This past Friday I sat down for over an hour with Bob Bowling on the back patio of his lovely Atco, New Jersey home to talk about his experience in the local South Jersey and Philadelphia music scene. Known on a semi-underground level as an overall go-to sound man, Bob has been working with both local veteran musicians and rising bands alike, both in his home studio and in the local live music circuit. He is not only an audio engineer, but a producer, a supporter of local music venues, and a musician himself. Read on to hear his story and his quiet perspective on music in this half of the Garden State.
Q: What was your first experience performing music? Who was it with? Was it with a band or a friend?
A: I’ve always been in bands. My first was a band called “White Lightening”. This was in the late 80s. We used to play at the local fire hall and the school dance. We played, like, Scorpions, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osborne Van Halen- all of the classic hard rock stuff.
Q: So you had some friends in the band then?
A: Yeah it was all kids from my home town and you know, only one person, the singer, had a car. So when it was time to play the dance, he would pick me and my amp up, and then the drummer. It was one guy at a time.
Q: When and where was your first concert? And who?
A: Probably also when I was 14 or 15 years old, and it was definitely at the Spectrum seeing someone like Rat, Iron Maiden, DIO, AC/DC, etc.
Q: I want to know, what venue in South Jersey is you favorite, whether you are attending or helping out, or in any capacity?
A: Truthfully, one of my favorite places to do live sound is Rack’s in Atco because they actually have a stage, they televise the event with a closed circuit tv within the venue, and the room is big enough to actually get the sound going and amplify the sound properly without it bouncing off of the walls and sounding terrible. That’s one of my favorite places to work. That one has a good crowd, a good stage, and a good room.
Q: I understand you supply live sound in venues. How many gigs do you have per week?
A: I usually have two or three gigs per week- always Friday and Saturday. Sometimes Thursday and Sunday.
Q: When and how did you get into doing live sound?
A: Okay so I started the studio in 2010, and in 2012 I starting getting some random calls to help bands out that I knew with sound. So I just kind of started helping out and running sound. I had a PA system from when I was in bands. Then I realized that some of my equipment was probably a little bit better than their, so I started offering to bring my stuff out to improve their situation out. That’s when I kind of saw a whole in the scene. There was no middle guy for sound. It was the high-end bands who could afford to pay production companies $400 or $500 bucks a night, a they made a thousand or a couple of thousand. Then there’s the garage bands or bottom end band that were doing themselves. And then there were the middle bands who were just making enough money to justify spending some kind of money. So, I saw an opening.
Q: What are some of the bands that you have worked with in past years or more recently?
A: The biggest or most frequent band I work with is a country band called “South 47”. They were one of the first bands I did sound for about three or four years ago, and they were kinda helping me see this opening in the market. I work for them between four and eight times a month depending on how busy they are. I fill in for a lot of other bands. In the last year I’ve expanded the company to sound rigs which two more guys, Mike and Walt run. So now we have two of the exact same systems running. So there’s a lot of bands we’re working for like Shut Up Justice, Modern Mojo, Aftershock, One Hot Mess, Cat Daddy, 99 Reasons, and 88 Miles Per Hour. Red Hotts are an agency band, you know they’re getting the better gigs. I have to drive further to places like Pennsylvania, Cape May. How it works in this industry is that cover bands will call their main guy, and if he’s already booked, they’ll call their second guy. I am the second guy for a lot of bands of these bands because I am the main guy for South 47.
Q: What styles of music do you usually do sound for? Rock, country, Funk?
A: South 47 is the only country band I work for. I knew like, Johnny Cash and Carrie Underwood. I didn’t know any country really, and I didn’t listen to country radio. But I love all music. If it’s good, I love it. They have a fiddle player who is great, and their vocal harmonies, too. My favorite thing to work with is original music.
Q: Can you name some other venues that you have worked sound for in South Jersey?
A: We work all of the time at Villari’s Lakeside. The ballroom is great because it’s big and you can get a lot of people in there and at least you’re off of the ground. I like that room; we’re there all of the time. They have a deck. I like out-door shows the best because they have no sound reflection; it keeps on going. Rack’s Williamstown is a good gig. Tir Na Nog is small room. I do Adelphia’s in Deptford a lot; that’s a big room. We’re everywhere. We do The Taproom in Haddon Heights, Filomena in Berlin, and The Alibi Room. That’s a little tiny bar in Waterford and in the Summer it’s great because they have a tiki bar and a little outdoor stage.
