Interview by SickthingsUK
Photos courtesy of Randy Meullier
When they go to see a show, whether it's Alice Cooper or anyone else, people generally give very little thought to how all that equipment came to be on the stage, or how the lights change green at a certain point. They do however notice the sound, especially if it's bad. What many don't realise is that making a loud rock and roll show sound good is an art, and often the factors working against you are monumental. To provide some insight into what it takes to put take the Alice Cooper show on the road, SickthingsUK spoke to current Alice front of house engineer Randy Meullier.
STUK: To start at the beginning, how did you get into front of house sound engineering? Did you start out as a musician before swtiching?
RANDY: I got started in this crazy business 28 years ago when some friends of mine in a local band in Pittsburgh Pa. suddenly lost their sound guy and they turned to me and said "Your it" and I looked at that " huge" 10 channel Altec 1220 console and said "What the heck is that and what do I do"? I learned with a lot of interesting mistakes and worked my way up through some of the top regional bands until I got a call from a band from Pittsburgh called G- Force that they had gotten the last 3 months of the 1981 Van Halen tour. That kind of set the pace in a lot of ways for me. It made me fall in love with big arenas and huge production and hate small clubs and venues. As for being a musician, no I am not in any way a musician and have never had even the slightest desire to play an instrument or be on stage. I like being behind the scenes and unknown. But I guess this kind of kills that!
STUK: Who else have you worked with over the years?
RANDY: To name a few, Ratt, Warrant, Royal Hunt, Victory, Gotthard, and a lot of sound company work doing horrible gigs that would be considered paying my dues. That's why it cracks me up when these young kids come out of some school that claims to get them ready for this kind of job, and they get all upset when they have to unload trucks and fix things and wrap miles of cable before they get any chance to attempt to mix anyone.
STUK: How did you end up working with Alice Cooper?
RANDY: I was with Ratt on the AC, Dio, Ratt tour in Scandinavia a few years ago (2001) and they liked what I did with Ratt so when they needed someone they called me. It's been great ever since and an honor to work with Alice.
STUK: The average concert goer probably never really thinks about what goes on before they enter the hall, could you describe a typical day for you on the road?
RANDY: A typical day begins for me around 8:30 am when I roll out of my bunk in the bus. I usually go to the back lounge, get dressed, and look out the windows at the surroundings to see what is there. I usually head into the venue around 9 with the comment to everyone who is up "Well lets see what hell awaits us today". I go find Paul Bostic, the monitor engineer and my partner in crime, who is an early riser, and we check out the PA placement or hang and I go out and see where I will try to squeeze my console and racks, hoping it will be in a place I can get a good picture of what it sounds like. Sometimes it isn't and that has a lot to do with the promoters and their seating setups. A lot of times I call it educated guessing and I walk around a bit during the show.
Then comes breakfast in catering where we eat some yellow stuff and brown stuff and some browner stuff (eggs and bacon and sausage of unknown parentage) and woe be unto anyone that eats that one chocolate covered donut before I get it!
The load in starts at 10 and as the gear comes in the door each department (lights,sound, backline) directs their gear to where it goes. We get 16 local stage hands each day and they are absolutely indispensable to doing this. They are divided up among each department and we start putting it together.
Most of the time we use different speaker systems in each city from different sound companies so I talk to them about how I will connect to their system and what I have and what I need. I get the hands to get my console and racks out to Front of House and roll it onto it's stand and place my racks. This is usually followed by an apology to them because the console weighs 980 pounds in its case and if anything deserves an apology that does.
I then connect all the cables and connect the main audio snake and power and turn on the power and hope it turns on after a night in the truck. It always has so far.
By that time the stage set and back line are going up and I go up to the stage and get the microphones out of the mic case and talk to Paul about how things are looking in his world. Paul runs all the electric and audio lines to various places on the stage and I place the mics on the drums and guitar cabinets and run the mic lines and plug them in. By then it is usually lunch time and we go grab some food.
