For the first time in almost three hours, Mother Nature is making the loudest sounds in Northwest’s Fort Reno Park. The biotic din of crickets and cicadas has reclaimed the space from the amplified roars, screeches, and squeals of the Holy Rollers, Women of Destruction, and Cheesecake.
The audience has departed, but the Rollers and their hangers-on make small talk as the band stows its drums, guitars, and amps into vans. Eventually, only sound man Shawn “Gus” Vitale and assistant John Harrington are left on the stage, wrangling the amp stacks, lights, soundboard, mike stands, and speakers of Vitale’s public-address (PA) system into his truck.
Vitale is the owner of Gussound, the PA company of choice for local bands with lotsa heart but little cash. Vitale’s contributions as sound man make him the “fifth Beatle” in dozens of bands, a background player whose sonic manipulations add an extra dimension to live performances.
Vitale extends the Gussound treatment to shows that other, stodgier PA outfits are reluctant to handle: punk benefits; the District government’s long-running Fort Reno concert series; NORML’s Fourth of July smoke-ins. Vitale’s openness, along with his easygoing personality and cheap rates make his bearded face a common sight at the area’s smaller gigs.
Not that all of Vitale’s shows feature unknown bands playing out of a club’s dark corner—his clients over the last seven years have included Sonic Youth, Helmet, and Fugazi. From concert hall to basement bar, from talented to talentless, Vitale sees, hears and mixes it all, sometimes in a single show.
“The basic idea of sound reinforcement,” Vitale says, “is to make louder what is happening onstage.” Without amplification, drums drown out guitars, guitars drown out horns, horns drown out vocals, and down the line. The PA system collects all the sound onstage and blasts it through huge speakers at the audience. If all goes well, the crowd should discern individual instruments and vocals, just as if they were listening to a very loud stereo at home.
But Vitale’s job isn’t just pumping up the volume. The art of conjuring good concert sound requires the skills of a record producer and record engineer, a sense of musical taste, and a spirit of collaboration. The process begins with a construction project, as Vitale arrives in his aging Econoline van hours before a gig to load hundreds of pounds of equipment onto the stage: microphone stands, crates filled with cords, four towering speaker-cabinets (for the average show, blaring 5,000 watts of sound), monitors (the smaller onstage speakers that allow musicians to hear themselves), and other paraphernalia. From these components he erects a kind of sound superstructure.
Each gig calls for its own particular microphone setup. Virtually everything at a small gig is miked: drum skins and cymbals, vocalists, horns, and guitar and bass amplifiers. Mike placement is important: Because signals from the high end of the audible sound spectrum (like a snare drum or a guitar’s high note) dissipate in open air faster than low-end signals (like a bass-drum whack or a bass-guitar thud), a mike will lose that high end if it’s set too far away. Vitale says metalheads are partial to a high-end “click” on the drums, so he mikes them very closely. Reggae crowds like a deeper bass sound, so he places the mikes farther away.
All the microphones plug into a single cabinet (usually tucked in the back of the stage), which is in turn jacked to a cord that runs to Vitale’s soundboard in front of the stage. Vitale checks the vocals himself before the sound check (anyone who’s been to a concert is familiar with the roadie who says, “Yeah; yeah; yeah; yeah,” endlessly into the mike). Calibration of the other instruments begins with the sound check, as musicians and roadies pluck, bash, and jam for Vitale’s judgmental ears. Drums come first—one at a time—and then bass, guitar, and any other instruments. Vitale listens intently to each one in turn, making adjustments on the soundboard, which is essentially a sophisticated version of a home stereo’s graphic equalizer, adding or subtracting bass and treble to the mix. Once the sound of each instrument meets his satisfaction, Vitale presides over a full-band sound check, working out volume levels so both he (among the audience) and band members (onstage) can hear everything.
Vitale says the biggest enemy to good sound is uncontrolled reverb—jagged chunks of echo flying through the air. (As fans of rockabilly know, some kinds of reverb are desirable—but that’s another story.) In a sound man’s Valhalla, music travels straight from the stage to ears in the audience, then magically disappears. In the real world, though, echoes arise naturally when the music bounces off walls or when the sound feeds back into the microphones, distorting the meticulously crafted sound waves.
