By Terry Hagerty – A clear focus at age 12, the encouragement of a youth minister, and his dad’s help as a ‘roadie’ propelled Curtis Zavodny to becoming a sound engineer for some of world’s top musicians and festivals. Zavodny, who lives in Bastrop County, has worked Lollapalooza, the NFL Superbowl Experience (1997), Austin’s South by Southwest, plus tours with Prince, Tool, Social Distortion and top-tier Latin performers Marc Anthony, Ana Gabriel and Sin Bandera. Zavodny’s sound-engineer gigs have taken the Perry, Oklahoma native to Europe, the Caribbean and across the U.S.
An Early Start – “Our youth minister at our church in Perry showed me how to operate the sound board there. I was 12 years old. I started mixing the church service most Sundays and other events when they needed the sound system,” Zavodny said. The minister, who had previously worked as a radio station deejay, shared his knowledge and use of his equipment with Zavodny. “He still had some sound equipment from deejaying and would occasionally take a set of speakers, an amp, mixer and turntables to church youth group parties in other cities,” Zavodny said. “He knew my interest in sound and equipment, so on one of these occasions he took me along. I was hooked.” The minister lent Zavodny his equipment to deejay parties and dances around the community. “I couldn’t drive yet. I was 14 or 15, so my Dad would drive me to shows and help me set everything up and tear it down,” Zavodny said.
Sound Knowledge – In high school and college, Zavodny delved deeper into sound. “I built my first set of speakers in shop class with some plans from a nearby pro-audio shop. The principal of the high school put me in charge of the school’s tech crew. I was running sound and lighting for all the school gatherings, plays and other special events in the auditorium,” Zavodny said. At Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, while studying electronics and computer engineering, Zavodny gained further experience with the area music scene. “I bought a larger mixing board with 16 channels and started mixing bands at local bars and clubs. As I got to know the bands, I started venturing out to Tulsa and Oklahoma City. I quickly realized that if I wanted to go somewhere big with it I was going to have to move to another state. I dropped out of OSU and moved to Southern California to see how far I could go with it,” Zavodny said.
‘Out West’ – Zavodny enrolled in a small independent school called the California Institute of Concert Sound Engineering. “It’s not around anymore, but at the time I thought I would learn whatever I could and use the school to help me get my foot in the door with bands and sound companies,” “Zavodny said. “It worked – I made friends and contacts all over as a result and started working for companies such as Sound Image, Delicate Productions, Atlas Sound, 3G Productions, and Industrial Sound. I was also mixing club shows at a place called Club 369 down the street from where I lived (in Fullerton, a Los Angeles suburb). A lot of local bands played there, but also a number of national touring acts came through as well.” (Editor’s Note: Live sound mixing is the blending of multiple sound sources – including vocals and instruments – by an audio engineer using a mixing console and/or software; Monitors are wedge-shaped speakers that capture the sounds of the performance and directs them to onstage performers. Monitor speakers are typically placed close to the performers.)
Zavodny did the monitor mixing for the 1996 Hootenany in Irvine, Calif, which included the bands Social Distortion, Supersuckers and Jerry Lee Lewis. “From there, things just got bigger and bigger. I was still mixing club shows sometimes, but now I was involved in bigger shows all the time,” Zavodny said. In 1997-1998, Zavodny worked mini-tours – mainly as the monitor engineer – with Prince and Tool, Lollapalooza and the NFL Superbowl Experience, which he described as a ‘tailgate’/outside-the-stadium music concert. While riding a wave of success, Zavodny decided to get more education. “After finishing the Tool tour in 1998. I decided to go back to school and finish my engineering degree (at California State at Long Beach). I saw a lot of guys on tour that were in their 50s and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be that guy. Maybe it was smart to have something else to fall back on down the road,” Zavodny said. Zavodny’s degree in electronics and computer engineering gave him the cushion to take breaks from the demands of touring. “My degree was not geared toward sound. I had several jobs where I got into electronic design, when I would get burned out from traveling and touring,” Zavodny said. “I was still getting calls to go back on tour for Rob Zombie, Ministry, Limp Bizkit and Ice Cube, but I turned them all down. For some reason I knew I needed to finish school. Looking back on it, it was a time that if I had gone back on tour, my life would have forever been different. I may not have met my wife. A lot of things would have happened differently. It was just one of those times in your life that’s a major turning point.”
Live, Not Studio Work – “I just mix live events, I haven’t done any work in studio settings. Some guys do both, but live and studio are such different environments that most guys just pick one and stick with it,” Zavodny said. “I’ve also done some work for Ultimate Fighting Championship (mixed martial arts competition) and Strikeforce, before it became part of UFC. These are live events in arenas, so there are some announce mics and a lot of playback, and taking cues from a director over headsets. It’s quite a bit different than the typical live events, but fun and interesting still. They want the energy of a rock concert at these, so it’s loud and pumping the whole time. I started doing systems for these and then started filling in for one of my friends at the front-of-house position from time to time.”
