VENUE Finds a Home at Legendary San Francisco Clubs

The Great American Music Hall holds a special place in San Francisco history. One of the few remaining performance venues constructed in the wake of the city’s famed 1906 earthquake, the renowned art deco theater lived through several incarnations before opening as the Great American Music Hall (GAMH) in 1972. Since then, it has played host to a veritable who’s who of live music’s most celebrated performers.

“It’s a fairly tricky room to mix in,” says Lee Brenkman, the hall’s senior engineer since 1972. “It was built as a ‘Gentlemen’s Club,’ and was later owned by the famous fan dancer Sally Rand. With a balcony that wraps around three sides of the room, it poses some unique acoustic problems.”

Recently the GAMH upgraded their FOH position with an Avid VENUE Mix Rack System, featuring the VENUE Profile console. As Brenkman explains, VENUE has proven to be an ideal fit for the Music Hall’s diverse and eclectic roster.

“It’s a console everyone can relate to,” he says. “Engineers who have worked with a lot of digital consoles or done a lot of Pro Tools recording can get up to speed on the VENUE in no time. For mixers who come from an analog perspective, we can set it up to function pretty much like an analog desk. There’s no need to go into different screens or anything except to tweak an effect.”

A few miles down the road, the Music Hall’s sister club, Slim’s, has also moved to an identical VENUE Mix Rack System. Sound Image, based in Escondido, CA, provided the systems for both clubs. Although Slim’s space is rather different from the GAMH, the VENUE features have proven to be equally invaluable.

“It’s been a great console for Slim’s,” says Charlie Madsen, the club’s head engineer. “The flexibility and power is far beyond anything else we’ve had over the years, and the learning curve is almost non-existent. I had minimal experience on any VENUE system prior to using this one—I had mixed one festival show for one band on a [VENUE] D-Show—but it was amazingly easy to get up and running.”

The two clubs installed their VENUE systems within a few months of each other. “We had just done a major upgrade of the electrical power and the PA system at the Music Hall, so Slim’s got their system first,” says Brenkman. “But we had already agreed in principle that it would be a great idea to have VENUE systems at both clubs—we share staff, so it makes training a whole lot easier.”

“When we first got the Profile, we were probably the only club in town that had one, and there was a bit of concern over whether it might be a problem for visiting engineers,” says Madsen. “But the response was great from the beginning. Most engineers know the console, and those that don’t have no problem getting up to speed. A lot of engineers are surprised to see a VENUE system at a club of our size, and they’re very happy to see we have one.”

“Quite often when a band’s FOH engineer hears we’ve got a Profile, they’re content to leave their console in the truck and just come in with their whole show on a USB drive,” says Ted Hatsushi, the Music Hall’s longtime sound mixer. “It’s great for them—you come in with all your own settings, all your own plug-ins, load it in, and it’s all there.”

“When the guy who does the production advancing for both clubs sends out a spec sheet that says ‘FOH console—Avid VENUE Mix Rack,’ we know we’re on that short list of consoles that are acceptable to almost everyone’s equipment riders,” Brenkman adds.

With both clubs sharing booking, there are occasions where a band will play successive nights at both clubs. It’s another opportunity to take advantage of the VENUE system’s file sharing capabilities. “We can take the show file from one desk and bring it to the other,” says Brenkman, “and even though the outputs and room settings will be different, it’s still a huge timesaver.”

Madsen agrees. “I love the way the file transfer is set up—the fact that you can pick and choose whether to transfer the whole show file, or maybe just your own channel presets. I’m able to take my favorite presets over to the Music Hall on a USB stick and, without changing their console at all, I can pull up the channel layouts I’m used to, whatever dynamics I’m used to, and load in the plug-ins I want to use.”

The Mix Rack System’s Profile console has also freed up some much needed real estate at FOH, says Brenkman. “Our FOH area is pretty small to begin with,” he says. “When we had a big analog desk in there, there wasn’t room for two consoles. So if a band wanted to use their own console, the option was to either move ours out or set them up in front of the booth, which means fewer seats to sell. It’s very spacious up there now. It’s nice too when people want to bring in their own outboard preamps—they can just set their rack up on top of the Mix Rack and patch directly into there.”

“Another thing I like is the whole file management system,” adds Brenkman. “I’ve mixed on enough different consoles over the years that it’s not hard for me to shift gears and work on whatever I’m faced with. But with a lot of digital desks, the file systems are so different—even within different models from the same manufacturer. With the VENUE [system], once you get comfortable with one console, you can easily move to any other one.”

Of course, the bottom line is still the sound, and VENUE delivers. “We noticed a significant improvement in sound quality right off the bat,” says Madsen. “The PA really came alive—richer low end, far less EQ needed, and high-frequency detail that just wasn’t there before. And I’ve heard a lot more compliments from audience members, staff, and management than ever before.”