Being a musician or band's sound man is a very intimate position. The relationship allows you to know the people behind the music in a way few others could. The time spent with hard working musicians opens many a door both professionally and personally.
Sound technician Steve Beatty has been involved with recording music since the age of 18, when the Grateful Dead opened up an entirely new world to him. Along the way he has worked with one of the most impressive lists of people (musicians and otherwise) that you could ever dream: from the Dalai Lama to Jerry Joseph, Bonnie Raitt to R.L. Burnside, he has truly experienced a huge slice of life. In speaking with Steve it becomes clear that something--perhaps these experiences--have shaped him into one of the most sincere, warm, and on-the-money people around. It's rare to find someone so committed to his art while completely devoted to bettering the world. It's my assumption that Steve is not getting rich from his practice, but he donates profits to charity, insists on equal profits for everyone involved, and simply loves the world--especially the world of music.
real image recording
After getting to know Steve a bit I find it reassuring that he is a major figure in the realm of live recording, and in the lives of many bands I respect and care for. It is incredibly pleasing to think that Steve may help revolutionize the way we see concerts. Steve has launched Real Image Recording, which very well could help usher in a day where you leave a show with a high-quality, professional CD version of what you just heard. Steve's an amazing sound tech. He has been a huge help in developing Sound Tribe Sector 9's incredibly unique sound, and is actually getting ready to help launch a new download site for STS9 that will allow fans to download entire shows or selected tracks that have all been remastered and in some cases mixed. You'll even be able to sample the track before downloading it. Considering STS9 hasn't given out a sound board patch in several years this will surely be a huge plus for fans, but perhaps even more importantly it will demonstrate what Steve and Real Image are capable of doing for bands that wish to distribute their music in a serious, hi-fi fashion (as opposed to fan recordings that often leave much to be desired).
While Steve is excited about the download site and distributing music, it is "festivalive" that is truly his passion at the moment. The 2004 High Sierra Music Festival will be the first ever "festivalive" experience. Festivalgoers will cruise around High Sierra with a checklist; with this list they will determine which sets they want recordings of, and can quite possibly leave the festival with crisp, professional CDs in hand. As Steve explains, "We just want people to come to High Sierra and enjoy the festival on a heightened level, while providing them with music they weren't able to see and with music they want to hear again and again."
I had the opportunity to enjoy Steve's outlook on life while learning about all of this and far more before a Sound Tribe Sector 9 show in Santa Cruz a little while back. Steve and I spoke at length, and I'm pleased to be able to open up the gates to a conversation with a man you may not ever see or hear at your favorite show, but I assure you, he is absolutely essential to the experience.
Kayceman: I'd like to get a little history on how you got into recording sound...
Steve Beatty: Well, first it was a love of the Grateful Dead and seeing them live and understanding that the concerts could sound better than just blasting music through a PA. And understanding that the layers of sound actually had pleasing affects. At the ages of 17, 18 years old I'm not sure that I understood the physical properties of sound; I just knew that I loved it. And I knew when I went to clubs to see other shows I didn't like it. I always wanted to know why it couldn’t sound that way inside of a small club, why you couldn't control the factors well enough to make it sound even close to what we were experiencing at Grateful Dead shows.
Grateful Dead by Eyeneer Music Archives
Kayceman: And how old where you when you started getting really interested in it?
Steve Beatty: I was 19 years old when I decided I wanted to learn everything I could. But sound is a really tricky business to gain experience in because no musician wants someone who doesn't know what they are doing mixing their sound. So the only way to gain experience is to just sort of be there and be on the spot, and just always hang around and learn everything you can and one day someone will ask you to do it... probably because the guy who's supposed to do it just had an emergency appendectomy or his kid got sick or something like that, and you get thrust into that position.
Kayceman: What ended up thrusting you into that position?
Steve Beatty: There was a Tony Rice concert at Ziggy's... a very close friend of mine, Jay Stephens, owns Ziggy's in North Carolina, we actually helped build the deck back in 1990. So he had an engineer there for the first year or so that was kind of iffy and maybe just learning ropes or whatever. But it all came to a head one night when Tony Rice played a solo show in there. It was about 700 people, most of them older bluegrass fans who were there to see a beautiful sounding Tony Rice acoustic show. First song into it some horrible feedback came out of the monitors. It squeaked on him and he couldn't play. They went through the same thing three or four times to the point where he said to the entire crowd "Ladies and gentleman, we're gonna put the show on hold for a minute and see if the sound guy can't get is act together."
