Sean "Sully" Sullivan - What It Takes To Become A World-Class Engineer

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Sean “Sully” Sullivan has worked in live sound from the early age of 15 when he started out mixing for his brothers band and for other local bands. Now, he has worked with artists such Beck, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and most recently Shania Twain and Red Hot Chili Peppers

In this interview Sean talks about his early start in the industry, how he prepares for world tours and the difference between working with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shania Twain, how much he relies on technologies such as SMAART vs using his ears, how aspiring live engineers can make a career and eventually doing world tours and so much more.

Enjoy!

 Mixing FOH for Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2017.

Mixing FOH for Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2017.

Who inspired you to become a live sound engineer and did you have a mentor when you started out?

I have an older brother that played drums in local bands and my father listened to all the 70’s rock 'n' roll bands. As kids we were around music all the time and band-practice was always at our house. I was around 13 years old and wanted to hang out at band practice so my brother made me his drum tech. I also set up the PA at band practice and making sure the speakers were plugged in as well as trying to figure out what the phantom power switch did. It was more of a necessity rather than a desire to do it. It was a, “Hey, you’re here hanging out, so you figure it out” type of situation. 

Also being around guitar players that could play but didn’t know how to make their gear sound good made me gravitate towards that and I would be the one who turned the knobs until everybody shook their head in acceptance. One thing led to another and I decided I was the sound guy for bands that didn’t do anything but practice. They weren’t famous, they were just sitting in the basement sucking at it and me being a young sound guy I hung out and sucked at it as well. However, it gave me the desire to get better and I realized sound was just as important as playing an instrument. I pursued it from every angle and when I was 16 I got a job installing car stereos at a local shop. A world-class car-audio competitor owned and ran this shop so he became my mentor and was the first one who taught me how to listen and manipulate sound. 

Do you remember the first live show you did and how old you were?

I was 15 years old; the gig was at the Akron Agora. Jeff Hair, who owns Aggressive Sound, installed and operated all the PAs at many of the clubs in our region. When I showed up with my brother’s band to one of these clubs, Jeff could tell I didn’t know what I was doing but he was cool and helped me along the way. He showed me what the gain-knob was and what the hi-pass filter did. I knew how to listen and I could claim to be the sound guy, however, to actually stand behind the console was a whole other level. I’d show up all big and bad, “I’m the boss and I’m these guys sound engineer,” but knew very little about mixing. Lucky for me, Jeff and the guys that worked for him were cool and didn’t treat me any less because of it. They let me figure it out and when they saw me failing miserably they would help instead of shoving me out of the way. To have those guys supporting me was very crucial as a 15-year-old. 

 Mixing Monitors for Boyz II Men, 1995.

Mixing Monitors for Boyz II Men, 1995.

Did you ever pursue studying audio?

I enrolled in an engineering class that was run at a local studio. They offered beginner/intermediate & advanced classes and I signed up for the beginner class. However, I knew everything that was being taught. Within the first hour the engineer teaching us got a phone call, he looked at me and said, “Teach the other kids what were talking about.” By the end of the first day he says, “You should probably move up to the intermediate class, skip this beginner class.” The next day I showed up for the intermediate class, again, I knew everything he spoke about so he suggested that I should go right to the advanced class, that’s when I started to learn things I didn’t know.

After that course, and being only 15 years old, what did you do to find more work?

I stayed working for my brother's band, which played 1-2 shows per month. I also searched the classifieds of a local Cleveland newspaper called Scene Magazine, which had information about what was going on in town entertainment wise. In the back of the magazine there were ads for bands looking for musicians, etc., and this is where I saw an ad looking for a “Truck driver/Sound engineer.” At first, I didn’t want to call because I wasn’t a truck driver, but my brother convinced me. I rang the number and it happened to be this oldies band called Class '57 that played 1950/60’s doo-wop all over Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. They were a pretty big and authentic oldies band that would play 4-5 gigs per week during the summer and 3 times a week during the winter season. 

