Playing it by ear 

Behind the scenes and under the headphones with the man who mixes Missoula’s music

Of the several hundred people in Caras Park on the afternoon of Brewfest, maybe several dozen are paying any attention to the band on stage. Fewer than half of them are listening more intently than it takes to wash down a beer or boogie with whomever’s nearby. But every person in the park would halt whatever he or she were doing and tune in completely should the first peal of feedback issue from the sound system.

Jay Straw is going to keep that from happening. Straw is in charge of the sound. It’s his sound system on the stage and his employee behind the soundboard when he’s not. And, odds are, if you’re listening to live music in Missoula, Straw’s got his ear on it.

At about 5 p.m. on this Saturday, Straw is well into the second half of a 40-hour workday. Friday night, after a day of humping gear and setting up sound systems, Straw worked at a downtown bar, the Badlander, until 3 a.m., where he ran the soundboard for On The One, a touring band with a Missoula connection. At 6 a.m., Straw swung by Dornblaser Field to retrieve another of his sound systems from the American Cancer Society University of Montana Relay for Life, an all-night event for which Straw supplied the P.A. Back at his workshop and office near Southgate Mall, Straw spent a few hours “pushing around paper” before coming to set up Brewfest in Caras Park at 9:30 a.m.

Once things are running, Straw takes it easy, hanging out by the soundboard and walking around the park. But at 4:30 p.m., Straw springs into action, setting up mics and monitors for the eight—sometimes nine—people who will be on stage when the second band, Reverend Slanky, begins. It’ll be hours before Slanky finishes its two sets and Straw can repack his yellow panel van—license plate HI TECH1—at which point he’ll head to the Music Recital Hall on the UM campus and set up for a show tomorrow that needs to be prepared tonight. Then, maybe, he’ll sleep.

But for now, Straw is tuned in to the mix. As Reverend Slanky moves through its opening numbers, Straw keeps his fingers on the soundboard, tweaking knobs and inching sliders up and down, mixing the band as they play, highlighting the soloist and generally making them sound as good as they can sound.

The band notices. “As far as running sound,” says Slanky percussionist and vocalist Cody Hollow, “I think [Straw] does it better than anybody else. He’s easy to work with and he never gives you attitude and he’s got a great ear…Any time we’ve ever played with Jay doing sound, everything sounds better. He just knows what to listen for.”

The audience, to all appearances, doesn’t notice. But then most people don’t notice the sound guy unless he screws up.

“Rock ’n’ roll…production”
Through his company, Hi-Tech Audio and Lighting, Straw employs more than a dozen engineers and technicians on an as-needed basis. He has a warehouse where he stores enough P.A. and mixing gear to run the multiple events he often gets hired to stage simultaneously. As a sideline, Straw—who has an associate’s degree in electrical engineering—runs an audio equipment repair shop from his warehouse. And, after more than a decade in business by himself and at least twice that long living in Missoula and working sound all over Montana, Straw has a list of clients that includes just about everyone who puts on live music.

If you’ve been to a concert at the Wilma Theatre, Straw was almost certainly the sound guy. He has a long-standing relationship with both Bravo Entertainment and Porterhouse Productions as well as the Missoula and Helena symphony orchestras. Straw often collaborates with University Center production coordinator Greg Garber and University Theatre technical director Pat Nelson, on both Straw’s shows and UM productions, where Straw might engineer the sound on the venue’s equipment.

The Missoula Downtown Association is also a client of Straw’s, hiring him for Out to Lunch and Downtown ToNight as well as other Caras Park events. His equipment, and often his engineers, work in downtown nightclubs like The Loft and the Badlander. In fact, after the Badlander changed hands earlier this year and the new owners went looking for a way to provide sound for live music, Straw was the first person they looked to.

“When it came to installing a sound system in the Badlander,” says Chris Henry, one of the bar’s new principals, “he had first dibs.”