After that I go out to FOH (front of house) and setup my computer (a Mac Powerbook) and wait for Mike Kennedy our Lighting Designer to finish the focus. I will listen to any recordings of the night before and see if they are worth keeping (console recordings are a crap shoot).
When Mike gives me the go ahead that I can make some noise I play some music through the system (usually High Hopes from Pink Floyd) to tune and EQ the system. If it is a good, well setup, rig that usually takes just a few minutes. I will walk around to see what the coverage is and if there are any dead or weird spots in the house and see what we can do about them.
After that is some down time until around 3 PM when we do the line check. The crew plays all the guitars, drums and keys and Paul checks his monitors. The crew "band" plays some AC/DC and then we're usually done until show time unless the band wants to come in for a sound check or to play around with their gear.
We then turn the stage over to the opening act and I connect the opening act console, that is supplied by the sound company, to my console. We usually have some time between then and when the doors open to do whatever we want. If we are someplace I have never been (yeah right!) I will go walk around or we go watch tv on the bus or take a nap.
When the doors open I put on some walk in music and go eat dinner (the usual Chicken, Beef, or Fish).
When the show starts I kill the pre-show music and let the sound company engineer or opening act engineer do his thing and I usually leave the building to sit on the bus and have some quiet time.
I usually go in about 5 minutes before the support band is done and put on our pre-show music when they finish.
We then go through a pre-show line check through my headphones and when that is done I get on the intercom with Paul. Most people think we are talking about very important show stuff but it is usually about dinner, a movie we saw, the weather or any other normal stuff.
At showtime Paul gets the show call and then gives me a special code phrase we setup and I start the intro and off we go. The code phrase is so nothing will make me start the intro unless I hear him say this one phrase. And no I am not telling what it is!
After the show ends I play one song for walk out and then shut down and we do a complete reverse of the load in. After that is done hopefully the venue has some decent showers and off to the bus for some after show food (usually pizza) and I get to bed fairly early while some of the guys watch a movie or something. It is usually 1 am by then. That is a usual day. It changes a bit for festivals and other kinds of out of the ordinary venues and gigs.
STUK: How many people does it take to put on an Alice Cooper show? Techs, Lighting etc?
RANDY: The crew consists of tour manager, production manager, 2 guitar techs, drum tech, lighting designer, lighting tech, FOH engineer (me) monitor engineer, props tech, Alice's personal assistant, 2 bus drivers, truck driver. 16 local stage hands and assorted promoter reps plus sound and lighting company crews.
STUK: Do the band members have any special requirements?
RANDY: Special requirements from the band: Make me loud! :)
STUK: Do you need to attend the final rehearsals before a tour?
RANDY: I usually like to be there to get my gear together and everything ready to go. A lot less stress that way.
STUK: What is your most stressful moment before/during a show?
RANDY: As for stressful times, I see a lot of engineers just about having a heart attack before a show and during a show. I guess it is just me but I am completely relaxed and happy during the show. I would bet my heart rate is the lowest then of anytime during the day. Kind of weird I guess but that is the way it is as long as there are no problems but if there is we fix it and move on.
STUK: Do you get to spend much time with the band/Alice or do you find the crew and the band are separate entities on the road?
RANDY: I run into Alice from time to time and say "hi" at the gigs but usually I see him at the hotels on days off. When the band gets there I will usually go say "hi" and see what's new and interesting in their world and I see them at dinner. Myself and Mike are probably the most isolated from the band as we are out front and don't see them much before or after the show. We are all VERY good friends though and depend on and trust each other a lot.
STUK: How was it playing the big shows with the Stones recently and all that rain?
