Tyler Lessard is the production manager and front of house engineer for the country music duo Muscadine Bloodline. Hailing from Alabama, Lessard moved to Nashville in 2013, where he studied live sound production and soon began running sound for bars on the city’s famed Lower Broadway. We sat down with Lessard recently to discuss his career in audio engineering, the challenges of dialing in perfect sound for Muscadine Bloodline night after night, the Audio-Technica gear he loves (and how he uses it), and much more.
You grew up playing guitar, but decided to pursue live sound engineering while in college. What drew you to live sound? What were some of the important experiences that helped you learn your craft?
I started doing live sound as a teenager. I grew up playing in churches and in Christian bands. A lot of the other members could play instruments, but they weren’t trained in music like I was. For example, they never took music theory, couldn’t read sheet music, and didn’t understand anything above basic music concepts. So, when a problem came up with the sound, I was always the one they sent to fix it. I had no idea what I was doing, but, over time, I figured out the parts of a soundboard and how to manipulate it to what we needed to sound decent.
Right before I moved to Nashville, I broke my ankle, so I couldn’t stand on stage. Instead, I went and started running our soundboard. I never thought of being a sound engineer as something I would do as a career, but I loved being behind a board. It was a way for me to figure it out. We had an old Mackie VZT24, and I would take guitar pedals up there and route them through the aux sends and returns so we could have vocal delay and reverb. It was something I always had an ear for, but I just never fully understood how many people need a trained audio engineer. I play more than guitar – I actually play eight instruments – so learning those instruments and how they work and sit in the band, it definitely helped me have an ear for mixing, but also a technical understanding of what the purpose of that instrument is in a band and a mix.
In college, I had a nasty finger injury my sophomore year, and I was told I needed major surgery on my finger, and I probably wouldn’t be able to pick up a guitar for over a year. It ended up not being that bad, but I started looking at other options at that time. I went to our professor of audio engineering, and I told him I was interested in learning a lot more, and I wanted to apply for scholarship for the studio. He already had someone in studio, but he told me that I could have the one for live sound. I took it, and I started running sound for all of the School of Music events. Then I started running sound for a PR band. We would go out on the road on weekends and during the summer and play for churches and camps, trying to recruit kids to come to college at Trevecca [Nazarene University], but we would also show the congregations that the money they were sending for the school was actually being put to use. Finally, I started to work for AV. That would be anything from meetings and talking heads to concerts we would put on campus working with national touring acts. I worked in college at least five nights a week running sound for any of these jobs, and there were stretches of weeks at a time where I didn’t have a night off. I just wanted to learn as much as I could, and the only way for me was on-the-job training. I did a lot of weird events in college, and I was known as the guy who would take any job no matter how bad or good it was. From doing small vocal ensembles to doing tours with a full orchestra, jazz band, and 45-piece gospel choir, I was just doing it.
I think that work ethic and willingness to just never say no and go do it has been what has gotten me as far as I have come so far. Even after college, when I was working in bars on Broadway here in Nashville, a light week for me was a 60-hour week. A lot of weeks I was putting in 80 to 90 hours of running live sound. It helped me get my chops up as an engineer quickly, and it also gave me more opportunity. I was always the guy that got called in to pick up someone else’s shift, and I was never late. That goes a long way with the bosses, and it is something I pride myself on.
For those unfamiliar with Muscadine Bloodline, can you tell us a bit about the band and their music? How did you hook up with them?
Yeah! Muscadine Bloodline (MB) is made up of two guys, Gary Stanton and Charlie Muncaster. They are both from Mobile, AL, which is an hour south of where I grew up in Huxford, AL. I actually played Gary in high school football. They started out on this journey about eight years ago, but my story starts with them in May of 2019. I was looking to get on the road and off Broadway. Charlie posted about needing a FOH engineer on a Facebook page, and a buddy of mine tagged me in it. Charlie started talking to me, and he offered to take me out on a weekend run.
