As we gear up for the LDI Show, we’re profiling speakers in our Sound Tracks series of panels aimed at live sound engineers. This week, we’d like to introduce you to Jon Graves, who will be discussing Tour Mixing Tips and Techniques with a panel of fellow live sound veterans.
Jon Graves spent more than three decades as both a front-of-house and studio engineer, working with some of the biggest acts in rock and roll, including Eddie Money, Motörhead, Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Dangerous Toys, Junk Yard, Vixen, JetBoy, XYZ, and Armored Saint.
For the past twelve years, Graves has been product manager of mixers at QSC, where he works on the development of TouchMix series digital mixers and other live sound and cinema products.
Sarah Jones: How did you get your start in the live sound industry?
Jon Graves: I grew up during the late ’70s, in a generation that was one of the best times in music—when local bands were playing original music and doing their own concerts. I loved music and wanted to be a guitar player. Back then, there were no large retail chains, just local music stores. I would hang out at my local mom-and-pop music store, and in the back, there were these guys working there who were young and cool, with long hair, who wanted to be rock stars but wore button-down shirts and ties and sold guitars.
At 17, one of the guys asked me if I wanted to be a roadie for his band, so I would do gigs with them in clubs and bars. The band started asking me how they sounded; I would listen and tell them what I thought. So they showed me their little mixing console on the side of the stage, and told me to go ahead and spin the knobs if I heard something that I thought was wrong. Then they put me with the console at front of house, which bands hardly did at the time. I remember standing there one day, watching them play and thinking, “Wow, I can play, but not like that guy up there can play.” I realized he had a gift that I didn’t have. So I turned all my attention to being a sound guy. And I found what I was gifted at: making sure everything sounded great and the sound was balanced.
SJ: What drives your passion for live sound?
JG: Great sound is always what has driven me. I have a passion for making the band sound tonally balanced, clean, and punchy, and as much like the record as possible. The thing that is awesome about being an FOH guy, for that 90 or 120 minutes when the band is out there—whether they are amazing or having an off night; no matter how they are playing—for that period of time, I am in control of how the music sounds and how it affects the emotions of the audience. This is what motivates me, keeps me up at night, drives me crazy, and makes me work to find ways to get great mixes. This is the same reason that I started working with digital mixing boards; I want everyone who mixes to be able to make the music sound great.
SJ: What kinds of new live sound technologies are you most excited about these days?
JG: Since my start in this business, the technologies have improved the quality of live sound by leaps and bounds. When I started, speaker systems were just a bunch of boxes, and the rigs were not consistent in any way. Today’s speaker design technology and DSP and deployment have had a huge impact on what gives engineers the ability to get mixes like they have never had. There is a level of fidelity and articulation that allows subtle moves and excitement in their mixes that we could never have before. The kinds of systems we have today have raised the bar for everyone in the production business.
By the same token, when I first started, there weren’t big production mixers for touring. I’ve been fortunate to witness the entire evolution, from the early years sitting at a hand-built console to working on all the great touring analog consoles, to the advent of the first digital consoles. Now we have the latest breed of digital consoles that are so impressive they now have every tool imaginable either built in or as a plug-in. Engineers today have quite an arsenal of unbelievably high quality gear to work with.
SJ: What are the biggest challenges facing live sound engineers right now?
JG: One of the biggest challenges is that there is a plethora of equipment out there, most of which is quite good. Today is very different from the days when you got to send your own gear everywhere you go. Today’s budgets and ways of working are different. So now, you want the same setup, but depending upon the sound company at a location, they may or may not have the gear that you are looking for. Working in today’s world means that you have to know a lot about all different kinds of gear, which is a huge challenge. Almost every digital console from each manufacturer has a different user interface, for example.
SJ: Can you share a story about one of your most memorable live gigs?
JG: In 1983, I was with Quiet Riot on their Mental Health Tour. The band was on a break from the tour, and I was home and people kept asking me if I was going to the Us festival. The Us Festival was a 400,000+ show with an amazing lineup—Mötley Crüe, Triumph, Ozzy Osbourne, The Scorpions, and Van Halen—and it was the biggest concert you could ever imagine. I said the only way that I am going to a gig of that magnitude would be if they call me and fly me in a helicopter or limo. Then two days before the show, I got a call from Quiet Riot’s manager, who said that the band was just added to the festival, so they needed me there; and they sent me over in a limo.
The show opened Heavy Metal Sunday—and the production was huge; there were thousands of people and trailers everywhere. The gig was so big that to get to FOH, you had to go through a manhole cover underneath the stage and go through this tunnel, because there was no way to get there through the huge crowd. The tunnel was long and narrow and dark, hot, with wires hanging through it, and if two people were trying to pass each other, you could get stuck.
There was no sound check for the festival, just a quick line check. It took some time to go to FOH because it was a long way. I got out there for the line check, and admittedly, I was pretty intimidated; I had never mixed anything that big. I picked the mics, and took a look at the console. After the line check, I went all the way back through the tunnel to relax in the trailer. All of a sudden I hear, “Hey, hey, hey, this is Kevin,” (which is what Quiet Riot would do just before the show), and I panic. I run through the huge back stage area and into the long tunnel. I’m a big guy, so I get stuck there with people coming the other way. I finally squeeze my way through and come crawling out of the other side—completely stressed out and sweating profusely—in full freak-out mode.
I look up, and all of the production and FOH guys are standing on the riser, all looking down at me in this state. It turns out that the show was not starting. The band was just doing a pre-show interview.
SJ: Okay, what’s on your Vegas bucket list?
JG: Over the years, I’ve spent so much time in Vegas that I don’t have a big bucket list. I’ll have a great meal at a fine old-school steakhouse—the kind of place that Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. would hang out at. Then, for sure, I will be at Caesar’s having a brandy and a really great cigar. A great evening, Rat Pack-style.
To learn more about pro audio workshops, panels, and events at LDI, visit http://www.ldishow.com.
Sarah Jones is a writer, editor, and content producer with more than 20 years' experience in pro audio, including as editor-in-chief of three leading audio magazines: Mix, EQ, and Electronic Musician. She is a lifelong musician and committed to arts advocacy and learning, including acting as education chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy, where she helps develop event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers.