When I was conducting research for my novel Record Scratch, I needed to find someone who understood the music recording business. Fortunately, I happened to know such a person. Now I still don’t really understand what my brother Brian Hensley does for a living because it’s way too technical for my brain to comprehend, but I do know he records music for bands and creates albums for various artists. I also know he is a sound engineer for concerts and somehow makes sure things go off without a hitch. If that sounds vague… it should. Because, like I said, it’s too technical for me.
As of late, Brian has been out on tour running sound for country music star Tyler Childers and it seemed like as good a time as any to talk to him about what a sound engineer does. Tyler and the band have been making huge waves and selling out shows, but Brian was kind enough to take a few moments to answer a few questions.
Explain to us what you do for a living.
In a nutshell – I worry so that my guys don’t have to. There are 100 things that can go wrong during a show, and I make sure as many boxes as possible are checked so that they pull off a seamless performance and all of the bells and whistles that put a show together are completely transparent. This includes everything from making sure there aren’t any feedback issues during soundcheck to coordinating with the venue staff to make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to expectations on aesthetics. For instance, you don’t want the Lighting Designer trying to make a country show look like an EDM show. I’ll coordinate with the LD before the show to give them some notes on everything from cues to how much haze we want in the air. (Too much can make singing a little difficult, especially when everybody is sharing the same cold) At the end of the day, if I do my job right, no one in the audience realizes I was there.
Brian Hensley (front row, right) with musicians and crew on the Tyler Childers tour.
What are the biggest challenges that comes with the job?
Finding a common language and purpose with the venue staff within 10 minutes of hitting the ground. It’s important to figure out as soon as possible who you can count on and which people might confuse confidence with competence and need a little more guidance. I’m always wary of the guy who wants to tell you 110% of what he knows. On the flip side, it’s important to recognize when someone is better at your job than you are, so you can pick their brain and learn some new techniques. For instance, I knew right away that the monitor engineer at The Fillmore was way better at monitors than I was, so I made a point of pestering him with questions after sound check.
When people think of popular musicians and their crews touring the country, they often think of loud parties and wild times in every city. What’s it really been like from your perspective?
Touring life is what you make of it. First and foremost, you have a job to do and you better do it really well or you’ll find yourself voted off the island pretty quick. Across the board, I think the old cliches of wild parties and drunken sloppy performances have become a thing of the past thanks to camera phones and social media. One sloppy, embarrassing show will follow you around for a lifetime now. There’s too much on the line to risk being unprofessional because you couldn’t wait until after the show to unwind.
What has been the best part of the touring experience? What have you learned?
The best part has been traveling the country with a really good group of guys who are incredibly intelligent and big-hearted. There are a lot of really long days that run into each other, and everyone misses their families. Being surrounded by a bus full of good people and having the opportunity to share amazing experiences with them makes it better. As for what I’ve learned – too much to mention. There is a sea of variables and they all have to be manipulated on any given night. As long as you can set your ego aside and ask questions when you see someone doing something better, then there are endless opportunities to learn and get better at your job. For over 20 years now, every time I start thinking I know everything, I inevitably end up working with someone who schools me and puts me in my place. It’s especially humbling when they do that to you while they’re working on your own equipment.
You’ve been in the music recording / sound engineering business for over twenty years. What advice do you have for anyone just starting out?
Stay curious and never tell someone 110% of what you know. Trust is a big deal. The people on stage are trusting you to manage the chaos that they can’t. If you get caught exaggerating your abilities, that relationship might not ever recover. I don’t have much patience for the “fake it until you make it” mentality. When someone gets caught overselling their abilities, they usually end up with a few hundred heads turning toward them at the same time while they’re trying not to hyperventilate. It can even be a show stopper in a worst case scenario.
Other than your older and better-looking brother, has their been anyone in particular who has inspired you along the way?
When I was first starting out, I was having trouble finding anyone to give me pointers. This was before YouTube and most everyone guarded their knowledge as being trade secrets. There was one local guy named Sam Moore who was patient with me and would answer my questions when I would pester him at shows, and I pestered him a lot. Because of him, I try to be patient and answer as many questions as possible when younger people approach me while I’m working. If there isn’t time to explain something, I’ll do my best to at least point them in the right direction.
If you had to come up with a book title based on life touring, what would it be?
Whirlwind. You usually hit the ground at 2:00 pm. You work like hell up until about midnight. You get back on the bus, take a breath, close your eyes, and when you open your eyes you’re in a different city and it starts all over again. Day after day.
A scene from the Tyler Childer’s tour.
Have you had a favorite tour stop thus far? A favorite moment?
It’s hard to pick one out, but I’d probably say The Fillmore in San Francisco. We hit a lot of really nice venues, but the history of that place makes it stand out. The Troubador in Hollywood was also a milestone. It was a lot smaller than I had envisioned. Still not sure how they fit Guns N’ Roses in there.
