"If you can imagine a Bob Dylan solo acoustic record from the early 1960s and a Lyle Lovett record from the 90s,” English singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole says to sound technician Curt Hamilton, “I want the 1960s one.”
Cole comes to play The Ark with a desire common among many of the musicians who have played the storied venue before him.
“I don’t want a lot of high end added,” he clarifies during soundcheck, “it should sound pretty natural. Other than that, I just want to sound like a folk singer.”
Since 1969, when Dave Siglin took the job as The Ark’s manager, The Ark’s sound technicians—all of whom, like the ushers and concessions staff, volunteer their time—pride themselves on providing first-rate sound for performers and audiences.
Before moving to Michigan in 1992, George Allen taught in the Department of Audiology at Purdue. In 1993, Allen started volunteering as a sound technician at the second iteration of The Ark—637½ S. Main St. At about half the size of the current venue, Allen says, The Ark II had decent acoustics. Allen doesn’t remember his first show behind the soundboard, but he does remember his favorite.
“The Cox Family was a bluegrass band from Louisiana,” he says. “They had a sound that was of particular interest to me—a father, a son, and two daughters. And one of the daughters, Suzanne Cox, is the person that Alison Krauss modeled her voice on.” Allen’s interest in the band connected to his background teaching speech and hearing science. “The boning structure in the head has a lot to do with the overtones that come through in the voice. So when you have family members singing together, you have overtone structures that meld nicely for some really wonderful harmonies.” A state of nostalgia takes Allen’s attention. “Suzanne Cox was there—tall and slim with beautiful voice—and I’m working the soundboard, listening, just loving it.”
Like Allen for The Cox Family and Curt for Cole, the sound tech acts as an ambassador for The Ark. “He’s there before the managers,” Allen says, “and before any of the other volunteers. He’s there to greet the band—I always ask where they’re coming from—and he’s the last or the next man out at the end of the night.” For the touring musicians, who perhaps played in the back of a hardware store on the way up from Nashville, or a beer bar in Chicago the night before, The Ark is a 5-star hotel. “They know when they come to The Ark they’re safe, their needs are going to be met.” Priority number one: keep the performers happy.
After the better part of an hour, Cole and Curt have advanced from collaborating on the attunement of Cole’s vocals and guitars to discussing the color and angle setting for the stage lights.
“Basically I want to make the stage look like it’s only the size of me and the guitars,” Cole says.
Dave Siglin, who helmed The Ark until 2008, says the best performances come when the artist and the sound tech work together. “The artist knows what he wants, and the sound guy knows what the room needs.”
Although Siglin ran sound for decades for the likes of Don McLean, John Prine, Taj Mahal, and Richard Thompson, his role extended well beyond sound-tech ambassadorship. Siglin, his wife Linda, who managed and directed the venue with him over the years, and their daughter Anya, The Ark’s current program director, lived upstairs in the house at 1421 Hill Street—The Ark I. And the performers would stay with them.
When folk duo Pam Ostergren and Bobi Thomas passed through Ann Arbor and stayed with the Siglins, Thomas’ high school sweetheart, Tom Waits, came to visit for a couple weeks. Waits, before he hit it big, stayed in Siglin’s friend Barry O’Neill’s apartment.
“Tom really liked it there because it was so sloppy,” Siglin recalls. “It made him feel like he was at home. He’d come over to our place during the day, practice the piano and hang out. I remember one day Linda, Bobi, Pam, some other people and I were playing hearts in the kitchen, and Tom was in the other room practicing the piano. Bobi said, you’ll have to hear Tom sing sometime. He’s really good. I think you’ll like him, and you should bring him to The Ark. Linda said, yeah okay. We’re playing cards, shut up and deal.”
Despite nearly missing that opportunity to book a young Tom Waits, The Ark has always prided itself on bringing in up-and-coming talent. And with Anya now booking shows, they continue to attract new acts. This year has boasted the likes of Hey Rosetta!, The Whiskey Shivers, Shakey Graves, Brandi Carlile, and Dustbowl Revival.
“That’s why I retired,” Siglin says. “I realized I was 65 years old and not as much into the new, young music. To move it forward, we needed someone younger booking The Ark. I listened to 100 demos a month. And I have a feeling that Anya does exactly the same thing.”
Lloyd Cole tunes his guitars backstage as Curt readies the soundboard and adjusts the stage lights to Cole’s specifications. The floor seating closest to the stage fills up quickly, while late-comers settle into seats further back with tubs of popcorn. Just as the decision to point every seat in the house toward the stage affects the listening experience, the decision to serve popcorn was made with the listening experience in mind.
“It was opening night at Ark II,” Siglin recalls, “September 1984. We’ve got tables and chairs and a bench along the back wall and a raised stage. And we had food—trail mix and potato chips. The performers started singing and all you could hear was CRUNCH, CRUNCH. It was the loudest food you could possibly get for an audience, but it never occurred to us. Well, that stopped after about three days.”
Curt dims the house lights. The crowd applauds. Cole enters, picks up his Santa Cruz guitar and begins strumming.
“Curt,” he says, “could we get that little light above the music stand turned on?”
The best sound around
Some artists, like Cole, require the level of expertise and professionalism requisite to run sound at The Ark. At the other end of the spectrum is Leo Kottke. “He comes in,” Bob Skon says, “pulls his guitar out and sits at the soundboard. He plugs his guitar directly into the board, plays maybe three or four bars of a song and says that’s good, just give me that up on the stage.”