Straw seems to have first dibs on most Missoula events. On the Friday preceding Mother’s Day weekend he’s at Marshall Mountain, the now-closed ski area outside East Missoula, setting up the sound system for an all-day music event, the Love Your Mother Earth festival, scheduled for the following day.

When Straw arrives, the attitude of the crew shifts. At about five and a half feet tall with a bushy mustache and a bald pate usually covered by a ball cap, Straw’s presence is not imposing. He’s affable by nature, quick to smile, especially at his own frequent jokes, but he’s also exacting, prone to sharp-eyed scans of the premises and seldom as pleased as when he’s offering his expertise to someone who’s asked for it. And so the dozen stagehands working the festival don’t exactly snap to attention when he hops out of his truck—they probably wouldn’t know how even if they were supposed to—but the pace of activity quickens.

Certainly, the fact that his arrival coincides with two panel vans—one his yellow standard-bearer and the other a 24-foot rental—doesn’t hurt. But more important than the small mountain of gear Straw has is the respect he obviously commands from the people there.

The truck that arrived before Straw is parked uphill from the stage, which means the loading ramp angles down toward the stage. Straw won’t allow it because of the danger posed by heavy equipment rolling down a steep pitch, and he orders the truck moved onto a patch of grass a representative of the mountain declared off-limits.

“They say you can’t drive on the grass,” says Straw. “I got news for you. When I have to do a show, I’m driving on the grass. I’m really done discussing it. I have way too much shit to do, and I know how to do it safely…When I do a show, I have to do a show right or we don’t do the show. It’s just that simple. We do it safely. No one gets hurt at my shows…because I’m an asshole about safety.”

That might be how Straw describes himself, but he takes a lighter touch with the stagehands when they break the rules. Climbing out of the truck, Straw offers a group of guys in their early 20s waiting to unload equipment some water. They politely refuse, raising canned beers to show their thirst is being slaked. Straw, nodding toward his own employees says, “We don’t drink beer on the job…We’re not here to party. We’re here to provide for the party.” The stagehands, abashed by the mild rebuke, mutter excuses about how it’s just one. Then, they stop drinking.

“Welcome to the world of rock ’n’ roll,” says Straw, pausing and then adding the word “production” like it’s a punch line. “This is where the real work gets down. The general public is pretty naïve, thinking the music just magically appears.”

“Wine, women and song”
Straw’s first experience as a sound guy was setting up the P.A. system for a band called Jam that he played in while a college student in Bozeman. The band’s name, says Straw, “did not apply to what we played. We were a Top 40 pop band; we did not jam at all.”

Somehow, Straw made enough of a name for himself that when John Denver performed in Bozeman in 1970, Straw got the call to set up the sound system. He still sounds a little nonplussed about the luck.

“My first show was actually John Denver,” says Straw, “and Steve Martin was the opening act—the banjo, the weird balloons and everything.”

If that auspicious start augured a successful career, it took a bit more wandering in the desert for Straw to arrive in the promised land. A 1967 graduate of Glasgow High School, Straw grew up in a military family and traveled a lot as a young man. He started college in electrical engineering, which was “fun at the time but…too much work to try to play music and study and get decent grades.” Straw wound up instead studying English composition and literature as well as photography.

And though Straw eventually wound up a music major, it was just because he wanted to play with the jazz band.

“They didn’t really look too kindly on this longhaired hippie who wanted to play with their jazz club,” says Straw. “So they said you have to be a music major so I went to my adviser and declared myself a music major and immediately the conductor said, ‘Oh, welcome to the band.’”

Straw learned music theory, and continued to study photography as a second major. “It was really good knowledge,” says Straw “and it was fun. I enjoyed it. I got really good grades.” But he didn’t move on by way of graduation. “Actually I didn’t graduate with that stuff,” says Straw. “I got into a band that decided they wanted to go on the road so I quit school and went on the road for a couple of years.”

Much of Straw’s biography before starting his business follows this pattern. Happenstance opens some opportunity and whimsy leads to work, and then, at some point, he moves on to something new. Looking back, it all fits into a neat narrative culminating in the current moment.

