A Day in the Life of a FOH Engineer for Sturgill Simpson

A Day In The Life Of A FOH Engineer For Sturgill Simpson


David Loy is a graduate of the June 2015 Live Sound Engineering Program from The Blackbird Academy and has been out with some fantastic artists since his graduation. His most recent gig was for Grammy Country Album of the Year Winner, Sturgill Simpson. We luckily caught David in between dates, and he agreed to drop by his alma mater to talk about life on the road!

TBA Live Professor Kyle Welch conducted the interview, and he is denoted with blue text. We've also included videos for two of the questions! 


So, David. What have you been up to?


So, I started with Sturgill Simpson at the top of September. I want to say it was September 9? I did around 8 shows in September, and he was just wrapping up the A Sailor’s Guide to Earth tour around that time.

I came in contact with his production manager about a year ago, and it’s been incredible so far. 


A Day In The Life Of A FOH Engineer For Sturgill Simpson


What's a day in the life of a FOH Engineer for Sturgill Simpson like?



It’s fairly relaxed. We had our schedules set by the time I started with them, so the bus would normally roll in around anywhere between 9 and 10 to the venue. We’d get there early enough to grab showers in the venue if they were available, but I would normally try to grab one the night before so I could sleep in as long as I could. Then I’d get up and go grab a sandwich from catering.


"it’s 2 hours of just high energy... And the first hour and 15 minutes there’s no setlist; it’s different each night."


The first thing I always did each morning was walk into the venue and just get the lay of the land — get to know where everything is — especially the stage. I wanted to see what stage looked like, how wide it was, how deep it was, and how tall it was; I wanted to see if there were two levels of balcony… if there was one level of balcony… how close the balcony was to the PA... and then specifically, I wanted to study the system for the day because we didn’t carry PA for this tour. We carried everything but that.

And that was usually the biggest hurdle I had to hop over. Each show was figuring out some combination of:

“What’s our PA like?” “What are our subs like?” “Is it 12 inch drivers, 10 inch, 15 inch?, “What are we looking at inside the boxes themselves and amplification?”

I definitely wanted to know what kind of amps we were using. All of those factors can kind of dictate how the PA sounds on stage, and also how it sounds up front to me, so normally the biggest thing of the day was figuring out where we needed to put the microphone.   


A Day In The Life Of A FOH Engineer For Sturgill Simpson


For the best projection purposes?


Yes, because in his ears the microphone is very loud, and it’s also obviously the loudest thing out front too, so we want to make sure that there is a limited amount of PA in his ears.

So, after that, we’d normally start rounding up stagehands to start doing load-in, and load-in was normally around 12. Backline was pretty easy, so we would just pop it all out and our monitor engineer would handle all the micing.

I would set up all the keys since I play keys in my spare time. So yeah, I would take on the Hammond, the Wurley, the Moog, and the Mellotron. So keys were always pretty fantastic, actually.

And we’d mic everything up, and then I would head out front, tip the console, start component checking the PA, and making sure things are getting where it needs to get to. Then myself and the front of house tech for the company that we were renting from for that show would start listening to the PA — start tuning, essentially.

I would try to utilize any balcony fills and any venue speakers that were already installed, as well, to get as much coverage as possible. You never know when you might need it, and it’s always good to at least plug it in and mute it later.


Right, you don’t have to turn it on if you don’t need it.


Exactly, and I would use a series of matrices off my console, so I had maybe balcony left, balcony right, balcony center,  and the lobby. I had matrices for days, and if I needed to mute certain ones, I could.


"We don’t really have anything on stage that goes below 50 hertz, so if I did have subs I was normally high passing them up to about 50 or 45."


So we would start tuning, and I would try to tune and be done by 2 o’clock because we would start soundcheck at 3. Soundcheck was scheduled from 3-5, so if I was done at 2 that gives me enough time to just kind of relax — maybe run some tracks from the night before back through the PA. We’d always try to be finished with tuning as close to 2 as possible.

When we would tune I would pay close attention to the PA — specifically looking for coverage up in the balcony and coverage down on the floor and make sure I wasn’t getting too loud, because the louder I would get the more the PA would end up on stage; so I did try to use shading as much as possible to get as much coverage as we could.

Where are they now? Click here to hear more alumni stories.

The other biggest thing that we’d listen to when tuning were the subs and how they responded to the room. Sturgill’s sound, specifically, isn’t very needy on the low end. We don’t really have anything on stage that goes below 50 hertz, honestly, so if I did have subs I was normally high passing them up to about 50 or 45. I’d also attenuate them to to see how much low end I could get up on the tops. If they were 15s or 12s I would normally just turn the subs down a couple db and not use them as much because they would clutter up the sound on stage — it would start to clutter up the farther back in the room you got.