Q: Tell me about a favorite memory, show, or even something funny that happened.
A: One of my favorite shows, and you were involved in it, was the Shawnee Houlihan CD Release party, for multiple reasons. It was an original music showcase. I was doing sound, but as an added bonus, I was very personally involved because I played bass, got to play with you guys (we recorded the album together and shot that little video) and I got to know you guys while recording. That was a great show for me. You know, I organized it and promoted it. That was a great experience.
Q: As far as technology goes, how has the experience of doing live sound evolved over the past 10 years or so?
A: Well, live sound is always progressing, and really progressing in the last 10 years with digital mixers, for one. If I do sound for a band, after I get a good sound going, I save it. I save what is called the scene, and if I do a gig for that band next week or even next year, I can recall that scene exactly as it was set. Whereas 10 years ago you did something called zeroing out the board at the end of the gig- all of the knobs set to zero because there’s no sense in leaving anything behind. It’s common courtesy and protocol to do so for the next sound guy.
Q: When you approach a room or gig for the first time in this area (South Jersey and Philly), do you find it to be fairly easy or more difficult?
A: Yeah I find it easy, I mean, every room is different. If I am going to work at new room, I will go to the website of that venue. I am not going to go as far as visiting or doing sound tests. I like to know the room, how big or small it is. If you’re in a long, narrow, room, and you’re on the long wall, your sound is going to hit the other side pretty quickly. If you’re at Villari’s, the walls are only 40 or 50 feet apart. I like to see some pictures of the audience and the band on the stage to see how it lays out, but I don’t have any issues from room to room.
Q: What is a good example of a big space in the area that you have worked in? Small space?
A: For me, a big space would be like the Field House in Philly. It’s in center city, right by the gallery mall. It’s got to be 100 feet wide by 200 feet deep. It’s a large room in my terms of doing sound. I don’t do sound in, like, Amphitheaters or anything. I do sound at outdoor festivals, like county parks, county music festivals, where they have that big county stage that looks like a tin can. It’s a steel back wall and a steel roof. It’s very reverberating on stage. So that’s an endless size.
But then we’re doing a lot of little tiny room like, “Bourbon and Brews” in Paulsboro, NJ. It’s almost like a truck stop kind of feel. There’s one big bar in the center with chairs all around it and a couple of tables and the band in the corner. It’s got tiled walls and floor. It’s a challenge but the audience helps.
Q: Is it more exciting to work with a band that is new to you or with a band that you always hear and they always shine?
A: Yes and yes. Again, the country band is consist. I like working with them. Their sound is consistent, they’re not erratic with their performances. And their shows are usually pretty high energy; they have a good fan base, and people wanna come out and dance and sing along to the songs. So that’s always a good, fun show.
(Cont’d…) But one of my favorite shows are a showcases that I do. Sometimes they’re original music or cover bands. But there’s a lot of activity with 4 or 5 bands across 4 or 5 hours. So, it keeps me jumping. The first band might have two guitars, keyboard, harmonica, and a drummer that sings. The next band might have one guitar, saxophone, trumpet, and a drummer that has some trigger pads off to the side. Then the next might have a stand-up bass, and a keyboard or two keyboards; maybe one is an organ and another is a synthesizer. You know, I like that. It keeps me on my toes. The variation in switching from one band to the next and their instrumentation is like starting another show, and it’s kind of exciting. And there’s pressure; I like pressure. You know, 15 minutes to get these guys set up and sounding good.
Q: I want to go back to Rack’s. What does it look like there as far as crowd goes. Are there any specials that they do to kind of bring everybody together?
A: They don’t have any theme there. We do an open mic there every other Tuesday night which brings local musicians. It’s a good open mic for working musicians that play Top 40 every weekend; Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars. You can come here and jam some Black Sabbath with your buddies or some guys in other bands who are into that. People go up there and they would never expect the keyboard player in a pop/rock cover band that plays Lady Gaga and he comes up and plays a Billy Joel and sings by himself, and he kills it. That goes for open mics all over South Jersey, too. But it’s one of the rare open mics where you can bring your whole band and just plug-in and play. So it’s for like, weekend warriors and full-time musicians.
They only do bands on Saturday night. The crowd always forms around what is happening that night. When I work there for a classic rock band, there weren’t many 25 to 30-year-olds coming out to see George Thorogood or Creedance Clearwater Revival. So the place will be emptier earlier. Then in the night when it’s all of the 25 to 30-year-olds come to see a band in their 20s, they won’t even start till 10 o’clock, and they will go strong all night long. Anyway, a typical crowd on a good night would be 200 to 250 people. We’ve done nights when there are 300 or up to 400 people.
Q: In the last year or so, there have been several venues closing down in the South Jersey and Philly area, namely the North Star Bar, The Tin Angel, and even The Legendary J.C. Dobbs on South Street. While there are restored venues and new ones popping up from time to time, the closing of such rich venues seem to be more prominent. Do you think there is a solid horizon for these local venues, or is there a gray shadow on that horizon, meaning we don’t really know where the coming months and years will take us?
A: The first thing I’ll say about those clubs, and I love them all, I’ve seen some great performers at tin angel. I’ve played myself at Pontiac Grill and also at the North Star Bar. I think of those bars as original venues: up and coming original acts, even the best original acts have played those bars, especially The Tin Angel, it’s awesome. So there’s a pattern there. It’s a tough scene for bands to make money, to get paid. Everyone thinks that the bar owner is ripping them off and making them buy tickets. It’s hard to make money. There’s a high cost of doing business in the city. To constantly book and find new artists- it’s a tough scene. I think The Tin Angel and North Star had built-in sound systems, and J.C. Dobbs, definitely. But does it look dark on the horizon? I think it’s just a continuous cycle. Music is not going anywhere. I feel like music is as strong as ever. We just have to look int he right place for what you’re trying to find. I don’t think that clubs are closing is a sign of the times. I think it’s just a cycle that never ends.
Q: You have your own small business here at your home. How do you feel since you have started recording bands here? How has that evolved?
A: For me, it’s a musical outlet 100 percent. Anywhere from four to seven times a week. This is my favorite place. Ultimately, I would be in the studio full-time, if I had my way. For one thing, the recording industry has evolved so much, just like live sound. Audio recording has also changed in countless other ways where it possible to yield the results you can yield anywhere as long as you’ve got good musicians with good or at least decent equipment. Could a band go spend $40 thousand in Nashville and maybe get a better album? I would probably be kidding myself if I said, “No.” But how much better? I think the most important thing is the connection between me and the musicians. So if I really take my time and care to get the right sounds and listen to what they want, and interpret that, I am going to get a good result. You could have a million dollar studio but an engineer who couldn’t care less. If that’s the case you are better off with me. It’s just cookie cutter. Cool another rock band, same settings as the last band, some mic placement, and same effects.
I take my time to get the best takes and good sounds, and I work really close with the band to get it how they want it. With that being said, the big changes in technology in the industry are that I can take a $30 thousand recording studio and get great results. Even a kid in his bedroom or an acoustic sing-songwriter, you can with a decent mic and laptop get a recording as good as any studio. We’re kidding ourselves to say you can’t. If you sing well, with the right distance and settings on the right mic, and you play guitar well on a good guitar, you can get an incredible recording if you’re 18 years old and in your bedroom without paying any money to anybody. I don’t there’s a need for a million dollar studio.
Q: With the combination of bands coming in here and you doing live sound and recording live, that pretty much keeps you going, right?
Q: What is your favorite part about these South Jersey venues?
A: The market that I am in- bars and clubs. It’s a really good community. The cover bands that I work for support each other. Anyone who is not working is going to be there. The other bands I work with; they seem to travel in the same circles. Some of the bands are cover bands with guys in their 40s or 50s, and some are up and coming with much more modern music who are in their 20s or 30s. It’s all in the same clubs. So each experience I have is different. I can do a country band at Rack’s this week, and a hard rock band the next week. It can be anything and the crowd changes with it; same walls, same doors, same stage.
Q: So, to clarify, it’s working in this scene and these people who come out and support each other where everything kind of comes full circle in this environment?
A: Yeah, we have our own little scene of people who play music, do sound, and record it. We are all in it together and we recognize that. Whether you’re the guitar player in the band or the sound man, they’re both in the same community.
*Bob’s next gig will be this Saturday night, March 4, with the country band, South 47 at Rack’s in Atco, NJ.
Story photo credit: Michael Klein