Jon Chvojicek hates to admit it, but when a band sounds good, it's because that band knows how to sound good. "You can't polish a turd," he says during a moment of downtime between early and late shows at the High Noon Saloon, the well-regarded Madison music club where he is lead sound engineer.
Experienced bands, Chvojicek explains, are simply better at managing their dynamics, stage volume and vocal abilities. "You can't have a blazing hot rock band with a singer who's whispering," he says of less experienced players' penchant for instrumental overcompensation. For those groups it's a lot harder to find a balance, and the end result is often a muddy mix. But, he adds, it's all part of the challenge and fun of working with both local and touring acts.
Chvojicek has been in the live sound biz for about 13 years. His degree in mechanical engineering comes in helpful for electrical circuitry know-how, but he chose to work as a sound tech, instead of taking the corporate route, simply for personal interest. Chvojicek worked for club owner Cathy Dethmers at the lost and much lamented O'Cayz Corral before taking over the mix at the High Noon. He also has his own small recording studio where he specializes in recording punk and hard rock bands.
Running sound in a bustling rock club takes a keen understanding of physical acoustics and a mastery of ever-growing lists of gadgets and digital gear. It takes a good ear. Hence, Chvojicek says that he has always worn ear protection. "I try to keep volumes down," he says, "but it's really the band that dictates the volume." Sustained exposure to high volumes means hearing loss over time. Quite simply, he states, "If I couldn't hear, I wouldn't have a job."
The same conditions don't necessarily apply to Mick McClain of Acoustic Imagery, a one-man recording business focused on choral and liturgical music. Of course, loud noise would still damage his cochlear response mechanisms, but there aren't nearly as many fretboard fireworks or crashing drum beats keeping time for church choirs and organ recitals. In fact, there are often none.
McClain likes to find older churches with good acoustics and use the natural qualities of the room to enhance his stereo recordings. Unlike mixing sound for a live rock band, which may rely on a lot of technical enhancement to create the varied sonic dimensions, recording classical music in a live space, says McClain, is a totally different application of technology.
Naturally occurring stereo sound is an acoustic phenomenon, McClain says. Sound reacts to its physical space as a function of time, frequency, and amplitude. The human ear can detect these things in great detail. He simply tries to capture with microphones what the human ear would process naturally.
But what if there is no physical structure to surround the sound? Mixing live outdoor music is much different than trying to balance amplified and reflected sounds inside, says Chvojicek. "Outside can be ideal," he says. "You get total control over the sound." Although the bass response may escape into thin air and sonic subtleties can be harder to parse out, outdoor music events can evoke a freedom and sense of fun that most indoor venues cannot match.
One aspect to being the sound tech isn't so appealing to Chvojicek, however. It isn't the ego and large musical personalities that can fill a room, even if it's void of patrons; it's what he calls the amateur audience sound engineer. Those who approach him during a show, perhaps with the best intentions and even a hint of validity, and to offer advice or feedback on what they can or can't hear at a show. Those are the annoying ones.
"In a live environment," he says, "there are many many many factors that do not allow it to sound like a studio recording." Sounds are different in different parts of a room. The listener's own auditory bias can also effect individual perceptions, but, please, just let the sound-tech do his job.
As Chvojicek says, "I don't go up to them when they're at work and tell them how to do their job."