Behind the Boards: A night with the Newport's soundman

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

3:45 p.m.

The lighting is dim inside Newport Music Hall, but as I make my way through the right stage door, I can see Brian Simakis' burly silhouette hunched over the most gigantic sound board I've ever seen. Bald and bespectacled with a stripe shaved down the chin of his thick black beard, Simakis looks every bit the jovial Mediterranean metalhead he is.

Today he's stage manager and monitor engineer for the Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears concert, a role he's played at nearly every Newport show since 2005. This means he's in charge of everything that happens on stage, from setting up microphones to making sure the frontman can hear himself sing.

Simakis' first order of business is "zeroing out" the knobs on the massive Midas XL250 analog mixing console at stage left. It's a beast of a machine, four times heavier than its more modern digital counterparts. Because industry demand for digital consoles has gone up, the Newport was able to get a deal on a high-end analog "desk," which suits Simakis fine, even if it means four people have to lug the thing off stage on the rare occasions when a band brings a console of its own.

He drags the side of his hand across each row of knobs to slide them all back to zero - "You know, you want to leave a car in park," he says.

Then it's time to start running cables on stage according to the band's stage plot, a list of all the microphones and channels and a map of their stage layout. Simakis runs cables "downstage" (at the front of the stage), but he waits to run cables upstage (at the back) until the band's gear is loaded in through the rear stage door so they don't trip.

Keeping musicians on their feet is part of his overall aim: "The whole payoff is making the crowd smile, making the band smile. Then I'm smiling. It's all just a big circle of awesomeness."

Simakis invited me to this show in particular because last time Black Joe Lewis was in town they brought the house down. He's hoping to help conjure that same magic this time around.

"Hopefully the universe won't make an idiot of me today."

4 p.m.

I meet Jake Thomas, Simakis' partner in audio endeavors. Thomas is production manager and front-of-house engineer, which means, among other things, he controls how the audience hears the show from a console at the back of the room. He hired Simakis in 2005; now they do 125-150 shows per year together.

"I never thought I'd work here," says Simakis, 34. "I thought you had to know some secret code or turn a magic knob."

He did have to learn how to turn knobs, of course. Stints at Chillicothe's Recording Workshop and San Francisco's Brilliant Studios taught him the intricacies of recording. Eventually he took over his own studio in Grandview, now known as The Alter. As for live sound, five years working by day for Live Technologies and by night at bars like Ravari Room honed his skills. Those were decent gigs, but when Thomas offered Simakis a position at the Newport, it felt like a dream job.

Growing up in Upper Arlington, Simakis frequently attended metal shows at the Newport. At age 15, he broke his arm stage-diving at a Pantera concert.

Simakis' first Newport experience was a D.R.I. concert on August 6, 1990, five days before his 14th birthday. Two decades later, he got to mix D.R.I. at Scion Rock Fest, prompting one of the group's members to note that Simakis' life had come "full circle pit."

4:20 p.m.

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears still haven't shown up, which is slightly disconcerting. Sometimes Simakis arrives as early as 11 a.m. to sound-check bands; he likes to have the headliner's sound-check done between 3 and 4 p.m. to leave plenty of time for the openers - and to grab dinner before show time. Unfortunately, sometimes soundmen have to wait.

"There's some down time, but when it's time to move, it's time to move," Simakis says.

In the meantime, he tests his system by blasting pink noise. (It's different from white noise; further discussion of this topic proves far too technical.) He then speaks through a microphone to check his various monitor mixes for clarity.

Harsh static emerges on Mix 1, then again on Mixes 2 and 3. Eventually, Simakis and Thomas fix the problem. Much of a soundman's business is troubleshooting like this; you just hope it happens before the show and not during.

"It's like damage control," Simakis says. "You're waiting until something goes wrong."

4:30 p.m.

Simakis grabs a roll of electrical tape and begins hanging Day Sheets, papers with the day's scheduled times for load-in, sound-check, doors, performances and curfew, when music must cease. The little documents also include a weather report, a list of restaurants on the block, contact info for the nearest musical instrument store and phone numbers for Simakis, Thomas and other members of the crew.

Meanwhile, Thomas has been preparing a rig for a live recording of tonight's opening act, local psych rockers The Main Street Gospel, who worked with Simakis and Thomas on their debut album "Love Will Have Her Revenge."

4: 42 p.m.

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears finally roll in from Toronto in a white van that reads "St. Joseph's Catholic Church" on the side. Stagehands Gibby and Jared rush to help the band carry gear inside.

Band members enter and introduce themselves one by one. They're incredibly polite - quite a relief considering some of the rock star egos this crew has put up with.

"You've kinda gotta be a psychologist," Simakis says. Later that night, he offers further insight: "It's a service industry. I started in restaurants. A lot of it's the same things. Just try to keep a smile on your face."

4: 49 p.m.

The Main Street Gospel pulls up in a van. Simakis directs them to drive around the block again and load in through the side door so they don't get their equipment mixed up with Black Joe Lewis'.

The house lights turn on for the first time, revealing a crowd of prize winners in the lobby waiting for their meet-and-greet with the Honeybears. Sound-check will have to wait until after the band mingles; they're kind enough to get their gear set up so Simakis can begin arranging microphones.

5 p.m.

