|January 2007: Whether talking about the early days of the SoCal punk scene or the state-of-the-art dual PA he's using on the current Chili Peppers' tour, Dave Rat knows his stuff.
GC: How did you initially start in sound reinforcement?
Dave Rat: I was 16 years old, working at a local donut shop in Hermosa Beach, CA, when a homeless guy that I used to give free donuts asked me if I wanted to buy a hookah. Not exactly sure what that was, I agreed and it turned out to be a beautiful hand carved wood and engraved brass hookah that cost me a whopping $5.00. I ended up trading it to these guys for a pile of AKG microphones. Looking back, I guess it was pretty much a symbolic life decision.
I took my new mics, bought a cassette deck and worked out deals with local punk bands to record their live shows and then make them a copy in exchange for putting me on the guest list. After a while, I met this guy Tom who taught me how to build speaker cabinets. My early PA gigs were two of those AKG mics running into the mic preamps of the cassette deck into a "y" cord and out to an amp and speakers. The main issue was that I had to hit record on the cassette deck in order for the PA to work. The PA would shut off when the tape ended so I had to flip the tape over really quick.
GC: Where are you located and how many employees do you have?
Dave Rat: The Rat Shop is located in beautiful Oxnard California. We chose that city because of its eloquent name. Our employee count varies quite a bit depending on how busy we are. Usually there are 8 to 10 humans running around the Rat shop with anywhere between 10 to 40 out on the road at any given time, except December when 'live sound' people usually starve.
GC: You have been doing this since 1979. What do you think has contributed to your longevity and success all these years?
Dave Rat: There are several concepts or ideals I embrace that all pretty much relate back to the same thing. I believe that if you enjoy what you do, you tend to do it well. If you are happy and do a good job then the people you want to be around like to have you around and don't mind giving you money for doing what you love. Never take advantage of people and people will look after your back rather than try and stab it. If you agree to do something then do it and if you find out later that you are underpaid or the gig was misrepresented, it does not matter. Do the gig properly and take the financial hit. Your reputation is way more important than cash. Learn from errors. Try and avoid repeating mistakes but never compromise the quality of what you do. Never give kick backs, the concession in ethics give those that cannot be trusted a power over you. Be patient, a constant positive pressure in a chosen direction will invariably see results. Shortcuts are a gamble. If you want a guaranteed win, then take your time. Most importantly, enjoy that time and don't stop till you succeed.
GC: What bands have you worked with over the years?
Dave Rat: I started recording punk bands like Black Flag, Redd Kross and the Descendents that rehearsed at an old church near where I grew up in Hermosa Beach. I've worked in various capacities ranging from PA tech on Sonic Youth, Fugazi and Pearl Jam to Front of House engineer on Offspring, Blink 182, Beck, Rage Against the Machine, Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
GC: What tours/shows did Rat Sound work on in 2006?
Dave Rat: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Mars Volta, AFI, Taste of Chaos, Warped Tour, Toni Braxton, Coachella Festival are some of them.
GC: What is on tap for 2007?
Dave Rat: We Rat's never count our chickens before they hatch and take no tours for granted, so we will just have to work hard and see how we do and I never know truly what will happen next.
GC: Could you talk about the evolution of cabinet and system design and how Rat Sound has been involved with those changes over the years?
Dave Rat: When I first started building sound systems, huge multi-box horn-loaded rigs and giant one-box systems were the prevalent designs on larger tours. Additionally, it seemed that my home stereo and recording studios sounded great and each live show I attended sounded like a different form of terrible. "Why can't someone just build a live PA that sounds like a really loud studio monitor," I kept wondering? So that was exactly what I set out to do, design and build a giant PA system that sounded like a studio monitor. Early on, we saw considerable resistance to our 'tiny' but loud PA systems but over the years all those bulky dinosaur PA's have become all but obsolete and replaced by compact high fidelity systems. Though I cannot say Rat Sound's tiny industry presence contributed to the evolution, I can say that we designed and built compact studio monitor-type systems that toured the world on an arena level.
Rat Sound's current design focus is in developing the MicroWedge product line. Though only three products have been released so far, we have a complete Micro Series in various stages of development that we hope to bring to market over the next few years.
GC: Could you also elaborate on the dual PA system that you have been using with the Chili Peppers?
