Sound advice and mixing know-how from pro engineer Chris Bergstrom

Chris Bergstrom
(Image credit: Press)

BACK TO LIVE: It was during his 16th year, while playing in bands and working at Guitar Center, loading the gear in and out at a club in Portland for $50, that Chris Bergstrom got hooked to working in the live arena. He quickly moved into live mixing, cutting his teeth with a Mexican events band, before getting a couple of in-house club gigs and then an internship at Horne Audio, the company he now runs.

Following a short spell mixing the audio at a church in Portland and running his own sound company, Bergstrom left his hometown and moved to Nashville. When a good friend went on tour for two-and-a-half years with OK Go, Chris agreed to help him out for a month on a pre-arranged leg with The Dandy Warhols, a job offer that would become life changing. 

Seven years on and Chris is running Horne Audio as their operations manager and he still goes on tour with The Dandies as the band’s front of house manager. He’s also moved back to Portland, and it’s in his home studio that we catch up with him.

How have you found lockdown?

“Like everyone, it’s not been smooth sailing but it could have been a lot worse. Luckily the sound company got a good amount of federal money which the owner put towards payroll, so that kept that going.”

At the drive-in 

“I’ve definitely been keeping myself busy. Before the pandemic I had started compiling and mixing a live record for The Dandy Warhols. Around the point of lockdown it morphed into a never-ending live record which they call Warhol Wednesdays. The problem now is I’m running out of original tracks! I’ve also been doing some recording on Peter Holmstrom’s records. He’s had a busy recording run with Pete International Airport and bunch of other projects.”

We’re about to do a couple of drive-in theatre-style live shows at the start of June which’ll be fun

Have you got anything in the pipeline?

“Yes, we’re about to do a couple of drive-in theatre-style live shows at the start of June which’ll be fun. We’re still confident of being able to do the rescheduled European dates in February and there are a couple of other bits that we’re waiting for the green light for. I’m also looking at building my own mix space upstairs in the same building that Horne Audio are in.”

How have the drive-in shows been working in the States?

“Interestingly, you’d have thought America would have been all over that shit but no. It comes down to the strictness of individual states. In places towards the south there’s a bit more happening, but up here on the liberal left coast there’s nothing. The sound company I work for are doing the shows here, but its capacity is 300 people in a 10,000 person field.”

Check yourself

What advice do you have for people from a front of house point of view and for people getting ready to play their first live shows?

“Be professional. Even early on, it does matter. You’re supposed to be a professional band and an air of professionalism will go a long ways for a production crew. Even if you’re just playing a bar gig, and you’re starting out, and it doesn’t seem to have any calibre, you never know who’s going to walk into that bar.

Think what’s the minimum amount of gear you can bring to achieve what you want to achieve?

“I’ve seen the Dandies play some halls that weren’t well sold, as well as sold-out shows. They put in the same energy one way or the other. If no one’s there, think of it as a paid rehearsal, great, and crank it out as if it’s a sold-out arena – it should be the way you perform every show. Keep the professionalism the same, hone your craft, be really good at it, and then go.”

How long would you tend to allow a band to sound check for?

“The Dandies take an hour always. They don’t always use it. With a singer/songwriter, it shouldn’t take that long; a full band with a lot of inputs, takes a bit longer. That’s something else to factor in: if you’re a band in your early stages and you’re bringing massive kit to a bar, is that really doing you any good? 

"Same with a guitar player. If you’re in a bar and you’re bringing a double amp stack, it’s too loud and it’s not helpful. Consider what you’re doing, and go minimalistic. What’s the minimum amount of gear you can bring to achieve what you want to achieve? You shouldn’t compromise what sound you’re aiming for, but the difference between a half stack and a double stack is not killing your show. In fact, a half stack is probably too much and do you really need an 8x10 for bass?

“You need to figure out how to get comfortable with hearing yourself. I always tell bands, if you don’t know what you want on the monitors, go minimalistic. What do you have to hear? Everything else, leave it alone. Don’t just assume you want piles of kick drum and snare, and guitar because you can. That develops slowly, and that’ll be a shift. Each musician should learn things they need, so then they have that information. You can tell a sound person, ‘I’m going to need to hear this, this, and this’. Be astute, be quick and ready to be there, be present when it’s time for sound check.”

Mixing mindset

Do you have a philosophy for mixing?

“It depends. I know very specifically what Courtney Taylor-Taylor (The Dandy Warhols frontman) is going for. He knows exactly what he does and doesn’t want to hear. All of the band have opinions about what they want to hear, mixed levels and what vibe I’m creating.

Explore music you do and don’t like - you can’t just say, ‘I like that music and that’s all I’m going to mix’

“If it’s some other band though, it comes down to what sort of show we’re going for. Some just want to reproduce their record in its exact entirety, so that when people come to the show they’re just hearing the record louder. That’s fine if that’s what they want, not necessarily what I tend to push – there’s an edge and angst to live that’s different than the records would be.”

What other mixing advice do you have?

“The primary thing is you’re never done learning. I came up in a scene of roadies where if you ask a question you get berated for asking it. I’m like, well how am I supposed to learn?  So I always tell the interns to ask as many questions as possible and continue to learn non stop.

“Explore heavily, music you do and don’t like, especially if you’re going to be a mix engineer of any kind, because you can’t just say, ‘I like that music and that’s all I’m going to mix’. In fact, I’ve found mixing music that I don’t necessarily like is way better for my scientific learning pattern than it is with music I like.

“If you’re trying to do studio work, you’ll pretty much be on your own to build a little world and that’s a good way to explore. Get some tracks, and just play in an environment where it doesn’t matter. In fact, try Mix With The Masters; you can download full sessions, so you can do your own versions of those songs, and that’s huge. It’ll push you forward quickly.”

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