Simakis applies tape to the mixing console and labels it to identify each channel: guitar, kick drum, vocals, etc. The Honeybears only need 16 channels, which is nothing compared to the 52 channels Simakis once mixed for the Charlie Daniels Band. The stagehands are setting up a riser for the horn section. Simakis proceeds to rig up the patching, which connects the microphone cables to the soundboard: "When you see a show coming to a complete halt, it usually has to do with this."

5:28 p.m.

By now, the Newport is bustling with band members, crew, bar staff and fans trickling in from the meet-and-greet. Some awkward fellow wanders in the side door, expresses his interest in audio engineering and asks the crew a few questions. Within a minute or two, he wanders back out.

"Who the f--- was that?" Thomas wonders.

Simakis labels the other half of the mixing board to eventually mic the Main Street Gospel's gear. Because the Honeybears are using so few channels, Simakis can kick Main Street a few extra microphones for a better-honed sound.

5:40 p.m.

Simakis hurries down the block to the convenience store for a Snickers and a pack of peanut butter crackers, "so I don't fall on my face during sound-check."

5:47 p.m.

Simakis returns from the snack run to find the Honeybears on stage. He begins a line check, testing each instrument individually: drums, bass, horns, guitars, vocals. After so much silence, the noise is jarring.

When Thomas wonders if the Honeybears want a barricade in front of the stage, they fervently reject his offer - a band of the people.

6:05 p.m.

The band sound-checks a couple of rousing blues-rock tunes and only request a few minor adjustments to Simakis' monitor mix. While discussing what to play, Black Joe Lewis asks his bandmates, "You got anything more obscure?" If you're going to trot out a rarity, sound-check is the time to practice it.

6:25 p.m.

The Honeybears' sound-check is over, but their bassist, drummer and tour manager are huddled around the bass amp trying to fix a farting sound that accompanies certain notes. To the bassist's frustration, the other two guys end the investigation by concluding, "It's just loud."

6:28 p.m.

Simakis and Thomas begin setting up more monitors and mic stands so The Main Street Gospel can set up in front of the Honeybears' gear. They have to finish sound-checking by the time doors open at 7 p.m.

6:57 p.m.

Main Street manages to squeeze in a one-song sound-check just before the security staff rolls in, followed by the first wave of fans. Then Simakis and a few other crew members slip out for some much-needed Chipotle.

7:30 p.m.

Upon our return to the Newport, we ascend the spiral staircase to Main Street's dressing room, where we enjoy burritos with a side of music scene gossip. Slayer vinyl and the sightlines at LC Pavilion also come up.

8 p.m.

Main Street takes the stage to a packed house. The people must wait, though, as there's a problem with guitarist Vug Arakas' amp. Simakis speeds to the rescue, toying with some wires until chords ring out and a crisis is averted. He returns to his post at the mixing desk, constantly adjusting the levels ever so slightly.

8:12 p.m.

Between songs, someone in the crowd yells "Simakis!" Even the soundman has fans tonight.

8:36 p.m.

Main Street wraps up with time to spare. Smart move: Leave 'em wanting more. Simakis zeroes out the knobs again then helps the stagehands remove Main Street's gear. In a flash their gear is whisked away and Black Joe Lewis is chatting them up.

8:45 p.m.

Arakas gives Simakis a Vug hug. Greek love!

9:05 p.m.

Simakis flips off the lights, the Honeybears' intro music kicks on and the crowd goes wild. A minute later, they're on stage and rocking out. It is as loud as some metal shows in there, but Simakis isn't wearing earplugs tonight, a no-no for a soundman who wants to have a long career.

"We're kind of like strippers in that our bodies don't last forever," Simakis later tells me. "By the time you figure it out, you're probably deaf."

He got a hearing exam recently and was pleased to discover that although his hearing loss was above average, it wasn't nearly as bad as he expected.

"I think being Greek helps," he explains. "I've got all this hair in my ears."

9:57 p.m.

Almost an hour into the set, it's smooth sailing. Simakis has barely had to lift a finger - a successful night for a sound guy. I begin to realize how thankful I am for such an electric performance and how painful it would be to sit through terrible bands night after night. Simakis tells me there's high turnover in his line of work, partially due to high stress and long hours but also due to soundmen getting sick of music. I can see why.

"A lot of people try," Simakis says, "and a lot of people walk away."

10:25 p.m.

The Honeybears' encore ends in piercing feedback. As the house lights come up and the crowd trickles out, Simakis cuts the noise and begins breaking down equipment post-haste.

"All right," he says, "time to get this done so we can party!"

The Newport floor is a wasteland of plastic cups and spilled beer. Backstage, band members are surrounded by women all of the sudden.

10:40 p.m.

Black Joe Lewis offers Simakis a swig from his bottle of Jameson. Simakis gladly complies.

10:45 p.m.

It's time to hit the convenience store again for a pack of Pall Malls and a six-pack of Commodore Perry. Simakis is jazzed about how well the show went: "I love when it's a religious experience like that."

11:05 p.m.

As stagehands help the Honeybears carry their equipment to the trailer, Simakis is back where he started, draping the cover over that humongous mixing console. It's been an easy and fun night - the kind of night that got him into this business in the first place. He flips off the power, and with that, Newport Music Hall is put to bed, ready to rock again tomorrow.