After nearly two weeks in Vienna watching shows, eating questionable street foods and seeing very large olde buildings, I was offered a special invitation. I had made a friend at a coffee shop, and she had a friend in a band.
“Hey, my friend’s band had a sound-guy cancel. Can you do live sound?”
I could not, nor had I ever tried to do sound at a concert, but I of course said the opposite of that.
“Yes.” Is what I said, exactly.
I had studied audio-recording like 8 years ago and I assumed I would just intuitively figure it out. It was a simple a simple two piece band, so the chances of shaming myself (and the motherland of the United States, by association) seemed small.
The band was two singers, one of whom played guitar, and one who played keyboard. It was at the Wombat lounge, a small venue that was basically the bar for a hostel. If ever I was going to crack into the magical mystery of working the board at a show, it might as well be for strangers, in a hostel, the day before I was going to be leaving the country.I enlisted my host Kyle, who had about the same level of proficiency as me, but perhaps a greater level of honesty of the range of his skills. It felt better knowing that if I failed, I could always blame Kyle.
On our last night in Vienna, I donned my black sweatshirt and cap, Kyle a winning vest. We walked to the tram taking turns trying to build one another up.
“We got this.” I’d say.
“We got this.” He’d say.
We definitely did not have anything, but our plan was to just start plugging things in and turning knobs/dials until we were “doing sound”.
Two Fools Descend Into The Wombat’s Nest
We arrived at the Wombat lounge quite early and proudly told the bartender downstairs that yes, we were the “sound guys” and we were here to transform this disgusting hellhole of a hostel bar into a glimmering palace of delicate folk tunes.
Obviously caught off-guard to be in the presence of audio wizards like us, she hurriedly ushered us into the back. Opening a big blue door to a huge closet, she revealed a kind of room-sized coffin full of microphones cables and amplification equipment. In disarray or not, my sense of self began to inflate like a mighty balloon. I was now authorized personnel in Austria. Me. Mike. Mike was being allowed in there. Also Kyle, but who cares about Kyle? She left us to sort out what we would need for the show and I breathed in deeply, exalting in my new throne room. WE WERE KINGS NOW.
I stumbled out of our armory draped in cables, arms full of riches of mic-stands, mixing boards, and other auditory jewels. As I carried them out to the stage before the band arrived, I realized being king might be a challenge. I couldn’t quite remember how all the pieces were supposed to fit. All the cables and microphones looked vaguely familiar, like friends seen for the first time after a massive concussion, but I could not quite place where they were supposed to go. I began to sweat, unraveling cables absently, trying to think of how to fit these pieces together.
The King’s Constituents Arrive, Scrutinize Him
The two band-members arrived arrived and I introduced myself, declaring that everything would go smoothly.
“Men will weep openly at your show tonight.” I informed them.
Opting out of too much idle banter that might reveal my lies, I set to the task of rummaging through the quickly-tangling cables and dented microphones.
But I quickly began to drown in the shallow waters of doing sound in a hostel. Though the stakes literally could not have been lower, I began to quietly unravel as the band hovered behind me as I tried to remember what I was doing. Kyle seemed more together than me, but competency was a distant state that we seemed to be moving away from rapidly, like getting on a train in the wrong direction.
So I began to plug things in, twiddle knobs, and depress lights for about 60 minutes, the band watching me as they slowly surmised that I was indeed, a fraud.
But then, as if by magic, amplified sound began to emerge from the two speakers on stage. We had approximated sonic-reinforcement. I had not emerged from the shallow waters of failure, but I had grasped a branch and would not be carried out to sea, yet.
Empowered by our success, the mood began to lighten and our success begat more success.
Elisabeth was Norwegian, Emilio Italian, with sound by two Americans, in a hostel bar that was mostly asian travelers in Austria. It was a circus of multicultural magic. As Kyle and I hovered over the mixing board like two young scientists, the band hovered over us. Basically, everyone was hovering is what I’m trying to say. They wanted to know and learn what we knew, which was nothing.
Eventually, after I kept announcing that the answer to Elisabeth’s questions were “complicated” they gave up trying to learn anything and set up their instruments. We slid the “fader” up on the board, and just like real-life sullen sound guys at big rock and roll shows, her voice got louder. Were we becoming sound guys?
Mike Checks the Mics, Embarrassing Self
After some wiggling, everything we dreamed of came true: The microphones were all working, the instruments were amplified, there wasn’t any weird buzzing in the speakers, and the band and patrons that had begun to file in saw us as just two sound clowns, the same that you see in the back of every concert and never pay attention to, at all, because they are super boring and not rock stars.
The band’s friends began to filter in, and, because they were young feel-good humans just learning to be quirky hippies, many of them sat cross-legged on the ground.
I tried to inform them they were all a fire hazard, but that sort of red-tape isn’t very rock and roll.
And so the band ascended to the pretty well-lit stage, instruments in hand, eyes wide with wonder, microphones poised and ready. And they played. After each song, the audience would applaud, but I noticed something curious: the audience seemed to direct their adoration to the band exclusively. Where was my adoration? I began to contemplate killing the sound and telling everyone that the show was over. However, I reflected that, probably, the audience was just being polite and after the show they would approach me one-by-one and shake my hand, looking me in the eye, explaining how I had changed them, changed their lives forever. I decided I would wait until the end of the show.
And I assumed the end of the show would come in time, but after barreling through the 14th cover song, I began to realize the band did not adhere to normal rules of stage time. Should I inform them that they were in direct violation of unspoken rules of stage time? On their 15th song, they had been playing for something like an hour. I began to give up hope. They played a kind of cutesy, hyper-adorable folk tunes, like one would see around a campfire. But we not around a campfire, we were in a drunken hostel, and yet they were prepared to drag Kyle and I into the infinite abyss of feel-good folk. This is how we would die.
Around their 33rd song, she finally announced that they would be playing a final song. Kyle and I quietly high-fived. We had “done sound”. We had manufactured dreams and memories. We had overcome our complete incompetence to achieve mediocrity in a smelly hostel, and no one present that night would ever forget us.
The band did not thank us, I don’t think, and the audience, again, seemed to be directing their final round of applause to the band. I turned the mics up to allow some of that thunderous applause to play back through the speakers, showering the real heroes with applause.