The guy who answered my call was the current sound/lighting engineer/backline guy/truck driver and he says, “We have a gig tonight, can you make it?” Myself and two other guys showed up. After the show, he asked the 3 of us, “Okay, we have a show tomorrow, which of you three can come? Because tomorrow I’m the bass player and I need one of you guys doing the sound.” The two other guys couldn’t make it because one had a gig with his band and the other had to take his girl out to dinner, I said, “I can make it,” and I got the job. The next night he was the bass player and I started doing the sound/monitors/lights/backline/truck driver for $100 a night. 

That was a huge learning process for me because they had a lot of elements I never dealt with, for example, horns, keyboards and everybody sang. I was put right in the fire, mixing, doing lights, backline and monitors for the rest of my high school years as well as working in the car stereo store. I was rolling in cash and was almost making as much as my dad as a lieutenant of the fire department.

 Class 57, 1991.

Class 57, 1991.

What does it take to prepare for a world tour? Can you take us through your process?

When it comes to the technical aspect of touring it depends on the artist/situation, for example, when I got the call to work with Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was last minute and they were 11 months into a 22 month tour, there was no spending time in rehearsal working on my mix. To pull it off, they sent me 4 recent show-recordings which I worked on in my studio for a month straight, 12 hours a day, trying to get my act together. We all know and love the Red Hot Chili Peppers for how massive-sounding of a band they are and the last thing I want to do is not have it be exactly that — massive. Plus I was taking over from their longtime FOH engineer Dave Rat who had been with them since 1991, so, I wanted to go out there and make sure there was no question they picked the right guy. My first show in Detroit I had a 10-minute sound check with only the band, not Anthony, then the house lights when off. This was in front of 14.000 people which was intense to say the least. However, this is what I do for a living so in my head I say, “another gig, you got this” 

With Shania Twain, whom I’m currently touring with, I worked with the production manager and Musical Director on the input list to discuss how they will be doing things. There’s about a month of prep-work at home, sitting with my laptop working on the input list and checking with the MD if we have everyone/everything accounted for, of course, there are changes when you get to the first day of rehearsal but we were close.

The main difference with these two situations is that with Red Hot Chili Peppers I’m working from live recordings and with Shania Twain, I’m working from the start of rehearsals. However, I actually prefer to do it the way I did it with Red Hot Chili Peppers because you are working with relative musicianship, showmanship, input levels and everything is based on that the house lights are out and there’s a crowd in the room. Some musicians will claim that they are playing the same no matter what, but I’m here to tell you that when the house lights go out and the crowd starts screaming, it changes everything. Working on those recordings as opposed to a band in rehearsal is different, even day-to-day sound checks on tour are different because the band or artists sound different when the house lights are out. 

The personal aspect of it is kind of second nature to me now since I’ve been doing it so long and I fly my wife out if I can or if I have a couple of days off I fly home. We do our best to keep our relationship a happy and a healthy one. 

 Mixing FOH for Justin Timberlake, 2003.

Mixing FOH for Justin Timberlake, 2003.

How much do you rely on your ear vs technology such as SMAART to fix issues in a venue, for example, feedback?

During the show I rely on my ears only, SMAART needs accurate data to work properly, the minute you turn on multiple sources of speakers, the data is corrupt due to the path length differences between different clusters of PA. However, when you are tuning the PA and you are only measuring one main cluster, you can get fairly accurate data, or at least know what’s accurate with the coherence trace, the minute you turn on another source that’s not equidistant the data is corrupt and unusable. Therefore, I use only SMAART during the gig for SPL metering. 

I think that’s why a lot of shows sound bad, I’ve met a ton of system engineers that are very visual-oriented and stare at analysis tools such as SMAART, going, “Oh, 200 Hz is going through the roof, so let me cut it out” Meanwhile, 200 Hz might look like it’s going through the roof because of a reflection of something near the mic, or because the path length is different from left and right speakers. There are so many things that can cause the data to be irrelevant that it makes no sense to trust it. It’s a very tough discipline to ignore SMAART, Don’t get me wrong, I love SMAART, but during showtime, with every speaker on, it’s irrelevant, however, with a single source and good coherence SMAART can be your best friend, but nothing beats your ears

How do you deal with feedback, is that a problem nowadays?

To avoid feedback we aim the PA very accurately and pick microphones that work in these hostile environments that are live concerts. People pick studio condenser microphones because they sound amazing, but the minute you use them in these hostile-sounding environment with the speakers in the same room, those microphones can be your worst enemy. 

