Front of House: With Stive Collins

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Whether you’ve been to see a stadium sized show of 50,000+ people in attendance or an intimate show of 50 punters, chances are there’s been a person who is usually one of the first to arrive at the venue and one of the last to leave. Charged with setting up the entire stage with microphones, floor monitors, running cables, tuning the system, cuing house music between acts and packing it all up at the end of the night. Often dealing with the odd punter giving their “expert” advice of how the band should sound and why they’re not doing a good enough job. We are of course referring to the unsung heroes of the live music industry, the people who keep our pubs and clubs sounding great and the vibes of a night flowing from start to finish, you guessed it, our live sound engineers.

A couple of months ago a friend’s band had travelled to Melbourne to play their first interstate show, they mentioned something after their gig that really stuck with us. They had noticed how dedicated, attentive and friendly the sound engineer was. Noting that they had never experienced such a professional and passionate engineer before. The person they were referring to was non-other than Stive Collins.

Stive has been a Melbourne based live sound engineer for over ten years and if you take a look at the list of artists he’s worked with over that time, it’s a monstrous collection of acts. After recently completing his first international tour as the front of house engineer for Didirri and from there jumping straight into a national tour with Melbourne’s Perch Creek, Stive kindly found some time to sit down with Andy from Noisegate whilst setting up at the Evelyn Hotel in Fitzroy to chat about his diverse experiences as an engineer, the highs, the lows and a few tips in between. Stive’s passion is infectious and his dedication to give back to his community is truly humbling.

Hey Stive, thanks for taking some time out to speak with Noisegate. How was the last gig you mixed and who were you mixing?

The last gig I mixed was great, it was my friends Masco Sound System, and it was their new single launch at the Northcote Social Club. It was fun, it was a good night…

Where did you get started in live sound? 

I got started in live sound after I did a course in sound engineering. I actually thought I’d be working in studios and when I finished the course one of my friends’ bands had a gig on early week and they said “You’ve done a sound course and it says we need to bring our own sound engineer” so I went down and plugged in a few mics, and it was ok, it wasn’t great but at the end of it they offered me a job. That was over a decade ago and I haven’t done anything else since.

What are some of your favourite venues you’ve mixed at over the years?

I recently did a show at the Recital Centre here in Melbourne, that was fantastic. Very acoustically sound room, very controlled, fantastic outboard equipment and a good seated audience so you could really do whatever you wanted there. That was good. I really like the Theatre Royale in Castlemaine, just such a beautiful old building and really nice old school analogue setup there. Really great staff and they really know how to run that venue, so that’s always a good one. And, I mixed at this huge nightclub in Amsterdam called Paradiso, which was just really exciting. It is very ‘state of the art” technology in regards to sound and lighting, it’s a multi storied complex that is like a mega club, so that was really good fun.

Who are some artists you’ve worked with that you’d consider a highlight?

I really enjoyed working for a local band called Big Smoke and they definitely opened a few doors for me as far as working with other Americana/Country style bands. They were definitely some of the more important mixes of my humble little career so far. I did a tour with Courtney Barnett a few years ago supporting Something for Kate on an album launch tour. We did thirteen shows, and that was really fun, that was a great crew and we got to do some bigger rooms. Perch Creek are always good, I’ve done a lot of shows with them. They’re a local family band, they’re just great people to tour with and they’ve got incredible live energy and have excellent harmonies. They’re good friends of mine so it’s always nice to work with them.

Does the music you listen to affect the way you approach mixing at all?

I think it does, definitely. Yes, it helps to know what the band is trying to go for in terms of their sound taste wise and you learn that through, obviously doing your research and listening. I work with a lot of bands that play the style of music that I’m really into, so for me its just second nature and I already have a good idea about how the band wants to sound like. I also talk with them to find out what sound they want to go for. I approach mixing definitely more from the artistic side rather than the scientific side and I know just enough about the equipment to get the sound that I want but I’m definitely a musician at heart and that’s how I’ve approached it and yeah it does change how I mix. I can mix any genre but I prefer to sort of work with more of the Americana, singer/songwriter, acoustic/folk bands and then a few rock bands, shoegaze/psychedelic music.  Those are the genres that I’ve focused on recently I guess.

