FAIRBANKS — When a Fairbanks concert or production sounds great, Josh Bennett is like the invisible man. He’s done his job, arriving at the venue hours before the first fan, setting up the stage and working the room for sound quirks. Later, once the venue fills, he’s still there, discretely operating the soundboard. Creating perfect sound for events is his gift.
But if there are issues, be it due to weather or more often a band’s own inexperienced sound guys, Bennett often shoulders the blame. It’s the nature of the game.
“Sometimes you get a guy who says, ‘Where’s the bass and treble knobs?’ and then I know it’s just a friend of the band who wanted a free trip,” said Bennett, owner of Fairbanks’ lone sound production company, Sound Reinforcement Specialists. “Most sound guys are professional, but with someone like that the band suffers, the audience suffers and I suffer by side effect because I’m the sound guy people see.”
The majority of shows Bennett produces go off without a hitch. Local promoters use words like “invaluable,” “amazing,” “unflappable” and “brilliant” to describe his work, but for Bennett it’s just his passion for sound and attention to detail that yields good results.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Adam Wool, owner of the Blue Loon said. “He’s my go-to guy. … He’s really good at what he does.”
Bennett’s days often turn into nights — depending on the scope of the production — getting everything just right as he produces most of the Blue Loon concerts, along with shows at Hering Auditorium, Pioneer Park, university venues like the Pub, Beluga Field and Davis Concert Hall, Birch Hill, the Tanana Valley Fair and other venues. He’s also set up sound for operas and theater productions, including “Hairspray” at Lathrop High School.
While most music venues understand the need for the quality sound support Bennett provides, theater productions are a newer outlet for his services. Most theater productions use simple microphones and speaker set ups. Bennett takes it to the next level.
“It’s kind of a ‘prove it to me’ situation,” he said. “You can tell them all day it’s not going to sound right. They say ‘we’ve done it this way for so long.’ But when you show them that first rehearsal and it blows their face off, they wonder how they’ve never had that before.
“The sound we’re able to do at the shows is a complete game-changer for them,” he said.
A self-described “geeky kid,” Bennett was always interested in “electronic type of stuff.” His parents were musicians, and he played in his high school symphonic band, but he decided early on he’d rather be producing sound instead of creating it on stage.
“I had a musician’s ear from the beginning, but I was never much of a musician,” he said. “But for some reason whenever we were playing I always wanted to set up some microphones so we could record and go back and listen. That was me. I was the geeky kid. It got to the point where I couldn’t get enough. I was reading everything I could about mics and mixers and speakers — every aspect of it.”
Bennett began doing sound for local bands and events as something of a hobby, relishing in the challenge of blending instrumentation and balancing it with a room’s distinct characteristics.
“It’s part-science, part-music. And a lot of it is science, and that’s how my brain is geared,” he said. “I just found it really interesting because sound is so complex. It’s really one of the more complex things we deal with as humans.”
Eventually Bennett, who was studying natural resource management at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, decided to “get a little more education” in sound production at Full Sail in Winter Park, Fla. There he learned the ins and outs, everything he needed to be a full-service sound man.
Upon returning to Fairbanks Bennett, then 23, set up his company. He benefited from another sound guy quitting the business and purchased his equipment.
“I saw an opportunity. I knew this was something Fairbanks needed. We have a really big arts community and we need professional level techs and equipment,” he said. “My wife and I moved back here, bought his equipment and pretty much ran with it.”
Five years later, Bennett is the guy in the black T-shirt behind the soundboard or on stage adjusting some piece of equipment, the anonymous person who increases everyone’s listening pleasure.
“He could be working anywhere in any city in the country, and he’s chosen Fairbanks,” said Anne Biberman, executive director of the Fairbanks Concert Association. “I’ve had groups come up and ask, ‘Do we get him for the whole tour?’ and I have to say ‘No, he belongs to us.’” —Glenn BurnSilver
(This article appeared as the July 24 Spotlight in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.)