Tony Rice by M. Sheehan
And so what, they knew you were interested and wanted to see if you could help?
Oh no, no, no. I had been there recording because I had learned about hanging audience mics at Grateful Dead shows and everything. And I'd been there recording. I was a roommate with Jay's brother in college and we were in college at the time and I was always there. Always trying to learn everything I could. And so finally this guy just gave up and was ready to quit and walk out. So Jay turned to me and said, "Is there anything you can do?" And I just tried turning the EQs up to zero, and just slowly dialed it back in. It wasn't the greatest sounding show I've ever mixed that's for sure.
Right, but you pulled it off.
You could hear it, it sounded fine. It was a guitar and a vocal and that was the end of it, and people clapped at the end of every song.
Well if you're the sound guy and no one notices you you're doing the best job you could be doing.
There were a lot of people who offered to get me a drink that night. Everyone was watching this transaction behind the soundboard of this guy quitting and...
And you stepping in and being like, "OK, I'll try." That's great. So from there what did you do, you got some gigs doing some tours?
Well actually I had an opportunity through friends of friends at Ziggy's to follow Widespread Panic. A friend of mine was selling their t-shirts. And back in the day the band would ride on the bus and the merchandise people would drive in their own vehicle. You know just load up their trunk or back of their station wagon with as many t-shirts as you can carry and figure it out. So I was riding with their merch guy and I was bugging Panic's sound guy every day. What can I learn? And looking over his shoulder and just watching him go through his daily routine. And again, just trying to learn everything I could. We ended up on a H.O.R.D.E. tour that summer and I was working stage and everything and just trying to learn everything I could.
Widespread Panic by Mary Ruf
So what turned into your first paying sound gig?
Through the Widespread Panic connection I decided to move up to Portland, Oregon.
Where were you at that point, down south somewhere?
Yeah, I was living in Athens, Georgia in 1992 and '93, and half of '94, and moved up to Portland, Oregon and I met the woman that I eventually married, my wife Suzanne. And really loved the town. There was a huge connection with Widespread Panic at the time through Jerry Joseph. And John Bell suggested that I look up Jerry Joseph when I got there. Well as it turned out the bar right around the corner from me was where Jerry was playing a weekly acoustic gig. So I bugged the guy down there and got a job just sort of watching the place at night and doing all sorts of stuff. I bugged the guy real hard, I was like, "I can do it, I can do it, I can do it." And sure enough I ended up mixing sound in this little club in Portland, Oregon.
What club was it?
Belmont's was the name of it. Mikey, the guy who was mixing sound for Everclear for a long time, was the guy working down there. So I got lucky and Jerry and I headed out on the road for a little bit. We did a whole bunch of solo acoustic stuff as he was going through some personal times of his own. And he was really, really generous and understood the position that I was in and everything. And it was going really, really well right from the get-go. I was doing a good job. The stuff was sounding great, we were recording, and we were having a lot of fun. He ended up putting together a new band, which was called The Jerry Joseph Band at the time, a lot of different players. And we went sort of all over the West, and it was a real interesting situation because Jerry had been with Little Woman two years previous, and Little Woman had been one of the biggest bands on the West Coast at that time. Well Jerry had gone through some personal issues in those two, three years and hadn't been able to tour as much, and Little Woman had broken up and everything. Well when he was ready to play and perform cohesively with a unit all these great clubs that he had previously played at with Little Woman were ready to give him a shot. Ready to have him come play just to see how he was doing, and just to give him support. Well it provided a really unique opportunity because there wasn't as much at risk because Jerry was just starting with this new band and the crowds weren't super huge, no one was expecting anything and yet we were playing sweet clubs with nice PAs.
So you could work on your sound for real.
Exactly. And Jerry was great; we would take super long sound checks. And we just worked really, really hard with what we had.
And that's where you really dialed in your skills per se?
I think so. And my brother in law is a guy named David Hewitt and he owns Remote Recording Services in Lahaska, Pennsylvania. At the time he was coming out to the West Coast to record the Bonnie Raitt Road Tested record. I was working with Jerry and happened to be on the phone with my wife Suzanne. She had been on the phone with her sister and said that David needs some help on the West Coast. Suzanne volunteered me and I went and worked on the Bonnie Raitt tour in '95 for a couple of weeks and that's where I really got the experience of live sound, live recording and marrying the two.