RANDY: The Stones shows were great. I LOVE the big shows and the Stones were giving big a whole new meaning. Their crew were so great to us and treated us with a lot of respect and gave us everything we needed. As for the rain. It was like taking a heavy cold shower with your clothes on. It started around one in the afternoon and just got heavier. Water, mud and garbage from the crowd. Just lovely. FOH was in a tent and I could barely hear the PA but from the comments and video we got I guess it turned out great. It was not a lot of fun and we looked like wet dogs afterward. The back lounge of the bus was filled with our clothes trying to dry out. Luckily we had two travel days and we went in early at the next show armed with hair dryers to dry everything out. We were literally pouring water out of stuff. It was a miracle it all worked. We really dodged a bullet there.
And in Louisville it was sunny all day and 10 minutes before Alice went on it started to rain. The sound crew came running out with rolls of plastic sheeting and covered me up. I was holding it up with my teeth and they were holding it and it was pretty silly. All went well and we laughed about it after.
In Phoenix the stadium acoustics were awful and The Stones engineer and I were saying that they should have sold tickets for two days because it was the sound would be bouncing around in there for a day or two. I walked out to FOH during their show and he was shaking his head and looked at me and laughed and rolled his eyes. Yeah, but I still love the big ones.
STUK: Does the job differ between indoor shows and big shows like that and the festivals/State fairs?
RANDY: Every show and every venue is different in some way. Using a different speaker system every day makes it a lot more different for me than anyone else. I just try to do the best I can with what I have where I am at and hopefully it all comes out well. There are shows that I have walked away thinking that was really total crap and had people say it was amazing. Go figure. Sometimes I am honestly in the worst place for sound in the house but have to deal with it. Just the nature of the beast. When we are in a theater and I am all the way in a back under the balcony I have no idea what it sounds like in the balcony. There is no way to know except to send someone from the sound company up to tell me what it needs and then I have to compromise between that and what is happening downstairs. There is just something about the big arena shows that feel really great to me. Sometimes the acoustics leave a lot to be desired but like I said I don't care for the small "intimate" places.
STUK: Do you often get fans coming over and asking questions etc? Does it interfere with your job?
RANDY: The standing joke with Mike the lighting designer and myself is that we have targets painted on us. Since we are out among the crowd everyone thinks we can answer all of their questions. Questions like: "Dude, do you know what all those knobs do?" - Yes I do. "Do you know Alice?"- Yes I do , "Can you take me to meet Alice?" - No, I am busy and even if I wasn't I wouldn't. "Wow man you get to hang with the band and get paid for it to. COOOL!" Well if the 12 previous hours of busting our butts putting this up is considered hanging with the band, so be it.
I have had a very crazy woman come back and stand in front of the console screaming at me that she was unhappy with her seats and wanted to talk to Alice about it NOW. This was during the show. After 4 times I had her thrown out when she got really abusive. Another time a very irate guy demanded to know why a certain song wasn't played. I shrugged and said that was information I wasn't given. I just mix the band. He kept yelling at me until he pressed enough of my buttons and out he went. Another time a woman who looked like Morticia Adams came up to me just as the doors opened and said she MUST speak to Alice. She was holding a picture of of him encased in plastic. I told her I was the janitor just cleaning up around this thing with all the knobs and who is Alice. I told her to head down front to the guys in the yellow security shirts and ask them. She floated on down and I headed for dinner. Those guys weren't to happy with me.
Those are a small cross section of some of the questions. Most are not weird or rude or even irritating but I really have other things to do and would prefer not to be bothered. During the set change before our show I will generally put on my headset for the intercom and when someone tries to talk to me just point at it and shake my head and they usually get it and go away. I am not trying to be rude, I am just in my own world at that time and really don't want to be bothered. After the show if someone has an honestly interested question I am always willing to answer it in the few minutes before we start tearing things apart. But when I gotta go, I gotta go. And once again. I won't take you to see Alice or take any messages or letters back stage. Sorry.
STUK: The technical stuff: What equipment do you use to do Alice's live sound? Do you carry your own PA/desk or do you just use in house systems? (Is it hard to use a different system each night?)
