By: Lelio Padovani
What we perceive as a good show is the product of many people working onstage and many working offstage as well. Lousy tone or a messy stage can ruin an otherwise good performance. John Sinks may not be a well-known name, as he spends most of his time working out of sight, but he has helped the likes of Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Dweezil Zappa and The California Guitar Trio bring their craft to the audience. He has a long experience “in the field” (“in the trenches”…) as Stage Manager, Road Manager, Live Recording Engineer, Guitar Tech, Studio Engineer, Technical And Strategic Liaison: all of this means solving problems and making the show run smoothly.
I met John at one of Adrian Belew’s clinics in Italy, and after seeing him work I was curious about his approach to working with guitarista.
Being a guitar player himself from Guitar Craft, he knows exactly how to deal with guitarists.
Lelio Padovani: Tell us a little about yourself.
John Sinks: My 7th Grade Science teacher got me interested in the physics of sound when she showed us what music looked like on an Oscilloscope. She also showed Science Fiction movies after school and needed someone to operate the projector. At her suggestion I joined the Audio -Visual department and learned how all the gear worked. I also studied electronic theory and repair in high school in College (University of Wisconsin); I studied Radio TV and Film production and worked for the University’s AV department, and operated a film society.
I managed and worked as a projectionist for a number of movie theaters, including The Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, which at the time was also a major concert venue. I also worked at a Radio Shack for a while (right next store to a movie theatre I also worked at) and became their computer expert.
Lelio: How did you get started in the business?
John Sinks: A friend of mine knew one of Frank Zappa’s roadies and invited me to go see a Zappa show with him and meet his friend. We went to the venue early to watch them set up. I offered to help and they put me to work helping to set up Terry Bozzio’s drum kit. After seeing what a days work putting on a rock show involved, I figured this is the life for me.
But it took a while to find a way into the business.
Then I took one of Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft courses. Whenever the League of Crafty Guitarists would perform or record I would help out however I could. This his how I began to learn all aspects of making a show or recording session happen.
I went to stay in the Red Lion House in Cranborne, England where Guitar Craft Students could stay and work with other students. In the room above mine, Trey Gunn was beginning to learn how to play the Chapman Stick. The members of what would become the California Guitar Trio also stayed there. Down the street, recording engineer Tony Arnold was building a recording studio in the old fire station. Tony had a rich history as an engineer and was the guy who built Fripp’s racks and took care of his gear. Whenever I could, I hung out at Tony’s, helped out in the studio and learned everything I could from him.
When Fripp formed “Sunday All over the World” he asked if I wanted to be the drum tech.
One day on tour, Robert’s rack was humming very loudly. His guitar tech couldn’t find the problem. I suggested the problem was a cable that was lying near a power transformer. He said it couldn’t be that. They gave up on finding the problem and went to eat. I stayed on stage to watch the gear. When Robert returned to tune his guitar, he noticed the hum was gone. He asked if I knew why and I told him that I had moved the cable away from the power transformer.
Starting with the next tour I became Robert’s tech.
After “Sunday All Over the world” Robert spent two years occupied with legal dealings with EG records. While traveling from the Guitar Craft School in West Virginia back home to Wisconsin, I stopped in Allentown, PA to spend the night at a friends house. While there, I got in touch with a guy who had worked on the crew of the theatre that the League of Crafty guitarist had played at recently. He told me he heard there was a job opening at the local theme Park. So I made a phone call and the next day I was working with the Sound and Lighting crew at Dorney Park. Here I worked on all aspects of theatrical production on all kinds of shows. Sometimes I even got to operate the carnival rides.
At the end of the summer, I got a call from Fred Schuchman. Fred was the front of house guy for “Sunday all Over the World.” He also was Robert’s Tech for his Frippertronics shows. He told me there was an opening at the Bottom Line in NYC for a monitor engineer and he would give me a good reference. Fortunately, I had a friend in NYC who gave me the use of his couch ‘till I found my own apartment so I was able to take the job. Eventually I became their front of house guy. My work at the Bottom Line provided me with two years of extensive experience. I usually worked five nights a week with two shows a night. I got to mix every kind of act imaginable.
