no matter where you are sitting in an arena.

My job as a mixer has completely come full circle for me, because I was a recording engineer/producer before, and now I’m really a recording engineer/producer for live sound 25 years later.

[SKD]: So what you’re saying is that you are trying to recreate the essence of the mix of the album that people are used to hearing, but in a way that maximizes the benefits of a live sound environment?

[POOCH]: That’s exactly what I try to achieve these days. All of these bands have spent years with the songs. Years before I came into the picture as their engineer, they were writing these songs, they were working on these songs, they spent days and months and hours in the studio perfecting how it should sound. Who am I to say that it should be any different?

When I work with a band, I study their stuff intensely. I obviously buy their record and learn their stuff, but I also believe that, as a live sound engineer, it is also part of my job to have impact. People come to rock shows because they want to feel the kick drum. They want to feel the bass guitar. They want to have a little bit of the guitar melt their face off. All of those things are where I can take a little bit of liberty to what the band has done as far as the record. It’s really a record-quality mix with impact.

I absolutely love that description. “A record-quality mix with impact.” It’s a really high bar to aim for, but undoubtedly creates a visceral experience for the audience.

I’ll admit, it was so cool to talk with Pooch, and he had so many great things to say. There is a whole second half to this interview as well. Stay tuned to HARMAN Professional Solutions Insights for the other part, where Pooch talks about why he became a live sound engineer in the first place.

What are your thoughts on the differences between live sound and recording? Let us know in the comments.

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UPDATE: Read Part 2 of the Interview!

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3 comments

  1. Dennis Craven

    I have become a read fan of Pooch for his real world thoughts of mixing. As mentioned in the above article, mixing @ 90A give the mixing artist ‘a place to go’ to make an impact, then it really means something. I reciently attended a FF concert in KC. In contrast, I counted the minutes till I could get the hell out of there. My SPL meter on my iPhone was tapped out at 116a sustained. I felt incarcerated, trapped, and like a fool for not bringing plugs. But aside from that, there were little dynamics, just loud. You’ve got to have a range of volumes to connect to the ebb and flow of the writers intent.

    • Completely agree with you! If you are just assailed at a sustained high volume, your ears get tired, they ring, and then you don’t hear or appreciate anything. That’s the opposite of what you are trying to do as a live sound engineer.

  2. Pingback: Great Sound for All and Why I Do Live Sound: An Interview with Pooch Van Druten (Part 2 of 2) | HARMAN Professional Solutions Insights