A Day In The Life Of A FOH Engineer For Sturgill Simpson


And it becomes more true to his sound.

Of course. And the songs when the band was just really going at it I would kind of add some more low end just to get the crowd energized, but other than that it was never really needed. We had to make sure that the PA wasn’t walking on the subs, and that the subs weren’t walking on the PA. And so those were kind of the biggest parts of tuning. Then normally if I finished with a little bit of time free, I would run some tracks from the night before back through the console.

DiGiCo has a wonderful interface called UB MADI and it has 48 ins 48 outs, and I would multi-track each night because, you never know, something may happen that you want to remember. But, it also helps to be able to run those tracks back through the console the next day just to get a basic mix and hear how the room is going to sound to your inputs.

You can know how the room is going to sound to your tuning song or you can know how the room is going to sound to your soundtrack song, but you never really know how the room is going to sound until you run your inputs back through the PA. I would try to do that for maybe 30 minutes. Specifically, I’d hear how the drum inputs sound and how guitars and vocals feel in the room.

By that point the band would show up at about 3, and then the band sound checked without Sturgill for the first 30 minutes. Our drummer also sings BGVs, so he’ll sing lead vocals for 30 minutes, the band would get situated, and then Sturgill would come out for the last 30. So we would spend an hour, sometimes an hour 15 for soundcheck.

For me that was the best part of this tour — that we had soundcheck every single day.


And that’s a good amount of time for soundcheck.


Very much so, and he never missed soundcheck. It’s impressive because vocally it’s a very tiring show; it’s nonstop for 2 hours. There’s no intermission, there's really no breaks, and he does this night after night. So there were some days where I may get a verse and a chorus, and some days I may get a whole song vocally.


He’s saving his voice.


Right, of course, and he needs to. The vocals are the most important part of the entire show because it connects with the audience immediately. They can hear what he’s saying and connect with him instantly, and so sometimes I even made it a habit to record soundcheck as well. So not only would I record shows, I would multi-track soundcheck. If he wasn’t feeling too great that day, I wanted to make sure he was saving his voice. I don’t want to ask too much of him, so I would say, “Hey man can you give me a verse and a chorus at full volume and then I’ll take it from there?” And then I’ll record that and just run that back through.


"TBA taught me almost every large brand you can think of. There was never a moment when I walked into a venue and felt completely closed off or felt completely out of my depth."


So that’s what we would do from 3-4/4:15ish, and then on nights when we had an opener, their sound check would start at 5. I’d make sure that the SD9 was patched and ready to go/make sure they were set, and then I would component check for them while their engineer was setting up on stage just to try to help them out a little bit.

And then we were off until around 9 ‘o'clock. I had a couple of hours just to go relax and kind of get my thoughts together/make sure the opener is taken care of. Then the show would normally start at 9 and would last for 2 hours. Some nights it lasted 2 hours and 15 minutes.


A Day In The Life Of A FOH Engineer For Sturgill Simpson


Was there an opener at 9?


Nope! It was Sturgill at 9. We didn’t really have openers a lot. Except for in November, so the opener would normally start at 8 or 8:15, do a 30 minute set, and then we’d have a 15 minute set change. Downbeat would start at 9, sometimes 9:05. We’d be done around 11:10, 11:15 and it’s constant — I mean it’s 2 hours of just high energy. It’s a fantastic show, and it’s one of the most enjoyable shows for me because the first hour and 15 minutes there’s no setlist, so it’s different each night. Sturgill will look back at the drummer and band leader and call the next song. Sure, we had some songs that naturally flowed into each other, but the majority of the first hour and 15 minutes were never really the same.


That’s cool.


The last 45-50 minutes were the latest record “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”, top to bottom in order. At that point I knew what was coming next, but Sturgill kept me on my toes for the first hour and 15. I could sometimes figure out what was coming next but because of the variations I never used snapshots on the DiGiCo, and again we only had about 30 inputs so it was easy enough for me to mix it by myself.

So yeah, we’d be done at 11, and we would wait for the crowd to settle before breaking down. We’d be out of there normally by 12, 12:15, and then the bus would roll into the next venue.


Wash, rinse, repeat.


Yeah man.

A Day In The Life Of A FOH Engineer For Sturgill Simpson

How did your education at Blackbird help you get the gig with Sturgill Simpson?


So naturally in this industry, one thing almost always leads to another. You meet people and you connect with people. It was a week from my graduation, and I got a call from John in the middle of lectures actually. I didn’t answer my phone, and I remember we took a break and I didn’t know the number, so I called it back and it was John. And he said, “Man, I’ve got a potential gig for you. There’s a guy — his name is Jason Sellars. He’ll give you a call and his daughter needs an engineer for some shows coming up.”