One day I got a call from Fripp. He was going to make a record with David Sylvian in Woodstock and wanted me to come stay in Woodstock to help. When the recording was finished, we met in Minneapolis at Prince’s Paisley Park Studio for rehearsals for the tour. During these rehearsals I built Robert’s Soundscape Rack for him (the one with the TC2290s).
Then King Crimson reformed.
Lelio: I’ve read the many roles you’ve been credited for, such as Stage Manager, Road Manager, Live Recording Engineer, Guitar Tech, Studio Engineer, Technical and Strategic Liaison: describe your work for us if you can.
John Sinks: As a technician, I help to design, build and maintain the musician’s set up and get the gear ready for the performance or recording session. I set up the gear, resolve any technical problems, and pack it up at the end of the gig. Sometimes I also restring and tune guitars. Before the show starts I make sure everything is plugged in and turned on and working.
As an engineer I make sure all the inputs to the mixing or recording desk are properly connected and working and the microphones are positioned correctly. I mix front of house and monitors (quite often simultaneously) and record the show.
Sometimes I take on some Production duties: for example, advancing technical details with venues and arranging backline rental gear and details like gear pickup and transport, travel, and lodging. On smaller tours I may take on some or all the responsibilities of a Tour Manager.
Lelio: Describe a typical day on the road.
John Sinks: Nothing is really typical, which is part of the fun of it. On smaller tours, you travel to the venue from the hotel. You usually travel by van or taxi but you might also travel by train, plane or boat. Your trip might include “pit stops”, travel delays, border crossings, detours, getting lost, breakdowns, bad weather, accidents, lost luggage, or encounters with bureaucracy.
On a bus tour – You wake up on the tour bus at (or near) the venue.
First, the gear is loaded in. On some bigger tours, lights load in and set up first, then sound, then backline. Lighting guys like to say with pride “In first out last.” Backline guys like to sleep later.
I set up the gear and make sure it is working and then I start to restring guitars.
The FOH engineer needs to plays some music (or make some noise) so he can EQ the house and the lighting guy may need to turn out lights for a while to focus the lights. This is a good time to eat lunch. When all the microphones are in place and all the lines are hooked up we do a line check to make sure it all works.
The musicians start to show up looking for dressing rooms, catering,production offices and bathrooms. In some cases, you only need to direct them to one room. They may also want to check out, program, tweak, warm up with or have some kind of private moment with their gear. I stand near by, usually restring guitars, in case I’m needed.
Next comes the sound check. Monitor levels are checked and the band runs through some or all of the set. Sometimes some people are allowed in to view a portion of the sound check. After sound check, dinner is ready and the doors are opened. Before the band goes on stage you need to make sure everything is plugged in, turned on and working, put set lists, water and towels out.
During the show you need to always keep an eye on the performers in case they need your help.You also may need to tune guitars, and make guitar changes, fix broken strings, deal with technical problems, trigger samples, or participate in set changes and other “stage craft.”
After the show, you pack it all up and load it back into the truck, van or trailer.
On a bus tour, most of the crew showers after the show, either at the venue or at a hotel room near by. Usually there is some after show food and refreshments on the bus. The members of the band and crew each “unwind” in their own ways. Those who wish to venture out to interface with the locals must make it back to the bus before departure time.
On a van tour you must make it back to your hotel before check out time the next morning.
Lelio: What do you think is your main strength in your job?
John Sinks: I deal with problems well and remain calm under pressure.
Lelio: What’s the hardest part of your job? And what’s the best part?
John Sinks: The worst part is dealing with unpleasant promoters or club owners.
The best part is show mixing front of house.
Lelio: Do you have a favorite venue?
John Sinks: St. Paul’s Cathedral in London where Robert Fripp did Soundscapes. People kept looking up into the dome to try to figure out where I hung speakers. (They were behind the regular PA speakers on the floor, aimed up into the dome).
