From KIX to FOH: A Conversation with Brad Divens

From KIX to FOH: A Conversation with Brad Divens

Posted by Auralex on 3rd Nov 2020

Note: Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. The interview was conducted by Kevin Booth, Auralex director of sales and marketing. Robb Wenner, Auralex director of artist relations, produces the podcast and jumps in with questions. To hear the interview, subscribe to Auralex Creative Spaces on your podcast platform of choice.

Kevin Booth: How did you get started in music and the industry? What drew you to that initially?

Brad Divens: I got started in music when I was maybe 10 or 11, my interest got piqued in music. My dad had taken me to this homecoming in our town, and there was this little three-piece act up on stage playing. The guy had a black Les Paul [guitar]. I looked at my dad and said, “I want to do that.”

A few years later, I started taking guitar lessons. There was a local guy who was a rock musician, because I wanted to play rock. I didn't want to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Jingle Bells” and whatever else they were teaching me. I got introduced to him, he started teaching me some rock. I think I was in my first band at 15. I probably played with a drummer at maybe 14, just talent shows and stuff like that.

Once I started doing that, which was 10th grade, my focus was to do music. There was nothing that was going to change my mind. I realized my parents want me to go to college and maybe have something to fall back on. I gave that a shot. But when I came home for the summer break, I started a band and kept playing music. I said, “I'm not going back to college. I want to play music.”

I got asked to join KIX when I was 20. So 20 years old, I was in a national recording act, heading to Miami to record a record.

KB: Couldn't even get in a bar yet.

BD: I think I played bars when I was 15. My parents had to go. I don't know why, but I developed a love for gin and grapefruits. You know, we played better, and everything sounded better, with a couple of gin and grapefruits.

KB: So you guys recorded that first album in Miami, Florida.

BD: Yeah, Miami. It was Criteria [Studios]. Once I started taking guitar lessons, then I heard AC/DC and I heard Aerosmith and I saw KISS… there was nothing that was going to stop me from being a musician. It didn't matter if I was making any money or not. All I wanted to do was play music. And somehow it all worked out. That crazy journey I've been on has taken me to where I am now.

KB: That’s kind of a good first step, into a band like KIX, you could have drifted around the local music scene for a while.

BD: I mean, I did have a few years of playing bars and everything. But, you know, my band ended up opening for KIX a couple of times, and I got to be friends with those guys. For whatever reason, they just asked me to join the band.

KB: How did you transition to bass with Wrathchild America after that?

BD: I left KIX after that second record; I should say we parted ways because the original guitar player was coming back. I started in Wrathchild playing guitar and fronting. We did that for three or four years. We ended up doing a tour where our bass player couldn't come. We showed up to pick him up for this tour and he's like, “Guys, I can't come. My doctor says I can't travel.” I’m like, OK, I'll play bass. Because we were going; it wasn't like we were not going to go.

I figured I play guitar. I'm just going to play guitar on bass; treated it like, you know, the rhythm section. And that was the transition. I always liked playing an instrument and singing versus just singing. Because when I wasn't singing, I didn't know what to do. I wasn't Steven Tyler or David Lee Roth, even though I wanted to be. I just wasn't that cool. So it was much cooler to just strap on and play and sing.

KB: The music scene was pretty popping at that time around D.C. and Maryland, right?

BD: We made a living. When I joined Wrathchild, after a couple of months and we got going, we would play five nights a week, almost every week, whether it was D.C., Baltimore, Pennsylvania, West Virginia. We would stay busy to where none of us had jobs, and we made enough money to pay the bills. I think that led to us being able to hone our craft like we did. Because all we did was play; it wasn't like it was a weekend gig and then we came home and work for five days.

We would play every style of music from Stray Cats to Motorhead, whatever, AC/DC, Aerosmith. We played everything - Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy. We started working our own songs in because believe it or not, back in those days, bars didn't want you to play originals, because the thing is to play cover. We used to have to send out a song list to a club if they'd never booked us before. We would just make stuff up. We're like, yeah, we play that, we play that. And we show up, we would do like all these originals. Guys. We got to leave after like two nights. They’re like, “You’re not playing what's on your list.” I'm like, “No, we're not and we're not gonna.”

