Backline: Behind the Boards with Marco Martin


Marco Martin is pacing in the courtyard of Oakland music venue The New Parish again. It’s an hour before doors, in-between the opening and headlining band’s sound check. A cloud of cigarette smoke hovers above his unruly, hesher-ish, long black hair.  If one listens closely, one can hear him softly repeating the words, as if to a sleeping newborn baby: “fucking bullshit, fucking bullshit, fucking bullshit.”

It should be noted that I have seen Martin in this particular situation numerous times over the years, while setting up the club as a bartender. The scene could mean just about anything: a band’s gear is somehow missing, there’s a technical issue in the house that was not there yesterday, or someone’s ego is out of control. It always
indicates, however, that things are just not going smoothly. Then again, for sound engineers who work live shows, hoping things run seamlessly is at best wishful thinking and at worst, a fool’s errand for the psychologically-deranged.

The 39 -year-old Mexico City-born technician (who moved to the Bay Area in 2000 to pursue a studio engineering degree at Emeryville’s Ex’pression College for Digital Arts), knows this fact better than most. Yet the intimacy and power of live performance continues to draw him to the soundboards.

Over the past six years, Martin has toured with local favorites Sean Hayes and Bang Data, and worked nearly 1800 shows at venues like the Fox Theater, The Independent, and  Brick and Mortar Music Hall. After resolving the issue –the band was late, causing him to have a rapid fire sound check – Martin sat down with SF Sounds to discuss how to remain sane in the industry, why he never talks trash about any artists, and the importance of learning to listen to accidents of the moment.

SF Sounds: Any part of the job when you thought you were going to lose your mind?

Marco Martin: Often (laughs).It’s always just the last bad show you remember. But then you forget. There are times when you are like a psychiatrist or a punching bag.

SFS: What did your first gigs look like?

MM: My first day as an intern was at the Maritime Hall. They dropped me in the very bottom room that was some full-on Hot Topic Goth party with DJ’s who played burned CD’s. After three months of that, I was put on as a
monitor tech for a Fishbone show. I played it by the numbers, but I probably looked like an idiot.

SFS: And your perfect day now resembles…

MM: The best full-control scenario. Say, you are touring with a band and get to a venue on time to tune the PA. You do a sound check and imagine what it might sound like when people are there. Even then, you still really don’t know exactly what’s up until those first two or three songs.

SFS: Why is that?

MM: If you are in a 1,000-seat theater, you might have an incredible amount of high-end [frequencies]bouncing off of every wall. But once people are there, all that stuff that you battled in sound check isn’t there anymore, and you basically have to start over as it’s happening.

SFS: And then you have to deal with the band. Do you ever think to yourself, ‘What the hell is wrong with these guys’?

MM: (Laughs) Well, actually, a lot of times, yes. Sometimes you are just like, ‘I just can’t make this band sound good.’ They are just not cohesive, or you just don’t get it. Really, it’s all about the source.

SFS: What do you mean by ‘source?’

MM: It’s just what they are giving to you. A guitar player might bring crappy amps and crappy playing. You just can’t fix that. Sometimes it’s charming, but when a band is trying to sound polished and the sources are just terrible, there is only so much you can do.

Marco Martin - Photo by Eric Arnold

Marco Martin – Photo by Eric Arnold

Any common mistakes?

MM: Some guitar players will just have so much shit in their chain, pedals,
processors, and whatever, and they will forgo telling me just for a particular sound. I have tried to get you to talk shit about artists who are total jerks for weeks now, and you have given me nothing.  Why? Well, as an engineer, you represent the club and the house, but you always work for the band. Maybe they were having a bad night? Maybe both of you were having a bad night? It’s that unspoken etiquette that separates those who are professional in the industry.

SFS: But still…

MM: Well, sure. There is definitely a lot of douch-baggery going around. Especially in this modern era where people write their songs on Garage Band and then say that you are a performer. You really have to hone in your performance. The Stooges just hit the ground running. They didn’t have to figure out how to be The Stooges; they just had to figure out how to be amazing.

SFS: OK what are your pet peeves? Like asking for more vocals in the monitors?

MM: You’ll get that. The worst is when people say, ‘Well, no, it is supposed to sound like this.’ And you hear it, and it just simply does not sound like what they think. Guys and gals that are completely blind[ed]by their intention, and it is just not there.

SFS: Has anyone called you out on stage, like, ‘Sorry it sucked, audience. It was the sound guy’s fault.’

MM: Yeah, but I have a thick skin for that. I am also not the kind of guy who will fuck someone up on purpose just to spite someone being an asshole. Sometimes the limitations are not in your hands. Sometimes their head is not in the game and they blame you. Sometimes a new band just doesn’t know their parts well. If you don’t play with the intention that you need for a particular part of a song, it will have nothing to do with how that sound is translated.

SFS: Sometimes accidents do happen and sometimes you don’t catch them.

MM: Sometimes engineers get in the way of accidents. When you hear something and you say to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s a fuck up.’ You have a lot of power to correct things and sometimes those things shouldn’t be corrected. Maybe that’s intuition, experience, or part of the craft. But it comes down to taste, and you realize [afterwards], ‘well, that was kind of cool.’

SFS: Any wise sound guy adages to share?

MM: I once heard a story of someone [who came]up to a sound guy pissed off after a show and said, “Why didn’t the opening band sound as good as the headliner?” The answer to that question is, “Was the opening band as good as the headliner?”


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