Recently we spent some time with Steve Vai's front-of-house engineer, Damon Gold, for a close-up look at the challenges he encounters on the job, and at the making of Vai’s extraordinary sound.
The image of Steve Vai on the Audio-Technica home page was taken by Larry DiMarzio and is the property of Larry DeMarzio.
The photo of Damon Gold is the property of Steve Vai.
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While many musicians fit easily into a single category, Steve Vai's unique musical vision remains unclassifiable. After more than 20 years, Vai continues to use unbridled guitar virtuosity and soulful artistry to explore the spectrum of human emotion. Recently we spent some time with his front-of-house engineer, Damon Gold, for a close-up look at the challenges he encounters on the job, and at the making of Vai’s extraordinary sound.
How did you get involved in the pro audio industry?
Damon Gold: I started out a bass player, and being the only one in the band who did not drink or do drugs, I had the money to buy a PA. When the band went into the studio to record, I asked a lot of questions and gained a lot of knowledge about gain structure and EQ from some really awesome engineers. Later, when national bands needed support, I was asked if I would rent my PA to them. I ended up making loads more than I did just playing, and another PA rental company was born.
Did you play in a band originally or start off as a mixer?
I had gone to a school that was very arts-oriented, and have played an instrument of one variety or another since I was 6 years old.
What are the unique challenges in mixing Steve Vai?
Well, right from the get go we have three distorted guitars and a distorted bass (Billy Sheehan) which all want to live in the same place in the mix, and while I could just make Steve loud and out front, the audience is there to see (and hear) the other musicians too. Tony MacAlpine, Billy Sheehan, Dave Weiner and Jeremy Colson have fans come to see them as well so all the instruments MUST BE HEARD CLEARLY for the whole 2.5 hour show—and mind you, we take up some real estate too: we use 44 inputs, not counting effects returns.
What’s your favorite A-T mic? Why?
I love the AE3000. It is a true Swiss army knife of mics. It sounds great on toms, overheads, acoustic guitars, electric guitars—I have even used it on a harp. On Steve Vai we used them on the top snare and as room mics for the recording as well.
Any unusual uses of A-T mics?
I do use my AT841 on kick drums now and again. If you want to hear it in action you can listen to THE BOOGIE MONSTERS / live from yo mamas kitchen and JEFF MARTINS / the fool.
Do you like to have all the latest toys, or do you prefer to stick with the tried and true?
I do have my quiver of mics that I know work, but the way technology advances, I enjoy trying anything new because sometimes you find that one little oddity that is just IT.
Are there any particular pieces of gear that you feel are indispensable to your sound (i.e.: certain mic(s), particular reverb unit, comp unit, etc)?
I don’t like to think I have a “sound.” Every band’s sound is different, and I like to think I am an instrument that, working with the band, allows them to convey their music to the audience the way they want to be heard. (I hope that does not sound too esoteric.) So being familiar with my mics (gear) and knowing how they (it) will sound in any given situation makes set up and the show a lot easier.
Are there any engineers you especially look up to?
I learn a lot from whoever I work with, Tom Fletcher, Steve McCale, Gert Sanners, Frank Farrel, Brant Biles, Jim Gamble, Forrest Green, Jon Dunleavey, Doug Nightwine—the list goes on. There is so much knowledge out there to be learned and shared with everyone you work with. Never be embarrassed to ask a question because you think it is beneath you. The only bad question is the one you don’t ask.
Do you have any miking tips or tricks to share?
Recently I have been miking overheads from a single point and trying to get as little snare through them as possible. The stage left overhead covers the ride side of the kit and the stage right overhead covers the hat side. I have found this keeps the phasing a bit more under control and brings more intelligibility to the drums.
How do you maintain the health of your ears?
What did you say? No, really—I try to keep the shows at a reasonable level, (103 +/- dba) depending on how much sound is coming off stage. I have to mix these shows for months on end and if my ears go….
It can be a real challenge. I was out with Yngwie Malmsteen last spring and his guitar alone was 110 to 119db A weighted at the desk.
What would you say is the biggest challenge in your work?
I would have to say keeping the sound consistent. Every venue is different and one night you can mix the greatest show in an awful venue with ancient gear and the next night have you dream PA and the room can kill you. Even with all the technology, consistency is still not nearly 100%
Do you try to make the live performance sound live or recreate the studio feel?
For me the great thing about seeing a live show is that it is not the album. I do my best to make the show as intelligible as possible, but I like the live—right here right now—feel of a concert.
Do the live-sound engineers and studio engineers typically communicate about achieving a certain sound or do you get to do your own thing?
I have never had a conversation with any studio engineers who worked on the album for any artist I have worked for. If there is any direction concerning sound, it will typically come from the artist.
What is your compression philosophy during a live show?
Compression is a funny thing. I will use it in the house mix to keep certain instruments from getting out of hand, but I find I like the artist’s performance more with as little compression as I can get away with. However when I am mixing on a digital desk I tend to use a lot more, especially in the subgroups.
When I mix monitors I try to use none at all. I find it makes the musicians not play to their full potential because they can’t get the dynamic response from their instruments out of the monitors.
How much influence does the artist have on the mix?
Each artist wants to convey their music to the audience their own way, and they all tell me what it is that is important to them so the audience can experience the music the way the artist intended. It is then up to me to make sure that what is coming out of the PA is what the artist wants.
Do you find the touring schedule hard work?
Each tour has a break-in period where the crew gets to know their tasks and the group dynamics have not fallen into place. But after 2+/- weeks it becomes like any other routine. The hardest part is having to leave my family in Lake Tahoe (the most beautiful place in the world, I might add ) and live in a bus with 11 other guys for weeks on end. I prefer to bring bands into my studio but it is hard to convince the management agencies that all that solitude is actually conducive to creativity and that when the bands are comfortable and free from distractions the quality of their work is far superior.
What problems do you see inexperienced sound people making?
Most of the time it is prioritizing their mixes when the room acoustics change from soundcheck to show. I see them trying to EQ a hi hat when the vocal level is nonexistent. Knowing what needs to be addressed when is very important. Also, I find most young engineers lack knowledge in how the gear they are using functions. When a piece of gear goes down before a show, if they don’t have a spare, the show is over. Having a good grasp of how your gear works and how to repair it makes you extremely valuable—from knowing how the power comes into a venue, to what makes your CD player go.
Do you enjoy the work?
I love my work. When I go on tour, I work for free. What I get paid for is leaving my family.
What albums do you listen to at home?
I am pretty old school. I listen to all the Rush albums, Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Van Halen, Pink Floyd, Sammy Hagar, Tom Petty, Joe Walsh, Supertramp, Queen but my new favorites are Barenaked Ladies, Sheryl Crow, Sting, Sarah McLachlan, No Doubt, K.D. Lang and Eric Cartman.
What are your hobbies outside of audio?
I love the extreme sports—skiing, whitewater kayaking, snowboarding, rock climbing, wake boarding, mountain biking, motocross, back country quads, fishing, rock hounding and most recently paintball. With a studio that sits on 8.5 acres it is fun to go out and shoot the guy who has not learned his parts!!!