A Day In The Life Of A Drum Tech

We know what you’re thinking – this was the only way DRUM! Magazine could get into a Bruce Springsteen show for free, right? Well, this article is not technically about Bruce. It’s not even about Bruce’s longtime drummer Max Weinberg. It goes one step further down the food chain to the technicians who make sure every Springsteen show comes off without a hitch, night after night, in city after city, for a year and a half. In particular, we focused on Harry McCarthy, who not only sets up the gear Weinberg will beat and stomp during the show, but also provides everything Weinberg could possibly need during the show. To quote Weinberg: “Without Harry McCarthy supporting me and the E Street Band, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”

So what is his day like? For one thing, it’s highly regimented. Simply because of the sheer number of musicians, technicians, engineers, and support personnel, scheduling is one of the trickiest issues to deal with. This tour packs the entire E-Street Band on a total of five tour busses in varying degrees of extravagance, plus a whopping seven tractor-trailer loads full of staging, equipment, lighting, and sound systems. Just walking around without getting in the way or run over by a forklift was a challenge.

We met up with McCarthy in the parking lot of the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Texas last November. This was the second leg of the tour and the first show after a short break. Most of the entourage had flown into Dallas the night before to join the busses and equipment that had rolled in that day. We skipped the wake-up call and met McCarthy at the venue.

9:30 a.m. Start the day at the hotel. Everyone meets the bus outside the lobby to ride down to the venue. On this particular day, McCarthy rolled up in a top-of-the-line tour bus packed with assorted techs and crewmembers at the lordly hour of …

10:00 a.m. Found the entrance to the venue and made it through security. In this instance the security regimen includes a wand check and bag search for everyone entering the building for whatever reason. McCarthy good-naturedly opens his bag and talks with the guards, who share with him the fact that there are bomb dogs going through the venue, and that they’ll be there all day. Nothing like a mid-morning bomb awareness check to get your blood pumping. We wound our way down the stairs, through the bowels of the venue and finally arrived on the floor of the arena.

10:15 a.m. McCarthy locates all his road cases, electronics, and all the other boxes that need to be handy for when the actual work begins. After rounding up all the cases into a staging area and determining that all the stuff he’ll need has arrived and made it to Dallas, it’s off to catering for a lovely bowl of cereal, some fruit, and a cup of coffee.

10:20 a.m. As we munch through the buffet, various members of the crew make their way into catering to the accompaniment of numerous greetings and hugs. The band has been on a break for three weeks and this is the first show on this leg of the tour, so it’s time to get acquainted again. McCarthy is also the subject of a little razzing over his status as a celebrity du jour, but he takes it in stride, urging us to keep as low a profile as possible and to not make him look overly geeky to the other guys in the crew. We swear (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) that we won’t do anything to make him look funny. Nope, count on us to be the epitome of discretion. Hey Harry, can you pout for us a bit while you’re munching on those cornflakes?

10:30 a.m. We walk out to the floor to check on the progress of the light rigging and stage construction. The lighting riggers have been here since 6 a.m. this morning and their spider-webbed cable-work masterpiece will support the massive lighting framework as well as the state-of-the-art sound system. They’re still rigging one of the 40-foot long strands of speaker cabinets, so the stage, which is completely assembled in the middle of the floor, can’t be rolled into position yet. Since it appears that this is going to take a while, McCarthy decides to pull out the snare for a quick head change and tuning.

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11:00 a.m. McCarthy gets the snare drum tuning into the ballpark as a forklift shows up to help put the cases on the stage. The four-foot rise of the front section of the stage makes the forklift a welcome change from the usual practice of manually pushing the cases up a ramp. The cases are placed on stage in the order that they are needed and removed from the stage as they are emptied. Since the majority of the monitoring is done through in-ear systems, there are no monitor cabinets on the stage floor, but Springsteen still has a few wedges mounted under the stage and firing through grills in the floor. Other than the actual instruments and a few speaker cabinets for the guitars and bass, the stage is relatively uncluttered as compared to your average “stacks of Marshalls” rock setup.

