The Ryman Today

May 1, 2012 9:00 AM, By Barbara Schultz



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photo of Les Banks

Chief engineer Les Banks mixes from the balcony of the Ryman.

Lesson One in coaxing a nice mix from the Ryman, Banks says, is to turn down the volume: “People will ask me, ‘What’s your dB limit?’ And I answer, ‘Common sense.’ Just take a deep breath and be sensitive to the room. And while they’re upstairs [at the mix position], I’ll take the wireless [Dolby] Lake tablet and walk downstairs. I’m their assistant for the day, so they don’t have to run around.”

Most productions that visit the Ryman bring in their own gear and simply tie into house stacks and racks. The venue is equipped with a Yamaha PM5D board at front-of-house and a JBL VerTec P.A. system. The visitor’s console and house console are routed to a BSS Audio Soundweb London Architect matrix, which distributes signal to all zones; speakers are managed by the Lake system. Stage monitors are recently acquired L-Acoustics 115XTIQ wedges. The venue also keeps a large supply of mics from Shure and others.

Though much of the Ryman’s gear doesn’t see action daily, it’s all very much needed during the holidays, when a popular Christmas program is put on at the Grand Ole Opry, displacing regular live shows/broadcasts. For those three months every year, the Opry comes back to the Ryman, as it did, unscheduled, when the Cumberland River overflowed its banks in May 2010.

“The river got as far as 3rd Avenue, and we’re between 4th and 5th,” says Banks. “So we got very lucky. But water in the Opry House got to be four feet high, and they were underwater for two weeks.” Audio equipment, archived performance tapes and loads of other memorabilia were damaged.

“But as long as you can breathe, life goes on, and the show went on,” says Banks. “I’ve got to give credit to my Opry colleagues, the audio and technical folks over there. The Opry radio show started in 1925 and in 85 or 86 years, they have never missed a live radio broadcast. The flood was on a Sunday, and the next Opry was on a Tuesday. In 48 hours, the Opry had become a road show, playing at different venues around town. We hosted 48 shows for them during the reconstruction, and so many people came to our assistance. SIR provided all the backline we needed. Shure microphones replaced all the mics needed by the show.”

Other venues that hosted flood-displaced Opry shows included David Lipscomb University, Two Rivers Baptist Church, Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium, and the War Memorial Auditorium, which was actually home to the Opry from ’39 to ’43, before the program moved to the Ryman. But the Ryman was the logical choice for most performances—not just because of its historical relationship to the program, but because the venue has an in-house recording/broadcast studio that’s Opry-ready.

“We have ISDN and T1 lines directly to the radio station,” Banks points out. “It’s a fully functional studio with a Harrison Trion console, 120 tracks of Nuendo, Phantom Focus monitors, and we do live recording projects. We recorded Alan Jackson’s gospel record [Precious Memories] here.”

Even when the Opry is operating at full power, the Ryman hosts 200-plus shows a year. Recent visitors include Mumford & Sons (three sold-out shows), Snow Patrol, Merle Haggard, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

“The Ryman’s not an easy room to mix,” Banks says, “but even the most hardcore road crews come in and get mellowed out because they’re honored to be here. It makes people happy, and when you look around and see 2,000-plus people smiling, you know everyone feels it. Some of our ushers are 80 years old, and even if we have a loud rock band in here, they’ll say, ‘Oh, Les, that was a good show!’ When that happens, you know that everyone felt it. Everyone went along on the same ride, and that’s why we do it.”

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