Years of touring finally landed Straw in Alaska, where he played five or six nights a week, making, he recalls, “pretty good money” but often working until exhausted after the 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. shifts typical of Friday and Saturday nights. “Alaska was strange in ’76, ’77, ’78,” says Straw. “I got burned out on the whole thing and decided I would come back to Montana and just hang around.”

It didn’t take much hanging around for Straw to wind up with a job in the music business again, this time running the business side of a since-defunct studio called Backstreet Recording. During that time, Straw got his first serious experience as an engineer when the person working on an album for The Lost Highway Band quit in the middle of taping. His experience on that record marked a pivotal point in Straw’s life, something he credits with giving him the mixing skills that differentiate his business from others.

“Having the recording studio experience was probably one of the most valuable assets,” says Straw. “I used to go down and put on a record that I liked when I was at Backstreet…and I’d take a tape that was recorded and sit there and work with the tones until I could match some of the sounds that I heard on the record to make that tape sound much better than it did. Some of the stuff that I first engineered is not something that I would hand out to anybody or even listen to much myself because it was really pretty primitive, but after a while I got pretty good at it.”

The experience was an education for Straw.

“I ended up engineering the whole album,” he says. “I not only engineered it, I mixed it, I flew to L.A. with the tapes and helped master it. Then I went to the record plant that actually presses the records and…talked to the guys there to see how they did. I went from a microphone in front of an instrument all the way to final product and that was my first album. That was a great experience so I know more about making records than these kids who have a computer and a CD. They think they’re making records; they have no clue. They can record something, sure, but they don’t understand the refinement of mixing and that’s what makes it wonderful.”

Having gotten a taste of studio work, Straw was eager to bring Spectrum, a band he had been playing with, into the studio. His bandmates, however, were immersed in the musician’s life.

“You got wine, women and song staring you in the face and working for something isn’t what you want to turn around and go do,” says Straw, describing their attitude. “I said, ‘Guys think about this. If you make records and people like your records, you’re not going to have to go chasing after the liquor and the women and all that stuff. You can put that on the rider and it will be there for you.’ They never got that concept.”

After 15 years of making money from playing music in one band or another, Straw was ready to move on. “I wanted to have something to show besides our faces in a bar for five hours.”

Straw worked in a music store for several more years, playing around town and picking up work doing sound. “Pretty soon, I thought I’m making more money than I am playing in a band so I started buying speakers and amplifiers and mixing consoles and then I got involved with a fellow named John Campbell who co-founded Friends (now The Other Side, a venture Campbell is still involved with).” Straw and Campbell partnered for a few years and then parted ways, leaving Straw to found Hi-Tech Audio and Lighting in 1990.

The business has prospered since, something attributable to Straw’s technical acumen as well as his attitude. Talking to people who have hired Hi-Tech Audio is something like it must be investigating candidates for canonization. At the mention of his name, venue owners and promoters alike offer assessments like “Jay’s great,” “best in the business” and “a solid guy to work with.”

Working in the entertainment business, says Straw, doesn’t mean operating by a recipe for success that distinct from most enterprises. “The biggest part of this gig, like any business,” says Straw, “is getting along with people.”

In his experience, not all of those people are easy to get along with, of course. “If I didn’t have a decent state of mind, I would have shot somebody—I would have shot several people—a long time ago,” jokes Straw. “No. I’m not that way. I just realize that there are a lot of shady people and you adjust to it, protect yourself.”

And, he emphasizes, everyone willing to pay deserves the same accommodating service. Speaking of some former clients who got busted for smuggling cigarettes, Straw says, “They were crooks all along. I knew that. But that doesn’t mean I would treat them any worse than I would treat anyone else.”

It’s all in the mix
In his attitude toward work and his bearing toward other people, Straw evokes a craftsman who has mastered his trade. He loves what he does, prides himself on doing it well and surrounds himself with employees who are similarly skillful. And whether his client is a big rock band or a local symphony orchestra, Straw employs a common set of principles in doing his work.

