Sound Advice: David Eisenhauer

Front-of-house engineer David Eisenhauer is a veteran of live sound, a proponent of analog gear, and a world traveler. His noted talent for mixing sold-out stadium shows regularly takes him on the road with stars like Jon Bon Jovi, Kelly Clarkson, and Paul Simon.

To become an esteemed member of the elite Clair Global Audio staff, experience is everything. How you get that experience is almost irrelevant, though, so long as your aptitude is evident. In fact in some cases, rising to that level begins with simply being the only guy around who knows what he’s doing. For David Eisenhauer, a sound engineer who tours with stadium giants Jon Bon Jovi, Paul Simon, and Kelly Clarkson, it all started in a small club when the usual sound guy called out sick. Jumping on the boards, his obvious talent garnered him immediate recognition on his local scene, leading to his first gig with the then up-and-coming artist Sheryl Crow.

Eisenhauer knew he had a musical ear at a very young age. Some of his earliest memories consist of his parents putting dark sunglasses on him as he belted out Stevie Wonder songs. As a teen, he found himself responsible for overseeing the PA system at his band’s rehearsals and gigs, while also mixing sound for his guitar teacher’s band. Upon graduating high school, Eisenhauer borrowed money from his parents, purchased a PA system, and began mixing bands at local bars, festivals, and fairs, seizing any opportunity he could to develop his techniques as a sound engineer.

In a time when technology changes rapidly, and many chase after the latest and greatest trends, the sound advice that Eisenhauer has for engineers today is uncomplicated: invest in high quality gear and stick with what you know works.

Get In Media: What was the first big act that you mixed sound for?
David Eisenhauer: I had mixed various groups and one-offs and festivals, but the first person that I really worked with on a regular basis and got hired from the get-go of her career was probably Sheryl Crow. I met her at the end of 1992. Her record hadn’t even come out yet, and she decided that she didn’t want to put a band together with all LA studio musicians. She wanted to make it a bit more organic, so she moved back to St. Louis to put a band together. I knew all of the guys that she was hiring to put the band together, and she and I hit it off. I was there through the whole audition process of when she was putting her band together.

GIM: When did you develop your interest in sound?
DE: I initially wanted to be on stage, like every young kid just starting out. I just happened to own the PA for my band. I started off playing guitar and had a band in junior high and high school. We all had our instruments and our guitar amps, but we didn’t have a PA system or anything to sing through, and my parents were nice enough to buy us all a PA system. I got stuck being not only the guitar player, but the guy that set up the PA and learned how to run the PA and get the microphones out without them feeding back. A lot of it was learned through trial and error, due to the fact that none of the other guys in the band knew anything about it.

I have a motto: I don’t like to experiment in front of 20,000 people, so I stick with the gear that I know works. I’m not interested in the latest, greatest piece of gear, just because it’s the flavor that month.

I became fascinated by the business. I used to go see my guitar player’s band all the time, and the guy that was running sound for them would let me hang out with him. They had a small club lighting gig, and I would end up pushing buttons and running lights; it was easy to push buttons in time with the music. One night their sound guy was sick and couldn’t make it in, and we were all at the club already, and they were kind of like, “Here, you’re running sound” and little by little as the night went on, I was like, “Well, that drum doesn’t sound right.” I would play around with it until I thought it sounded good, same with the guitar and the vocals. I played around with things until I thought, “Hey, that sounds pretty good” and come to find out, at the end of the night, the club owner came up and said, “That’s the best you guys have ever sounded.” Over the period of the next couple of months, the band asked me to run sound for them at this show and this show. They started buying gear, and I started running it.

GIM: How old were you at the time?
DE: Fifteen. The guitar player or the singer would literally pick me up at 3 pm out in front of my high school and drive me down to the club. We’d load in and do the gig from 9 till 12:30 at night, and I’d get dropped off at my house and get up and go to school the next day.

GIM: So, then you decided that’s what you wanted to do for a living?
DE: I kind of did it not really ever thinking that I could make a career out of it. It wasn’t until much later when I started hearing about that being a job on these big tours that paid well that I set my mind on it. In the meantime, when that first band I was mixing broke up, they owned a big PA system, and I convinced my parents to lend me $50,000. I bought the PA system, and essentially, I was a sound company owner. At the time, I was 19 or 20 years old, and suddenly, I owned a 24-foot Ryder truck full of PA gear, and so, I was renting my sound system out to local bands and doing fairs and festivals and things with my PA system. The one thing that I always did was I tried to buy the best gear—the gear that they were using on tours—with the attitude that “some day, I’m gonna end up on tour,” and I want to know how to use this gear, as opposed to a lot of people at the time [who] were buying 20 of each thing because they wanted to have multiple systems. I never wanted to be a sound company owner; I wanted to be an engineer. It ended up by doing that, I started making connections at various fairs and festivals and things, and then, I got introduced to the people that gave me my first break.

 

GIM: What would you recommend for people who are interested in getting into sound engineering today?
DE: What I would recommend first and foremost is to be honest with yourself. If you want to be a really good engineer, you have to have a really good understanding of music. If you’re somebody that’s not musically inclined from the beginning, I’d consider a different career. A lot of people go, “Wow that looks exciting,” but they couldn’t tell you the difference between a good sounding guitar and a bad sounding guitar or an out-of-tune vocal to an in-tune vocal. So, first and foremost, I’d recommend having a musical background and having some musical talent. The second thing would be, get hired on as an intern at a studio or get some work as a house sound guy at a club where there are bands that you actually get to mix coming in four or five nights a week, where you can actually get your chops together and dive into the deep end of the pool and learn how to do monitors, learn how to do front-of-house, and literally learn what works and what doesn’t work. You can go to a school, and they can teach you how to use the equipment, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have an ear for it, then you’re not going to really go that far.