Lelio: What would you suggest a young, up-and-coming engineer?
John Sinks: While touring you will find yourself in close quarters with others for extended periods of time.
It will do you well to develop your social skills.
Lelio: Is there an artist you would like to work with?
John Sinks: I’d love to work with The Residents.
Lelio: Do you miss not being into the spotlight, or would you like to be given more credit?
John Sinks: I feel that I do get sufficient credit from the folks I work for and with.
But I also feel that if the audience doesn’t notice what I’m doing, it’s a job well done. I enjoy being the man behind the curtain (but I do get to poke my head out on occasion).
Lelio: What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen, onstage or offstage (you can withhold names…)?
John Sinks: During a ZPZ tour in Scandinavia the band had not yet worked out the vocal’s for Zappa’s song “Bobby Brown” so Dweezil asked the audience to sing it. The entire, mostly non-english speaking audience, knew all the words and sang them with gusto. (If you don’t know the lyrics be sure to check them out…).
Lelio: You worked with big, huge guitar players. Do you see some common traits among them? (Personalities, their approach to their work, favorite amps…)
John Sinks: They are hard workers, completely committed to what they do – which is why they are successful.
Lelio: What is the biggest issue you find in working with guitar players, or what would you suggest them to make your work easier?
John Sinks: It’s my job to make their work easier.
Lelio: What are the typical problems with guitarists setups?
John Sinks: User Error
Something not plugged in or plugged into the wrong hole.
Bad cables or connectors.
Phantom power not on.
Chips or internal connection vibrated loose.
Crack in circuit board.
Lelio: Describe the perfect musician to work with.
John Sinks: I enjoy with working with guys like Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp. They both work with a lot of other great musicians and in a variety of contexts. Aside from making things more interesting this also broadens your experience and can open up new opportunities.
For example, I just spent three weeks in Amsterdam with Adrian Belew where he rehearsed, recorded and performed “E for Orchestra” with the Amsterdam Metropole Orkest. The Performance was also filmed for DVD.
When Fripp went on tour with G3 I got to know Steve Vai and ended up touring with him. I also became good friends with his legendary guitar tech Thomas Nordegg. I owe Thomas a lot for all he taught me, all the great stories he told, and the fact he got me the gig with Zappa Plays Zappa.
Lelio: Do you own personal studio, or can you make a brief list of your own equipment?
John Sinks: On a regular basis, I use 2 Macbook Pros, 2 MOTU 828s, an Axe FX, a VG99, a Stringport and a Boss GT-7 (Which I also use as a foot controller for everything else). I do have some hardware synths, samplers, and effects but I use a computer to do most of that stuff now.
Lelio: Is there a piece of equipment you can’t do without?
John Sinks: Aside from my Macbook, no.
Lelio: Do you have a favorite recording chain and do you also use it live?
John Sinks: Usually I’m limited to what is provided by the venue. So I make do with what I have.
I do carry a Laptop and a MOTU 828 Audio interface for recording.
Lelio: With the new technologies available, how has your way of working evolved?
John Sinks: There is less to carry and more to learn.
Lelio: How do you keep your sanity? Hobbies, if any?
John Sinks: My work actually helps. Especially when I’m mixing. (For Tony Arnold it was soldering).
To do your job well, you must be totally aware of what is going on and of what you are doing. Should you let your attention wander from what you are doing, the audience, (or the hot tip of a soldering iron) will help refocus it where it belongs. There’s no time for mental instability when there is a show that must go on.
I also find that reading instruction manuals helps focus your mind on something practical plus has the added benefit of familiarizing you with the tools of your trade.
Lelio: Do you have some kind of ritual before a gig?
John Sinks: I have a pre-show checklist I go over. It might be something like:
Set List, water, and towels out?
Reconnect pedals that were unplugged to save batteries?
Guitars in place and plugged in?
Guitars in tune?
Picks and slides, guitar cloths out?
Duck call and whoopee cushion in place?