“Basically, I just cut things out that get in the way of listening,” says Straw. “If I keep hearing a certain frequency that doesn’t sound good then I find that frequency. When you’re making records you don’t leave every tone on there, you get rid of stuff that blocks other things so I learned how to find frequencies that are blocking another instrument’s tone and remove those from instruments that I don’t need that sound from. You gotta learn how to mix.”

Like many experts, Straw doesn’t hesitate to turn his judgment on fellow practitioners of his trade.

“Some of these engineers that come in with bands, they either play way too loud or they’re just not paying attention. They forget that it needs to be heard…I like loud bass. I want to feel the bass and I’ll mix it that way but I want to make sure the vocals always remain over the top and if something is drowning out the vocals, I’m not afraid to turn that down. I’d rather go for a good clear mix at a low level and then start bringing it up. These guys start really loud and they can’t fix the problem and they wonder, ‘Well, where do we go from here?’ The best thing you can do is turn it down and start over again, but it’s hard to do that in the middle of a show.”

Knowing that, says Straw, means “I walk out of shows if they don’t sound good in three minutes, three songs…I don’t care what I paid for the ticket.”

Musicians are also fair game for Straw’s discriminating ear.

“Some of the local bands just play loud continuously and you can’t ask them to turn down because they won’t,” says Straw. “So it’s kind of hard to work with them, especially in small rooms. Like at the Badlander, we did a gig with the Oblio Joes. They just play really, really fuckin’ loud. And they blow everybody away, and you ask them to turn their guitars down and they don’t. It’s hard to get a good sound because in order to get the vocals above that you’ve got to run the P.A. really loud and it hurts. It’s painful.”

Of course, sometimes the musicians he works with take his advice.

“I used to sing with a headset microphone,” says Reverend Slanky’s Hollow. “After one of our gigs, I said I was having trouble with it, getting some static through it or something. [Straw] said, ‘I got a good fix for it. How about you snip the wire?’ He’s not afraid to tell you what’s good and what’s not good.”

Having the ability to do something and being sure that you’re always doing it right are not the same things, and Straw tempers his sure ear with self-doubt when he works. Recalling a recent performance of the Helena Symphony Orchestra, Straw says his efforts to mic and mix the chorus had him “sitting back there sweating bullets, [thinking] How do I keep this from getting too loud? I don’t want the P.A. to be seen but I want everyone to hear it and sometimes the orchestra just cranks it up. How loud can you guys get them tympanis?”

It turned out all right, according to UM music professor David Cody, who was in the audience that night. “One of the things that impressed me about Jay’s work in that space with a full orchestra, chorus and soloists [is that] when you’re in the audience, it still seems as though the sound is coming out of the singers’ mouths instead of a speaker, and that’s a really delicate job, and I’ve gone to other theaters where that’s not the case.”

Straw’s goal in engineering the show was not just to be heard and not seen, but also to not even be heard apart from the performers. Doing his job well that night, as on most nights, meant not being noticed doing it.

Big time
Straw has had offers to move to bigger markets like Seattle or Las Vegas, but, as far as he’s concerned, he’s already hit the big time.

“I don’t have a million dollars worth of equipment and in this market I would be foolish to spend that much money on gear just to sit around,” says Straw. “I’d have to go on the road which defeats my purpose in living here. I want to have enough equipment that I can live here, make a living, work with a bunch of people I enjoy and keep the quality of the music you hear higher than what you’d normally get by people who just have their stuff and go out and do a show.”

Preferring Missoula for its slower pace, however, might require patches of self-deception on Straw’s part.

“In the cities,” says Straw, “there’s so many people and it’s such a different pace of life that it’s not accommodating to my state of mind. I like to be able to relax a little more.” Pausing for a moment, perhaps considering his schedule, Straw adds, “Actually I work as hard here as I would if I were in a bigger city.”