I also get involved with how the system is deployed every day, from the time the rigging points are chalked on the floor until the stuff is put back on the truck. To truly excel at live sound, you have to be well versed in all audio aspects of the show, or you are never going to be as good as you can be. If the artist manager asks me why the show sounded bad in the 300 level of the arena, I can’t point at the system engineer and blame him. That wouldn’t be an acceptable excuse. The only thing I want the manager to say to me is, “Great job Sully!” The way to guarantee that’s the comment you consistently get is to be involved in all of it and have the knowledge it takes to get positive results.

 Mixing FOH for Beck, 2009.

Mixing FOH for Beck, 2009.

People who wish to become like you, doing world tours, what’s the best way of getting there?

The easiest path is working for PA companies. It’s hard to get into this business without going through a vendor. Start at the bottom doing whatever they need done. Show the desire to be better than everyone else that works there, learn every piece of gear they have without anyone having to ask you, stay late and do whatever it takes to get your act together. Go beg the local clubs/churches to let you mix on the weekends if you have free time, don’t worry about the money side of it, that will come. If you’re a monitor tech or a system engineer, whenever someone needs an engineer be the first to put your hand up. If you’re the first one asking how much it pays, you’ll be the last one to get picked. Opening acts barely have any money so do it for free and kick ass, they will remember you. Do that enough and your phone will start ringing for paid work.

There are rare instances where a FOH engineer is friends with a band, the band makes it big and you get to ride that wave. Be aware, if you can’t keep up, you’ll soon find out your friendship means nothing. 

There are also universities such as Full Sail and only because they have a placement program a lot of students get jobs at vendors that way. I personally don’t like the Full Sail path because it’s a massive expense for kids just to get into the bottom of a company. Instead, if you just have the drive, and are smart enough to learn, you can bug a vendor and eventually get a job and work your way up. Which is what I did. 

It’s weird nowadays, because of the Internet and the expectations of instant gratification. There are a lot of people who imagine they can dive right in and be exactly where they want to without doing any hard work. It pretty much never works like that. All the biggest guys in this business all struggled through the toughest of times working the crappiest gigs with the longest hours to get where they got. It’s not an easy path and don’t expect it to be. 

You mentioned that you would come in and do a better job than the main acts FOH engineer, in what way would you say you did a better job, was it purely mixing better or what was it?

I used to be a system engineer for big time FOH engineers and I mixed all the opening acts which had less time to soundcheck, less rehearsal time, no fancy equipment and used microphones that just happened to be what was left in the sound companies workbox. However, I made it sound better than the headliners did. I was an experienced FOH engineer just doing system-engineering gigs to get my name out there. If you excel at the gig, regardless if you have all the equipment and time you want, managers will notice you. Since touring is about making money, when you get someone who’s young and hungry making the show sound great, with whatever gear that was available, they will remember you.

Be the guy that makes it sound kick-ass with whatever is available, it doesn’t matter if it’s your favourite console, or PA, make it great and someone will notice. 

 Mixing FOH for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lollapalooza Brazil, 2018.

Mixing FOH for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lollapalooza Brazil, 2018.

You spend a lot of time learning an artist sound from the record, to the point where even if there’s just one word delayed in a song you make sure that’s also there for the live show. Where does this dedication come from or who inspired you to be so detailed?

The fans inspire me; they know the music better than anyone. Especially with a lot of the music I mix. For example, an artist like Rihanna and the number of streams she has, guess who knows her music best, the fans. I don’t come into the first rehearsal with an ego thinking I got this because I’m good at my job, I’m coming in thinking I’m going to crush this because I’ve been listening to their music since the first discussion about being hired. I make myself a fan and when the music is embedded in your brain, it makes it easier to mix it

Also getting my next job inspires me, for example, when someone asks Shania or her manager if they know a good FOH engineer, I want my name to be the first name out of his or her mouth. That comes from proving you are the best choice by letting them hear what you’re capable of. The only way you can guarantee that is to study, put in the time and effort.

Let me know what you think about the interview in the comments below. Are there anything you will implement in your own career? Let me know!