KB: So your bass tone, though, was great tone to me. I perceive it as being that Thunderbird through an SVT sound. But what is it?

BD: Believe it or not, in Wrathchild, it was a PV preamp with a CS-800 power app. And that went through two 15-inch EVs and four 12-inch EVs. But I really think the tone was in the bass guitar because it was the Hamer Thunderbird. I put EMGs in it. And I played with a pick. My tone, I always gravitated towards like not quite a guitar tone, but I liked that growl, that mid-range thing that happened. No matter what I plugged that Hamer into, it sounded like that tone. I've had a lot of people say, “Hey, what was your tone?” When I tell them, they're like “What?” I mean, we had the power amp from our powered PA. I didn't have any money. I get this little PV preamp. I plugged it in and made it sound like I wanted it to sound. But I also think that I played the bass like I wanted it to sound, because I could pick that bass up, plug it into anything and it has that tone.

KB: You play with your thumb, you'll sound more like McCartney, but…

BD: Yeah, it was always about the pick.

KB: You were always thinking about that tone and the other tones and really the mix all the time then.

BD: I mean, I wanted to be heard; I didn't want to be some soft bass tone. It just kind of sat in with the drums. And, you know, the guitars dominated. I wanted to be a part of the extension of the guitar, in between the guitar and the drums, so you could distinguish, hey, that's a bass tone right there.

KB: You probably spent a lot of time next to the engineer when recording those records.

BD: I was the guy who would always sit in the studio from the moment the guy came in until we left. I would sit in there when the guitar players were in there. I just wanted to be a part of the creative process.

KB: What about vocals? You got a serious set of pipes and you really can belt it out. Did you work on that a lot?

BD: That was from gigging. The way I learned to sing, I would put on an AC/DC record. I wanted to sound like Bon Scott. We would set up in my garage and I would just belt it out or Aerosmith, I would just try to imitate the vocalist that I looked up to. A few years down the road, I ended up taking some vocal lessons because I was always curious if I was singing properly. The guy I took lessons from, he came and saw the band play one night and of course, you know I'm singing [Judas] Priest and Accept, all this really gravelly, throaty music, and he's like, “If you weren't singing right, you'd have lost your voice by now.” I would get the power from my diaphragm. I would always put the throat in for the gravel. And then of course, like I said, we played five nights a week, every week. The vocal cords are like a muscle. The more you use them, the stronger they are.

With Souls at Zero, we did a run of dates, 18 shows in 17 days. It was the longest stint that I'd ever done. I didn't even know if I could do it. But our manager said, “Hey, we got this tour. This is what they're doing. Can you do it?” I said, “We're going to find out.” My voice was stronger on the 18th show than it was on show No. 1.

KB: You guys were dropped from Atlantic [Ed. Note: Wrathchild America was dropped by Atlantic Records in 1992 and changed its name to Souls at Zero]. You weren't alone in that. There were a lot of changes in that period of time, right?

BD: Yeah. We kind of saw it coming. We weren't surprised. The first record, the name change, all that stuff just slowed us down. Atlantic never stepped up and said, “Hey, we got your back. We'll just pay these guys off, and you guys can go on.” And then record No. 2 came along, it sold less than album No. 1, and it's like, OK. Management wasn't as good as it should have been; you know, a lot of things that you don't really know when you're starting out.

KB: We're talking as if you didn't have success; that's a lot of success. That's more success than most people will ever find.

BD: When I started playing, I wanted to get signed to put a record out. I did that. There are no guarantees; just because you get signed to put records out doesn’t mean you're going to be a mega star, right? I wanted to be; it didn't happen. We worked our asses off to try and make it happen.

KB: You've worked with a lot of artists, and there you were, looking maybe for a new direction, or looking to get a new job, and live sound presented itself. So how did that take place?

BD: That's another interesting story. I had moved to Los Angeles to join a band called Back Alley Gators. Shannon [Larkin] from Wrathchild was the drummer. And it was a local guy here, his name is Mike Combs. And at the end of Souls at Zero, it's falling apart and those guys are calling me up saying, “Hey, come to LA, join our band, we got a deal. We'll make a record.”