And yet, Straw also says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I see some of my friends that I went to school with who had their 30-year career and they look like they’re three days away from death,” says Straw. “They had a job that paid them good money but it really didn’t fulfill their needs as a person. I did a couple of jobs like that and decided I will do as little of them in my lifetime as I can. So I started doing things that I liked to do even though they were hard work.”

Pat Nelson, technical director of UM’s University Theatre and Straw’s preferred lighting technician, often works alongside Straw—circumstances, says Nelson, that have resulted in his being “run over, drowned, electrocuted and shot at.”

The last one of those came about during Southgate Mall’s Fourth of July show, another of Straw’s regular engagements. “The VFW salute kind of pointed over the top of the booth,” recalls Nelson. “I was dinking around with something on the console and I looked up just in time to see all these old boys pointing their rifles up to touch one off over our head. That’s the time we got shot at.”

In addition to braving danger with Straw, Nelson counts himself a pupil of Straw’s. “I literally never do a gig with Jay without learning something,” says Nelson. As an example, Nelson cites a Helena Symphony Orchestra event when Straw figured out the source of a feedback problem was the aluminum stage resonating with microphone stands. “He put a little piece of carpet under each one of the mic stands,” says Nelson. “I would have never come up with that in a million years.”

Others attribute Straw’s success to the way his attitude complements his acumen. “One of the things that makes Jay Jay,” says promoter Damon Metzner, “is this overwhelmingly easy-going and personable and just pleasant demeanor that he has. I’ve worked with bands from all over the country with every level of stature and they all know Jay. That’s one of the things that you learn real quick by promoting shows here with touring bands is that everybody knows Jay.”

Not surprisingly those connections occasionally pay off. Several years ago, Straw attended a Nickelback concert in Bozeman at the invitation of a friend who works for national sound company PRG Audio. He liked the band well enough, but what he mostly talks about is the band’s new $1.2 million sound system, which he got to examine up close courtesy of an invitation to hang out behind the soundboard during the show. “It sounded great,” says Straw. “Forty-eight 18-inch speakers in their P.A…and all the latest toys for processing…It was pretty neat.”

Straw goes on at some length about Nickelback’s sound system but interrupts the anecdote to mention briefly another time he got hooked up: being treated to a James Brown concert in Spokane by industry connections. “We had nice seats, backstage passes, rode around in a limo…My wife, she’s just sort of like, ‘Wow, this is the big time.’ I don’t live like that but occasionally I’ve been able to enjoy it.”

And then Straw goes back to discussing Nickelback’s sound system.

“Jay rocks.”
Back at Brewfest, Reverend Slanky’s gear is set up and they’re ready for a quick soundcheck. Straw switches his attention to the present music—away from the work that waits afterward and the long past-due sleep that can only follow its completion.

Straw speaks into a microphone plugged into the soundboard and the people on stage play a few notes. Straw’s voice is coming through the monitors and the band is listening for his cues on the sound, which Straw is quickly optimizing over the boisterous crowd.

The band appreciates his efforts and breaks into a spontaneous ovation, casting a bit of the limelight on the guy behind the music. “Jay rocks,” says one band member into his microphone. “Jay’s the man,” adds another, exhorting the crowd to join their cheers for the sound man, “the finest in the state.”

Some of the crowd even turns away from the stage, trying to see whom the fuss is all about.

Summer concert calendar
Summertime and the music comes easy. Here are some dates to block off on your social calendar so you can be in the audience. Check back weekly for updates and additional details.

