By Kelly Murray. This article was first published in TPi, April 2016.
Photos: Tom Martin, Mirza Noormohamed and SSE
Audio rental and install specialist, Sound Image, was initially founded by Ross Ritto and Joel Silverman in 1971 under the name Silverﬁsh Audio Associates. A decade later, the company was renamed Sound Image with new partner Dave Shadoan - now President - and the company was moulded into a North American market leader.
In a quiet Italian restaurant in the even quieter, picturesque setting of Del Mar in San Diego county, California, TPi’s Kelly Murray spoke with Dave Shadoan about his early career, the company’s phenomenal growth and the transatlantic importance of the newly-formed UAC alliance – a partnership with UK-based rental house, SSE Audio Group.
You’re one of the most well-known people in the pro audio industry, where did your story begin?
I left home at 18 and moved to California. Through friends of friends I ended up meeting someone who would become my business partner, Ross Ritto, in 1978 and we became very good friends. He already had some business partners, but we started discussing the possibility of him and I working together and I had started to invest money into his sound rental company. His original partner had already been bought out and together we bought out the other partner. In 1981 we re-named the company Sound Image. Ross had been mixing big bands since 1971 and because I wanted to go on the road, he taught me.
When you embarked on a career in live music and concert touring, who were your main influencers?
In those days it was all analogue, all done by ear so it wasn’t as complicated as it is now. I was a musician firstly, and I had perfect pitch according to my music teacher, Mrs. Smith. When I was in junior high school I was a saxophone player and when we tuned the orchestra I was the one they always picked because I could tune very easily. When I was younger I was in a lot of bands. When I started working, Ross had a big influence right until he sadly passed away in 2009. Then there's Mike Adams [tour sound designer] who still works for me today - after 44 years!
What made you want to become a monitor engineer?
I always liked mixing monitors because it kept me very close to the clients. Sometimes I would get a job with a band that I couldn't actually work with because I had my own sound company. It was more important for us to grow the business, so I’d rather deal with the musicians themselves, directly. I became good friends with many bands over the years because of how I viewed touring as a business and in over 30 years of mixing sound I was never fired.
What was your analogue board of choice when you started out?
Most of the desks were home built, because in those days not many people were making them but Billy Thompson and Dave Malloy, the founders of Ashly Audio actually made our boards. Suddenly people were making partnerships and that was the beginning of manufacturers thinking, “there's this whole other world out here!" Nobody made their own speakers or took them on tour so we started to make our own speakers; we’d buy amplifiers from a manufacturer but they were never up to the rigours of what we had to do on the road. Originally speakers were only designed for use in a living room, so we had to adapt them. We used to call it ‘hot rodding’. That was our nickname for fixing up manufacturers’ products to withstand the rigours of riding in a truck and being played loud on stage. It was all a learning curve; I remember one time in Canada it was -25°C and we pulled up at 8am but nothing would operate at that cold temperature. I can remember the cables being frozen like an ice cube. So we had to wait until 11am to pull them off the trucks!
Were people taking notice of the problems you were coming up against for the progression of the industry?
Yes, you'll often hear people say that Sound Image were pioneers. It's a relative term. We were creating and learning but what we were really doing was making mistakes, and then fixing them, figuring out what the next mistake might be and pre-empting it, until it got to me point where the bigger manufacturers thought we would pay them to do it. I think it was 1982 when we started buying power amplifiers from QSC. When they started making amplifier parts and we tried their products, it was the first time something had actually worked without us having to do a lot of stuff to it. Necessity is the mother of invention. I think we all learned that phrase because we made what we could until we realised we had to make it better or get someone else to.
At the point when you were experimenting with speakers, providing rental equipment and mixing monitors, how many people was Sound Image relying on to operate the business in comparison to the market demands today?
In the very beginning, there was only between six and eight people but now we employ several hundreds. In order to do as many tours as we do at one time, with а fully supportive, excellent service, it takes hundreds and hundreds of staff.
The company started in live sound, at what point did you start doing installations too?
Because of the slow season of touring in those days we needed to find another way to drive revenue between November - December. So we started doing installations. We had done them all along but when we officially said we were going to do it for real and really concentrate on it in 1989, we started the integrated systems division of Sound Image. To this day, it's the same. It’s almost a separate company because we don’t share resources. In other words, our touring guys don't come on the road and do installs, and install guys don't do live sound roles. They're all trained differently. Some of our live sounds guys have ended up in the install division once they’ve quit touring and that’s probably a fairly substantial number. It's a life choice, and some people get sick of living on a bus in the end, if they want to be at home with their families for instance.
With people wanting to stop touring, do you place a big emphasis on training to bring the next generation of pro audio talent in?
Certainly, we have interns from universities and they all go through a process before they go to a show. Some people are amazing and it'll take them just six months but on average, it takes students around a year to learn the ropes. When they come out of school they sometimes think they know everything but what they couldn't possibly know is what it's like to live on a bus, what it's like to stand next to all the other people on a tour and be told, “I don't like the way you're doing your job.” On an average tour there's 20-30 people travelling but on really big tour it's hundreds. It does become a family and there's no such thing as a non-dysfunctional family. Many people want to be a part of this industry but it's the people who understand the family side of touring and who don’t burn bridges that are going to have a much longer life span on the road.
So can part of a roadie’s success be attributed to personality?
I spent many years on the road and I enjoyed it all until the day I didn't, and I knew that day. It was 19 September 2001. The tour was supposed to do shows on 9/11. For whatever reason I got up to get on the flight and the singer of the band called me at 6am. He said, “Do you have your TV on? I don’t think we're going anywhere...” Right when I turned on my TV is when the second plane hit the tower. I stopped and started watching. I couldn't believe what was happening.
On 16 September the tour flew into Florida and played the scheduled shows. When I got home I said I don’t want to do this anymore, be a sound engineer. I decided to put my focus on the company itself. We had so many clients that it was an easy decision; the hard bit was so tough because it was a lifetime of that line of work I had to leave behind. I was so torn but to this day I don’t have any regrets at all. I got to do the best of both worlds. I spent almost 30 years touring so I can see both sides of the fence. I had a son when I was very young whose mother unfortunately passed away. He never saw me much at all because he grew up with me being gone all the time. I got remarried and had a daughter but I was a different type of father then; I was at home and my daughter had me all my time. Funnily enough it does run in the family - my son has worked for the company for 22 years!
At what point did you become connected with John Penn and SSE in order to form UAC - United Audio Companies?
Quite recently. We’d tried doing things in the UK several times over the years - in the past I've worked with Bryan Grant of Britannia Row who I became good friends with, there was Chris Fitch of Skan PA and Dave Kay at Adlib. I was very fond of Dave. When Jesse [Adamson, Sound Image Director of Business Development] came to work for me, it opened the door up. We thought we could be stronger with SSE as a group than as individual companies. I always used to say you don't want to turn over a rock and find someone else under it. Leave it alone. I’d rather have friends in business and say it was all done in fair play than be the big winner and have everyone hate me at the end of the day. Life is somewhat about fairness.
So with fairness in business in mind, what are you hoping to achieve with this partnership?
We want to be able to provide more service and grow our businesses. It's as simple as that. At the end of the day, the UAC will evolve. I'm not quite sure what the end result is really, because we're so new, but over 10 tours later, the clients seems to like it…