Dave Rat: The dual PA system is the most exciting new PA adventure for me. I am actually doing a worldwide arena tour with two side-by-side PA systems! The concept combines the basic premise of the Grateful Dead's "Wall of Sound" system with the fairly common monitor setup utilizing separate instrument and vocal wedges. One specification that you see on amplifier specs but never see on a speaker system spec is intermodulation distortion or IM distortion. Why not? Mainly because it is treacherously 'not good.' Think of it this way, a speaker is maximally efficient and has minimal distortion when the voice coil is centered in the gap. Now put a bass note in there that pushes the cone all the way out and at the same time have a vocal that tries to push the cone farther out and then in a bit and then out again. The mechanical resistance of the speaker cone suspension prevents this and the speaker moves inward easily and struggles to move outward farther. This non-linearity is a form of distortion and sounds bad. Running a low frequency tone into a speaker and then running voice into the same speaker can easily demonstrate this phenomenon and you will hear a vibrato-type blurring of the vocal. If you run the tone into one speaker and the vocal into a separate speaker, the tone will not distort the vocal.
What I have done is to apply this same theory to an arena system scale. There is one PA dedicated to guitar, bass and toms and a second PA dedicated to vocal, kick and snare. The IM distortion is optimally reduced and not only is a clearer sound reproduced but more line array cabinets are utilized to cover the area without infringing on sightlines due to overly tall arrays. Furthermore, I can send any instrument to either system in real time so I can demonstrate this clarity improvement by putting the entire band in the outer system, the entire band in the inner system or various instrument/system combinations. It truly is fun and exciting stuff.
GC: Do you have a preferred vocal mic?
Dave Rat: I personally use the Audix OM7 for almost every act. I have yet to find another mic that has the off-axis and background rejection I get from the OM7. Plus it gives me this up close and intimate vocal sound that I shoot for, especially in the large reverberant venues I am so often working. Because of the high rejection it is definitely a 'lips-on-grill' type of mic. I will use a Sennheiser 900 series mic for singers that pull away while singing.
GC: Are there any mics that you have to have for every show?
Dave Rat: I love Shure SM 98's and/or Beta 98's and use them on snare top and toms. Have you ever tried a Shure Beta 98 as the bass guitar mic? I never understood why people put large-diaphragm, floppy sounding mics on the already floppy sounding bass speakers. I started with 98's on the bass when the 98's were first released and have yet to beat it, live. Other than that I try and mix it up a bit. I pair up a Shure Beta 91 and an Audix D6 on the kick drum and stay away from condenser mics that have a model number that is a multiple of 9.
GC: Are you a minimalist when it comes to signal processing?
Dave Rat: Ha ha! Where would you get that idea? I have a huge processing rack consisting of 2 effects, 7 gates and 12 comps and that's all I need for a stadium. I would say I am a minimalist when it comes to gear, in general, except for the main PA and subs. I am not into using fluffy ego-boosting gear with fancy faceplates, big knobs and pretty lights. I memorize all the gear I use, I mix in the dark, I watch the band and for a piece of equipment to make it into my signal chain it must be intuitive, sonically correct, compact and reliable.
GC: What are some of your favorite compressors, EQ's and effects boxes?
Dave Rat: My favorite comps are the BSS DPR 404's. Single rack space quad comp, good metering, a de-esser that I never use and they are simple to dial in. One of the main things I look for in a compressor is for it to sound like what I see on the meters. Some comps you here before you see, while others you see the meters moving but can't hear it working. As far as EQ, I favor the BSS 960's for 1/3 octave graphics and the Meyer CP10's for parametrics. I really rely on the variable high pass filters in house EQ's to clean up the bottom end of the main system and the long fader travel is convenient. Since I mix in the dark, the way I deal with the 1/3 octave graphics is I pull the fader knobs off of 250 Hz and 2.5 kHz. I can then adjust the EQ by counting octaves in either direction, brail style. If I were only allowed 1 effect to carry, it would be a Lexicon PCM 60. I like the nice old school crunchy reverb sound and I can just punch buttons to make changes. It is unbelievably difficult to find another unit that sounds even similar. All the rest of the sounds I seek are pretty easy to find on nearly every decent multi-effects unit out there. My other favorite is an Eventide H3500. The PCM 60 does all the reverbs and the H3500 does everything else like vox flanging, delay cues and guitar panning. I used to use 4 or 5 effects units, years ago, but I found that in the large reverberant spaces, it was just piling up and getting lost. I am much happier with sticking with one or two effects sounds on any particular song. Also, I love the DBX 120Xds sub harmonic synth. I don't use it much during the show but when I do, it creates mind-bending breathy low end.
||GC: In what ways do you use compression?
