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One-on-one with Michelle Sabolchick, Gwen Stefaniís FOH engineer

From the heart of the coal region to parties with Rolling Stones, Gwen Stefaniís front-of-house engineer has her own take on the music industry. Michelle Sabolchick took time to talk with us on a busy night at Tokyoís 2007 Summer Sonic music festival.

Gwen Stefaniís front-of-house engineer Michelle Sabolchick says youíve got to be pretty tough to make it as a touring audio pro. That goes for men, as well as the rare woman who makes it in this business. She took the time to talk with us near the end of a busy day at Tokyoís Summer Sonic 2007.

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

Michelle Sabolchick: I started out working in a little sound company outside of Philadelphia. I worked there; I worked for local bands; I worked as a stage hand. I kind of moved around a bit, trying to find work. There wasnít a lot of work where I lived in Pennsylvania.

Where in Pennsylvania?
I grew up in the heart of the coal region, right in central PA. Thereís no music industry there whatsoever.

Were you a musician to start out with?
I played piano. All through growing up, I always loved music. Iím more a behind-the-scenes kind of person. I donít like being in the spotlight, as you can tell. But I always had a love for music and wanted to get involved somehow. I did a little bit of studio stuff in the very beginning, but where I lived, the studios were real small and there wasnít a lot of work.

So I got into live sound and really liked that. I lived in Florida for a couple of years and worked at a couple of nightclubs down there, then moved around wherever someone was offering me a job in the music business.

How did you get in with Gwen?
In 2005 for her last record, Gwen had about a month of promo dates coming up. Her previous engineer, John Kerns, wasnít available, and I had just finished a tour with Indigo Girls and was available. I knew a few people on the tour, one being the production manager who is also my husband, and they offered me the gig. While we were doing the promo she decided to go on the road and tour the record. That turned into two records and two tours.

Good gig. Youíve had some exotic moments on the roadósitting at the helm of a C-9, tilting the aircraft side to side for a better view of the coast as you approach Bahrain on tour with Collective SoulÖdealing with rough conditions in Djibouti on the same tourÖcan you share other highlights from your life on the road?
Two things come to mind: In 1995 I was working with the Spin Doctors. We were on tour with the Rolling Stones in South America. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and we got invited to a Super Bowl party the Rolling Stones were throwing at their hotel, which was really pretty cool. Thatís something that will always stick in my mind as a highlight.

Another was listening to Ann Wilson do a chilling acoustic version of Crazy on You on a television show I did with the Indigo Girls, who I was mixing at the time. It was just Ann and an acoustic guitar. It was amazing. When you see people that youíve grown up listening to and admiring, and then you get to see them in person doing their best. That stuffís always cool.

Any unique challenges in mixing Gwen Stefani?
Yes. Gwen likes to be close to her audience, so sheís in front of the PA as much as she can be. That makes it interesting! During our show she actually does one song where she runs off of the stage all the way to front of house with the guitar player and one of the keyboard players. We have a riser set up for her, but she only stays on it for about a minute, then sheís off into the audience, climbing over chairs, working her way through the crowd for the entire song.

How many inputs for this show?

What Audio-Technica microphones are you using?
Gwenís mic is an Audio-Technica 5000 Series wireless with a T6100 handheld.

How do you like it?
Itís great. Itís got a great tight pattern with good rejection, so itís ideal for her not feeding backómore so than using another mic. It helps me actually have her out there and have her vocal up when sheís in front of the PA.

Are there any engineers whose work you especially admire?
Iíve always been a big fan of M.L. ProciseóI always thought he was amazing. And Randy LaneóIím a big fan of his. Heís one of my peers, weíve been in the business about the same amount of time. Heís a really, really good engineer.

What problems do you see inexperienced sound people making?
A big problem is not knowing proper gain structure. You see a lot of guys who think louder is always better. They make it as loud as they can, but they donít really understand gain structure, and they start driving the system into compression. Or itís just so loud that itís painful; you can make a show feel really loud without it being painful.

Another problem is a lot of new engineers, when they get to the point that they can actually spec their gear, tend to spec a lot of equipment theyíve never even used and donít know. They think because something is new itís got to be the best, therefore if theyíre using the best gear that makes them a great engineer. You see that a lot, people asking for gear because they can. And then they get out there and they donít know what to do with it.

Any advice for women wanting to get started in this predominately-male business?
Youíve got to believe in yourself, and youíve got to be pretty tough. That goes for the guys as well. It can be a pretty intense lifestyle. Thereís a lot of women I meet whoíd like to get in to touring but they say, ďNo oneís going to hire me because Iím a woman.Ē Well, if you listen to that, then youíre never going to find a gig. I donít feel like Iíve ever had a problem because Iím a woman. I worked really hard and people noticed. Maybe I just got lucky, or maybe itís just my personality, but whenever someone told me I couldnít do somethingóthat just made me want to do it even more. Early on, I did have to prove myself over and over. Youíve just got to believe in yourself. For me, I was just never going to take no for an answer, and Iím doing what Iíve always wanted to do. There have been a few people whoíve opened doors for me, and there have been some doors that Iíve had to kick in, but here I am.

Heck, you ended up on one of the biggest tours in the country! How do you like life on the road?
I love it. Iíve been touring for 15 years. I couldnít have lasted this long if I didnít like it.

What do you like best about your work?
About the road, I love the camaraderie. You start a tour with a group of people that always includes some strangers, and within a few weeks, youíre family. Whether you like them or not, you bond with these people.

And about my job, I love the creative side of the work. Youíre kind of an extension of the band. Youíre representing their music. Youíre basically responsible for making them sound the way that they do. Some artists know what they want, and some let you have free reign. Youíre definitely an active part of the show. Youíre part of the energy.

How did you get in with the Indigo Girls?
In 1994 I did a short tour with them, working for Fidelity Sound out of Virginia Beach, as FoH engineer and system tech. A few years later I had just finished a tour with Spin Doctors and was looking for work. The production manager for the Indigo Girls from that tour in Ď94 put me in touch with their management, as they were looking for a FoH engineer. I worked for them for eight years.

Any miking tips or tricks to share?
I donít really have anything out of the ordinary. Itís all pretty standard stuff. To me, less is more. If this were my normal touring setup, itís pretty basic. I donít really have a lot of tips and tricks because I think the more you add, the more stuff can go wrong. So I like to keep it pretty simple. Find the right tool, find the right mic, and use it.

Youíre pretty bare bones on your outboard gear too, arenít you?
Yes, I do have a lot of inserts in the way of compressors, but all fairly ordinary stuff. I have two Empirical Labs Distressors for Gwenís vocal and the Bass Guitar, thatís probably the fanciest thing.