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A Conversation with Dream Theater Monitor Engineer Michael Graham

ďI have yet to find an Audio Technica product that did not perform as advertized. The gear is great and as reliable as any product out there."

A Summer Sonic 2010 interview

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

Michael Graham: I started playing bass when I was about 13, and played in different bands throughout high school and college. I did some audio in a couple of clubs during that time, but nothing too big. When I graduated from Texas A&M in 2004, I wanted a job that would keep me around music and live shows. I started working as a shop guy in the audio department at LD Systems in Houston. I started out sweeping their speakers and their floors, just asking questions and trying to learn as much as possible from the more experienced guys there. I got on my first tour as a fly guy and stage tech in 2005 and worked my way up from there. I am still trying to learn as much as possible, but at least I donít have to sweep the floors anymore.

Audio-Technica: How did you end up working with Dream Theater? Who else have you worked with?

Michael Graham: I started working with Dream Theater last year as a monitor tech. Their previous engineer had some scheduling conflicts and couldnít continue with them, and they asked me to mix. Being a tech for them made it an easy transition because I had been sitting in the backseat listening to their mixes for months before I got on the console.

Before Dream Theater I had also mixed monitors for Hinder, Buckcherry, The Exies, and Big Elf. I have also toured as a stage/monitor tech with Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper, 3 Doors Down, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Zappa plays Zappa.

Audio-Technica: Can you describe a typical day on the road?

Michael Graham: Depending on how many times I have hit the snooze button, I normally try to get off the bus and get to catering for breakfast before load in. I like eggs, sausage and potatoes drowned in Cholula sauce. Then comes the job of dumping trucks. Generally, lighting gear is the first off the trucks, and depending on how late the lighting guys stayed out the night before, this could take a while.

Sometimes the hardest part of the day is just figuring out how to fit all the gear in the venue. Once the gear is in the building, itís my time to wire up my world, set up microphones, and address any issues that might have popped up in the previous show. Lunch on tour typically consists of one of three entrees: tacos, sloppy joes or flat meat sandwiches. After lunch we will do line checks on all inputs, and the band might or might not come in for a sound check. After sound checks there is not a whole lot to do before the show except wait around for dinner to be up in catering. After dinner and some more downtime itís about time to go mix the show. Hopefully the show goes off without any major problems (knock on wood), and then it is time to pack up the gear and put it back on the truck to be ready to do it all over again in another city. After a shower itís time to head back to the bus and eat some after show food and maybe a beverage or two before heading to bed. And repeat. And repeat.

Audio-Technica: How do you maintain the health of your ears?

Michael Graham: Being a sound guy is kind of a double-edged sword. You have to be able to preserve your long-term hearing if you want to keep working, but many times you are required to damage you hearing by actively listening and mixing at a very high SPL. Mixing monitors for Dream Theater is a bit different because the entire band uses in ear monitors. That is not to say that in ears canít be damaging to your hearing if you listen to them too loudly, but I try to keep what I am hearing at a safe, comfortable level. If I have to listen to something louder than that, I try to do it for as short of a period of time as possible. I also regularly clean my ears with Q-tips and clean my in ear monitors with alcohol swipes to help avoid infections.

Audio-Technica: Sitting around at home ... what albums do you listen to?

Michael Graham: I own a ton of albums, but at home I am usually listening to Pandora Radio on the Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, or King Crimson stations. I like not knowing what song is coming up next.

Audio-Technica: How do you like Japan? Are you enjoying the experience here at Summer Sonic?

Michael Graham: I love Japan. This is my first time over here and I am in awe of the professionalism and attention to detail that the stage crews have. MSI has done a great job satisfying Dream Theaterís audio spec, and they have really gone the extra mile to ensure that all the engineers that come through Summer Sonic have everything they need to have great shows. Not to mention the food over here is fantastic. The worst part of this little run we are doing over here is that it is too short.

Audio-Technica: Whatís the biggest challenge on this tour?

Michael Graham: The biggest challenge with these guys is trying to find sonic space for the barrage of notes that are coming at you. Each one of the musiciansóespecially JP and Jordanótakes up so much sonic bandwidth with their big stereo sounds that sometimes itís a bit difficult to get each of those guys a good balance of both. The other thing that can be a little tough is the massiveness of Mikeís kit. Having that amount of drum microphones in such close proximity really makes us have to think hard about our particular mic selections and gating techniques. These guys are all top-tier musicians with great ears. Trying to keep their mixes top tier from night to night can be challenging also.

Audio-Technica: Whatís the most difficult/stressful time before or during a show?

