Headphone shopping can be a chore. The options (and price range) have no limit, and it can be hard to tell whether you're paying for the brand or the quality. So we decided to ask an expert: Rick Ramirez, who works as a live-sound engineer, primarily at the Larimer Lounge. He didn't give us the advice we expected.
As a sound engineer, Ramirez is constantly listening to music. He's the guy in the back of the venue who is in charge of everything coming through the speakers that face the audience. It's a critically important job, because a bad sound engineer can ruin a show. Ramirez is a particularly good one, but he didn't start out behind the sound board. He started out at the door, in fact.
When he was still in college, Ramirez played in bands around town and worked at a few venues. He was taking tickets at the Larimer Lounge when the sound-engineer position opened up. Though he didn't have any formal training in sound engineering, his background in music and exceptional ear helped him pick it up quickly. He says he used to go to other venues in town and just observe, watching his peers' every move, trying to understand exactly what his job was. Partly because of his background, Ramirez has developed a very band-friendly approach. "Sound engineering would be better taken as sound reinforcement," he says. "You take something and basically accent or make things louder for an audience. I think that is the best way to look at it, because you're not in the band; it's not your time to shine. What you're there to do is reinforce the sound and the point that the band is trying to get across to the audience."
That translation can be a challenge when you run sound for a venue and not a specific artist, because you aren't necessarily intimately familiar with the sound you are about to control. "It's all on the fly; that's why I like it," he says. "It's all in that instant, in that moment. You don't really get a chance to know them unless you meet them. I know a lot of the bands that play at the Larimer, but touring bands, for instance, I may just get five minutes pre-show to listen to their album."
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Maybe it's because he learned sound by experience and not by theory, but Ramirez says he is always learning new ways to do things. It's helped him earn a solid reputation in town, and he's a common sight behind the boards at festivals and other shows around Denver. "Sound people can get the same sort of an ego that an artist can: 'I'm the best sound guy in the world, everything I do is right.' That's when you get stale," he says. "I'm still a student of what I do, and I always will be. The minute that I think I know it all is the minute that I'm not willing to learn anymore."
When it comes to headphones, Ramirez is practical. While he isn't willing to settle for $10 SkullCandy earbuds, in general his philosophy is simple and unexpected: Go cheap and durable. For the over-ear headphones he uses most often, he says he usually doesn't go over $100. His go-to pair is a $99 pair made by Sennheiser. "They are bulletproof," he says. "They get thrown in my backpack, they get slammed around, I'm dropping them...they're just used a lot."
For over-ear headphones, he says, durability is key. Because they are bigger and you are (hopefully) less likely to forget them somewhere, the main issue is wear and tear. As for in-ear headphones, Ramirez thinks you may as well go cheap so that when you have to replace them, as you inevitably will, it won't be too much of a burden. "Especially when I am out touring, there's a 50 percent chance that I am going to leave them there," he says. He recommends focusing on what fits your ear most comfortably and fits with your lifestyle. He uses a wraparound pair from Speedo that allow him to swim and exercise without them breaking or coming out of his ears. "I'd even go as far as the Apple ones," he says. "Those are solid."
They may seem like simplistic criteria. But after fine-tuning hundreds of shows and working with countless bands in every condition imaginable, Ramirez has come to value pragmatism. At work, that means keeping an eye on the big picture: Keeping the bands and -- more important -- the fans happy.
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