Okay, so they gave me a little bit of money. My wife and I moved to Los Angeles, made a record. Record company says, “We're not going to put this out because we don't know what to do with it.” I'm like, Oh, great. Now, I'm not in Maryland anymore. I'm now in LA, where my rent is like triple. Now, I've got no gig at all. My manager said, “Hey, there's this band looking for a tour manager. Do you think you could tour manage? And I'm thinking, Yeah, I can babysit grown men. Because my band never had a tour manager. I think we had one maybe once or twice, you know, so all those times it was me taking care of everything. from getting paid to booking hotel rooms to driving and all of it. So I went to meet with the manager. I'm thinking the whole time, I'm just going to be the tour manager. Towards the end of the meeting, he's like, “Oh, by the way, can you mix?” I said, “Yeah, I can do that.” I had never done it on a professional level ever.

But, I mean, I had worked for sound companies, maybe on a little Peavey console or something, but never on the scale of second-stage Lollapalooza. It was my first tour. I was terrified. But I jumped right in. So now I'm thinking, how am I going to pull this off? I know I can tour manage. But mixing? I felt like I could do it, but I'd never done it. What am I getting into? The band's got one club gig on the way to Lollapalooza. I'm thinking, OK, we've got this one gig, I'll be able to figure it out. I walk into the venue: show’s canceled.

So now my first gig is going to be Lollapalooza second stage. We get to Lollapalooza, I walk to Front of House, the whole time I'm thinking, how am I going to say to this guy, “I don't know what I'm doing?” without saying “I don't know what I'm doing.” I step up on the platform and this console looks gigantic, and there's racks of gear and it turns out it’s a Midas XL-200. I didn't know what the hell that was back then. I stepped up on there. I said to the guy, “Hey, my name is Brad Divens, the tour manager for Agnes Gooch. Just so you know, I'm more of a tour manager than a front of house engineer. But if you can show me around, I think I'll be OK. I'm a musician. I've just never done it on this level.” And the guy's like, sure. He showed me around the console, shows me the outboard gear. He's like, hey, it's 48 channels of all the same thing. Start at the input, down to the fader, started bringing sounds up, I started turning knobs and with his help, I was able to dial in a mix. Somehow from that moment, people kept offering me gigs. I took that gig to pay the rent, I went back to LA. My desire to be a rock star was not going to be stopped.

Well, you know, the gigs kept coming, the money kept getting a little better and one day, you know, three years in, I'm mixing a band Linkin Park is opening for. The manager for Linkin Park comes up to me. “Hey, can you mix Linkin Park till I get somebody? We just lost our guy.” I'm like, Sure. Well, at some point during that tour, somebody said to me, “Do you realize they're selling like 50,000 records a week?” I wasn't paying attention. I'm just paying rent. So I went to the manager. “Hey, would you mind if I stuck around?” It was right then and there that I realized, this is where I'm supposed to be.

KB: With mixing, everybody's looking at the band. They're not looking at you until something goes wrong, right?

BD: That happens sometimes. I don't like it when that happens. If it's my fault, I'll own it. Sometimes it's not my fault. Somebody forgets the lyrics: “We can't hear the vocals!” No sh**!

You make mistakes, that’s how you learn.

Robb Wenner: I've talked to a lot of front of house engineers and monitor mixers. It's really important, in order to keep the gig that you have, to have a good relationship with the artists. It's not about what you think is cool. It's about what they want. You’ve worked with a diverse group of people. I'm curious if that’s true statement?

BD: I think it's a very true statement. Yeah. Coming from that side of things, being the guy on stage, and putting my trust in a mixer. When I was in the position that I was mixing the band, I was always thinking about the band. How can I take what they're doing on stage and make it the best that it can be? It's not my interpretation. It's what they're doing.

In the beginning, a lot of those bands had faith in me because of me being a musician. The conversations we would have before the gig would put them at ease when they realize, Hey, man, he's just one of us. He's been up here. He's got our backs.

A musician goes on stage, and maybe they're sick and their voice is not as good as it should be, and they're worried about that. I would sometimes go to the singer and say, “Look, don't worry about it. I got you. Everything's going to be fine. Just do what you do. And I'll take care of it. Those are the nights that the vocals might just sit in the mix a little bit. Because you don't want the guy to be standing out there. But the relationship between myself and the artist, I always like to have that personal rapport so that they know they don't have to worry when I'm out there, that I'm always going to do whatever I think is the best for the situation and to make them sound as good as they can be.

