A-T interview with John Kerns, FOH for Sum 41

We had a chance to talk with John Kerns, front-of-house engineer for Sum 41, at Summer Sonic 2007.

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We had a chance to talk with John Kerns, front-of-house engineer for Sum 41, at Summer Sonic 2007.

Audio-Technica: How did you get into the pro audio industry? Are you a musician?

John Kerns: Same as just about anybody else. Wrong place at the wrong time!!!

Are you a musician?
Yeah, I played in bands originally. Then started doing the studio thing. Then it drove me nuts being in the same room every day listening to the same four lines of vocals for ten hours.

What Audio-Technica microphones are you using?
Bunch of all of them, really. The AE6100 for vocals, and also the AE4100 for vocals. I use an old ATM25 on the kick drum, we use a whole bunch of the new ATM650s. We use the 650ís tons of placesóguitars and snares; might go to toms in the near future. AE3000 on toms, ATM450 on hi hat, ATM650 and AT4047 on cabinets, AT4050s for overheads.

How did you choose the mics?
Went through a few different models when we first came out. We tried and experimented. We never really had a single day of production on this tour. Just show up and do the show. I used A-T with No Doubt, and I also used A-T on a bunch of other tours. Some other acts Iíve worked with recently that are, letís say prealigned with somebody else, Iíve tried to sneak in A-T mics whenever I can.

Why? They have consistency and they sound good. Thatís really what itís all about. When I stick Ďem up there, I know what Iím in for.

And the customer service is second to none. Audio-Technica actually answers phone calls and emails. Thereís a lot of other companies that donít. The reliability is great. In five-plus years, Iíve only had to send one mic back to get fixed. Itís funnyóthe ones that are beat upon work all the time. Iíve only ever had one mic with a problemóa capsule came loose on a 4050; it got dropped.

Thatís ultimately a studio microphone.
Yeah. Well, I had a AT4060 out for a year and a half with No Doubt and never had a problem with it, ever, and thatís a valve mic!

Youíve mixed numerous large acts. Do you have any advice for people getting started in the business?
Work hard, show up in the morning, donít be a white-glove engineeródonít come in thinking all your things are going to be set for you the way you want. Show enough initiative to go in in the morning, talk to the riggers, make sure your PAís in the right place so that you donít have to change it later. Set up your own console, do your own line checks and tune your own PA. Basically, donít rely on anybody else to do your job.

Get your hands dirty.
Thereís a ton a people that show up at 3 oíclock in the afternoon. I donít know how they do it. I couldnít do it. Iíd be nerve-wracked all morning long. So thatís my biggest thingówork hard. And listen donít be afraid to ask questions. Go to as many shows as you can and pick out things you like and things you donít like. And donít pigeonhole yourself into one type of music. Chances are, you wonít last really long in the industry if you pigeonhole yourself into one type of music. A half a dozen guys in that genre will, but other than that, youíre going to come and go.

Any unique challenges in mixing Sum 41?
Itís busy and itís loud. Trying to keep definition between things. Theyíre up there running around and jumping around. It can get fairly busy even though thereís only four of them. Thatís probably the biggest challenge. Deryck sings great. He doesnít have in-ear disease. He actually gives you output when he sings, which helps tremendously. Theyíre all good musicians.

In-ear disease?
Thereís quite the tendency for anybody that goes to in-ear monitors to get really lazy when they sing. It used to be, in the old days when you had wedges, you got to a certain point and it would start ringingóso youíd have to sing if you wanted to hear yourself. You had to actually sing from the diaphragm. You had to actually give output. Where with in-ear monitors, you can just keep getting turned up, turned up, turned up. You can get lazier and lazier until pretty soon youíre whispering. The house engineer, the monitor engineer and the artist really need to talk to each other. Also when you sing softer youíre not actually singing from your diaphragm. The softer you sing the more youíre actually singing from your throat. The tone changes and I find that the softer people sing their pitch is worse also. Thatís just my finding, other people will debate that.

Are there any engineers whose work you especially admire?
Thereís a bunchóand I find new ones all the time. Collin Ellis is very good. Heís currently out with a band called the John Butler Trio. Heís an Australian guy.

What do you like about his mix?
That he somehow within the first four bars of his show has everything the way I would leave it and relaxes for the rest of the show. Whereas it takes me the hour and ten minutes to get to that first four bars that he has.