Bob Skon is the chief engineer at Michigan Radio and the lead man in a trio that gigs around Washtenaw County. He points up sound design at the Ann Arbor Civic Theater and has been volunteering at The Ark since 2010. For Skon, Kottke’s easy-going soundcheck has sound-based logic to it.
“It’s always best to sit near the sound guy,” Skon says. “The front row has its intimate advantages—you can see everything the artist is doing, you feel like you can touch them—but mostly, the sound you hear in the front row is the sound that’s coming off the performer’s monitors, which is fine for them, but not for the audience.”
Kris Truzzi agrees. “Sure, if you want the best light show, sit next to the light guy. While the PA is designed to be even throughout the room, unfortunately physics doesn’t allow for that to be perfect.”
Truzzi, family friends with the Siglins, grew up at The Ark, sitting on the stairs as a kid watching Tom Paxton. He got his start at The Ark in 1986 and now works as a freelance audio engineer, boasting on his resume the likes of Blondie, Nirvana, Dizzy Gillespie, and Norah Jones. From the Double Door in Chicago to the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, Truzzi gets around. “And boy do I appreciate The Ark,” he says. “You walk into most venues and it’s ‘you can set your stuff over there.’ At The Ark, it’s ‘what do you need to perform well?’ It’s definitely a performer-centric venue.”
If the performers are happy, the audience is happy. And The Ark attracts a certain type of audience—a listening audience.
“Because it’s so intimate,” Truzzi says, “I hear from a lot of performers that it’s like playing for your family.”
On stage, Lloyd Cole’s articulated guitar picking complements the clarity of his voice in a song that advises the audience to kiss his ass in Hollywood.
“I wrote that song in the late 90s,” he says, setting up a punchline, “when I was, I believed, the most brilliant man in the world.”
Curt chuckles along with the crowd and nudges a few green-lit dials on the soundboard.
“It isn’t really my best song, is it?” The audience bites again. “I wrote this next one a few years later, after I’d been knocked off my pedestal.”
Listening room culture
Pat Greeley: 1997-2010. When Greeley came on board, The Ark was evolving, adding more full-blown bands to the bill. As a result, Siglin needed people whose experience reached into more sonically complex stage set-ups. Greeley, who toured as a sound tech in the 80s and 90s with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, had returned to Ann Arbor and started running sound at The Blind Pig. He and Siglin were softball pals in the 70s— “Anya used to shag fly balls for us at practice,” Greeley recalls—so Siglin roped him into The Ark.
As The Ark expanded its booking from solo performers, duos, and trios to big-sound bands, its audience evolved, too. Greeley recalls a show where a group of drunken frat boys, fans of a band that Siglin would rather not name, bought out all of the bar stock before intermission.
“The volunteers were horrified,” Greeley says.
Bob Skon recalls a soundcheck with a band who requested that all the tables and chairs be removed from the front of the stage area. “It’s supposed to be open, they said, because our fans like to dance.” Skon checked with the house manager and gave the band what they wanted. “It was like a mosh pit. I thought, ‘this is a little different for The Ark.’”
While The Ark draws in a range of performance types, the throughline that defines the venue best is its listening room culture. Though there are no fliers promoting this culture, no signs that say Shhhh, remember, this is a Listening Room, there are also no waitresses at The Ark, no loud banging beer bottles, no dinner service, and the moment the performer takes the stage the din of conversation goes flat. It is the difference between going out to a place that has live music and a place to listen to live music.
The sound techs take pride in continuing the listening room tradition; the visiting performers know they are coming into a ‘listening’ venue, and The Ark avoids the sterile, hear-a-pin-drop atmosphere of a church or a theater. By responding to the type of show the performer brings, the room retains a live feel. One audience stands up, fists up, singing along to a Hey Rosetta! song. Another audience holds its breath for George Winston.
Between songs, Cole tunes his guitar for the fourth time of the night. “All this tuning malarky,” he says. “It’s because I care.”
Curt sits at attention behind the big bright soundboard which resembles a futuristic cockpit. He presses a red button on the right side of the board and a group of green dials to the left snap to life.
The Ark evolves
Beth Nielsen Chapman is big in Japan, and on October 22, 1998, her international applause set a new course for The Ark. To appeal to its Japanese contingent, American audio equipment company Harman International not only reserved a block of seats for the Chapman concert, but also gifted The Ark a set of JBL monitors for Chapman to play through. In the days that followed the show, communications between The Ark and Harman International lead to a partnership, one that still exists today, that resulted in a full sound system overhaul, which according to Siglin “sounded ten times better than the old system” and which otherwise would have been financially out of reach. But before the partnership was formed, Siglin had reservations.
“The way to get the best sound is to buy the best equipment you can get. To buy individual pieces that are the best, you would mix and match. They (Harman International) were offering us a huge upgrade if we used all of their product. And initially I wasn’t totally for that because every company, in their line of products, has a weak link.”
After further negotiations, Harman International agreed to fly their engineers to Ann Arbor to customize their system to the room. Just seven days after the Beth Nielsen Chapman show, Harman International’s engineers had flown in, installed and synced up the new system. “The sound leaped forward 15 years,” Siglin says. “I don’t know if you’ve seen our mixing board, but it’s better than the show. I could sit there and watch the mixing board the whole night, just listen to the music and watch the mixing board, I don’t care who’s on stage.”