Michael Graham: I do my best throughout the day to address anything I see that might be stressful during the show. I donít get too stressed before or during the show because I trust my competence on the gear I use and the work that I have done all day in preparation for the show. This is not to say that things donít unexpectedly go wrong during a show, but those cases are rare if you take the time to do it right in the first place. I like mixing and look forward to show time. Most of the time anyway.

Audio-Technica: Are there any particular pieces of gear that you feel are indispensable to your sound (ie: certain mic(s), particular reverb unit, comp unit, etc)?

Michael Graham: The AT4060 has recently become that piece of gear for me. I hadnít used them before working for Dream Theater, but they have become my favorite microphones on that stage. We use 4 of them as overhead microphones on the drum kit. Cymbals are such a big part of Mikeís drumming and the 4060ís capture all the nuances of his style without needing a bunch of equalization. Itís a little bit more gear to carry around with the tube [power supplies] that go along with them, but itís definitely worth it. I also think that good ears and good mixing techniques are way more valuable than any particular piece of gear.

Audio-Technica: How many people does it take to put on a Dream Theater show?

Michael Graham: It can change from tour to tour depending on whether the band is taking out full production or not. If we are not carrying full production, then there are usually four backline techs, two sound guys, one lighting guy, one video guy and four on the production staff. We also have about 20 to 24 local stagehands in each city to help us with load in and load out.

Audio-Technica: How much influence does the artist have on the mix, or do they let you do your own thing?

Michael Graham: As a monitor guy, the artist has 100% influence on their final mixes. If they are not comfortable up on that stage then you are not doing your job. The hard part many times is interpreting their sometimes broad descriptions of things they would like to hear into actual mix changes. It makes it easier when you keep an open dialog with the artist you are working for.

Audio-Technica: Are there any engineers whose work you especially admire?

Michael Graham: We all have our good days and our bad days out there. I admire all the engineers that keep level heads in stressful situations, and continue to humbly mix great audio day in and day out despite anything going on around them. I also canít stand the guys that complain all day about how bad those same situations are. Even a bad day out here is better than having to get a real job.

Audio-Technica: What problems do you see inexperienced sound people making?

Michael Graham: The ability to quickly troubleshoot and fix a problem is something that I see a lot of inexperienced guys have issues with. Freaking out and yelling doesnít get anyone any closer to a solution. Most of the time, taking a second to logically think about the problem will yield a quicker solution than flailing your arms around and cursing.

Audio-Technica: Do you have any miking tips or tricks to share?

Michael Graham: There are certainly different microphones suited for different applications, but at the same time every microphone is just a different shade of grey. I would say that the best way to choose mics that best suit your application is, if you have time, experiment with different models and try to find the one that sounds the closest to what you hear in your head with no equalization. That way some small adjustments on the strip is all it takes to get to the place you want to be.

Audio-Technica: What Audio-Technica microphones are you using? Can you tell us why you chose those mics and how theyíre working out for you?

Michael Graham: We use an assortment of A-T mics on Dream Theaterís drum kit. We use ATM450ís on the snare bottoms ó I absolutely love the crack that mic is able to capture. We were using another model for a little while and I was never too happy with it. Immediately after switching to the 450 we knew that was the mic we wanted there.

Audio-Technica: Can you tell us about the reliability of Audio-Technica products? You have some grueling tours. How have our products held up?

Michael Graham: We use ATM350ís on all of Mikeís smaller toms. The ability to easily deploy such a small microphone that sounds so big is really amazing. In comparison to [competitive mics] which have too many parts and you will undoubtedly have to repair or replace a cable on every tour, the ATM350 is so much easier, more durable and gets all the tone I need out of the higher toms.

We use AE3000ís on the larger toms. They are an extremely solid microphone that have a really tight punchy low end and still get the top end slap of the floor toms. Mike really wants to hear his toms cutting through in the mix and this microphone really does that for us.

We use the AT4060ís for overhead microphones. We use four of them in two coincidental pairs. As I have said, these mics are a piece of gear that I never want to do a show without again.

I have yet to find an Audio Technica product that did not perform as advertized. The gear is great and as reliable as any product out there. I am also a really big fan of the customer service the whole A-T staff provides for us out on the road. For instance, at the beginning of this last Dream Theater run, Nigel and I wanted the 450ís for our snare bottom microphones. Clair Brotherís had all the other mics we asked for except for the 450ís. A quick email to Gary Boss at A-T, and we had two brand new 450ís shipped next day and made it in time for rehearsals. You just canít get that kind of response from anyone else out there.