GIM: What kind of equipment do you use in your daily job?
DE: The kind that works every day. I have a motto: I don’t like to experiment in front of 20,000 people, so I stick with the gear that I know works. I’m not interested in the latest, greatest piece of gear, just because it’s the flavor that month.

I am still a huge fan of the analog gear. I’m not really a huge fan of a lot of the digital gear that’s out there. There’s stuff out there that I think is really good that suits the application, but I will use my Midas XL-4 mixing console until they pry my dead fingers off of it. I just prefer the sound of it. I also use outboard effects and processing and stuff. I still use all the analog old school compressors and reverbs and stuff.

By nature, you never really want to play in something that’s the shape of an oval, because you’re dealing with odd reflections and things that aren’t really conducive to good sounding music.

GIM: Can you run us through a typical day on the job, from when you arrive to a city in a tour bus to set up, prep, work, and tear down?
DE: My job on the tour is to make sure the sound system is tuned properly and to mix the show. On an arena tour, my day usually starts around 10 am. I walk into the venue and seek out my system engineer, meet with him briefly about anything that might be different that day PA-wise. After that, I set up my FOH (front-of-house) mix area. That consists of setting up my Midas XL-4, wiring up the outboard effects racks, and setting up the computers that control the sound system. Once the PA is flown and tested with pink noise, my system engineer and I walk around the venue and tune the system. After that, we do a line check of everything on stage, fix any issues that might come up, and then wait for the band to arrive for sound check. After sound check it’s usually dinnertime, followed closely by some quiet time on the bus. I usually head back in during the opening act’s last song, do a line check again after the opening act gear is clear of the stage, wait for the house light cue to fade the changeover music and mix the show. After the show, I tear down the FOH sound area, make sure it gets to the dock and then meet the monitor mixer for some wine.

GIM: Are there different sound requirements for each song in the setlist?
DE: For every song, there’s different gear. I have a cue list of different things that happen. I’m actually mixing and blending it for the room and based on the audience reaction and everything. I’m blending all the background vocals and blending the levels of the guitars and the keyboards and putting effects on the vocals and doing effects cues and adding things—essentially making it sound as close to the record and also larger than life, to give the audience that really big live concert experience.

GIM: What is the most challenging aspect of the job?
DE: Mixing sound in venues designed for sporting events or large stadiums.

GIM: What makes stadiums more challenging?
DE: They’re not designed for live music. Some of the open-air stadiums sound good; some of them not so much. Just by design, the shape of them isn’t really designed for live music. It’s designed for watching football games or watching baseball games or, originally, watching lions tear Christians apart, so that’s kind of the origin of the stadium. By nature, you never really want to play in something that’s the shape of an oval, because you’re dealing with odd reflections and things that aren’t really conducive to good sounding music.

GIM: What artists have you worked with?
DE: Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp, Enrique Iglesias, Kelly Clarkson, Trisha Yearwood, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, Bon Jovi … . 

GIM: What was your most chaotic moment working at a show?
DE: My console dying at Madison Square Garden last year on Bon Jovi—not my finest hour and probably the worst day of my career! The power supply died in the middle of the show. It got really quiet. The song stopped, and they made an announcement, telling everybody to be patient for a few minutes. Unfortunately, the spare power supply had died in the afternoon, and we were running on the backup, and the backup died in the middle of the show, but, fortunately, we have a console that we use for Internet broadcast that’s set up backstage by Video World, so we patched over to that, and it got us through the rest of the show. The band eventually came back out, and the show went on.

GIM: What other live events have you been a part of?
DE: I’ve mixed quite a few of the big awards shows over the years. They’re fun but can be very challenging because, first and foremost, it’s all about the broadcast mix. You have to be very careful how you approach the audience mix, so you don’t disturb the TV mix. That can be interesting when you have artist managers standing behind you that don’t understand that. 

GIM: Are you affiliated with a company now or do you do this on a freelance basis?
DE: I’m a staff engineer at Clair Global Audio (It used to be Clair Brothers Audio).

GIM: So, do you mainly do sound for Bon Jovi and then occasional award shows when the need arises?
DE: It’s kind of a situation where they call whoever is available at the time. I’ve done Bon Jovi for the past 12 years; they’ll put in a request sometimes six months in advance and say, “Hey, make sure David’s available” and they’ll put me on a retainer. There’s been situations where—last year I had a month off and I went out, got the Paul Simon tour started, and then I had to hand it off to my assistant, and he continued to mix the tour. I think Paul’s going out again this year, but he’s going to do it because he finished the tour and did a good job. The way it works, working at a company like that, is that we’ve got a dozen really talented engineers, so when one person isn’t available, we’ll cover it with somebody else. A lot of times, different production people will call up and say, “We want one of your sound systems, and is this guy available?” and they’ll say, “No, he’s on this tour, but this guy’s available.” And they’ll say, “Oh we know him. He’s really good!” So, at any given time, I could be out doing a number of different things. You’re never doing the same thing for more than a couple months, and then, you’re on to the next thing.

GIM: Would you recommend that people affiliate themselves with a company?
DE: Yeah. I mean I went to work with a company primarily because it’s like working for a big corporation. You get health insurance and a 401k, as opposed to being independent. When you’re working for a company, then you’re working under the umbrella of a large sound company, and they are able to build the client through your services, and you have the backing of a big company. When you’re an independent working for all these different groups, then, you’re the guy that has to call up all these management companies and say, “Hi. I’m really good. Hire me.” Some people make a good living at that, but then they have to take care of their own health insurance and retirement plan and all that. I just thought it would be better going to work for a company, because they help sell you and find you new work, as opposed to finding it on your own.

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