A conversation with Gary Ferenchak, Good Charlotte FOH engineer

We make our way down to the close-in South lot by a bend in the Cuyahoga River where Good Charlotte and Simple Plan are gearing up for a Noise to the World tour performance. Hours before show time at Cleveland’s Tower City outdoor Amphitheatre, a dozen girls cluster around the backstage entrance. Their hopes for an autograph are paying off: a lanky, spiky-haired pop/punk icon is signing.

At the back gate, we catch up with Good Charlotte’s front of house engineer, Gary Ferenchak, who leads us across the stage, where a high-decibel sound check is in progress. Giant gargoyles and other gothic props backstage look improbably tame in the clear light of one of the first warm May afternoons Cleveland has seen in the cold spring of 2005.

Around the corner, band members share a meal at the river’s edge, and we sit at a nearby table for a conversation with Ferenchak. Down-to-earth, affable, with bright blue eyes and an easy smile, he’s quick to tell a story. I strain to catch every word, but the wall that separates us from the stage is no match for the still-formidable sound check. Some gaps in my notes are inevitable. It’s too loud to fix them now; we’ll patch after the concert.

We’ve given Ferenchak a chrome-plated Audio-Technica talkback mic we refer to as a silver talkback device (STD); toward the end of our conversation, he calls a band member over to check it out. “Hey Billy, look what I’ve got. A-T gave me an STD.”

Billy Martin: “This is the best sound guy in the world right here.”

Ferenchak: “They’ve never heard my mix. The problem is, they’re so popular that if I’m mixing another band, they can't come out front to hear it.”

“Pez, anyone?”
It’s dark by the time we head over to the Amphitheatre to a spot that, if chairs were involved, you’d call excellent seats. We’re standing behind Ferenchak at his FOH post. The show begins in darkness. When silhouettes of the band emerge against the blackness, the crowd roars. An eerie glow dawns on the “Nevermore” arch, tombstones and gargoyles—magical now, in the ghostly light—that share the Good Charlotte stage.

Ferenchak could not be accused of exaggerating when he told us earlier: “I tend to use compression on a lot of stuff.” Standing 50 feet in front of the stage, you feel that compression in your bones. Keeping the SPL manageable, he packs phenomenal intensity in every decibel.

Twenty minutes into the concert, looking completely relaxed at the helm of this acoustic largeness, Ferenchak turns, grins and holds out a pack of candy. “Pez, anyone?” he offers. We nod no, and Ferenchak turns back to a sea of knobs and the stage, the picture of a man at home with his work.

The conversation
A-T: How did you get this job?
Ferenchak: I’d been out on tour for a while. When I came home, after a year and a half, I worked for the Electric Factory in Philadelphia. Good Charlotte was in the studio finishing up their first record, and their manager asked the Electric Factory people if they knew anyone [to fill the FOH position]. To back up a little, my first house gig had been at this little bar called the Khyber Pass—I’d met Steve Feinberg there years before. Now Steve was managing Good Charlotte—and the Electric Factory recommended me. So it all came full circle.

How did you get involved in sound in the first place?
I just fell into it. I was a college dropout—my roommate was in a band, and I started helping them out, becoming a roadie. At some point I kind of notice there’s this guy that mixes them—this is in 1985. So I start sticking my nose in. I just observed, got behind the mixer and did it. Eventually I got the job.

These people I knew bought a bar and asked me to put the PA in. It was a small club. Very punk and garage and underground stuff, where the Afghan Wigs would have played in the mid ‘80s. Smashing Pumpkins, Helmet before they became big, the Sugarcubes. I blew some stuff up. Then I figured out why I blew some stuff up. I’d go out on the road for a few months and come home and work at the club, and just went on from there. I split time from mid ‘80s till 2000 traveling and working at a local club.

What’s your favorite A-T mic?
It’s hard to say. I've been having a great time with them all. The wireless is incredible. And I love the 2500. It’s a great mic. You just slide it in there on the guitar and it’s done. It’s idiot-proof. You have your two different sounds.

Vince [Buller, Good Charlotte crew chief and monitor engineer,] is a big fan of the AE6100. Our vocalists are not real loud. So you crank the vocal mics more than normal—and they still perform beautifully. The 6100 that Benji sings through is cranked really loud and it never feeds back; it maintains a really rich sound. I’m usually using 6100 on vocals, but I’ve also used it on guitar cabs and it’s been great.

