As part of our monthly On The Road With… series, I spoke with Ross Harris, the front of house engineer for Best Coast. Here are his thoughts. Pay attention to his tips on how to approach a house sound guy with your requests. Ross Harris is a live/ recording sound engineer living in the Bay Area. He has toured doing FOH for Best Coast, the Devil Makes Three, Wavves, and the Papercuts. When he’s not on tour, he works at various venues around San Francisco.
Hi Ross, thanks for talking with us. We know how busy you are and we truly appreciate your time and expertise. Who are you out with currently and what does a typical week look like for you?
I’m currently out doing Front of House for Best Coast, a great band from LA. As far as a typical week- I’m either on tour or working around the bay area at different venues. I also record bands occasionally.
How did you start mixing?
I started with an internship at a recording studio in the bay area. Through that, I started helping out with a small production company up in Santa Rosa, CA- mostly running cables and loading trucks. Then I started mixing more and more. I learned a lot about doing live sound helping out and eventually working shifts at the Last Day Saloon in Santa Rosa.
How long did you work the local scene before you started touring?
It was probably about 2 or 3 years before I did a tour. The first couple of tours I did were pretty small venues - no festivals or really big rooms or anything like that.
What was your big break? How’d it come about?
I’m still waiting for Neil Young to call me about doing his Front of House! That would count as a big break I think. That said, I’m really happy with the touring I’m doing now.
When you’re not on tour, what venues do you typically work for?
In the Bay Area, I work at the Independent, the Rickshaw Stop, Bimbo’s 365 Club, and the Great American Music Hall and Slim’s. All great clubs in my book.
What are the big differences between being the house guy versus being a touring engineer?
Both have their merits. Being the house guy is kind of a balancing act. You are trying to make sure the bands are happy, the soundchecks are running on time and that doors will open when they are supposed to. Also, you have to make sure the mics and PA and all the gear stay in good shape. Also, you are in charge of mixing any opening bands that don’t have their own engineer (often with very little time to soundcheck) and making sure everything gets back to where it needs to be for the headlining band and their touring engineer. It can be a lot of work when it is a 4 band night and the headliner is taking up a lot of stage space and time. When you are the touring engineer, your focus is just your band, and making sure they sound as good as possible. Of course, it can be frustrating as the touring engineer to walk into a venue that just isn’t sounding right- whether it’s the PA or just bad acoustics, and you only have an hour or so to make the room sound the way it needs to.
Any advice that you can give bands that are just starting out? What’s the best way to approach the house sound guy?
The main thing you can do to have a good show is to make sure your instruments sound as good as possible from the stage. If you’re a drummer, make sure your drums are in tune and not ringing out in bad way. Guitarists should make sure their tone represents what they want to be amplified through the PA. Singers- get close to that mic! Don’t expect the sound engineer to try and fix bad sounds for you. And of course, be nice to the engineer and communicative. If you have a mixing request like “we want the lead guitar really loud,” most engineers will keep that in mind throughout the set. Overall, I find that if you are respectful, people will be respectful back.
Any bad examples of approaching the sound guy that you want to share? Any tips on what not to do or how to not behave?
As far as tips, be on time and turn down when asked.
So there’s a natural progression in an engineer’s career and sooner or later, you run into thinking about using in-ears. It’s just part of growing. When did you first start to suggest in-ears and why?
Using in ears can help in a few ways. Singers can often sing more accurately pitchwise because they are able to hear themselves better. They usually don’t have to sing out as much when they use in-ears, so they preserve their voices a little more on tour. Also, monitors are loud and can be fatiguing night after night.
When do in-ears really start to make sense from an engineer’s perspective? Is it dependent on the tour size or the room size or something else entirely?
I think they are useful in any size room, it just depends on the musician’s needs and what they are comfortable with.