What are some of the biggest challenges and/or most enjoyable things about being a live sound engineer?

Firstly, challenges I think is the very nature of the job, it is quite nocturnal and just working nights for a long time, that’s a challenge in itself. Another big one that I’ve personally discovered is, alcohol, and a lot of people do drink. I stopped drinking nearly two years ago because it got the better of me, but you definitely don’t need that, to drink to still be part of the scene and still have a good time. But because of how available it is, it really is a bit of an occupational hazard, so that’s a big one for me.

Some of the most enjoyable things would definitely be mixing my friends bands and just having that sense of community. I’ve met so many people through the job and had so many amazing experiences and that’s all because of music. Mixing my friends bands at festivals is definitely my happy place and I’ve found that I’m really happy to be able to contribute. I feel like it’s a really meaningful use of my time to do sound for my friends’ bands. I also really like making playlists of house music to help set a vibe and sometimes you will get someone come up to you and ask what songs is this playing over the PA system, and then when you tell them, hopefully they’ll go home and listen so that they discover a new artist or genre that they haven’t heard of before. I really like that part of the job as well.

Do you have a particular routine for setting up for a gig or does it vary from venue and artist?

I pretty much stick to the same routine.The first thing I do is turn on the whole PA system, flatten out all the settings from last night and then I’ll plug in some music and play it through the system just to have a listen. I always listen to something that I’m really familiar with, just to test everything’s working. And then, crucially, I will set a vocal mic where I think the lead singer’s going to be and I will start tuning the foldback wedges. I believe the most important thing to do is get that vocal sound coming through the wedges and stop it from feeding back. And really from then you can build, but if you don’t have a good vocal sound in the monitors and you don’t have that clarity and stability knowing it’s not going to feedback, then the rest of your mix is, you know…… The priority goes to the vocal, for most of the styles of music I work with, so I always try and start with the vocal.

Are there any particular pieces of gear that are a must have for gigs you mix? Do you have a preference of digital or analogue?

My preference would definitely be digital, but as long as it’s not cheap, crappy digital because if it’s a smaller venue, I’d rather just cheap analogue gear than the cheaper digital stuff. I started mixing when there was a bit of a crossover and digital just started coming in so I’m very comfortable of both, but nothing beats a nice old analogue system but they take up a lot of space and you’re not really seeing much of that anymore so preference would probably be for digital. They’ve got great work flow and they have a lot of inbuilt effects and processing. As far a kit goes, I carry around a bunch of my own mics and a few nice DI’s. I usually use Sennheiser and Audix for vocals, and Sennheiser for instruments and drums. Clip on drum mics are really handy, so you’re not wasting mics stands, you just clip them on, it’s easy. Occasionally I’ll take some outboard effect pedals, like delay or reverb, but most of the time I just bring along my mic kit that fits into my backpack.

Last but not least, what have you got coming up?

I’ve got a few things. Right now, I’m at the Evelyn Hotel in Fitzroy and tonight working for a fundraiser, and there’s a bunch of bands on. The fundraiser is for awareness for domestic violence and violence against women so its money going to a good cause and very happy to be helping out for that. I’ve also got a work experience student with me here this evening. After this, I’ll be working with this artist called Didirri and we’re doing the Vance Joy national tour support. We’ve got nine shows through Australia and New Zealand and they’ll be bigger stadium shows so I’ll be mixing Rod Laver Arena for the first next month, which I’m really excited about. It will be good to get out there any fire up some big PA systems. Then we’ve got a couple of festivals and then we’re going back over to Europe again for a month, once again with Didirri to do some more shows. We then come back for a national tour for his new release. So yeah, keeping me pretty busy, keeping me outta trouble.