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Kevin Glendinning: Always Listening

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Kevin Glendinning wears two very high-profile audio hats: on the one hand, he is an acclaimed and respected monitor engineer, whose artist roster includes Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, Maroon 5, and Paul Simon; and when he’s not flying faders for these superstars, he’s heading up artist relations for industry-leading in-ear monitor manufacturer, JH Audio. I sit down with him in New York City, where he’s currently working a theatre run for Idina Menzel, to find out more about the man behind the console.

Glendinning was a drummer in a punk band in the mid-90s, growing up around the Chicagoland area. Seeing as he was the only one in his band with a job, and was looking after the limited budget, he threw the cash they made back into the audio gear. Tech-minded from the start, then?

“Yeah, but I had zero clue what I was doing once I stepped off the drum kit, so to say there was a learning curve is putting it mildly,” Glendinning smiles. “The band splayed away, and folks went off to college, and I inherited the stacks and racks, as well as the monitor system. I was a big fan of Metallica at the time, and wore out a VHS copy of a tour doc they had. In the credit, it listed ‘tour sound provided by db Sound, Des Plaines, IL.’

“Their shop was about four blocks from where my father worked, and he drove by to have a gander. I’d heard about db, as they were local, and had massive high-profile accounts like The Rolling Stones, Smashing Pumpkins, AC/DC, and Metallica - basically, my mix tape roster at that time!”

Glendinning got himself a Hotmail account, and emailed the company president, Harry Witz. That door got opened, and he’s never looked back since. Within a few months, in fact, he found himself out with Metallica flying PA, and helping with the stage rigs. This was Summer 2000.

“Talk about luck, huh?” he laughs. “Both Harry [Witz] and db are now under the Clair Global family in Lititz, PA. I ended up bouncing literally off of one tour bus to another: Metallica, to AC/DC, to The Rolling Stones. I had a good run being a company man, and got to stand behind some solid A-level monitor guys, who showed me a lot along the way. I left db, moved to Maui, and became an independent monitor man. I then got lucky once again with some gracious folks in Southern California, including Dave Rat and Dave Shadoan, and started to make a name for myself with management shops, as well as North American and UK audio vendors.”

I ask Glendinning if he would recommend this ballsy approach, in terms of reaching personal goals, to others.

“Sure. Hard work, lots of missed family time sacrifices, and having the ability to sleep anywhere at any time, and he or she may have a shot at ‘getting there’,” he says. “Oh, and learn your frequencies – 20Hz to 20KHz; that is paramount. That should happen before anyone steps up to a console.”

As we chat, we realise we met almost five years to the day, when Glendinning was working monitors for Maroon 5 at London’s O2 Arena. He’s had quite the fairytale relationship with those guys; they went from playing college gymnasiums, to filling stadiums, and flying by private jet.

“It’s fun to see that growth and success happen like that,” he reflects. Are all artist relationships as gratifying? “Well, over the years, I have had it quite close and personal, and other times, gone weeks without he or she even knowing my name, or who I was on the crew.

“Every account, every tour, every band - they all have their own unique ways of touring. It’s about adapting, and not taking it too personally if it takes someone six months to learn your name. For me, the pre-show interaction is not nearly as important as post-show. I always like to get in the dressing room, wrap up IEMs, and just catch some notes from the artists - good or bad - take them both, and have honest answers. It’s the music business; these people have heard enough nonsense BS, and you’ll be better respected for a direct answer, whether that is good or bad.

“Dave Shadoan told me once when I was struggling a bit with my crew on No Doubt in 2006: ‘Everything that happens up there is on you. You’re the captain of the ship, you take charge, and make sure you’re aware of everything that is happening.’ I always remembered that.”

I ask Glendinning what his stand-out moments have been from the last 20 years on the road.

“The Rolling Stones, where I was assistant monitor engineer, was pretty mind-boggling; being that young, and that integral a part on that massive show with so much going on with regard to stage audio. And [Justin] Timberlake was by far the most ‘fun’, and the easiest on the mixing side of things. I had him on his own console - left and right ears, and that was it - like mixing PA on the stereo buss. But I’d say the best tour would be Alicia Keys. She just has this way about her; it’s hard to describe, but it’s all please and thank you, start to finish. We had a full plate as far as mix duties, but everything always seemed calm and

professional with Alicia. She doesn’t tour much these last few years, but I still hop a flight and do some one-off shows around the globe here and there. What a voice.”

Glendinning is a big advocate of DiGiCo consoles. He was introduced to the brand some years back when he got offered the Lenny Kravitz gig, after wrapping the Justin Timberlake tour.

“My old friend, Jim Douglas, offered me the Lenny show, so I specced the same desk that I’d used on the Justin tour, but Jim said, ‘Nope! You’re using a DiGiCo D5!’ I told him I didn’t even know how to turn one on. But if it isn’t analogue, it has to be a DiGiCo with Lenny.

“So I went down to Jim’s shop in Escondido, and the Sound Image guys gave me a whipping three-hour tutorial on the desk, and we went right into rehearsals with it. Lenny and the band were pleased, and I was damn certain not to try another brand of console! Laurie Quigley (Kravitz’ front of house engineer) and I got the first pair of DiGiCo SD7s hot off the shelf, and shortly transferred right over to them.

“From then on, I can count on one hand how many times I have not used a DiGiCo desk. They provide great road support too; crucial when it’s a show stopper. Thanks to Titus, Matt, and Chip at DiGiCo!”

I ask Glendinning if he’s hands-on with his mixing; it totally depends on the stage configuration, and show needs, it seems:

“We all know not using snapshots saves a lot of head strain: less thought, more feel. I sometimes get so deep into a desk’s automation that I feel like an LD, or something! On Paul Simon, I had 17 humans on one console frame, and everyone grabbed a different instrument, and moved all around – downstage, upstage, from wedges to ears, fills on and off stage - and I have no idea how my predecessors did that pre-recall! If I had mentioned to Paul something about snapshots, he’d have given me a look similar to if I’d asked him to lose the floor monitors, and wear IEMs! [laughs]

“But on another tour, band guys would literally ask me to ‘global paste’ moves, or come over, pre-soundcheck, and request we pull up a song, and do edits. I am still amazed at some musicians, and their knowledge of how monitor systems function... [pauses] Only some.

“A number one attribute is the sound of an SD7; the bells and whistles are great, but it really has a tonal colour of its own. It’s warm where it needs to be, and even with excessive HF moves - which I tend to do a lot for IEMs - it still sounds musical, and natural.

“I have never gotten vocal intelligibility from a singer like I have from an SD7. They keep furthering their onboard features, and I like that; I don’t really have the time, scope, or visual affordability to have racks of outboard units to toy with. One complaint you never want to get is that someone looked over, and your head was in a rack of compressors. The flexibility is nice on the SD7; anything can go anywhere, layout-wise; and the matrix routing is useful, too: you can put anything into your cue buss at anytime.

“This allows you to maintain monitoring on your console, but have crucial shout comms and talkback inputs supercede your listen buss when things are needed quickly, or if a crew member under the stage detects an issue. These days, comm talk is utilised in a huge way with stage managers, assistants, and security staff. We are way past the day of simple stage monitoring in the concert industry.

“We had a bomb threat on Bruno Mars in Hawaii in 2011; my production manager came running right to me, grabbed my shout, stopped the show, got everyone off deck, and all personnel in a secure position. Crazy scary, but it was done quickly and calmly that way.”

Conversation turns to Glendinning’s close relationship with Jerry Harvey, which began in 2002 on a Rolling Stones tour. JH Audio had yet to be founded, but Ultimate Ears, Harvey’s first major venture, was the leading IEM brand of the time.

“Back then, Mick Jagger, all the BVs, and [Stones’ bassist] Darryl Jones were all on Ultimate Ears - UE5s and UE7s. As the IEM guy on staff, I had a hand in designing the rig. We finally met after many phone calls and emails, and have been close acquaintances ever since that day; literally my favourite person, and best friend in our live audio community,” Glendinning explains. “I’m lucky enough that when he got back into the IEM game after parting ways with UE, and created JH Audio, he wanted some real world, well experienced live sound mixers on staff. We built JH from a small out of business hair salon in a parking lot to what it is today: global leader in the IEM business. So proud to have had a hand in that.”

Although he never thought he would have an ‘office’ position in the industry, of course...

“[laughs] Yeah, but it’s a good mix - I field a lot of calls from musicians, mixers, and management staff, on questions pertaining to our product, and its role in the real world. We have an amazing staff, both with support, and production at JH HQ in Orlando, Florida.“My main role is to generate sales, and advance revenue, but I think one thing that does really put us above the other guys is that we have staff - myself, and a few others - who are still spinning knobs, wiring up artists, tuning RF, dealing with 1/8-inch jacks into different packs - all that matters in the big picture."

