It’s crowded and noisy in the pho restaurant where I met with an old friend of Empire Ears, Tyler Toms. We bumped shoulders with neighboring tables and shouted over the din of the lunchtime rush while we caught up and talked working in the music industry. He’s been using our ears for years and when we approached him for an interview he jumped at the opportunity to hang out again. Time passed quickly during our chat, Tyler wears his heart on his sleeve with an easy smile and is fast to crack a joke. Laid back exterior aside, the man is an wild beast on the mixing console. He’s mixed several albums, tours as a monitor engineer and currently holds a residency at Free Chapel’s largest campus as a monitor engineer and front of house engineer.
With a nationwide tour on the horizon and an album to finish recording Tyler’s schedule is getting more full with every passing minute. Twice our lunch was interrupted with phone calls inquiring about his availability.
“Sorry man, good problems, you know?”
And if there’s any statement that sums up Tyler’s attitude, it’s that. The more we talk the more it becomes apparent that Tyler is genuinely excited for every new development and opportunity, and it’s that outlook that keeps the opportunities flowing in. “You can’t stop,” he laughs, “you gotta keep going man, looking, grinding.”
Talking Shop - In-Ear Monitors and Engineering
What tips and tricks do you have for working the monitor console?
"I mean out of the gate, I like to establish a relationship with the band members. Even if it’s like during load-in or during a rehearsal, you want to get to know what they like. So the drummer, you want to know what drummers he likes, so like if he likes Nate Smith - the pocket king - you want to make sure the kick drum and the snare, well they’re not featured per se but they’re at the top of your pyramid. And then get to know how they work with each other. A bass player and a drummer - the rhythm section, if they load in and they’re not joking with each other or talking, it may be a more somber day or maybe they’re not ready to be the rhythm section yet. So I may try to get on that and get them in the mood, in the vibe. Like ‘Dude, I’m so stoked on your rig.’ I love gear so whenever I see a bass player’s rig I say ‘I can’t wait to hear how you’ve got this thing set up.’ And that will usually get them going, inspire them and they’ll say ‘Oh dude, I love my setup, I do this and I got this yada yada.’ They’ll go on that for a bit so you kind of just remind them that they’re here to make music and bring it back to passion. So it’s really important to just know what everyone likes and to stay completely unbiased. Communication and understanding are key and you have GOT to remain unbiased. Like if a singer is like ‘I can’t stand the guitar player’s solos,’ because if it’s a show and not the record they’ll be playing different licks, you gotta be like ‘Ok, cool, I got you.’ You can’t be like ‘Oh but you need to hear your guys.’ I mean, sure that’s your opinion but he just told you what he wanted. It’s just much easier to just listen than try to read their mind. 9 times out of 10, the band loves playing with each other, and they’ll be honest with you and they’ll just tell you ‘I want the band mix under my bass, or under my guitar.’ Or they’ll say ‘I need that kick just smacking. Have you listened to this record before? I want that.’ One of the guitarists I regularly work with references ACDC’s Back In Black. ‘I want those drums, I want arena reverb and I want the snare to cut through like a laser.’ He always tells me that. He’ll tell me what he’s hearing and tell me what he needs more of and that’s the best way to communicate in my opinion."
So do you think communication is the most important aspect of being a monitor engineer?
"More than that it’s knowing your setup, knowing your gear so that you can troubleshoot and accommodate. Recently, we had a surprise violinist on stage and I wasn’t prepared for her. So I throw together a rough mix for her to rehearse on and to give me feedback with. So she plays for a bit and asks for reverb. That can take a minute depending on the console, you may have to build it from scratch, and the sound you get is probably not the one you start out with so you gotta tweak it and then assign it and route it, level, mix, and then does she like it? But because I know this console inside and out and have saved quite a few of my mix presets on it, I got her what some reverb to try, and was able to get it exactly where she needed it in a matter of seconds. Also, if you don’t know your setup it’s just going to be a terrible day. Unless you’re just incredible on the fly, which is part of it.
You also need to know your artists’ systems. Once, an artist and I were at each other's throats over the mix he was getting and we were going back and forth and I just couldn’t get the sound he wanted. I mean I was giving it my all. But I know he has Empire’s too so I know he should have been hearing what I was hearing. So I had him take out his ears and checked em out and sure enough there was a big chunk of wax in one of his bores. You just gotta know the setup, if you know the setup you can make sure everything runs smooth.
You’ve gotta know your sound. You’ve got to have a reference track and know what’s missing from the mix depending on the system you’re using. You need equipment that is honest so that you can address the mistakes truthfully. I know my ears, inside and out, so I know how what I need to be hearing will be translating to the room and to the artists’ in-ears. When you’re using a silent stage it’s really important for the band members to hear the truth as well.
Just this past weekend I was working with an American Idol finalist, and I noticed he was using [another brand]’s ears. I know those ears pretty well. Very boom-y. So in my ears, I had to EQ my pack to what he was hearing. So whenever I was mixing his pack I was hearing that, but then I’d switch off and wow, it makes a huge difference. It was all boosted sub. You can receive sub from clarity, depth, tonal balance, you can get it from the seal, you know what I mean? And all of those I have with my Empires, I have the tonal balance, i don’t hear the cross-overs, I don’t hear any artificial sub. So switching to his pack was painful. It was just so bad haha."
Any technical tips?
"Gates! Gates gates gates. You can use them to adjust how any particular element gets heard without really pushing the eq around. Like if a drummer needs just the attack on his snare but the mic is also getting all the cymbal crashes and tom resonance, by using gates you can isloate the snare hits and get him the clean information he needs to perform. You can really tailor the sound to what the artist needs to hear for monitors, but also if you’re on front of house you can get your audience mix to where it needs to be much more quickly. Gates are probably my go-to tool for cleaning up the mix in a lot of ways."
What about some tips for those just starting in the music industry?
"Take the free gigs! Take them until you know you're worth being paid. If you're going to get paid to do a job, you should have all the confidence behind your work, and the quickest and most effective way, in my opinion, to do that is to take free gigs.
Network and meet other musicians and engineers. Nerd out and build a relationship. Word of mouth is going to be a huge tool for you. And be good to everyone. Don't get lazy at the end of a long gig and leave work behind for your team or others, always always always finish strong. Always leading with good posture will leave a lasting, positive impression of you.
Also, be prepared to not make money for 3-5 years"
He laughs and winks. He probably means it, but you can tell he'd do those 3-5 years again in a heartbeat.