And I know you got a job with R.L. Burnside in the past few years, when was that?
We recorded the tour in 2000. But I've known R.L. and that bunch of people with the Fat Possum record label; since 1992 or '93 when JoJo Hermann [Widespread Panic] turned me onto Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. I remember listening to tapes at his [JoJo's] house. And it was the most fantastic thing I thought I'd ever heard at the time. So I begged him, "Come on, let's go out to the juke joint." And we drove from Athens out there and we got a great, great initial recording one of the first times we went out there. I literally wore the tape out. I just totally fell in love with it, and when I moved away from that area to Portland I missed the ability to see that kind of stuff. And as it turned out, I guess in about 1995 they went on the Fat Possum Juke Joint Tour with R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, and instead of following The Dead around and Phish around like other people were doing, my friends and I followed the Juke Joint Tour around. Just because we knew them and we loved the music so much, and we wanted to see what it did to people in different parts of the county. So we followed them around and we really got to know the record label guy, Bruce Watson.
Is that what led you to recording with R.L., or was that more of a personal relationship?
It developed from that. I recorded several shows from that caravan tour and mixed a couple of them and all that. At this point I was confident enough that it could really work out. The tapes were fantastic and I gave them to the record label people and we immediately struck up a relationship and it was in 1997 in Philadelphia we discussed having a live R.L. record.
That's interesting that they wouldn't want to pursue that on their own, you would think that they would already be hip to that. But sometimes I think that live recording is underestimated a little bit. I think, obviously from my perspective, it's one of the most valuable forms of music there is, I have lots of live stuff. But do you find that record labels aren't quite as hip to that?
Well who knows what is happening right now, live recording is completely going through an evolution right now. So I think there are going to be record labels that exist only for live recording.
But how about in the past?
In the past you are right, it was tough. Live recordings were oftentimes just looked at as contract filler, a way to bump out that last album and get off your recording contract. I don't know that they weren't so much not hip to it, but the idea of... it was already difficult enough to get R.L. and Junior out on the road in a lot of ways because of their age and lack of mobility and stuff like that. Health. And I think that maybe the live recording would just be an afterthought in their minds. I know that Bruce Watson, the owner of Fat Possum, I know that he and I have a lot of similar philosophies in recording. And when they announced the tour that we ended up recording, which was form Vancouver through every major West Coast city down to San Diego, I think it just seemed natural to him because I was in Portland, and he knew I really wanted to do it.
R. L. Burnside by Ed Mabe
Now you mentioned your philosophies in recording--that's something I was actually curious about. Do you find that you have particular philosophy?
In live sound and recording, in my opinion, it's all about perspective. One's got to try to create a listening environment that is as natural as possible. Now Sector 9 for example might be different to my philosophy because we are trying some new things with speaker manipulation, altering things form the left to the right, some really crazy stuff, stereo-wise. Other bands I believe in a very fundamental approach of bringing the listener into the most natural state possible. Meaning giving up some precision for authenticity in terms of tones and sounds and everything like that. I firmly believe in a minimal miking approach and things that allow the listener to remove the PA from the equation and have it sound as natural as possible.
And with Sector 9 how does that change for you?
Sector 9 is moving into a new direction. We discuss this all the time between us. Sector 9 has aspects of their mix such as low end, serious low end, computer samples, things like that, that we've decided through manipulation, through some of the tools of technology that are available to us these days, that that is more what we choose to project and we hope the listener will experience. It's not natural, it's not as organic, but with the addition of tablas in Sector 9's mix there is a new organic ingredient as well. So I think with Sector 9 at times there is an extremely natural listening environment happening but yet with the precision of the drums and the multitude of sounds that are being created it's not like listening to a minimum-miking jazz band situation.
Sound Tribe Sector 9 by L. O'Keeffe
Do you use far more mics with Sector 9 than you do with other bands?
Currently we are up over 40 inputs for Sector 9.
Wow, I didn't realize that. How many would you use on average?
Well with the other band I am touring with--the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey--we use nine inputs. And with other bands I think average's come in the 22-26 range.
I'm also very interested in recording and trying to get it to the fans, especially in regards to the company you have started. Have you moved forward with that?
