Notes from the road: Mike Babcock, sound engineer

There are plenty of jobs out there suitable for vagabonds seeking a paycheck. You’ll find these jobs throughout many different industries, but music industry jobs are often at the top of the Jobs That Will “Make” You Travel list. The world of touring musicians and the team of people employed to support them is surprisingly small. Through my own music playing and touring, I’ve gotten to know all types of music industry professionals–most of whom travel regularly.

Notes from the road is a new series on Gadling. I’ll introduce you to music industry folks and let you watch as I pick their brains. From advice on how to get their job to travel tips to personal stories, it’s about time we learned more about the travel behind the music.

Our first set of notes comes from Mike Babcock: professional sound engineer. He’s done sound for a long list of performers, including Faith Hill & Tim McGraw, B.B. King, and Pantera.

ES: Can you tell us some bands/musicians/tours you’ve done sound for?

MB: Going back 20 years, this might take a while. In some way, shape or form, I have most likely worked with, for, or around every major touring artist. But seriously I have had my favorites over the years. Such as: Brand New, Rob Zombie, Pantera/Damage Plan, Paramore, Sevendust, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, BB King, Atreyu, Killswitch Engage, Warped Tour, Mayhem Festival, etc. I’m sure you can tell that I have a rock and metal background.


ES: How did you get into doing sound professionally?

MB: When I was in high school, I was in a local band, called Ubiquitus (the name wasn’t my idea). We booked a show at the local 4H building. Being in high school on a fast food job budget, we didn’t have much money for sound and lights. A friend of a friend owned a sound company, so I booked him to do the show with us and asked if there was any way to get a discount. The answer was to help him load his van and help set up the equipment on the day of the show. During the week after the show, he called me up and asked if I wanted to help him out the next weekend on another show he was doing. I agreed and the rest, they say, is history. I spent the next 4 or 5 years working for him and a couple other companies before I got an offer to move to Florida for a sound company that I would eventually work at for 12 years as their production manager before I took my first tour.

ES: What do you remember the most about your first tour?

MB: Being nervous and really quiet, hahaha. My first tour was with the band Brand New, it was actually 2 separate week long tours a few weeks apart from each other. The first tour was in a van in the northeast. Worcester, MA, Charlotte, NC, somewhere in Jersey, etc. I remember not packing a jacket. I lived in Florida and it was in the 80s and 90s every day so I just didn’t think about it. Learning the weather for wherever I’m going to be was the first lesson I learned on tour. The second leg of that tour was in the UK opening up for Incubus. I don’t know if I learned anything on that one, but it was the first subway ride of my life.

ES: You’ve shared small quarters with many people while touring. Any tips for achieving some level of privacy while traveling with others?

MB: Yes, spending 3 months straight living in a 45 foot house with 12 other people takes a lot of skill and even more patience. When you have that many people in such a small space, trying to find any sense of privacy is really hard to do. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, at all times. The rule I always make sure everyone knows is that my bunk is MY space. Once I close the curtains, I am no longer on the bus. The only reason anyone should invade my space is if the bus is on fire, we’re at a border crossing, or somehow I overslept (which rarely ever happens).

But really, each band, crew, and touring party has their own flow. Some people will hang in the front lounge watching TV, some will hang in the back lounge listening to music, some will sleep every possible second they can. I usually find my rhythm within the flow pretty easily and even if there’s someone in the bus I would rather not be around, there’s always a way to avoid confrontations. I’ve been lucky in that I have never seen anyone “duke it out” over petty differences and it’s nice when adult aged people act like adults.

ES: Have any tips for touring bands in terms of how they treat the house sound guys?

MB: Karma works well here. What you put out to the world will come back to you threefold. I think someone once said that “winning is contagious, but unfortunately so is losing”. I take that to mean that even if someone is having a bad day, don’t let it get you down, let your good mood and you having a good time be the contagious part of the day. Don’t take your bad day out on the locals. Be thankful you even have a gig in this economy and be nice to everyone you work with. Everyone gets special treatment. People not only remember the assholes, they also remember the people they really enjoyed working with, too.

I also try to leave something behind, a bit of knowledge I can pass on, or funny experience they will tell their friends for years to come. I just try to make it as fun, enjoyable, and stress-free as possible so everyone can just relax and have a good time. I’ve found that I really enjoy going back to the same clubs and working with the same people over and over again, and I know they feel the same way.

ES: You’ve traveled with pretty expensive gear. Any advice on how to safeguard valuables while traveling by van, bus, rv?

MB: Before the tour, you need a written copy of everything, with serial numbers and value, on file. Also, make ONE person responsible for the keys and ensuring the doors are locked. You can not trust that the lead singer will hit the right button after he gets off the phone. For trailers, use a locking ball hitch and install lojack or something similar into the van AND trailer so in the event that someone does take your trailer, you’ll know where it is. Don’t leave valuables, like GPS, iPods, laptops, guitars, etc. sitting around in the van. Keep everything close by at all times. Don’t park the van where there are no street lights. It all sounds like pretty common sense, but I see people do not so smart stuff all the time. I’ve been lucky so far and haven’t had a trailer stolen, but many of my friends have not been so lucky. I feel many of the times I’ve heard about stolen gear it was either due to someone not locking the van or a shady hotel in a shadier neighborhood.

ES: What about flying with expensive gear? Any sort of beneficial insurances worth purchasing? Tough cases worth buying? Etc.?

MB: When shipping gear, or flying with gear, having real road cases are worth their weight in gold. There are a ton of good case companies–R&R Cases and A&S Cases both come to mind for more traditional road cases. Pelican comes to mind for a plastic style of tough case. Just look for quality craftsmanship. I ship gear with a reputable cartage company, such as Sound Moves or Rock-It, and rarely ever have to even think twice about it showing up safe and sound. Sure, every now and then there’s an issue, but a reputable company that works exclusively within the industry is the best way to go. They understand why something can’t be a day late, or even a few hours late.

ES: Traveling as part of your job has probably given you the opportunity to realize some dreams in your free time. Any memorable experiences you’ve had in places you visited for work?

MB: The more I travel, the more I realize I haven’t seen anything yet. The first time I have a chance to be in a certain place, I do tend to do the touristy type of stuff. I have taken pictures that have been taken thousands, if not millions of times before. Such as looking directly up at the Eiffel Tower, standing on a cliff over the Grand Canyon, statues of naked people holding a ship of some sort in Belgium, in front of the Sydney Opera House, holding a koala, etc. But the most memorable times are when I can just wander off and find something completely random, either alone or in a group. Like climbing a volcano in Hawaii, just because I had a few hours to waste before the dinner plans, or sailing on the Sydney Harbor, or taking a helicopter tour with 6 strangers and getting pictures very few others have, or finding that the hotel we’re staying in is hosting model tryouts and we enter in one of our touring mates as a potential model only to have him physically thrown out of the room almost immediately, or stumbling into a hotel in Portland to find that another band has already occupied the room who eventually turn out to become lifelong friends. Those are the moments you remember the most. Sometimes it’s fun and games, sometimes it’s hard work, but it’s always rewarding. I’m living my dream and I hope I won’t have to wake up for a long, long time.

ES: Is there any way you’re giving back to the music community?

MB: When I started touring, I noticed that music venue websites, in general, suck. They are built to bring in business, not supply the artists and crew with the information that they need. I decided to use some of my free time to build a website that was built not to bring business into the clubs, but to supply the crew and artists with only the information they need. For example: Where artist parking is, are there showers, do they have internet, what kind of PA and lighting system is installed, do they serve food or are we on our own. You know, stuff that the fans really wouldn’t be interested in, but is really good info to know if you’re playing there. What started out as a little hobby of mine, has since turned into a pretty big deal. I have over 1000 venues listed, mostly in the US, but also in 7 or 8 other countries as well. It’s still a “hobby” but eventually I’d like to turn it into something that tour managers and production managers “have to have”. Check it out at

Band on the Run: A Roadie Without The Heavy Lifting

Alright, this is the first post of a new series entitled “Band on the Run,” (as you can see above.) This is a blog about travelling on the road as a musician here in North America. It’s about what we see and where we’ve been – the stories that go along with those journeys and the images to accompany them. It’ll be like you’re the roadie that gets to witness what happens behind the scenes without having to carry any heavy equipment.


(I mean, I’m the bandleader and I don’t even get out of carrying the heavy stuff!)

Specifically, I’m a Canadian musician with a Canadian band who performs more than half of my shows south of the border. And yes, I have provincial license plates on my van and work permits for the U.S.of A. for all of my band members, so I’m down on American soil legally, don’t worry!)

We are on the road A LOT, which sometimes means that we’re home less than we’re away. In fact, at one point just a few years ago, we peaked at 200 days on the road during the year. I am happy to report that we’ve calmed down slightly and probably are out only half the year now. That’s slightly healthier all around, for everyone.

The downside of this life is the fact that we’re travel-tired most of the time and we spend copious amounts of time in moving vehicles, most notably our van (or occasional rental vans if there’s a flight involved.) Sometimes we joke that we’re professional drivers who moonlight as musicians.

Sometimes it feels like that.

The upside of this life is that we get to make music for different audiences sometimes four and five times a week. Music is what we love to do the most in this world. Music is the drug of choice for this band; it’s the art; it’s the heart; it’s the fuel. Without it, why would we do this to our bodies? Why would we sit in a van for ten hours in a row, for example?

Honestly, music has taken me far and continues to pull me farther still. I am tempted by its long distance promises and its moments of brilliance on foreign stages, no matter what it takes to get to them. (So tempted that I sometimes make bad touring decisions, but I’ll leave that for the blog as they happen…)

Music is my nightlight. It’s the good dream. It’s consistent.

Stylistically, it’s a rather mixed-up folk-jazz-funk-pop-world combo (check out samples here). It’s lyrically-driven music and the show is as much about what’s being said in the songs themselves as it is about what’s being said between the songs. I sometimes write about topics that people don’t want to discuss. I also write about love and beautiful summer days and funny situations worth laughing at. All in all, the music has listeners and that’s all that matters.

After ten releases (counting the 2005 documentary-stye DVD, of course), five vans (we’re on our fifth now), uncountable tours across various parts of Canada and the U.S., eight trips to Australia, two tours to New Caledonia (link to where that country is, as it’s little known!), and one solo trip to China, the adventure continues.

We’re not famous, but we’re well-known in some circles. We have fans – listeners and supporters and friends – and we continue to sell albums. We continue to perform live. People continue to buy tickets to hear those shows.

Life is good.

We’re independent, too, which is important. These tours are not being funded by big label tour support or sponsorship dollars or product placement. We aspire to sustainability and this means we ride waves of occasional prosperity and occasional poverty. In the midst of it all, we find the balance of a living and breathing career that has careened along the corners of mountain passes for over a decade now.

No complaints.

I don’t think it’s poised to stop anytime soon. It always changes shape a little as time loops around us, but the wheels keep turning on these travelling vehicles and we keep finding ourselves in them along with gear and contracts and passports and a well-calculated number of clean underwear tucked away in our suitcases and stashed around guitars and amps and on top of boxes of CDs to stop that incessant rattling of plastic against plastic.

It’s not all glamorous, but what is really?

Behind the scenes is just behind the scenes. It’s my job to strip the scene for you, I suppose. It’s my job to bare all.

(But it’s not that kind of show, so get your mind outta that sticky trench now!)

Now if you do enjoy these stories and we end up in your town all of a sudden, we won’t deny you the opportunity to lift some heavy stuff if you show up early to help us load in or you stay long after the rest of the audience has gone home until we’re finally loading out.

In fact, temporary roadies are the BEST.

They have enough strength to lift the bass amp…

And that same strength didn’t require a meal buy-out.

Love it.

[All photos except the van shot by Desdemona Burgin, a fantastic friend and photographer]