Western Montana (in Missoula unless otherwise noted)

June 6: No Shame and Joan Zen; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
7: the Oblio Joes; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
9: Big Business (members of the Melvins); the Badlander
13: Blue Onion and Blue Rock Shop; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
14: County Line; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
14: Martha Scanlan; The Other Side
20: Erik “Fingers” Ray and the Big Sky Mudflaps; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
21: Blue Rock Shop; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
21: Jerry Joseph; the Badlander
27: the Ed Norton Big Band; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
28: Full Grown Men; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
28: Trampled by Turtles; the Badlander

July 4: Kent Curtiss Band and the Gorgeous Franks; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
5: The Tomcats; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
8: Del tha Funky Homosapien; The Other Side
11: Galactic; The Other Side
11: The Clumsy Lovers; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
12: The Ed Norton Big Band; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
18: Loose Change and Salsa Loca; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
18: Drew Emitt (of Leftover Salmon); the Badlander
19: Best of Missoula Night, featuring three of Missoula’s top bands; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
19: Hot Buttered Rum with The Devil Makes Three; The Other Side
20: The Moaners; the Badlander
21: Steve Holy and Julie Roberts; Big Mountain, Whitefish
25: The Boogiemen and Uncle Daddy; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
26: Hit & Run Bluegrass; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
27: The Clintons; The Other Side
28: Babbfest; Charlie’s Place, Babb
28: Lou Gramm, lead singer of Foreigner, and Elvin Bishop; Big Mountain, Whitefish

Aug. 1: Dave Manning and Beef Trout; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
2: Cocinando; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
3: Lyle Lovett; the Wilma Theatre
3: The Avett Brothers; the Badlander
4: Billy Pilgrims with Broken Valley Roadshow; the Badlander
4: Sammy Kershaw and Ray Scott; Big Mountain, Whitefish
5: Reckless Kelly, Mickey & The Motorcars; The Other Side
8: The Flying Rickshaw and Smoke; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
9: Blue Collar; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
9-11: Total Fest VI; visit for venue information
11: The Marshall Tucker Band; Big Mountain, Whitefish
12: Missoula Symphony Orchestra; Caras Park
14-15: Larry Keel and Natural Bridge; Flanagan’s Central Station, Whitefish
15: Zeppo MT and Full Grown Men; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
16: Loose Change; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
16: Pato Banton; the Badlander
18: AuroraFest (with Freekbass, The Woodbox Gang and others); Polebridge Mercantile
22: Reverend Slanky and Odyssey; Out to Lunch in Caras Park
23: The Boogiemen; Downtown ToNight in Caras Park
23: Built to Spill; visit for venue information
29: Burning River and Sh¯o Down; Out to Lunch in Caras Park

Sept. 1: Asylum Street Spankers; Tour de Fat in Caras Park
15-16: River City Roots Festival (with the Mammals, the Gourds and Hot Buttered Rum String Band); downtown Missoula

Rest ’ern Montana

July 3: Willie Nelson; free show in Choteau (tickets required)
4: Mofro; The New High Sides Brews and Tunes, Livingston
18-22: Buckin’ Bale Music Festival (with Hot Buttered Rum String Band, Drew Emmitt and others); Gallatin County Fairgrounds

Aug. 2: Lyle Lovett; Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, Bozeman
9: Jackie Greene; Emerson Theater, Bozeman
9: Weird Al Yankovic; Fairgrounds Indoor Arena, Bozeman
10-11: Magic City Blues Fest (with Blues Traveler, Koko Taylor and others); downtown Billings
10-12: An Rí Rá Irish Festival (with Teada); uptown Butte
10-12: Rockin’ the Rivers (with Kansas, John Kay & Steppenwolf and others); Three Forks

Hit the road

July 4: Willie Nelson (with Amos Lee, Drive-By Truckers, Old 97s and Son Volt); Gorge Amphitheater, Wash.
4: Ozzfest ’07; Gorge Amphitheater, Wash.

Aug. 10-12: 20th annual Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival (with Sam Bush, David Grisman, Robert Earl Keen, Yonder Mountain String Band and more); Grand Targhee Resort, Wyo.
18: Vans Warped Tour (with Bad Religion, P.O.S. and others); Gorge Amphitheater, Wash.
Aug. 31-Sept. 2: Dave Matthews Band; Gorge Amphitheater, Wash.

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