The first night was a bar in Lynchburg, VA, and the second night was a festival in Virginia Beach, VA, opening for Luke Combs. The first night went good, and the second night I had no idea what we were doing. It was Patriotic Fest on the beach, and I was told it would be about 15,000 to 20,000 people. Come to find out, it was around 60,000 people there that night. I nailed the mix and had a great time that weekend, and they offered me the job shortly after. I’ve been with them ever since. I got to watch the growth of them playing in bars that hold 150 people to, now, where we are doing theaters and venues of over 1,000 people almost every night.
As you mention, with their growing popularity and release of their new album Teenage Dixie, the band is now playing some larger venues, while continuing to play smaller clubs as well. What challenges does this shifting in venue size from night to night present for you, the production manager?
I think the hardest part for me is giving the same sound quality in a 600-cap room as a 2,500-cap room. There are different challenges every night. Some nights you don’t have quite enough PA, some nights the room distorts, some nights there’s a super long natural reverb to the room. It is just getting in the room and trying to figure out what it is going to do. I remember a show last year we played, and the natural reverb of the room was almost four seconds, which is extremely long. By the time we filled it with people, it went down to almost 1.8 seconds of noticeable decay. Having the same sound console, same mics, and same gear every night helps out a lot, but, honestly, the first two to three songs for me is just adjusting to how the room is with bodies in it. Some nights you have the PA to push it to where you like it to be, and some nights, you just have to accept that you’ve given it all you got, and that’s what you are getting.
I am very much a perfectionist, so I know where I want to be at every night, and I know how the show should sound every night. But sometimes in smaller clubs and bars, that ideal just can’t be met, and you have to learn how to be OK with that. There’re also weird things that you have to learn. Like, we play Texas a lot, and when a large crowd of people are two-stepping on concrete, it sounds almost like you are getting RF interference. Same goes for when bottles break in a bar, it almost sounds like you have a bad connection in an XLR. It’s just figuring out what sounds during the show from outside influences are going to distract you and make you think something is going wrong with the mix. I think those are the biggest challenges I face when going from somewhere that is an actual concert venue/theater to when we play in a bar or honky-tonk.
I love the 3000 and 5000 systems. First, I want to talk about the capsule. Our lead singers have different voices, but I found that the 6100 capsule was the best for both of them. It gives me a full representation of their vocals in such an accurate reading of their voice. There are no added intricacies, but it also picks up on what makes them unique. Charlie said when he first got the mic, that it captured parts of his vocals in his lower register that he had never heard on the other mics we were using. I find that to be true at FOH too. His voice needed less EQ and less work on the 6100 capsule than on the other mics he had used. I was finding that there was more detail in both lower register and in his high end. You could actually make out all of his sibilance, which wasn’t there in other mics. For Gary, the same seems to be true in his high end. I actually find that it helps a lot for vocal clarity, especially for two Southern boys that don’t necessarily finish all their words. Charlie has a lot more power in his 400 Hz to 600 Hz range, and Gary has a lot more presence in his 900 Hz to 2.5 kHz range. Either way, the capsule has done well in picking up what I want in their vocals live.
Now for the actual units themselves. I enjoy having the capability of using them over network. It helps a lot to be able to see what’s going on with their mics and the RF from FOH. I love not having to sit there and look at the units constantly to see if we are peaking out the capsule or having interference. The Wireless Manager app has helped me out a lot over the past year of using it. It gave me the ability to teach our guitar tech how to work RF from knowing nothing. He’s a pro at it now. Night in and night out, it just works. Finding useable RF has been an issue in the past, especially in cities that have a ton of issues, but I feel like we can find useable RF channels quicker than before.
You were also one of the first engineers to use our 3000 Series wireless in-ear monitor system. What do you (and the band) like about the performance of these IEMs?
I think I got the first seven units that rolled off the line. Roxanne Ricks [A-T’s artist relations manager] was kind enough to let me try out a prototype before they were released. I took it to a bar I was working at at the time, and I instantly could tell a massive difference. The sound quality of these compared to other brands that I have used is so much better. I gave it to a drummer that night, and he instantly said his kit sounded how he wanted it in his mix. He could hear the air in the snare, it was crisper, and the low end of the bass guitar and kick were actually detailed and not just a thud or a low rumble. I enjoyed listening to mixes on them. I have used other brands for years, and I can hear more detail at a lower volume than ever before.