RANDY: The technical stuff. My console of choice is the Midas XL4. It has 48 channels of which I use 47. 37 inputs for the band and the rest are effects returns and playback returns. I use Drawmer gates on the drums and either BSS or Drawmer compressors on the background vocals and instruments, and a DBX 160 SL tube compressor on Alice's vocal mics. I use 4 Yamaha SPX 990 effects processors, 1 Eventide Eclipse Harmonizer and a TC D2 Digital delay.
I use analog Klark Technic system EQ's and DBX 160 compressors on the drive outputs. I also have a CD player and a CDR recorder and that is pretty much it at FOH. I try not to turn it into rocket science. Simple is better.
I have chosen to stay with analog equipment. I think it sounds better and is more reliable. Just my personal choice. Sooner or later I will try a new digital console. I guess the old dog will have to learn some new tricks.
Paul the monitor engineer uses a digital Yamaha PM5D. Works well for him and what he does. We also use Shure microphones and DDrum triggers on the drums. As for the different speaker systems everyday, It doesn't make it any easier but I am used to it and it really isn't an issue.
STUK: As well as running the sound, you also handle the intro tape and some of the sound samples during the show, how does that work?
RANDY: Yes I do run the intro and some but not all of the sound samples. I used to run them from cd's but ran into problems with them, the players and me putting the wrong cd into the player while doing other things. (I had a couple of big "WHOOOPS!!!! events because of that) so I found a really great little shareware program called Macscue that only cost 20 dollars and I load all of the things I have to play onto my Mac and set up a play list, and what I want it to do, and start each one by tapping the space bar. Works great and is a life saver. I connect my Mac to the console with a small IMic USB audio adapter and that's it. I balance and edit the samples and it works great. I would never trust a windows PC to do this as I would probably get the old blue screen of death at a critical moment.
STUK: What are the best and worst things about being out on long tours?
RANDY: For all of us the best thing about a long tour is being employed and getting back with our friends and working with an amazing organization like we have. And the worst for all of us is missing the people who are important to us at home.
STUK: Where are you favourite places to play?
RANDY: I honestly don't have any real favorite places. Like I said I like the arenas better than the small places but as far as countries, the insides of gigs are all the same. ie. A stage, lights, PA, dressing rooms, catering,etc.
STUK: What's the worst 'disaster' to happen during a show?
RANDY: We have been pretty lucky and had only one major and one minor disaster. See below for the major one.
The minor one came recently in Boston when a drunk idiot in a Halloween costume walked by me, turned, and screamed and slapped his hands on my outboard rack and partially pulled the USB adapter out of my computer so that when I got the show call about 30 seconds later all I got was silence when I started the intro. I got on my radio (that we all wear) and started yelling "No intro GO, GO, GO". I guess someone heard me and they started, but I wish I could have gotten my hands on that creep. I spent the next few songs getting the mix together and troubleshooting the problem with the sound company tech. It was a simple fix, just push the USB adapter back in and reset the audio preferences. But that is why I like a lot of distance between me and the audience. Luckily except for rainstorms that is about as bad as it has gotten. (I'm looking for some wood to knock on)
STUK: How about the best 'on the road' story you tell?
RANDY: The best road story. Geez, I don't know. 28 years of this has kind of blurred it all. I have had a machine gun pointed at me by East German border guards, a 500 pound American bomb was found outside a gig in Germany in a construction site. It had been there since WW2. We left quickly. Myself and some other crew guys ran down the hill in Austria that Julie Andrews ran down singing 'The sound of music'. Yes we were trying to sing it but laughing to hard. I stood at ground zero in Hiroshima and a week later was at the Smithsonian looking at the plane that dropped the bomb. I have met some of the coolest people on Earth and some of the biggest jerks on Earth. I'm sorry I can't think of anything really amazing. Just another day in the music biz. By the way I have never had a drink of alcohol or done ANY drugs in my life so I don't have much to say about stories like that except seeing a lot of friends wishing they were the same way as me. If I think of anything interesting I will let you know.