A Day In The Life Of A FOH Engineer For Sturgill Simpson


That would be Aubrie Sellers of course, and so Jason gives me a call and he’s like, “Man if you wanna come meet the band and maybe do this gig we have a rehearsal tonight, actually,” so I went and I met the band. It went well, and I went out for them for 3 shows opening up for Chris Stapleton.

It was just cold turkey. I hopped in a van two days later, and it was actually during our finals prep. We had finals next week, and I actually missed a little bit of school to be able to go and try this gig. I went out, and it went really well, so I graduated the next week knowing I’d be out with Aubrie for the future to come.


A Day In The Life Of A FOH Engineer For Sturgill Simpson


I worked with Aubrie for a year, and throughout that time we went to the west coast and opened up for Marty Stuart. I met Marty’s tour manager and monitor engineer, Philip Clark, and I actually remember Philip coming and saying, “Hey man, do you know of any monitor engineers who could come and take my place? I just wanna tour manage.”  And we were able to get Tyler Porch, one of my classmates to come in to do the gig, and he’s still with those guys and killing it, so that was kind of a cool full circle moment for the school.

Anyway, Philip remembered that interaction and called the school a while later asking about me. The school called saying, “Hey would you be interested in a tour coming up soon? Are you 21 and do you have a passport?” And that’s really all the information I had. You guys told me Philip Clark would be calling. I didn’t really know the name at first, but then I realized it was the same Philip from Marty Stuart. And I kind of just waited and Philip called me. We met for lunch 2 days later, and then a week and a half later it was a “Do you wanna come out and try these 3 shows with Sturgill?”


So do you think you would be where you are without TBA?


I honestly don’t think I would, and I’m not just saying that. The reason I say that is because The Blackbird Academy got me the connections I needed to suceed. I mean, the first gig I had was straight through John, and so that connection and that reference to Aubrie’s dad helped me get my foot through the door.

But what helped me keep these gigs, same with Sturgill, were the skills of being able to walk up, out of the blue, and handle the console, handle the gear, handle the mix, and handle the people, and I owe The Blackbird Academy for that expertise.

The Blackbird Academy taught me almost every large brand you can think of. There was never a moment when I walked into a venue with Aubrie and felt completely closed off or felt completely out of my depth. I felt like I was able to get started, and once you get started things just start rolling into place, and that was so valuable.


A Day In The Life Of A FOH Engineer For Sturgill Simpson


What advice do you have for aspiring live sound engineers?


Find anywhere you can help and get involved in it. When I was a junior in high school, I found a smaller local company in High Point, North Carolina and got involved with them. I’d do random 11 o'clock load-outs, no mixing or teching involved. It was:

“Hey, David, can you show up and help us pack the truck, take this PA down, and pack up the stage?”

It was little things like that which slowly built and turned into:

“Hey, David, can you come do monitors for this festival?” “Hey, we need a guy to help stage manage for this conference.”

Those things started to build on each other and helped me think about: Do I want to work as a monitor engineer? Do I want to work as a front of house engineer? What are my skills and abilities and how do I know where and how to apply myself? That’s what led me to looking at and eventually coming to Blackbird. While I was here, I realized that I don't prefer front of house or monitors. I love them both and know my skills in each.


A Day In The Life Of A FOH Engineer For Sturgill Simpson


Make sure you spend some time learning basic musicanship. Being a musician from time to time, I know that in monitors you can relate to musicians a bit easier when you know how to speak the language. It’s the same for front of house, being a musician helps you mix more musically, and I think that’s something that is very prominent in the teaching here. There’s a lesson on guitar tuning, how to tune a guitar, and how to be a guitar tech. There was a lesson on how to tune drums, what makes a drum kit sound like one whole body of a kit, and those are musical aspects of the program that teaches you how to mix musically and become a musical thinker.

So yeah, get involved wherever you can. Whether it’s at a church, a local company, or with some friends of yours that are in a band. Go with them and be the guy on site that helps the venue tech out with anything they need.

It may not be the big leagues, and it might not be mixing on the nicest console out there, but if you get started it gives you the chance to observe and see how other people respond to situations that can teach you how to be the most well-rounded engineer possible.

Apply to the blackbird academy today!

Kyle Welch

Written by Kyle Welch

Kyle is the Director Of Live Sound for The Blackbird Academy. He has worked as a professional musician for more than 22 years and as a live sound and recording engineer for over 17. Kyle has been teaching audio at the college level for 11 years. His education includes classical and jazz guitar studies at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and entertainment technology studies and Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina.