Wednesday, March 9, 2011

a few questions for....Robert Scovill

original post May 24, 2010

Robert Scovill has been called a legendary live sound engineer, one of the most respected people in live sound, one of the most influential people in the business and just an all around great guy.  Just getting to know Robert, I’m pretty sure he will laugh off the word legendary but I do know that his reputation in live audio well respected and highly influential.  I’m also getting to know he is an all around great guy.
I first learned about Robert Scovill and his incredible resume back in 1994 while sitting in one of the audio theory classes at The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Phoenix, AZ .  When you are one of the best in the bizz, people sit up and take notice. As a student of audio,  I sat up and took note of Mr. Scovill. Ever since, I’ve followed and did my best to study his work in live and studio audio.
Robert has accrued more than 3,000 live event mixing credits during the course of a 30-year career.  He has worked with such bands as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Matchbox Twenty, Prince, Rush Def Leppard, and Alice Cooper.  A 6 time TEC Award winner for Sound Reinforcement Engineer,  today, Robert serves as the Senior Market Specialist for Avid (  He is leading the development of some of the most sought after digital consoles in live and studio production including in the church. 
Robert invests into the future of audio production through his Complete FOH Engineer workshop.  Robert leads the main workshop himself and gathers a few other top professional audio engineers to equip apprentice and veteran audio technicians in the multi day hands on program. You can find out more info here
I’ve had the privilege to meet Robert Scovill last year through a mutual friend.  From a handful of conversations with him one thing has always been obvious.  He is an all around great guy.  He’s the real deal and his passion for audio and people shine through.
So on top of being one of the busiest guys in the business he took some time from all he juggles, including currently mixing front of house sound for the 2010 Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers North American Tour, and was willing to answer a few questions (well, alright, alot of questions…but it’s Robert Scovill!) for us…
Bill [B]: Would you be willing to describe a little of your spiritual journey? Give our readers an idea of your background…
Robert [R]: Well, “spiritual journey” is a great way to describe it I suppose. I grew up in a Baptist setting during my formative years. It was not a religiously strict setting and I would not characterize my family as avid church goers during that time but enough to get one thinking seriously about it for sure. For a long stretch of my adult life I was certainly a person who debated the question of “why are we here” or “is there a God or not” both internally and externally. I’ve always considered myself to be an open minded person and that is the irony I think of how I feel about God, in that what I hear from my friends who are not believers is that they perceive religion as constricting and narrow minded and I have a completely opposite view of it. I consider it completely liberating. It is now nearly impossible for me to consider what a life must be like if there is no sense of “being” attached to it. Meaning, how meaningless would your outlook on your life, or your day, or your next minute of life be if inside you were sure that you were nothing more than some cosmological accident. Why bother even getting out of bed? I choose not to think that way or believe in that way. I choose to believe there is a creator, and I am one of his creations. For my money CS Lewis nailed with Mere Christianity. While I’m certainly not suggesting I am a thinker on par with Lewis, that book was like someone transcribed my thought process for me.
[B]: How are you able to foster your faith –or even share your faith while working with some of the bands you’ve had the opportunities with?
[R]: I get asked this question a lot. I don’t know whether God would endorse my approach, but it goes like this; I try to convince people about the merits of my faith with my actions more so than with my words. I know this crowd, and they like a good debate – but it’s hard to argue with actions. LOL – I sympathize with many of my cohorts in the entertainment business because many of them feel like I felt as a younger adult meaning that; “I have no problem with God, I just don’t care for many of the people that claim to speak for him”. I think at times it looks too much like show business to them as well and for that reason they lose respect for it, not gain it. I just suggest to them hey, stop focusing on the picture frame and concentrate on the picture. On the flip side, once I became fully committed to Christianity it was like a blindfold got pulled off of my eyes a bit. I remember sitting in catering one day and took note of about 3-4 guys quietly saying grace before digging into lunch. These are guys that I had been touring with for a LONG time and I had no idea they were Christians. Now that said, I still find myself tossing out a few cuss words now and again and I am certainly not void of sin. Flawed human to the end to be sure …  
[B]: When out on tour, what do you do to keep your mix fresh when mixing the same songs night after night? What do you do from becoming complacent?