11:30 a.m. For this tour, McCarthy isn’t dealing with an overly technical setup for the drums. Weinberg plays a pretty standard four-piece Drum Workshop setup with a hi-hat, a couple of crashes and a ride, all Zildjian. McCarthy has the set up and on the riser in no time, using permanently mounted place markers to insure that every piece of the kit is exactly where it’s supposed to be every time. In the course of setting up and tapping around on the drums, it becomes evident that the toms wouldn’t suffer if the heads were changed, which McCarthy takes in stride as an almost daily occurrence. In less than an hour, he’s got the drums re-headed, tuned and ready to play. Meanwhile the engineer is starting to string mikes on the kit.

12:30 p.m. Sound techs begin wiring in the monitors. In a gig like this, the last thing you want would be to lose monitors. The stage is huge and there’s very little onstage amplification to begin with. Weinberg gets his dose of the band through a set of in-ear monitors and two subwoofer cabinets that sit on the back section of the stage immediately behind the drum riser. They are the biggest speakers on the stage, and provide Weinberg with a realistic bottom end. In addition to the main input for headphones, McCarthy and Weinberg also maintain two backup jacks (and mixes!) mounted to the bottom side of the throne. In the event of a failure (which rarely happens) Weinberg can switch from a faulty connection to a working plug without having to look for the jack. Although it’s a safe bet that McCarthy would hear about it long before that, and possibly beat Weinberg to the switch.

1:00 p.m. Lunchtime! We take a break from set up while the engineer finishes putting the microphones on the set. After a scintillating meal of roast beef au jus, (a little on the shoe leather side) and a fine array of steamed vegetables, we were ready to escape back to the stage. Maybe McCarthy was a little more ready to escape. Everywhere we’d gone this morning, he’d gotten his fair share of jibes from the rest of the crew over his “star treatment.” It must have been a switch to have a photographer and writer following a drum tech around all day, while showing little interest in the rest of the band and crew.

1:45 p.m. Downloaded photos from this morning during lunchtime. We did manage to get a few photos that bring out the real McCarthy in there, which he grudgingly admitted were all right. The rest of them? Well, sorry about that Harry, there has to be some reality somewhere in this article!

2:15 p.m. The afternoon was spent going over the final touches on the drum set, taping down the pedals, replacing a hi-hat cymbal that had cracked, and getting sounds with the engineer. By the time all was said and done, the kit sounded about 40-feet tall and featured a low end that could cause bodily organs to rearrange. McCarthy also had to assemble and hook in his rack of electronics and prepare his workbox, which contains any piece of Weinberg’s kit that could possibly break or fall apart during the show. Of course, every surface of every door and drawer in the cases was covered with pictures of McCarthy’s wife Jodie and daughter Sydney. A recurring theme in McCarthy’s conversation is that the worst thing about being on the road is being away from his family.

3:00 p.m. McCarthy and the monitor engineer get together to fine tune the monitor mix in preparation for the line check at 4:00. Monitor mixer Troy Milner handles Weinberg’s side of the stage. McCarthy tells me that Troy is one of the best monitor men in the business. John Cooper, front-of-house engineer, recently voted “Engineer Of The Year” by Pro Production magazine, works closely with McCarthy in microphone placement. It’s obvious that these folks really do know their jobs. There wasn’t a bad sounding location in the venue, largely due to the talent of the technical support. It’s almost like the individual techs are jockeying for position with the sound reinforcement team to try to get the best possible mix for their “player,” so McCarthy is right there with him to see if there’s anything he can do to help out.

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4:00 p.m. Line Check. Every tech is in position with instruments and every line is checked to insure that each microphone and instrument is tested through the monitor system and front-of-house speakers.

4:30 p.m. Springsteen and the other members of the E Street Band arrive with the admonishment that no pictures are to be taken while the band is in the house.

5:00 p.m. Sound check. Pretty much business as usual. As the band played through the sound check, it became apparent that this was simply a formality. The band clearly knows the material and this exercise merely helps them to get a feel for the venue. One surprise arose in that Don Henley was coming in to rehearse a song he would sing during the show with Springsteen that night. McCarthy preceded the current Springsteen tour by being the drum tech on the Eagles last tour in the summer of 2002. We got a “Don and Harry picture” just to show it happened. Then Henley got the heck out of there and McCarthy went back to work, getting everything ready for that night’s show.

6:00 p.m. After about an hour of playing through pieces and parts of songs, the band heads off to catering and the house opens. McCarthy stays behind to fine tune any problems that cropped up during sound check and to replace a slightly cracked hi-hat top that Weinberg had questioned during the sound check. The crowd is coming into the venue and filling up the place. The video cameras are being adjusted to correct a blacked out square in one of the 20-foot by 30-foot screens that are on each side of the stage. Three cameras will shoot close ups that will be projected on these mammoth screens. This is a large arena and it’s been sold out for weeks, so everyone is intent on getting to their seats and gearing up for the show.

6:30 p.m. After making sure that everything is okay, McCarthy heads to catering. By the time we get into the catering room, the smell of steamed rice and drying chicken breasts is lingering on the air. Even though the catering folks have gone all out with a change of table linen, lamps, centerpieces and low level lighting, it was still a cafeteria line dinner, but as McCarthy so aptly pointed out, it was free and plentiful!

7:15 p.m. After checking in with Weinberg, McCarthy heads back to the stage for a final line check at 7:30 just to be sure.

7:45 p.m. McCarthy heads for the production office. It’s a hectic scene with all the techs for the band waiting to get their copy of tonight’s set list. McCarthy heads back over to Weinberg’s dressing room to discuss any changes that may be needed. It’s off to the stage to put out the drinks on the riser, then into the trenches. McCarthy’s workstation during the show is located directly underneath and slightly behind Weinberg’s riser on stage. A cutout in the stage gives him a clear sight line to Weinberg at all times.

McCarthy puts a copy of the set list up on his work table and confirms the tempo settings so that Weinberg has a reference to help him to count off each song at the right speed. Having been together as long as these guys have, and playing very emotionally moving music, the ebb and flow of the groove is single-minded and focused throughout the marathon of a three-hour show as Weinberg carries the big beat in his ever so capable hands.

8:00 p.m. Showtime! As the band comes on stage and McCarthy goes into show mode, it’s plain to see that all the people on this tour are ready. Kind of like watching a bird dog on point.

8:15 p.m. Lights go down and the roar of the crowd is deafening as the band takes the stage. As hit after hit from Springsteen’s prodigious catalog rolls out through the speakers, the crowd roars appreciatively. There are very few breaks in the action and we don’t dare interrupt. The show is almost three hours long, so the pressure to keep the energy up and the show on track is pretty intense. The production is flawless. There are no apparent glitches with Weinberg or McCarthy. The only breather McCarthy gets during the show is when Springsteen heads for the piano for a song without the band. We go under the stage to watch from that angle for a while. This is the point where Henley is coming in for his guest spot and McCarthy handles the additional duty with no problem. The show concludes without a hitch.

11:00 p.m. Starting at 6:00 a.m. with the arrival of the riggers, the setup for this show took all day long. But once the show is over, a scant 45 minutes has passed before the stage is bare and the crew is hauling cases off to the truck in preparation for load out. McCarthy has the kit torn down and in the flight cases before the audience is all the way out of the building! After supervising the removal of his cases and a few last minute details, McCarthy’s job is done for the night.

12:05 a.m. McCarthy grabs a quick shower in the dressing room and changes into his favorite sweats before heading to the bus, which will take him to the next day’s show in a city eight hours away.