Among the most vexatious venues in town is St. Stephen’s Church auditorium at 1525 Newton St. NW, which Vitale calls a “reverb tank.” The tiled floors and hard walls of this hall, the site of frequent Positive Force benefits, send sound crashing in every direction. “Not only does the crowd space echo,” Vitale moans, “but the band plays in its own little alcove, and the echo up there bleeds into the mix.”
But given the ideal concert space, Vitale can still only make the sound as good as the musicians playing it. The maxim of computer programmers—“garbage in, garbage out”—is true of sound work, he says.
Case in point: The opening act of the Fort Reno show, Cheesecake, turned in an unpolished set. Ever the professional, Vitale was expressionless as he finessed the screeching edge off the Boston band’s sound, but he later allowed that it would benefit from practice.
“When a band is really bad, it starts to reflect back on me,” he gripes. “And people will start looking over at me and saying, “Why does this sound like shit?’ ”
Mixing sound, Vitale says, is like applying makeup: A little tweaking at the soundboard can cover up sonic deficiencies (such as a slight hiss from a guitar amp), but it can’t change the sound radically. “We don’t want to make Velocity Girl sound like GWAR,” he reasons. “We are supposed to make louder what’s happening onstage, with a little makeup, a little enhancement, here and there.”
By showtime, Vitale’s most difficult work is done. He lounges casually at the soundboard, making minor adjustments to the mix, turning up the volume on the guitar for solos, and keeping an eye out for equipment problems. If a microphone cord gets yanked or a speaker bursts into flames (it’s happened), Vitale sprints to the stage to trouble- shoot, often crawling around onstage with the frenetic musicians and wailing amps.
Most often, it’s surly musicians and not equipment flukes that make for nightmare gigs: “I have a problem when a band asks the entire crowd whether the sound’s OK,” Vitale says. Judging the sound is his job. Worse still is the band that complains about the mix to the audience. “You don’t say, “These monitors sound like shit.’ You say, “I need help with these monitors,’ ” he grumbles.
Vitale has to watch out for the audience, too. The elbow-in-the-face Brownian motion of a punk crowd can damage his gear. Typically situated down on the concert floor with his soundboard, Vitale must parry overly inquisitive concertgoers, usually under the influence of a few beers, who insist that Vitale can’t know the function of all 488 buttons, slides, and knobs on the soundboard (he does). Or the ones who twist knobs when he’s not looking. Or anybody who advises him on the mix.
In spite of the legion of irritants, Vitale keeps his cool. “If someone in a band says the sound is shit, I’m not gonna go up onstage and argue and shake my finger at ’em. And I won’t turn up the monitors until they feed back and they can’t hear anymore,” he says.
The 32-year-old Vitale works as many as six shows a week, and he works cheap. If your band is playing, say, a show at 15 Minutes, the charges for Gussound and Vitale come to around $200, an astonishing bargain compared to larger PA companies (who charge as much as $1,000). Of course, there are other sound men with low prices, but none with his reputation.
“I think Gus’s approach to the music business is that he’s more of a people person than a dollar person,” says Steve Willett, bassist for local Goth-rockers Strange Boutique. Vitale tailors the sound to each band, Willett says, and he works through the show to keep up a good mix. “Sure, there are people out there that will do the show for less, but you can really hear the difference.”
Vitale goes even cheaper for some benefits, like the Gulf War show featuring Fugazi in Lafayette Square days before the U.S. bombardment began. “I don’t remember how much we charged for it, but it didn’t nearly cover the hassle,” Vitale says. “I did the Gulf War show because I believed in the cause.” For commercial shows and festivals, he charges $300 or more.
Vitale says he’d like to expand Gussound, but that would require him to take duller assignments: fashion shows, corporate luncheons, mall gigs. The alternative would be to hitch his expertise to a popular band and do their sound on tour, which he also rejects. “There are more important things in my life, like my wife and my [two] kids. We don’t have much time together as it is.”
Vitale credits his wife, Tammy, for turning him into a full-time mixer. He was working days as an FBI clerk and moonlighting as a sound man. As Gussound grew and the time came to choose between mixing music and shuffling paper for the FBI, he turned to Tammy for guidance. She had been chilly toward the G-men ever since they made her complete a form just to marry Vitale. She urged him to walk, and he did.
After giving the FBI the bird, Vitale can’t bring himself to the requisite butt-kissing needed to rise in the music industry. “I guess it’s a drawback to some degree, being married and with a family, but that’s my base,” Vitale says. “What I do professionally, well, that’s strictly at work.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.