[R]: Ya know I think this just has to do with your mindset in general and your respect for what it is you are responsible for. Now that said, I’m not going to tell you that you don’t struggle with it over the course of an 18 month tour. But you have to respect the moment, you have to respect the responsibility that the client has put in your hands, and finally you have to respect what the fan is expecting to experience while there. All that said, I could count the shows that I’ve done that I would consider as flawless on one hand – but the shows that I was totally focused for throughout the night … that’s a big number.
[B]: Is there any piece of analog gear you carry on the road with an analog console that you’ve not been able to find a suitable plug-in replacement for?
[R]: No
[B]: Is there anything at all about the analog workflow you miss? or have you “never looked back”?
[R]: Well, it’s gonna sound a little fluffy or romantic here, but there is a tactile connection that takes place with analog gear that is missing from digital. I don’t know how else to describe it other than “when you are touching actual gear the actual fader and hearing the response from a movement of a control – if feels different than it does when doing the same move with a virtual piece of gear or a virtual fader”. I would compare it to painting on canvas with a brush vs. painting on a screen with a mouse. Both can yield great results – but the feedback from the medium is very different. Short of that little ditty, some of the tried and true analog workflows that we’ve come to love are still a bit too difficult to implement on digital in my opinion, But all that said, I am fully committed to digital for live sound. The positives of it far outweigh the negatives in terms of practicality and most importantly result in my opinion.
[B]: What are some of the things you do that put what would be a normal mix, an over the top mix?
[R]: Well, really it’s just the amount of detail. And frankly detail takes time, lots of time and commitment to what you are doing. It is where churches struggle a bit because there is little commitment to the amount of time needed to provide detail. It’s much more of a “one-off” mentality – more like a weekly festival one-off if you will. The goal is just to be loose and avoid the major catastrophe. In the end it sells the worship experience short in my opinion. If God is truly in the details, then what we do on a weekly basis in many churches today is playing to the lowest common denominator. I think that is a shame really given what is at stake on Sunday.
[B]: What’s your advice to that guy/gal that gets to sit behind the console a weekend or two a month at their local church?
[R]: Understand the context of what you are presenting. Respect how important it is to do your job well for the person who is there to receive the message as much as the person who is delivering the message. Learn to listen – not operate.
[B]: Do you mix audio at your home church?
[R]: I have a few times in the past at my previous church. I actually worked as the service producer for an extended period of time until I literally burnt myself out. I was in charge of assembling charts, assembling all video and PowerPoint content on a week by week basis, sometimes playing in the band etc. I loved doing it and I loved serving my church. That said, in retrospect I actually feel closer and more in tune with God since I stopped doing it. I’m still trying to process that in many ways …
[B]: Who do you look to or who inspires you when it comes to mixing audio?
[R]: Oh, it’s not one person really. I try to dig in and tap into the passion I had for music when I was just a kid. I always seem to do my best work on something I am really passionate about. I mean I have a list of mixers that I would consider the greats – but at the end of the day, I can’t be them nor should I waste time trying to emulate them. I have to be Robert Scovill and if that’s not good enough, I’ll be okay with that too.
[B]: What’s your favorite plug-in to use with vocals? Bass? Guitar? Drums?
[R]: Uh … EQ, Dynamics, Harmonics or Reverb??? Heck I don’t know, the one that is working … the one that is there? It totally depends on the application and the style of music really. Sorry …
[B]: What are your favorite mic’s to use on Drums? Vocals? Guitar Amps?
[R]: Uh … I hate to be vague here … but at the end of the day, many times I just use what is available. The key is making the source sound good before it gets to the mic. If not, the mic is just a better or worse deliverer of a poor sounding instrument. I just don’t think or work like that where I carry a tool box of my favorite tools. I’ll listen to an instrument and think … hmm let’s try this … I’ll bet that would work well. Now that said, I do tend to gravitate toward certain mics on certain instruments but many times the style of music or the style of the player will dictate what mic I use as much as anything.
[B]: How do you stay fresh and avoid burnout?
[R]: When you find out the answer, please let me know immediately … LOL … my only defense seems to be to get completely away from it for periods of time. A complete sabbatical if you will. For me I can get lost in my family or my wife as a source of isolation from it, My wife sees it in me a mile away. I lean toward participation in individual sports like snowboarding or competitive shooting or golf or running or swimming etc. to get me into another head space. I’m an only child, so I’ve learned to be content with my own thoughts as a companion. This served me very well over many years of touring. More often than not I just need to step away from music for a while and STOP listening. When I do, I find that when I come back my ears and my approach feel very fresh.
[B]: What do you do to gain confidence from the band you are working with?
[R]: Be prepared, be consistent, be accountable … own your mistakes … share your accolades and pats on the back.  
[B]: How do you learn new mixing skills?
[R]: By breaking down other peoples mixes, breaking down my own mixes, listen listen listen and never hold on to any one approach too tightly.
[B]: How do you teach new mixing skills?
[R]: Well this is an interesting question. I’m always amazed at the response I get during my seminars when I start addressing this, because my take on it is that mixing has little to do with operating a given technology. In my mind, when I hear the first sound, be it in the PA or standing next to the instrument on stage or anywhere for that matter, maybe I’m just imagining what it will sound like, and my first thoughts are how I’m going to mic it, place it against another instrument, process it, whatever … at that very moment, I am mixing. So to me the “mixing” skill is more a level of expectation that has to be developed. The console and the surrounding technology then simply become the means to meeting that expectation. That thought process and expectation is what needs to be taught and nurtured.
[B]: How do you keep the ego out of the way?
[R]: Simple agenda check … what or who is your work serving? If it is anyone or anything other than the song, the client, the fan/congregation member, you might want to evaluate why you are doing it.
[B]: How did you get started in doing audio?
[R]: I was lucky enough to get exposed to some pretty high level audio at a very young age. I knew in my early teens I wanted to be in concert sound or record production or both. I just didn’t know how to get there – and given where I grew up etc. there weren’t many clues. Like most kids, I started out as a musician and wanted to be the next Mitch Mitchell or Keith Moon. But I had a couple of key events in my teens that gave me insight into the production side of it and I was hooked from that point forward. From the time I was about 18-19 years of age, I simply took every gig I could get my hands on whether it paid or not. Lucky for me I got hooked up with some folks who actually knew what they were doing and served (sometimes unwittingly) as mentors to me. Without them, I’m not quite sure I would have made it to where I currently am today.
[B]: What do you do to prepare for working with someone you’ve never worked with before?
[R]: I spend hours digging into their music and if given the opportunity spend an equal amount of time with the artist to get some sense of who they are and where their music comes from and how they actually want it to be presented. After that it’s just about execution really. But it’s important for me to know what they bring to the table and for them to know what I bring to the table as well.
[B]: How do you recover from mistake(s)?
[R]: Simple, don’t panic! Mistakes are going to happen at every event bar none. What I teach in my seminars is that you have to lose your fear of making mistakes because it is debilitating to your process. The only way to do that in many instances is to have previously made all the mistakes – maybe even more than once. That’s part of that thing called “experience”. I submit that in concert sound in particular, many high paid people are paid for their experience level more than their actual skill level. Because live performance is so volatile it becomes really important to have people that are cool under fire. I liken it to what a professional golf instructor told me once during a round of golf with him. He said, “you know the difference between you and a pro golfer? (I was waiting for the ribbing to begin) It’s the magnitude and regularity of your mistakes. When you hit a perfect shot, and the pro hits a perfect shot – they’re the same. But if you count up the mistakes that you make during a round vs. the ones that he makes during the round, they have a very different impact on the final score.” That has always stuck with me and is a great lesson for any venture in life – but especially so for live sound work.
[B]: What sparks your creativity?
[R]: Boredom … and it’s why it’s so important to have down time away from the art or what ever work I’m involved in.
[B]: What music are you listening to?
[R]: Oh gosh, a lot of blues. I’m really fascinated and moved by the blues both contemporary and vintage. I’ve also been listening to a lot of older country from around the late 50s and early 60s. There is something magical in the sound and presentation of that music during that period that just works for that style of music. Very cool. Also, got turned on to a new artist recently named Pieta Brown that I’ve kind of fallen in love with – cool stuff.
[B]: Who inspires you?
[R]: Oh man, inspiration comes from funny places. It could be anyone from my kids or my wife to a guy who is out on the street and able to swallow his pride long enough to ask me for a quarter. If you’re paying attention, inspiration can come from anywhere or any situation. If I got to a point where I could only be inspired from looking within, then something is clearly out of whack – I can’t imagine being that self absorbed.
With that said, people, specifically leaders who have attained stature and notoriety, yet consistently work from the position of serving those they lead are who I strive to emulate.
[B]: How much of the mix is science and how much is art?
[R]: With mixing in particular, the science IS the means to the art.
[B]: How do you deal with criticism?
[R]: Welcome it, explore it, and dig deep, because regardless of the criticism and who it comes from, if you dig deep enough, you’ll probably find a hint of truth in it. Embrace it and be open to it, just don’t become a slave to it. Meaning you can’t mix or make music when the agenda is to please critics – You have to be your toughest and most viable critic. Mix sound with the goal of pleasing everyone and you will end up pleasing no one.
[B]: What’s your advice to the guy/gal that wants to make a living mixing audio in a live or studio environment?
[R]: Be patient and be diligent. Get as much experience as you can before anybody learns your name. (see the answer concerning making mistakes) Work with the servants heart and it will take a you a long way in my opinion.
[B]: With a very busy schedule that is never the same, how do you make time with your family a priority?
[R]: Incredibly challenging. It is a complete balancing act as it is with anyone who works for a living. What I’ve learned about kids is that contrary to popular belief, it is NOT about quality time with them – it is about quantity time, and they have every right to expect it. You just have to balance it against the responsibility of preparing them for the world we live in and dedicate as much time to them as you do to your craft. But it’s important in my opinion to have both of those dedications on display at all times for your family to see.
[B]: As a FOH mixer what is the biggest challenge you see to young FOH guys? Did you have to overcome this challenge and if so how?
[R]: Oh boy – from my perspective it’s swaying them away from buying into the idea that technology can be a replacement for knowledge or an approach. Don’t spend all your time learning about the vast array of technology out there. The choices are just seemingly endless. I preach it big time in my classes, it’s not about the gear, it’s about your approach to using the gear. Learn the “why” and then the “how”. As my dad used to say “don’t blame the pipe wrench for the bad plumbing”
[B]: What’s the best way to establish open communication with the band?
[R]: Who really knows? Every situation is different, you just have to be on the lookout for opportunities to communicate and then act on them when they are there. Again part of having experience is knowing when, where and how to speak.
[B]: What do you do if you are put in a situation where you know that due to the circumstances, the sound isn’t going to be what it should be?
[R]: First, evaluate the context of the setting – what are these people here to experience? And then make sure and focus on that singular aspect and simply squeeze every ounce of result out of the situation in order to make it happen. But that said, it also goes back to what I mentioned earlier about having a viable and repeatable approach to doing live audio. If your technique is based on one PA system, or one console, or one processor, or one mic – what the heck do you do when you don’t have those? You show me a person with a solid approach to audio on a lame sound system and a person with an iffy approach on a state of the art system and I will put my money on the guy with the good approach 100% of the time.
[B]: Do you see any brand new technology coming out or just some  refinements of what we are working with already?
[R]: I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of how digital technology is going to impact live sound. For example when ubiquitous networking is a reality, and when computer processing power dramatically surpasses what we currently think is powerful in terms of it’s ability to handle audio become a reality, live audio is going to be very interesting indeed. And ya know what, that is not all that far away
[B]: So, when is the Venue line coming out with a 24 channel version.  Avid has the Profile and the SC48, but both are way overkill when it comes to a smaller sized chapel.  Any insight to future plans?
[R]: Sorry, can’t talk about that …
[B]: Where do you see live mixing going in the next 5-10 years? Where do you see the music industry headed? Production industry?
[R]: See my comments on what I believe mixing actually is … if you buy into it, you realize it’s in no way time sensitive.  That said, in terms of technology, we are certainly getting to the point already where the technology is so powerful  and complex, and you have so many choices in terms of what you can do to the audio and how the console operates that the end challenge ends up becoming – “can the human manage it mentally”? How do we help the human manage more and more functionality within a given workflow. Even at this point in time, we can certainly put more software functionality into the systems than the vast majority of users could effectively manage. So it’s a bit of a balancing act moving forward. The  learning curve is already steep and getting steeper.  I liken it to the current state of jet fighters. Right now, the latest jets are managing the pilot to a degree because the plane’s operational possibilities can surpass the physical limitations, certainly in terms of G-Force that the body can take.  So the plane’s tactical functionality is somewhat governed by the limitations of the pilot.  Hmmm … that sounds eerily similar to digital consoles in live sound. :)



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