Concert-Sound Jobs Explained – Zavodny said the three main sound jobs during large-venue shows are: The System Tech/Engineer, who measures the room and makes a 3D model in a computer to help analyze best sound projection; Hangs and sets the proper angles for PA speakers; Tunes the complete audio ‘rig’ with computer measurement, which shows frequency responses; The engineer then turns the system over to the Front-Of-House (FOH) Mixer to sound check the band, working closely with him for “any adjustments he prefers.” The FOH Mixer listens to the main system with the System Engineer to make sure the sound is balanced throughout the venue, and then mixes the band’s sound. “The main job is to make them sound as much like their recordings as possible, and often even better, because large sound systems usually contain large amounts of sub-woofers, (speakers that reproduce lower-pitched bass frequencies), so the band sounds even ‘bigger’ than on their recordings,” Zavodny said. Zavodny acknowledged that making a band “sound as much like their recordings as possible” is not necessarily the path chosen by all sound engineers, but it’s his philosophy – “I can’t speak for everybody,” he added. Next up, is the Monitor Mixer, who helps the System Engineer place equipment and then sets the monitor console and monitors. The Monitor Mixer provides mixes for each of the band members.
Snafus Happen! – Zavodny has experienced a few sound snafus. He says one of the members of Tool got rightfully upset with him when the sound went south during a performance. But Zavodny got it solved, and continued working with Tool on several tours. He said that a valuable lesson learned earlier in his career – in Oklahoma – better prepared him for the big leagues. Zavodny said after one gig, he told a band, “Sorry, nothing has gone right tonight…there’s no charge.” He said the band appreciated his forthrightness and said they wanted to pay him, but they all agreed on a lesser amount. “It made me realize that if your are up front with people you can turn those bad situations around, or at least try to. Sound guys don’t always get it right,” Zavodny said.
‘Soundman’ or ‘Sound Engineer?’ – As for the difference in expertise/experience of a soundman vs. a sound engineer, Zavodny explained: “I think soundman in my earlier years would be the correct term. I go by (the title of) sound engineer now, or audio engineer. I think most people would be considered a sound mixer or sound technician these days, as only a few of them have any kind of an engineering degree (as Zavodny obtained) – I feel okay about it either way,” Zavodny said. “A few people have a wide range of technical knowledge regardless of whether they hold a degree, or not. I’m not a musician. I had thought about (learning an instrument) long ago, but I was always too busy working gigs, I guess. It would probably be helpful, but I’ve seen lots of guys who are musicians and who are running sound. What usually happens is that whatever instrument they play, ends up being loudest in the mix. So maybe it’s better that I don’t play and instrument.”
Communication with Performers – When asked what sort of communication should occur between a band and its soundmen before the start of a performance, Zavodny replied, “We don’t read minds. Seriously. It sounds funny, but some band members really think we should instinctively know exactly what they want to hear in their monitor mixes. I don’t know how many guys I’ve told this too, but I tell them, ‘Hey, I’m not a mind reader. Just tell me what you want to hear in your monitors. Talk to me and let me know if you need something else.’ This is with national touring acts too. I guess some band members sometimes get too comfortable with us. Really, all it is, is communication. If they are somewhat laid back and can talk one at a time, then things go smoothly.”
The Move to Texas/COVID – The global disaster of the COVID pandemic brought Zavodny’s live music work to a screeching halt in 2020, and the start of 2021 is unclear, he said. In 2018 and 2019, Zavodny had enjoyed traveling to private sound gigs on the Caribbean island of Mustique and to the Baja California resort of Cabo San Lucas. The family had also moved to Bastrop County in 2010 after spending five years in Las Vegas. (Zavodny is married, with a two and half year-old daughter and an adult son.) “We had property here in Bastrop County, on my wife’s side of the family, so we decided to start over here. We needed to do something different,” Zavodny said. Meanwhile, Zavodny eyes the potential ramping up of live music and national tour dates. “I’ve started to get calls from sound companies to block out an entire three weeks in May, because somebody is trying to put a show on, but it’s not confirmed because of everything that’s happening – the uncertainty with Covid,” Zavodny said. Zavodny said he’s had the financial reserves to weather the hit of Covid – so far – but he could use a return to concerts fairly soon. Zavodny has also done some mentoring of his own, bringing onboard Bastrop soundman John Dailey to a South by Southwest gig a few years ago. “I only pick people to work shows with me that I trust and am confident of their skills, which is why I asked John Dailey to (assist) on the Sony stage at SXSW several years ago. He knows how to mix, set up gear and direct the crew. I can trust him to get the job done quickly and correctly.”
Enjoying Bastrop Music – Zavodny has been enjoying the Bastrop music scene. “Jimmy Watts (Jimmy Watts and The Watts Brothers Band) and Blake Torrey (The Blake Torrey Band) are great examples of what I love about the Bastrop music scene – good, hard working, down-to- earth people who love playing music and are fun to hang out with,” Zavodny said. “Jimmy’s a spiritual guy and you can tell the music comes from down deep. I’m just getting to know Blake. I was helping his band with their sound a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it and their music. I already knew (band members) Jamie Ehresman and Jason Bray from the church I attend, which Blake also attends. They are all great guys who enjoy serving God through music and fellowship, and I look forward to getting to know all of them better.”