Don't let Mick Learn's calm demeanor fool you: He's put in the hours. From his knob- and dial-filled station in the basement of the cabin-like Doug Fir, Learn has helped transform the club, which opened a decade ago this month into a Graceland for audiophiles. Chances are, the shows you've enjoyed at the eastside venue over the last 10 years have been shepherded by the veteran sound tech's graceful touch. And that touch often starts hours—days, even—before the band walks on stage.
Willamette Week: How did you get into doing venue sound?
Mick Learn: Well, short version of the story is that in college a lot of my friends were in bands and I ended up at the club watching their shows. I gravitated to the guy behind the mixing board because I found it very interesting: all the knobs, faders, blinky lights and so on. Then, somehow, I found a person that was interested in taking me under his wing and showing me the ropes. One thing led to another, I started working at a mobile sound reinforcement company, then I started touring with local Portland bands, and then I ended up working in different clubs in town when I wasn't touring.
The acoustics at Doug Fir are phenomenal. Obviously, you're lending a hand, but is there something about that space that helps the cause?
At the expense of sounding egotistical, I'm more than lending a hand. That said, I was lucky to inherit a very well-installed sound system. Without getting too technical, there was a certain amount of time and energy spent installing a system with the bands in mind first. In other words, many small clubs begin as bars and someone says, "Hey, if we move those tables in the corner we can have bands play!" The Doug Fir was stripped down to the concrete floors and built back up with the express purpose of having a great-sounding small club. In short, most bands are going to sound better at Doug Fir than other small venues as a function of both the work put into installing the system and the person at the controls mixing the show.
Is it tricky finding a balance between what a touring artist wants sound-wise and what you think is best for the venue?
There is definitely an art to how to mix sound for any one particular artist and what works for one may be completely inappropriate for the next. I have had artists become quite cross with some of my "artistic license" before and had many others give me high praise for doing the same. At the end of the day it should be a negotiation between artist and engineer. Another very important thing to note is that the band and I have to work together in order to achieve the best result. A band that turns all of their amps up to 11 leaves me with not much to do but put earplugs in my ears and a bag over my head.
Is there a Doug Fir show you're particularly proud of?
This will sound trite, but it's like asking which of your children is best. Not that I have 4,000 children, so to speak. I am proud of the quality of service that our whole production staff extends on a daily basis. Bands tell me all the time that they look forward to coming to Portland and playing Doug Fir.
Music is an ever-changing culture. Does the same apply to being a sound tech?
There are certain preferences that I have, certain approaches to different things, but I would get really bored if I just phoned it in. Every good sound engineer gets excited by a new toy to play with or a new thing to try.
Does the crowd influence your approach?
Absolutely. When I am teaching my interns about mixing technique I always tell them to âmix to the money.â That is to say, make it sound good where the people are paying the most attention. That's usually right in front of the stage for the headline band and often times all around the outside of the room for the opening bands, because people aren't packed against the stage for the first band. I don't need to worry about the loudmouth jerks in the back of the room that spent their $15 to yell at each other instead of watching the band. Although It would make my job easier and the people that are paying attention happier if they would either shut up or go upstairs.
Are you still running a sound academy?
I have three interns right now that typically work one day a week with me. I provide them with a free education for as long as they are dedicated and not flaky, and for some reason there is a big line of people wanting to sign up for the gig. Unfortunately I can't handle more than three at a time, so the stack of resumes I have is growing faster than my graduates.
I've been teaching people how to do sound for 20-plus years for free because I really enjoy it and I think I'm pretty good at it. I have had a couple people in the last couple years come from Clackamas Community College as "proper" interns where I was their instructor and they received college credit after the 10-week internship. That is super fun for me even though I get no money or anything for the effort. In fact, one of them is still with me a year after his course was finished, and he can stay as long as he wants.
What's with the sunglasses collection at the Doug Fir?
That is my lost and found art project that I have for my own amusement. It started out with three pairs of sunglasses that were just in my way and I stuck them up there to clear table space, and it turned into a monster. I'm amazed that people don't come back for some of them. I have some super-thick prescription glasses up there, too. How someone with Coke-bottle lenses managed to leave them behind without noticing is beyond me. People offer me money for them sometimes—no, they are not for sale—and sometimes people just steal them right off the wall. Please don't steal my stuff. Mama said that's rude.
Do you soundcheck with most bands before the show?
Yes, we call the Doug Fir a full-service operation. Every show that we book we advance with load-in times for each band that allows for a full sound check. In fact, the amount of advance work and preparation for each show takes up to weeks and is typically not recognized by the average show-going consumer. The work behind the scenes is to make the show look "magic." If I am sitting at the front-of-house mixing console at show time looking calm and collected, then that is because all of the production staff and I have done a bunch of work to make the show look "easy." The idea is that, by show time, all the hard work is finished and the band should be having a very good show for everyone that comes in.
Is there a venue you really like in town besides the Doug Fir?
I can't remember the last show or last venue that I went to. I spend way more than a full work week (as does the rest of the production staff) producing shows here. To be honest, when I have time off, I want to do something other than check out someone else's production. Additionally, when I watch a band, I cannot help but pay attention to how it sounds, and I frequently spend too much time thinking about how I would do it "my way" and don't really appreciate the show. Like when a chef eats at another restaurant, he can't help but taste the food.