Dave Rat: I rely almost entirely on sub group compression. I have found that it gives me accessible, logical and manageable control over the various instruments. I combine all of the vocals and then compress them as a stereo sub group pair. That way, if one person sings or all people sing the overall vocal level stays fairly constant, same with guitars in stereo and bass in mono, each into their own compressed groups. I mix the kick and snare together into a single compressed subgroup to contain them as a binary pair. Toms get a stereo group and the metal things like cymbals get a stereo group as well. Another wonderful advantage of sub group compression is that it gives me control of the compressor thresholds without leaving the console. By assigning VCA's in the same groupings as I do the subgroups, the VCA levels are pre-threshold and the subgroup faders are post-threshold, allowing me just to glance at the compressors and optimize them very quickly. Finally, the coolest thing is that by assigning all the channel inputs to a master VCA and all subgroup faders to another master VCA, I get a master pre and post compressor levels allowing me to push everything into compression for a contained sound or out of compression for a dynamic sound. Since each instrument is compressed individually it avoids that annoying interaction created by full mix compression where one instrument pushes the level of another one down.
GC: On what sources do you use gates?
Dave Rat: I like to have a stereo gate on the two kick mics triggered off of one of them. The same goes with the snare top and bottom. For Peppers, three more on the toms and that's it. I am partial to the Klark Teknik units with the Drawmer as a second choice. Both work perfectly for me and like the comps, I tend toward the quad units. I like gates that will properly trigger with as few knobs as possible. I like to set up one gate and copy it over to the rest of the drums.
GC: Do you have any general tips for EQing?
Dave Rat: The way I go about it is this: The job of the console's channel EQ is to achieve the correct sound from the microphone/instrument combination. The job of the house EQ is to correct for the system/venue combination. The job of the system processor's EQ is to correct for internal speaker/cabinet/construction and cabinet-to-cabinet interaction. By using the proper EQ for the proper job it will highly simplify setting up the system each day and reduce confusion.
If the console EQ's are doing what they should, then you should be able to record a tonally correct mix right off of the console left and right outs, pre system EQ, and have it sound great. Also, as long as you use the same mics everyday and the stage sounds are the same, your channel EQ's should almost never change, regardless of the venue.
Each show day, corrections for the various room differences should be made on the system EQ and the processor's EQ should correct for any system configuration changes. By following this plan, everything should visually and logically fall into place.
GC: Do you use high-pass filtering to clean up mixes?
Dave Rat: Absolutely. I use a lot of subs. Currently I have 44 dual 18's out on the Pepper's tour and with all that power below 60hz, I have to be careful not to let low frequency gremlins wander around. Not only do I use the filters on the channels but also by using subwoofers on an aux send it gives me the ultimate high-pass as in the "it can't get there from here" version. Low frequencies tend to accumulate from the various mics and sources on stage. Though using the high pass filters can be helpful, they are just attenuating the lows sent from that particular source. Since only the inputs that are sent to the subs can get to the subs, a dramatic improvement in low frequency clarity can be realized. What I send to the subs depends somewhat on the PA system and it's frequency response without the subs turned on. With most systems, I mix the show with only kick drum and bass DI sent to the subwoofers though floor toms and sometimes keyboards are also contenders.
GC: What software and/or techniques do you use to tune your systems?
Dave Rat: I learned and tried some very sophisticated setups over the years but I keep returning to a fairly simple setup. In addition to listening using my ears, I use three references: comparative, visual and mechanical. My comparative reference is a pair of Sony MDR 3000 headphones. I listen to a CD 'before and after' style where I compare the sound in real time between the headphones and PA. I have found that if I use the house EQ to copy the headphone sound onto the PA, I get excellent results. Second is visual, where I use an old 1/3 octave DBX RTA to gives me an easy-to-use visual reference. I know what a good sounding show should look like on the unit so it will alert me to any issues. Since human hearing can change quite a bit caused by head colds, hangovers and plane flights, the visual reference really tells me where my ears are at. The mechanical reference is based on knowing what the EQ knob positions look like as well as knowing what a typical system EQ looks like in a venue this size. I have found that the EQ really does not change all that much from day to day so if I find myself boosting highs on channels that are normally flat, I go back and try and determine why. Are my ears dull? Is the system functioning properly? Maybe it's a mic issue?