Yes, as a matter of fact we have several high-speed duplicators in the works right now, we have one on site and my company Real Image Recording is going to be launching a full service. We believe that the Real Image name has begun to represent something in terms of quality of sound. There's the Keller Williams record, there's String Cheese, R.L. Burnside, Sector 9, there is a nice roll of artists who have worked with our recording company and we feel that that represents the safety and security that the artist needs, the so-called "brand name" of being able to use this service and know that it will be high quality. Because there is nothing worse than the thought of selling 100 live discs after your show and have it suck.
So they are obviously confident in you to provide the product. Now I know this is already starting to happen. I know that moe. did their Instant Live with Clear Channel so is there a lot of competition starting to arise in that area of music.
Well I think several bands are starting to do it. I think Clear Channel's efforts have simply publicized the way for the rest of us. I was actually working as a technical advisor on Clear Channels project and knew already that it was the next wave of things to come. I do believe that it was too new of an idea for a long time, and yet with the explosion of things you can't wait too long either. Several bands are doing it, there was a special on 60 Minutes the other night about the Grateful Dead and recording live music, and there is an article in this month's Rolling Stone about it as well.
Steve Beatty and R.L. Burnside
Well it's definitely the direction things are going if it's not there already.
I believe especially with bands that are so about their music that they're performing different shows every night, which is... let me harken back to that question you asked before: "Who do I want to work with?" I want to work with the bands that are original every single night.
Right, that's the genuine experience that we were talking about, and that's who I want to go see.
Exactly, something that is new to them and is new to us.
It's a real experience; it's something really genuine that is happening.
So how far away are you from having this in motion?
I'll be ready to go by the end of next week.
Are you starting to do this for people?
Yes, as a matter of fact there are a few upcoming gigs, and I've got to get in touch with a few people. We are doing "festivalive" with High Sierra this year and there are going to be a couple of other festivals as well. What this will do will offer festival goers almost instant copies of the sets they select from the festival.
So what type of licensing issues do you run into with that? You have to get the band's approval first, I would assume?
Yes we do. But we are hoping that the success of Instant Live's project, the Grateful Dead's project, and everything like that has warmed everyone up to the idea by this point.
I think you're probably right.
And at my company, Real Image Recording, our firm belief is that we are going to be able to provide a service to people like they have never experiences before. You are going to be able to go to a festival with a checklist and indicate what you want. And at the end of the festival, or later if you don't turn in your checklist by a certain time, you're going to have to wait for shipping for three days or something like that, but you will receive a book with exactly the shows you want in it. We believe that by homogenizing--for example at a multi stage festival--the Real Image Recording name on all the different stages, we believe that that consistency will be attractive enough to the bands that are playing these same circuits, and it will be a comfortable thing, and it will be something that the fans have come to know and expect, and there will be a certain level of quality.
High Sierra Music Festival
So does that transfer to hopes of what moe. has been doing, recording an entire tour for somebody?
Well, I believe there are several benefits and attractive qualities to this sort of thing. Personally I'd like to focus in on the special shows for bands. But then we are getting back to the old thing of, "We need to be on point that night because we are going to be recording that night." At the same time I believe that as some of these bands that we all know and love are getting more and more popular that the special shows are happening. I believe that there could be nothing better, for example--promotionally and towards the future--if all your fans were just to show up and you had hired Real Image Recording to provide your fans with free copies of the show as they walked out, not telling anyone... It would be an absolutely public relations dream. And that's all promotional, that's a record company picking it up, for example. We feel like we can do it all. The festival service is the best thing imaginable, it's what we really want to focus on right now. Because people cannot see everything, they can only hear about things. It also gets away from some of the record label issues because people are often playing with other people, it's not concise sets, the looseness lends itself to the entire experience... and if you've ever been to High Sierra then you know the entire experience deserves to be recorded.
I agree. Now what about the financial aspect of it? Do the bands take a certain percentage, how does that work?
Real Image Recording is dedicated to equal profits and proceeds between bands and all the associated parties. There is one thing that we do that other companies don't, which is that we donate ten percent of all our profits to Mindys Memory Primate Sanctuary in Norman, Oklahoma. For example, this duplication that we did for Jacob Fred in San Francisco Friday night went extremely well, and we hit just over my projected sales and everything. The recording sound really great, piano was a little out of tune, but we did great with it, and I think people were really happy with the quality of product they got and the show itself was fantastic.
View From Behind Steve's Sound Board
STS9 at Stern Grove, CA
How much did you sell it for?