What’s your specific audio chain to make sure the vocals really have presence?
I use the 3300 handheld wireless mic with the 5000 Series receiver straight into the system, which comes out to me at front of house. I insert a dbx 160x compressor, and that's it.

Normally I run it pretty flat. Sometimes I will tweak EQ depending on how the mic is held.

Are there any particular pieces of gear that you feel are indispensable to your sound?
The Lexicon 480 reverb. It's a studio unit. You don't usually find them live. Also, I sub-mix my drums through a stereo sub-mix compressor and boost outputs on that and send them to the mains, squash it, even it out and crank up the output. It gives you the ability to turn entire drum mix up more than you would if you had to allow for the really hard hits.

I'm in love with the Midas XL4 console. It’s the ultimate analog front of house console. I don’t have one on this tour, and I miss it dearly.

The PA we’re using here is a d&b system from Germany through Eighth Day Sound, a Cleveland company that provides us with our sound gear. It's a fantastic system, extremely versatile, really tiny. You can put sound in an arena with half a semi full of gear. I think it's 27 feet of truck space for PA and monitors.

How do you maintain the health of your ears?
I don’t know. I’m surprised at how good they are. The only thing I’ve done is, I used to end up mixing multiple bands on the same tour. Now I only mix Good Charlotte, and I don't stand out front more than I have to. I'm a little careful. If I have to be out there I put in earplugs. I’m sensible. There’s a little bit of finger crossing as well. I do notice a difference in my hearing. It’s more of an annoyance than anything. If I’m in a noisy bar I’ll find myself saying ‘What?’ But under normal circumstances, I’m still maintaining a certain sensitivity.

In an arena setting, I try to keep the mix at 106 db at 80 feet. I'm thinking about people standing 30 feet in front of the PA.

Your mixes sound louder because of the way you compress.
I’m not mixing for volume—I’m going after a combination of volume and fidelity. I’d prefer good over loud.

What would you say is the biggest challenge in mixing Good Charlotte?
They have a pretty loud stage volume, but the singers aren't very loud—and that’s a bit of a challenge. We’re just starting on in-ear monitors. They’re not on everyone; we still have a lot of wedges. When we get everyone to take on in-ears, it’ll help.

The T3300 allows me to bring their vocals up in the mix and in the monitors without turning the volume up, because I’m getting so much more clarity to the sound. You can actually hear individual syllables that were lost before.

Since the stage volume tends to be quite loud, I position the microphones on the guitar amps to avoid leakage from the bass amp and drums. I choose the speaker cones on the guitar amps furthest away from the bass and drums, then put them off-axis at about the three-o’clock position, right up against the speaker grills. Billy [Martin] uses a 100 watt Mesa dual rectifier with four 4X12 cabinets for his dirty sound. I use an AE2500 for that. His clean sound is a Fender Twin 65 with two AT4040 mics. Benji has the Soldano Hot Rod lead 100 watt head with four Randall 4X12 cabinets. I mic that with the AE2500. No clean amp for him.

Do you try to make the live performance sound live or recreate the studio feel?
I don't try to create a studio feel in live performance; things work live that won't work in on the record and vise versa. This is a rock band—a little competition between the drums, bass, guitars and vocals—it’s a healthy thing. It makes the mix somewhat aggressive. That wouldn’t do in the studio.

There are a couple of times I’ll put in an obvious reverb, but if I use a delay, usually it’s just to bring the vocal out in the mix—to add clarity to the vocals.

I’ll throw a little more reverb in when we’re in an arena. It’s there, but it doesn’t occur to you. It’s just about making it stand out in the mix more.

What is your compression philosophy during a live show?
I tend to use a lot of compression on a lot of stuff.

For the bass, I use dbx 160x’s on the channels, then sub mix them to two groups and compress them again with summits.

How much influence do the artists have on the mix?
None. They leave it to me. Being with them for so long, we've developed a lot of trust.

Do you find the touring schedule hard work?
This kind of tour, where you’re in a different city every day is almost like a vacation. We go on promo tours where you’re in LA one day, then off to London, Tokyo, Australia.

What do you do between tours?
I like working on cars. I have an old mustang, several motorcycles, a 4X4 pickup truck. In Hammonton, New Jersey, the blueberry capital of the world.