(From Devon): There seemed to be a noticeable difference between Tommy Clufetos' and Eric's drum kit. Tommy's just sounded a lot more powerful and defined. Were the drums mic'd up differently between the two sets to cause this different sound, or was it just the actual drum kit themselves that caused the difference in sound?
RANDY: Tommy and Eric are amazing drummers. The absolute best of the best as far as I am concerned. Their drums are different as are their playing styles and tuning. For instance when Brent Fitz (who is also an amazing drummer) filled in for Eric he used Erics drums but tuned them differently and played them differently so they sounded very different.
(From Shoesalesman): Is Alice specific about how the sound is produced or does he let you pretty well manage as you see fit?
RANDY: I am pretty much left to my own to do the sound. They trust me and know my mixing style fits with the band. I like loud guitars. So many shows I have seen are filled with huge loud thumping drums and the vocals on top of that, and the guitars are way in the back. Guitar players love me but if they make a mistake people are going to hear it. I try to mix the band as a band and learn all the parts of what each guy is doing and I balance the band just below Alice's vocal. It is a struggle sometimes because of room acoustics but I have been pretty successful. I have had some people who I have HUGE respect for in this business say they like what I do and that means more to me than anything. In this business respect of your peers is EVERYTHING.
(From Shoesalesman): Who decides what pre-concert songs to play before a show starts?
RANDY: The pre-show music is given to me by Brian Nelson (ALice's personal assistant) and I run it through my computer and balance it and burn cd's. I honestly couldn't tell you one song that is there. I never pay any attention to it. I just put it in and hit play and usually leave the hall 'till show time. Although if the cd starts skipping you will see me running to FOH with a pissed off look on my face.
(From Matt Parish): What was the worst "last second fix 'em up" that you had to prepare as a concert was starting?
RANDY: The worst last second fix was at the Moondance jam in Minn. last summer when it rained all day and water got into the audio snake connections. We were 90 minutes late going on. We didn't know if it was the console or cabling or what so we switched over to the House console from the sound company (cheap piece of crap digital console) and went for it on the fly with no real line check or anything. I only had for sure the vocals, one channel each of guitars, and kicks, snare and hi hat and off we went. Ted Nugents engineer Frank, who is a good friend of mine, was helping me find inputs and patching things as the band played. It wasn't pretty at all, And to top it off during this chaos the sound company owner brings all of his friends up on the platform to watch the show. I said some really unpleasant things and they all left. The funny thing is that after the show people were walking by telling me how it rocked. I didn't think it did and I owe Frank big time for his help in just getting the show on. I was just glad it was over and I hated that console and never want to see one again.
(From Baz): Does you prefer the small, intimate venues, or the larger halls. Is it harder to get a decent sound when playing in concrete arena`s as opposed to custom made concert halls, as in Sheffield City Hall.
RANDY: Once again I like the big places. I have never cared for small intimate venues and I truly hate clubs and venues where they allow smoking. I usually get some human chimney sitting near me choking me. Give me a huge arena or stadium any day. It is sometimes harder to get a great sound but nothing can compare to the feeling when the lights go out in an arena and the intro plays and the crowd goes crazy. What it comes down to again is live sound has a lot of variables and you can only do the best you can with what you have where you are at. The perspective I have where I am is usually not the same as a guy sitting way up in the balcony, but hopefully the aiming and testing of the PA during the day and my sore legs from running up and down the stairs to balconies and upper levels in arenas helps.
STUK: Any last words?
RANDY: I have never done anything like this. I have always stayed as anonymous as possible and hopefully you will all forget who I am as soon as you read this. Just remember we spend a lot of time everyday so you can see that 90 minute show. Sometimes if we are not very friendly we just might be really tired and have a long way to go before the day is over. We are also not an introduction or messenger service. I love what I do and will probably do it until I drop over dead at the console (that'll make some headlines somewhere won't it!!). Take care all and enjoy the shows.
I'd like to thank Randy for taking the time to answer questions and give us an insight into the behind the scenes life on tour. Perhaps now everyone will see that without him and all the other crew guys you would have NO show!