We sold it for twelve dollars. And you got two complete sets of music. It went really well and was a fantastic thing. We also got to cut our first, albeit small, our first check to Mindys Memory. So it's officially launched and it's officially happening. And because of the size of Real Image Recording, basically me and the racks...
I was going to ask you if there is anybody else involved?
There is for the festivals. I hire a team of people every year and a lot of times it's the Sector 9 crew. It's always familiar people in terms of philosophy and love of sound. People who have worked with our gear before.
So that is where you are going to focus initially, on the festival circuit?
Absolutely, that is going to be our primary goal. But we are more than prepared to go anywhere at any time and do this. There are really no limits on the situation, and our gear is specially configured to do exactly this.
Do you think your approach differs from what moe. is doing right now as far as the technical, physical aspect?
Well, it is very similar in a lot of ways. But I believe that audio recording is no different from painting. There are different paints, pigments and dies, canvases, and brushes that the painter uses just as an audio engineer uses. So there are different choices of selections.
So it's always going to be different you mean.
It's always going to be different. And I believe that Real Image Recording works with a sound that is authentic to the live concert experience enough that the quality of our product will stand out.
Again referring to the list of clients you've worked with: What musicians, or people that you have worked with, have left significant impressions on you, both musically and personally?
Well getting to work with the Dalai Lama was as an amazing experience that anyone could ever hope for. Listening to his words for several nights and being able to work in a low-pressure situation, it was just him and a microphone in an arena, allowed for a piece of mind at work that made me feel very, very privileged, and very, very special to be able to hear those words for a few hours every day. A very, very wise and wonderful individual--obviously.
Musically, I believe for me the experience with R.L. Burnside has altered and shaped my life in a way that I find so interesting, and that experience is something that I don't think I could ever trade. The other side of the R.L. Burnside coin was a lady named Precious Bryant in southern Georgia that we recorded in 2001. And Precious Bryant is 67 or 68 years by now, and we recorded her first recording ever, and listening to her sing songs that she grew up playing when she was 10, 11 years old, singing them for her families sake, so they could have entertainment, so they could have music in their lives. And then watching her over the course of four days play a few of the songs, and then come back the next day and say, "I remembered a few more" and telling all the stories behind those. And on the fourth day singing church songs and buck dancing songs that she had known when she was a child and hadn't played them in so many years, I think that was the sort of life-changing experience that the Dalai Lama offered, and the musical experience that R.L. Burnside offered, all rolled into one. But I really like the Sector 9 thing, I believe a lot in what we're doing here, and I'm really excited that it seems to be growing a little.
So we spoke to the recording, distribution and a few other aspects, is there anything else that you have in mind for where you want this to go for Real Image Recording?
Yes, absolutely. I believe in the creation of sort of a free musical state--without getting to peace/love on your ass here. But I do believe that examples of like Christiana over in Copenhagen, and other parts of the world where free states exist, I believe a free art state, certainly a government-sponsored area, has to exist. Whether that be a network of churches, schools, facilities to teach, or just an area for the government to get the fuck out of, whatever it takes to foster this on a community level is something that I'd really like to be involved with. And in doing that I believe in the creation of the perfect music venue, and the perfect location for people to travel to with the necessary amenities, and one day it will be ours. And Ticketmaster won't sell tickets, and Clear Channel won't book the shows.
Just tell me what time to be there.
I would just encourage everybody to get out there and see and do what they love. It's getting expensive, it's getting rough for a lot of people, but only by encouraging individual promotions, smaller events away from corporate controlled venues, and staying off prohibitive record contracts can we turn this industry around, and I think we are doing a pretty darn good job right now. I believe in what the independent music industry in doing. I believe that Bonnaroo is not a fluke, and as soon as everyone associated with this music that we have lumped into this category of "jam," realizes not only our power in a crowd cheering for music, but realizes our power as a group, as a collective whole, that we can change not only our music, and not only the conditions at a specific venue in our town, but our actual communities.
One other thing I'd like to see for New Year's Eve--if this gets out this is my idea--but instead of everyone going to different parts of the country and playing this that or the other, everybody goes to Hawaii. 24-hour show where on every hour, given the fact that it's turning New Year's somewhere in the world you celebrate like the Mongolian New Year, the French New Year, and the Peruvian, whatever time zone it might be. And you could round up six bands for it and play 24 hours.
Again, tell me where and what time to show up.
Steve Beatty and Real Image Recording can be contacted at: 503-351-2015
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