Sound Decisions

Originally published by 225 Magazine on June 27, 2014. 

By Amanda Wicks

They’re a key part of live music at many of Baton Rouge’s most popular venues, but you won’t find them on any stage. They’re the sound guys. Whether they’re known by this more colloquial designation, or as sound technicians or sound engineers, they’re an essential part of the city’s music talent.

Michael Pinter, John Tulley and Mike Russo are just three of a small group of local professionals who run sound at venues that include Manship Theatre, Varsity Theatre, Mud & Water, Chelsea’s, Spanish Moon and Red Star. “Places want people with experience; they want reliable people, and we offer that,” says Tulley.

Mike Pinter now works full-time as the sound engineer for Manship Theatre, but his start was a far cry from that venue’s high-quality equipment and diverse musical atmosphere. Pinter began running sound for the now-defunct bar the Bayou in 2000. “I learned on crummy systems and learned all about the problems involved with sound engineering,” he says. “I learned backwards.”

That experience shaped his ability to solve problems on the spot, working quickly to correct sound issues. From the Bayou, Pinter went on to run sound at Red Star in 2005 before joining the Manship part-time in 2007 and eventually as a full-time sound engineer in 2011.

He’s mixed sound for some of the greats, including Randy Newman. Even though Newman’s setup was minimal, Pinter knew that he faced a challenge. “It was just him and a grand piano, but it had to be perfect,” he says.

Pinter says the Manship allows him to keep learning and developing as a sound engineer. Not all musicians or bands that play the venue bring their own sound guys, but when they do, Pinter likes to talk shop. He fondly recalls meeting Dave Cinco, sound engineer for bluegrass band Punch Brothers. “Bluegrass is the hardest to translate, because there are so many of these instruments weaving in and out of each other, and they’re so complex tonally,” Pinter says. “You learn not to be too precious about the rules.”

When he’s not overseeing music at the Manship, Pinter freelances. He runs sound for shows at Chelsea’s, Mud & Water and Red Star, and he finds that these night gigs pose greater challenges. “Few clubs are actually designed for sound,” he says. “Sometimes the room doesn’t behave.”

This is where he and other sound technicians weave their magic. On the surface, it may not seem as though there’s too much involved: make sure the audience can hear the band and can hear all members equally. In reality, the process is very complicated. For instance, vocal microphones tend to pick up all the instruments and noise around them. Pinter says, “You have to take what’s unnecessary and get rid of it.”

John Tulley works part-time at the Manship Theatre, where he primarily connects the stage setups, such as monitor boards and mics. He also runs sound for shows at Chelsea’s, Spanish Moon and Red Star. Tulley began learning the craft when his high-school youth leader talked to him about running sound for a pop-up church at Tinseltown.

It didn’t take Tulley long to see the opportunities that existed behind the soundboard. Two years ago, Dave Remitter of Chelsea’s approached him about running sound for the popular restaurant and bar.

Tulley says he pays attention to three things when he works. “The first is to make the band comfortable,” he says. “The second is to help the band communicate their artistic vision to the audience, and the third is to act as a steward for the venue. In other words, make sure the equipment doesn’t break.”

Mike Russo has been interested in sound since he was a teenager. “I spent a year with one four-track tape recorder and learned everything I could from that before moving on,” he says. In 2012 he began working for Bill Bennett, who primarily oversees sound for shows at the Varsity.

Russo also owns and operates a recording studio in Celtic Media Centre. “I love being in the studio,” he says. “I love the experience of recording a record, making the band feel good about it and sharing it with an audience.”

For Russo, live shows are fleeting, but records provide a more involved moment. “It’s about knowing when to stop,” he says.

All three sound engineers know the difficulty of running live sound depends upon the room. “Smaller spaces can be difficult,” Russo explains.

The goal revolves around making a sound fit a space, or “equalizing” a room. Pinter says, “My whole focus is EQ’ing a room so people can hear what’s going on.”

That know-how takes time to develop, but as Tulley finds, “Once you get experience, it becomes second-nature.”

As much as venues and musicians take part in breathing new life into Baton Rouge, their efforts would pale without the technological knowledge and expertise of sound engineers like Pinter, Tulley and Russo. With these professionals at their boards, the city’s sounds are in good hands.