What makes a good mix?
Itís going to change for every genre of music. Itís going to be a different thing. I canít take Sum 41 and mix it like the worldís biggest pair of NS10ís because itís not going to come off as the show that they want to portray. Itís got to have a little chunk to it I guess you could say. Whereas thereís other shows, pop shows, can come off sounding like a fine pair of NS10s, with really tight bottom, crystal clear, and everything totally separated. Itís going to change for what type of music youíre doing.

I mix a band called the Rogue Traders out of Australia also, theyíre like a dance/pop rock band and I have to mix them totally different than I do this band

Any miking tips to share?
Itís hard to say. Again, itís what youíre trying to do with it. I believe in using big mics on drums. I know a lot of people use your ATM350s, a small diaphragm, but I prefer to put the AE3000s on there. I like a big diaphragm on drums; I think itís more natural.

Other than that, generally close-miking things. Pay attention to where on the guitar speaker youíre actually miking it and try to put it in the same place every day. Consistencyís a lot of it; using the right mic.

The only thing weird that I doóI donít really use my overheads in a conventional way. I put them between the cymbals in a figure-eight pattern so I donít pick up the rest of the drum kit with it, which works out really well for this particular band. I put the stage left one directly over the hi-hat. Itís a weird thingópeople say you canít do that, but it works out pretty well especially when theyíre loudóyou know, he hits his drums really hard.

Thatís a great idea; I know a lot of people do the under-miking technique, but this probably works better.
It works really well, but it sort of works out that thatís where his cymbals lie, also. The stage left one I put directly over the hat mic, which now, since itís the ATM450 side-address, is aimed straight down. The other one sort of sits on top of the ride. Itís a live rock show and the cabinets face backwards, so Iím not trying to get any drum sounds out of the overheads at all.

Whatís your favorite A-T microphone?
Hard to say. Theyíre all good for different things. My newest favorite would be the 650. Everything Iíve put it on itís been great. Itís been fantastic. Iím using it for dirty guitars, clean guitars, snares. It does a lot of things. In my opinion, it sounds a lot better than the other industry standard that it may or may not be modeled after. Much more consistent, and it doesnít have that proximity effect that the other one has. Thatís probably my favorite new find, although I like the 450 also. The side-address is greatóI can get it where I want it.

Any mistakes you hear inexperienced sound people making?
I hate to say volume, because I mix loud shows myself. But a lot of guys get their first start mixing clubs, and usually the horsepower available in clubs in a lot bigger compared to the number of people. Itís a small PA, but for 200 people, itís huge. They are also usually older types of PAs, so youíre used to this square wave, this sort of distortion coming out of the cabinet. Itís not even necessarily real volume, itís more apparent volume. Itís your ear reacting to the square wave.

Once they get out on a newer PA, itís so much cleaner that they donít realize the actual volume that theyíre mixing at. Theyíre still trying to get that same tingle in their ears. Theyíre saying, it doesnít feel loud to me, until you show them a meter and say, look at this.

A lot of it is mistaking apparent volume for actual volume. In Australia we do a lot of festivals and I go out as a system engineer a lot if Iím not on tour. The thing I find most with the younger bands and the younger guys coming in with them, is they just drive everything so hard because they want that same effect that they get in the clubs that they were just mixing in the day before. Thatís a concern. You try to tell them, and then they learn through experience. Theyíve got to go out and learn. I did a lot of stupid things when I started, too.

How do you like working shows in Japan?
Itís great. I wish the rest of the world was like this. Itís incredibly efficient, and no whining. Everybody just does their thing. Japanís a great place. Itís always fun.

What do you like best about your work?
It feels really good when you have a really good show. Itís a pride thing. Iím probably my own harshest critic. Thereís probably only been about three dozen shows that Iíve actually liked in my entire career that Iíve mixed.

Youíre always seeing something wrong?
Yeah. Thereís never a point where I can say, thatís where I want it. Obviously, I love the people. Even just hereóIím seeing people I havenít seen in two and a half years running through in the hallway. I see people all over the world. When I started, I certainly loved the traveling part of it.

How do you feel about it now?
Iíd rather be home with my wife and kids. Travelingís rough. The average year is 200 to 240 days, and Iíve been doing that consistently since about í87 or í88. Before that, it was 100-plus hours a week in the studio for a few years. There was a point in the early Ď90s where I gave up all my places to live. I just put everything in storage. I had like six weeks off in three years. Itís tough. But you find ways to make it easier. Youíve got to semi take care of yourself. Obviously Iím not totally religious about it. But you canít go out and get crazy every night. Youíve got to try and be a little responsible. I try generally to never have a beer till after a show. Try to get decent sleep and quit smoking!