GC: What are the main components of a great sounding live mix?
Dave Rat: For bands that have a singer, "Can you hear the vocals?" is high on the list. A majority of live shows happen in crappy acoustic environments. Sonic perfection is just not going to happen. Sonic perfection is the job of the recording engineer. The live engineer's task is to present the audio in such a way that people attending the show can walk away with a memory they love to hold onto. I want to hear all of the instruments clearly and make sure it's not painful, either tonally or volume-wise. The most important thing is to connect the impact and excitement generated by the band to the audience.
GC: What is your preferred mixing board?
Dave Rat: Currently it is the Midas H3000. For the dual PA system I need lots of sub groups and, with 24, it works perfectly.
GC: Can you talk about your decision to use smaller desks for recent Chili Peppers shows?
Dave Rat: I am on a bit of a quest to mix the biggest show I can on the smallest board possible. It started out as a joke where a monitor engineer I was working with kept adding more and more gear. I then decided that every time he added some gear, I would reduce the size of my setup. By the end of the run, he was on a Midas XL4 and I was down to a 32 channel Midas Verona. I then mixed Peppers for 12,000 people on a 32 Channel Midas Siena. I always prefer to have my touring FOH setup but there are always those times where I have to mix on local gear. I am hoping to mix a 50,000 + festival on a Verona or Siena. It's just a matter of time!
GC: I saw that you had an eBay auction for ad space on the backs of your and the Pepper's Lighting Director, Scott's t-shirts. How did that turn out?
Dave Rat: Quite well, it turns out that we pretty much cornered the "Advertise on a Roadie" market and the mechanics of supply and demand drove the price up to a whopping $406 of which we donated 25% to the Surfrider Foundation. Not only that, I can proudly say that we made it to one of the top auctions on goofyauctions.com, got announced on the radio in Northern California and Portland and showed up on web sites as far away as Israel.
For those that may have missed it, the deal was this. On Peppers tour we, of course, decorate the Front of House area to prevent it from being an eyesore. Though the autumn theme we were displaying was quite pleasing, the season change going into winter required something fresh. In order to fund the new decoration and earn the money while in the mix area, we decided to auction off ad space on our backs on eBay. The winner could then select a single Pepper's show any where in the world for us to wear their ad. The winner was George who owns a small sound company in Ontario Canada called Crank Productions. He's a very cool guy and we are looking forward to the ad.
We intended on doing a Tiki theme but ran into irreconcilable issues. The new theme will be unveiled on the winter European tour and although we are way over budget, we are quite excited.
GC: Do you have a favorite venue?
Dave Rat: Does my mp3 player in my living room count? Slane Castle in Ireland is right up there. Red Rocks in Denver and The Gorge south of Seattle are all quite aesthetically memorable but actually it is all about the people. The energy of the fans when they get so excited that it gives me goose bumps. Those are the gigs that I enjoy the most. As far as load-ins and acoustics, those challenges are difficult ski slopes or rock climbs. The challenges add dimension to the enjoyment of a successful adventure.
GC: What are the keys to maintaining a good working relationship with a band?
Dave Rat: Probably the most important thing I can offer the band as a live sound engineer is confidence. If I can give them complete confidence that the sound will be as absolutely good as it possibly can be and they know that when walking on stage, then I have succeeded. No excuses. Never blame anyone else no matter what goes wrong. I am responsible for the sound of the show. Period. I will do everything in my power to make it sound as impressive as possible. If I screw up, I take responsibility and make sure that issue never happens again. That is how I perceive my position as sound engineer and the good working relationship seems to come naturally.
GC: What do you enjoy doing when you're not on tour?
Dave Rat: Not touring? When I first get home, I cling to home, hang out with my short people, try and swim everyday, ride my motorcycle around. After I have been home a while I snowboard in the winter, do some fishing and weld things together. One of the constants in my life is working on Rat Sound projects and going to the Rat shop whenever I can.
GC: Got any advice for someone wanting to get into live sound?
Dave Rat: Learn everything, the more you know the more valuable you are. No task is too menial. Know how to load trucks and solder cables, listen to everything, help out, volunteer to assist, go to a sound school, intern at a sound company, read the message boards. It is a tough business, but hard-working, honest people with a positive attitude and a friendly personality are an asset to any industry. If you stay focused and put in your time, success is just a matter of time.
To read Dave's tour blog please visit www.ratsound.com/blognav.htm