KB: So then you transition or get the opportunity to work with Butch Vig and Garbage. That must have been another point where you're like, Yeah, I can do it.

BD: When they said, “Hey, we're putting you in for Garbage,” I'm like saying to myself, I have to get this gig. I want to work with that band. I had to send an email to get somebody to vouch for me because their front of house guy was in charge of picking the engineer. He didn't know me. So even though I felt I was qualified, I didn't know the exiting engineer. I sent an email to my friend, Brad Maddox, and said, “Hey, man, could you vouch for me because I really want this gig?” He did and I got it.

That was one of those band, to be responsible for their vision and putting it across, there was no feeling like that. Everything that I did, you know, I got to do broadcast, I got to mix TV shows in Europe, MTV stuff that they wouldn't allow anybody to have a split. The mix had to come from me. That happened because the very first gig that we did, it was a radio show, the guy asked for a split, the broadcast mixer put the click track in the broadcast. After that, Billy came to me and he's like, “Hey, from now on, nobody gets a split. I don't care who it is. If they don't take your mix, they don't get anything. And they didn't. Inside I was thinking, Yeah! Because it's on me now. It was the greatest experience to earn their trust – Butch and Billy and Shirley. That was a gig like no other.

I was asked to mix stuff by him and Billy, knowing that those are the guys that mix the record. I was recording tuff in rehearsal, Billy's like, “Hey, record this rehearsal, because we're going to do something for Yahoo.” I recorded it. I'm thinking I'm going to hand it over to Billy and he's going to mix it. I'm like, “Hey, do you want this?” He's like, “No, you’re mixing it.” I mean, they had come in the room and listened to what my mixes were of the rehearsal, but man, it was great.

KB: And that's being prepared. Like you took that seriously. Yeah, that was just a rehearsal mix. But you took that mix seriously.

BD: Well, we had a month of rehearsals. So I had a profile, Pro Tools rig, couple of near fields, and I tracked every rehearsal. Next morning, I would come in, I put the record on, listen to the record. I would start dialing the mix in the song and I would try to get as close to the record but keep the live feel. And that's how the name FixinToGetMixin came to be. I came into rehearsal one day early, first guy in. The tour manager is like, “What are you doing here so early?” I said, “I'm fixing to get mixing.”

Three years later, when I started my company, I called it FixinToGetMixin.

KB: You've done a really a lot of excellent seminars for Waves and DPA and Soundcraft. The two most recent webinars for Soundcraft were really great. I think everyone should listen to it.

BD: Thank you. That was my idea, to have this class called FixinToGetMixin. I presented it to the guys at JBL, they said, “Wow, sounds like a great idea. Let's do it.” My class is usually like five to six hours, and I go through Garbage, I go through HIM, and then I end up with Enrique tracks. All live and when I thought about how do I want to present this to people, I realized that I want to keep it simple and make people realize that it's not about all the gear, it's not about all the latest gadgets. It's about listening, first and foremost. Listen, and then start turning knobs and make the decision and make it sound good with what you have. That was the whole premise of that class. Keep it simple but everybody could get something out of it.

KB: I appreciated that. Also, like you said, to listen and not look. We're in a digital age, it's really easy to look at stuff, be really happy with the GUI of whatever plugin you're using and how cool it is. But the end of the day, you just got to listen.

BD: It’s amazing. When you start to look at EQ, after being an analog domain for so long, just turning knobs, you realize wow, look at that curve. Who cares? How does it sound? Because I guarantee you did that on [Midas] XL4, you just didn't see it. It’s OK to put 8 db of 50 hertz in a kick drum, if that's what you want. Because you know what the audience is listening, they don't see anything, except the artist. But I think a lot of people forget that. Or “I need four plugins to make something sound good.” That was another thing with the class, I kept things simple. I only showed a couple of plugins, a lot of stuff I did right on the desk, just to show that it wasn't about all those plugins.

KB: Transitioning over to your workspace there at home in your studio (also called FixinToGetMixin). Tell us about that, how you started it, why you opened that, and what the room sounded like before acoustic treatment was applied.

BD: Well, this space was actually the basement. This part of the basement was gutted. And it sat this way for the longest time. Believe it or not, my wife kept saying, “When are you going to build studio? When are you going to build a studio? Are you going to build a studio?”

KB: I think you married well, Brad.

BD: I really did! So we hire a guy and he comes in and we start building the room. When I was building the room, I was thinking I just want a space that I can mix in, people can send me stuff, I can do it in Pro Tools. Or I could bring my live tracks in here, I can experiment with plugins, I can do mixes for the bands I'm working with. I can seminars. Towards the end of the process, I’m like, I think I need an ISO room just in case I decide I want to record, at least I can do guitar overdubs or bass or vocals. And so we put in an ISO room.

This room was double drywall, there was green glue in between the drywall, everything was insulated behind it. I think it was Van Romaine with Enrique that mentioned, “Hey, you need to contact Robb with Auralex.” You guys helped me with the design of what I should put in here. I put in exactly how you guys laid it out, and it's perfect. Anything that I've ever mixed and sent to people, I've never had an issue with “Oh, there's not enough low end or there's too much low end,” everything translates.

KB: Well, your room is fairly long and that gives the low end a little time to develop. An 80 hertz sound wave is 14 and a half feet. It gives a little time to move in the room so you don't have as much trapping that you have to do. Your front wall is covered, not completely covered, but balanced and has treatment on it. That prevents reflections from the back of the box from hitting you and you perceive it as direct information. I think it's a great looking studio too, the way it's laid out.

BD: Thank you. Everything about it. The panels, I put the three up top, three behind the monitors, then I've got panels all the way around. The ISO room is completely dead. I made the booth be as dead as it could be just because I was going to put loud amps in there. I wanted to be able to crank stuff up and have it be somewhat isolated from the room out here. If I do vocals or anything, I'm going to do them outside of the ISO room. On the other side of the studio, I've got a whole entertainment area that's all tile and drywall and stone. I recorded sax out there for this project I'm doing. I could put vocalists out there. Plus I have your MudGuard, so we can stick people out there and we can sing into that.

There is a [Marshall] JCM800 and JMP 50 watt ’72 which doesn't have master volume. So you got to crank it up to about six. There's another JMP Master Volume Marshall that’s probably ‘78 or ‘79. I've got a lot of cool friends that come here to record. They leave their gear. I'm mixing some stuff for a friend of mine, and he's got a lot of gear and he’ll just bring stuff over and leave it, which is really cool because I can't buy all this gear right now.

KB: Behind you is an interesting amp, the 3 Monkeys you posted on Instagram.

BD: Yeah, I just picked that up the other day. You know, a friend of mine, Greg Howard, was part owner of that company with Brad Whitford. Of course, when he was building the amps, I'm focused on mixing and I kept saying to myself, I should buy an amp, I should buy an amp. I never did. Now they don't make them, but I found this one. It's really cool. It's got a very different sound than all my Marshalls do.

KB: What studio monitors are you using? I noticed some kind of PA design-like boxes.

BD: Well, I've got JBLs in here at the moment. I've got the 708P’s, and then I've got the 305P’s. I had a pair of Adam A8x’s in here.

KB: So what software and hardware you using? What's your favorite input channel right now?

BD: Well, I've got my interface is the UA Apollo 8. And I have a UA satellite with the Apollo Twin on Pro Tools. I have the two Raven touchscreen monitors. I just picked up some Warm audio gear. I've got the WA273. I've got the WA412. And the WA-2A. I've also got a Slate VMS, the virtual microphone system.

My favorite input channel, I'd say it's a toss-up. I really liked the Slate one because you can model any microphone. You don't have to commit right away. And all the modeling sounds great. I have a 251 Warm Audio. And I've got some DPA stuff and some AKG 414’s. It’s a toss-up maybe between the 412 and the 273. The Warm Audio stuff sounds killer.

I wasn't going to buy any gear. Because I was just going to mix and I was going to be in a box. I figured, hey, it works for Andrew Scheps! I’m no Andrew Scheps but yeah.

When this whole COVID thing started, before then, a friend of mine came to me with some tracks. He said, “Hey, would you mix this?” So I met the guys. They gave me the CD and then they gave me the tracks. It turned out that what he should have said was, “Can you help us finish this?” Because sure, I can mix it, but it wasn’t done, it wasn’t ready to mix. So I'm like, “Look, I built my studio so I could do overdubs. I haven't done it yet but if you guys are game, let's do it.” They come in here, and we started with just using the UA stuff, all the virtual stuff. And then I'm like, you know what, I want to buy some hardware. I want to run a mic through a circuit and print that. Does it sound the same? Does it sound better? I don't know because I've never compared it. But I know I like plugging a mic into a mic pre and turning the knobs and then it became “Man, I want to record.” So now I've got a full drum kit upstairs. I've got a snake running down in here into my studio. I've only got 10 mic pre’s, so I'm trying to figure out a way that I need to get more. So now my wife's like, “You need to have people come in and record everything. You need to be able to do everything.” And I said, “Do you realize what it's going to sound like when somebody starts playing a drum kit in the house?”

RW: You have the coolest wife in the world, I must say.

BD: Yes, I really do. She's encouraging. I’ve been with her for 28 years. She pushes me. She makes me step outside my comfort zone a lot. And I love her for it. Because there's a lot of things that I might not have done right. Had she not said, “What else are you going to do?”

What started as a mix room is now morphing into being recording house. And I'm really diggin’ it.

KB: I guess the software you use live is different than what you use in the studio. You use Pro Tools now in the studio, right?

BD: Yeah, the digital consoles are based on their own operating system. I still use Pro Tools to record the show. When I do my class, it's Pro Tools running the tracks through the desk. Yeah, the software is Pro Tools.

KB: Acoustically speaking, what's the best room in live sound you ever mixed in and the worst room?

BD: The best sound? There's a few of them because now the arenas are starting to get it. I think American Airlines Arena in Dallas is a great sounding room. I don't know if it's still called that. The Staples Center sounds great.

I can't remember the worst rooms. But I will say that I've gone into some god-awful rooms, to where the low end has like, I don't know, a 10-second decay on stuff. But my philosophy on how to handle that is, never try to beat the room. That room is going to sound like it sounds. A lot of guys will try to mix louder and think, I'm just going to drown the acoustics of the room out. No, all you're going to do is you're going to excite the room and it's going to be worse. Yeah, absolutely. I know I've mixed in some awful rooms; I just can't remember what they were. Well, you know what, there's one in London. I can't remember the name of it. All I remember is that in the very center of the floor, there was like this big ceiling and went up to be dome shaped. And if you mixed right under that area… I'm not going to sit there.

There was this place in Milwaukee that's actually a nightclub. It's called Eagles Ballroom. And it was famously a horrendous sounding room.

But the more experience you get, the more you realize, just wait until the room fills up. Don't try to tailor the PA so much now to this empty room because it's not going to sound like this when it fills up.

KB: We always ask this question and it's interesting to see what we get: is there something interesting or unexpected about you that people wouldn't know?

BD: I don't know. It’s funny, but audio is kind of what's on my mind all the time. I like to cook, to make Thai food. I like to experiment with ethnic foods. Find a recipe that I really enjoy going to a restaurant to have, and then figuring out how to create it at home.

I have a love of hot sauce. But hot sauce with flavor. Not burn your face off. Like I grow jalapenos, I grow Thai chilies, habaneros, ghost peppers. I like to grow chilies in the summertime.

I have a ‘67 Chevelle. It’s not really a hobby because I didn't restore it. I'm definitely not mechanically inclined. But I enjoy hot rods.

KB: What projects are you working on now? You're working on something with Brian Forsythe, right?

BD: The band’s called The Arrival. It's some local guys here. We've all been friends since we played all the clubs locally. That was the band that came to me and said, “Hey, can you help us?” It kind of jump started me into playing again.

Another friend of mine has given me 12 songs to mix over the next couple of months, a band called Ever Rise, another local band. I've got people that are inquiring about me mixing tracks, as well. I pretty much say yes to everything. As long as I enjoy the music, and I like it and I feel like I can contribute something to it.