“I have been a customer of all the top IEM brands, but one thing I liked about going with JH before I was even hired was that I trusted that Jerry was going to design and develop a product that worked in any and every application. I still get to work alongside my colleagues and pals that are still on the tour path; and that part I also love: Keeping the connections there from all the miles I’ve done over the years is pretty special.”

Glendinning’s most recent live sound jaunt was a slight curveball – away from rock and roll, and into the world of theatre, with the quite brilliant Idina Menzel.

“Idina was great; she had done some things with Alicia [Keys], so my name got put forth from that, when her regular monitor engineer wasn’t available,” Glendinning reveals. “You’re never surprised how and where your name gets put across someone’s desk for work; it’s a crazy small business we work in!

“Idina’s background is mostly Broadway theatre, so a bit different to what I am used to. But we were doing an opening slot in arenas in the US on a promoter stage, so that all felt the same, really: local catering, bus life, standing on cover ice rinks; it was just the musical genre that was different, but I certainly enjoyed it, and what a pro she is. Very impressive vocals made for an easy show to mix, and we got on great.”

Glendinning also worked monitors for the huge Paul Simon tour this year - Headliner was fortunate to see the London leg - his last ever UK headliner.

“That was a very cool thing to be a part of - not just the monster London show, but the whole thing, start to finish, was really an honour. Paul is so unassuming and chilled, and his was some of the first music I ever heard, from my father’s old vinyl decks,” Glendinning reflects. “It’s funny, I always said chatting with Paul reminded me of dad; for some reason, the chatter always ended up about baseball! [smiles]

“It was great to see James Taylor and Paul do that UK show in Hyde Park; they have basically shared the same crews, back and forth, so a great deal of old friends meeting up in person; the best part of festivals is seeing old road pals, for sure. James was on a JH single ear piece. It was unique in that we made his single piece to deliver a stereo mix. I know - it’s odd to think of a left and right mix into a single IEM, but hey, it’s what Mr Taylor was requesting, and he seemed over the moon happy with it.”

We talk a little about how much time (or not) artists put into looking after their ears in general - we hear shocking stories of tinnitus, and so many rock and rollers have lost elements of their hearing through crazy loud shows.

“Some artists take it seriously, and some look past the vulnerabilities of the human ear, when there is an IEM delivering audio millimetres from their tympanic membrane,” Glendinning says. “I see an audiologist regularly, as this is something I take very seriously. When we lose hearing, we don’t get it back. Ever had dinner with a bunch of sound guys in a noisy restaurant? You’ll know what I mean!

“I’ve done audiograms of myself at the same time as the artist, just to see what he or she has endured over time, as well as any dip or valleys in my own hearing response. Knowledge is power in that regard. We had a client who had been way too close to the crash cymbals for far too many years, so I’ve had to add drastic EQ at times. This compensating for severe loss, it seemed to balance out or ‘flatten’ the perceived sound from the IEM. What may be harsh and brittle to some, may be just right for someone who has been on stage longer than you, with blaring wedges and sidefills in close proximity.”

I ask Glendinning if he has any tips for any budding monitor engineers out there. He does...

“Even before audio, get to know the lay of the land: what the vibe is with the crew, and, of course, the individual who’s signing your check,” he smiles. “But audio-wise, I always like to duplicate a great deal of things on the inputs. Whether I use them or not is one thing, but I had a singer with a flu on an outdoor summer run, and he couldn’t hear well, or hardly sing; I duplicated his vocal channel into three identical channels, but added extreme HF cut to one of the channels, and a fair amount of dB make up gain for added level to another. I called it ‘the ‘gas channel’: extra fuel for when his voice was south on me!”

Before I let Glendinning go, I ask him if he ever sees himself pulling down his faders for good, or is that road dog element simply part of who he is.

“Man, you never know what lies ahead... I always said I’d never use a touch screen to mix sound, yet nowadays I don’t leave home without a DiGiCo! and I’m now a 90-show per year man rather than 300. People evolve, and plans change, just as our industry does.

“I love being at the JH shop, and we get a lot of calls ‘from the road’; they know they’re getting the straight deal, not a sales pitch; and nothing can replace real world R&D. So it’s kind of a best of both worlds role, I guess.”