What is your favorite piece of equipment?
Ear plugs. I can’t wear them when I work because it takes away too much detail, but I always wear them when I’m attending a show where I’m not on the clock. A few weeks ago a record executive, John Esposito, put the fear of God into me about hearing loss. He talked about how many artists he knows have suffered from advanced hearing loss and how he’d bought in-ear monitors for all of his artists. (In-ear monitors are a mix between earplugs and headphones and are worn by the performers while on stage. They block out the loud and painful noise while amplifying the music the performers need to hear. In the long run, they prevent damage.) I’d hate to think that one day I wouldn’t be able to enjoy music because I was careless at a few shows. I recently bought some fancy earplugs that are supposed to dampen the damaging frequencies while still letting through the detail, but I haven’t had a chance to try them yet.
Thanks to Brian for taking the time to explain a little of what he does for a living and giving us a peek behind the curtain. His website is https://www.earthtoneaudio.com/ and he’s on Twitter at @earthtoneaudio. If you need music recorded… he’s your guy.
Tyler Childer’s tour dates and other information are on his website: https://tylerchildersmusic.com/
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, a Thriller Award finalist which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, Bolt Action Remedy, Record Scratch, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
“There are two types of men you must fear in this world: Men who have everything to lose—and men like me.”
It’s a case Trevor Galloway doesn’t want. It’s certainly a case he doesn’t need. The client—the sister of a murdered musician—seems a bit off. She expects Galloway to not only solve her brother’s homicide, but recover a vinyl record she believes could ruin his reputation. Galloway knows he should walk away. He should simply reach over the desk, give back the envelope of cash that he admittedly needs, and walk away. However, when the client closes the meeting by putting a gun under her chin and pulling the trigger, his sense of obligation drags him down a path he may not be ready to travel.
A story divided into twelve songs from Jimmy Spartan’s final album.
Praise for RECORD SCRATCH:
“Record Scratch shocks you out of your ordinary groove. Sometimes witty, other times haunting, but when the needle jumps the track, the body count screams.” —Marc E. Fitch, author of Paradise Burns and Dirty Water
“In Record Scratch, Hensley, a former secret service agent, gifts us with a bounty of goods: a solid mystery, a damaged but relatable main character—one you root for, and swift plotting that weaves a compelling, compulsive tale of music and death and the demons carried by those in law enforcement. Bring me more Trevor!” —Shannon Kirk, international bestselling author of Method 15/33
“J.J. Hensley’s Record Scratch is a tersely written and tightly plotted gem, featuring one of the most unique protagonists around, Trevor Galloway, a man who has a way of getting himself into and out of trouble at an alarming rate. The book is action-packed with a dash of mordant wit, and I can’t wait to read more in this intense, engaging series.” —David Bell, USA Today bestselling author of Somebody’s Daughter
“J.J. Hensley’s tale of a stoic PI investigating the murder of a has-been rock star is equal parts classic whodunnit and gritty noir, peppered with high-octane action scenes that will leave you breathless. Record Scratch is like a throat punch: powerful, shocking, and unapologetic, but the surprising poignant ending will stay with you a long after you’ve finished the book. This is a thriller that crackles from the first page to the last.” —Jennifer Hillier, author of Jar of Hearts
BOLT ACTION REMEDY
Buy it on Amazon!
Former Pittsburgh narcotics detective Trevor Galloway has been hired to look into the year-old homicide of a prominent businessman who was gunned down on his estate in Central Pennsylvania. When Galloway arrives, he determines the murder could have only been committed by someone extremely skilled in two areas: Skiing and shooting. He believes the assailant should not be too difficult to identify given the great amount of skill and athleticism needed to pull off the attack. When he discovers the victim’s property is next door to a biathlon training camp, the situation becomes significantly more complicated.
Galloway makes plenty of enemies as he sifts through stories about lucrative land deals, possible drug connections, and uncovers evidence suggesting the homicide may have been elaborate suicide. As he attempts to navigate through an unfamiliar rural landscape, he does his best not to succumb to an old drug addiction, or become confused by one of his occasional hallucinations. Oh, and a Pittsburgh drug gang enforcer known as The Lithuanian—if he’s even real—is tracking Galloway and wants to take his eyes. Galloway would rather keep those.
In Bolt Action Remedy, the typically quiet streets of Washaway Township, Pennsylvania become the epicenter of a mystery involving elite athletes and old grudges. For Galloway, the problems keep piling up and somebody out there believes problems should be dealt with by employing the most permanent of remedies.
Cyprus Keller wants a future.
Jackson Channing has a past.
Robert Chalk has a rifle and a mission. Kill Cyprus Keller and anyone who gets in his way.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
Finalist – 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards – Best First Novel
Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!
Top Ten Books of the Year – Authors on the Air
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology