Sounds Good: Dana Fehr

Club Congress’ Dana Fehr has not-so-quietly engineered some of Tucson’s best live music

If you're looking for variety, both on stage and in the crowd, Club Congress is kind of a no-brainer. Hip-hop, punk, country, DJs—something is going on nearly every night, often times free. While keeping the reins in on all of those moods and genres can seem daunting, audio engineer Dana Fehr ensures one important thing remains consistent: quality sound.

Audio engineers are the unsung heroes of any venue. It's not a role just anyone can fill, but Fehr, with his calm demeanor and well-earned confidence, is perfectly suited for the job. He's toured with big names like The Bronx and Jesu and worked in venues ranging from small pubs to 50,000 seat arenas. Fehr graduated from Full Sail University in 1994 and has been an audio engineer ever since. Initially, he worked with bands in the studio, but he didn't like feeling cooped up, so he made the transition to live sound.

Aside from recent years spent salaried at Club Congress, Fehr has always worked for himself and has supplemented steady club gigs with in-studio recording sessions, touring and working at festivals such as Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Roskilde in Denmark. He has also played in his own bands, including, most recently, Juarez—a Tucson-based hard rock group in which he sang and played guitar. He says he came up playing heavy music in New York City, but even in his youth his dream was to become an engineer, not a performer. This fact can be seen all the way back to Fehr's high school yearbook, where he lists his future career. In 2001, he started working at Emo's in Austin, and in 2006, he moved to Tucson where he has worked at Plush (now The Flycatcher) and Club Congress.

Through the years, Fehr has sought to perfect the live audio experience. For an audience member, the engineer ensures that a loud, immersive, rocker of a show never becomes a jarring, earsplitting assault. For a performer, the engineer makes or breaks the show. The band has to bring it musically, of course, and, as Fehr points out, "their gear has to sound good or I'm just polishing turds." Still, a musician can write amazing songs, practice them a million times and cart around state of the art equipment, but if all the audience can hear is a cacophony of drums and tinny guitars, no one is going to buy the album, and no one is going to come to the next show.

That's a lot of pressure. Getting the right mix is essential, and every group has its own needs. A country band has different requirements than a metal one, which might seem obvious, but its apparent truth doesn't make it any easier to achieve. Certainly, Fehr's formal training and twenty years of experience don't hurt in the quest to craft that perfect sound, but as with any art, talent and intuition are major factors.

According to Fehr there are two ways to become an audio engineer—school or apprenticeship. Though he chose the school path for himself, he has had his fair share of apprentices over the years. Some have continued their careers as audio engineers, including Max Gregor who now works for the popular Fun, Fun, Fun Fest in Austin. Most people don't stick with it, though. As Fehr puts it, "I can show someone what I do technically, but I can never give then my ear," he says.

Judgment calls must be made at the drop of a beat, and not everyone can handle that. Live sound requires a cool head. Things will go wrong, and the ability to quickly diagnose and fix problems is essential.

That sense of immediacy is one of the primary differences between being a live audio engineer and a studio one. Time is precious during a recording session, but if something doesn't sound right adjustments can be made before the music reaches an audience. That's obviously not the case with live sound, and even engineers with extensive training and years of experience must wrestle with unfamiliar equipment and difficult conditions.

Fehr's most memorable audio SNAFU was during a Pelican show at an outdoor venue in France. There were over 20,000 people in the audience, and at the end of the last song, with the crowd lost completely in the moment, the music was supposed to swell, and the sound mix to change accordingly. Fehr was working on equipment he'd never used, and thanks to a ruinous design flaw, a touch-sensitive mute button had been placed next to the switch he needed to adjust. At that crucial crescendo, Fehr accidently brushed the mute button, shutting off all sound. He recovered quickly, but not quickly enough. The crowd was angry, having been torn from their aural cocoon, and reacted by hurling food and obscenities. Luckily, he says, the lighting crew was on the second level of the scaffolding and bore the brunt of the audience's imprecise anger.

While Fehr can still be found behind the board at Congress, his priorities have shifted in the last couple of years. With the birth of his first child, family became his primary concern, and the late nights and months on the road that life as an audio engineer demand no longer suit him.

Since he's always worked for himself as an engineer, he decided to start a new business with his friend-turned-partner, Nick Hoenig , called Hermosa Coffee Roasters. He's enjoyed the opportunity to learn a new skill, and he gets to spend most nights at home with his family instead of at a loud club.

When he does work at Congress, though, his priorities are the same as they always were—make the music sound good, the people feel good and create an audio experience that lets the audience forget about everything else for a little while.