With the band, they have loved the switch. There’s more definition in their mixes, and more headroom. That’s another thing about these packs, the headroom that you have in them is way more than anyone should ever need. I know some of the guys used to run the volume on their old packs at 7 to 8 and they run these at 4 to 5. It has helped them get mixes dialed in that they love night in and night out. Also, with the RF, anytime there is interference, we know right away, and it helps make sure that we have clean usable frequencies every night. We haven’t had any major issues out of these packs like we did with our old ones. Honestly, it is one less thing on my mind every night when they take the stage.
What other mics do you like for live or studio use? We hear you are considering the AT4080 to mike guitar cabinets?
The way we got started with A-T was actually me seeing Jason Aldean’s drummer using AE3000s on snare. I bought one, and our drummer loved it. The way I want drums to sound in my mix for MB is as natural as possible. Outside the kick, I use very minimal EQ. I want the tuning of the drums to be what the audience hears. I don’t want a ton of processing, and we don’t need them to sound like they are triggered. When I started trying to figure out a mic package that would do that, I landed with y’all. I have AE3000 on main snare top and both of my toms. For kick, I have been using the AE2500. I love having the dual elements in my kick. Until very recently, I have been using a Kelly SHU system for keeping my kick mic inside the drum. I use the dynamic portion for most of my low end and boom, and I have been using the condenser portion to get the high-end definition I want out of a kick. I love having both options and, depending on the room, I might choose to use both or just use one. For cymbal mics, we mount two AT4040s. We mount under the cymbals, and they have been great to pick up what I need from them. For main snare bottom mic and for the side snare mic, I have been using AE2300s. I love their small size. It helps get them in the tight places that I need them to be. For the hi-hat mic, I have been using an ATM450. Once again, I have to get my hi-hat mic in a very tight space, and the side address helps me do that. It’s one of those mics that just does what I need it to.
For guitar, I actually just got two of the AT4080s for guitar cabs. I was using a dynamic mic before on them, and I loved it, but there were too many moving parts on it, and I kept having to spend 15 to 30 minutes a day in repairing them. We tried out four different mics. ATM450, AE3000, AT4040, and AT4080. We found that for the tones we were going for, the ATM450 was too thin. The AT4040 was the exact opposite. We found that it had too much low end, and by the time you got it out of the proximity effect and took the low end away, the high end and mids were thin and distant. We really liked the AE3000, honestly. It was a very strong contender, and we used it for a few shows. Our guitarist has great tone, but sometimes when he adds a lot of overdrive, it can sound like a chainsaw coming out of the speakers. We found that the AT4080 neutralized a lot of that harshness in his tone without destroying the detail and the ability for him to still stand out in the mix. He enjoyed the way it sounded in his ears, and I enjoyed the way it sounded out front, especially at louder volumes. I know a lot of engineers are scared to bring ribbons out on the road, but the construction of this mic and how y’all have engineered it gives me no worries of having it in our arsenal.
What’s next for you and the band? How can fans keep in touch?
The simple answer to this is muscadinebloodline.com. We have all of our merch there, including our new album Teenage Dixie, all of our tour dates that have been announced, and everything else you may need. The guys are on every social media site, and it is actually them that run it. As far as what is coming up, we are currently touring through the end of March on the “Me On You” tour, and then we start touring again in June. Once we start in June, we are wide open on tour till about a week or so before Christmas. We got a lot of exciting dates coming up, and we are visiting a lot of markets we haven’t been to. We have a West Coast run coming up in June that I am excited for. We are opening up for Turnpike Troubadours throughout the year periodically, and we have two nights in July opening up for Eric Church. We just dropped this album on February 24, so I am excited to see where it takes us. The first single off of the album, “Me On You,” went viral last year, and it has taken us to a lot of new and bigger rooms. So hopefully we just keep this thing going to the moon!