Sound On Stage Rolls with the Changes

in Regional Slants
From Huey Lewis to a birthday party for a one year old; from a wedding featuring a rock legend to a 2,000-person corporate party; from a six-stage music festival to celebrating the world champion San Francisco Giants - Sound on Stage has been through it all, and then some.
These Parnelli Hometown Heros are there for everyone, and have been for nearly four decades. They do whatever is necessary and take on the "odd" jobs - like turning an airplane hanger into a party hall or, say, doing a one-year-old birthday party in someone's back yard for 100 people who are entertained by none other than the Beach Boys.


Reflecting over the years, owner/CEO Jerry Pfeffer says, "it's been interesting to continue to be a staple," adding: "We're like the Grateful Dead song, ‘what a long strange trip it's been.'"


"Crazy with Festivals"


"I wasn't as good a musician as I was a technician!" laughs Pfeffer. "I was working in a hi-fi store in college and playing in a band." That evolved - as it so often does in this business - into doing sound for the local bands, and Sound on Stage was established in 1973. The local bands at the time included Journey, the Doobie Brothers and Jefferson Starship. Others who submitted to his ability to tweak knobs included Elvin Bishop, Tower of Power, Pablo Cruz and Huey Lewis.


"You go along and the next thing you know you're doing corporate events," Pfeffer says, though he maintains his company's work is still live-music related. "We're crazy with festivals."


High-profile festivals include the Outside Lands Music Festival and the Mount Diablo Jazz Festival.


Add to that list something that may surprise many: the Golden Gate City that spawned Haight-Ashbury is home to the largest bluegrass festival in the country. Called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Sound on Stage (SOS) handles the duties for seven stages and 70 bands in just two days. "We've been doing that since the beginning, about a 10 years now," he says. "This guy named Warren Hellman, a private equity investor who also picks at the banjo, puts it on every year for free. Pays for the whole thing out of his pocket because of his love of the music."


Another long-term annual event he loves to do is Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit, which raises money and awareness for children with severe physical impairments and complex communication needs. Put on in the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, SOS has been doing that event for over 20 years, and while working the all-acoustic show he's seen the likes of Elton John, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett and even a Buffalo Springfield reunion.


The company also handles a lot of radio station events that get big too.


Corporate-wise they are the go-to team for everything Oracle, including their big party they put on every year for their employees. "We build a big stage and there's 20,000 people there," he says. In recent years, acts from Steve Miller to the Black Eyed Peas have performed.


"We also do the sound for the 49ers, for our 33rd year!" he says, adding that that gig would be more fun if they won a bit more.


The Gear and the People


When contacted in January, Pfeffer had to pull himself away from his warehouse, where he was working on equipment. "We used to call it the ‘January Half-Priced Sale,' because half the outlets on the equipment needed attention," he laughs, though the work is serious: every plug gets cleaned and screw gets tightened and, of course, there's no better time to do that then the winter. "We work with people to plan things, but we also keep up with the gear."


The challenges of the digital age have not impeded him, though he admits it's not always been easy. "I've always worked to improve our gear, but sometimes it's been hard to get the older sound guys to get their heads around all the digital technology. We work with the union and get face time with the boys so that they understand the new boards. But once they get it, they love it. You don't have to hook up gates, reverb,'s a wonderful thing."


Today, Sound on Stage stocks a lot of Avid consoles and Yamaha products. "Over the years I bought the PM1000, the 2000, the 3000, the 5000, and now I'm on the 5Ds," he laughs. "You just keep growing with the consoles." As to which ones, he says while there's a lot of noise out there about "oh, you need to try x or y," he has a pragmatic approach in choosing: he reads the riders.


Other gear he's pleased with include L-Acoustics V-DOSC speakers. "We've been with them from the beginning, at least 10 years now," he says. "When I first heard that system, it was the most coherent PA I had ever heard. There's always the bass to the midrange [that's good]; but going from the midrange to the horn, that's the problem. The V-DOSCs are coherent through the entire spectrum. Other companies are getting close, but theirs is the best I ever heard. When we do those big shows with them we get compliment after compliment. They've been a real winner for us."


This is certainly a switch from the early days, when he built his own speakers because he "was too cheap to spend $10,000 on a speaker box," he laughs. Through the years, he kept building his own, but - once again spotting trends - when clients increasingly became unimpressed with proprietary equipment, he moved quickly to make sure his warehouse was stocked with the gear they wanted.


Today, his organization employs between 15 to 25 folks. The company's 10,000-square-foot warehouse is Hayward, CA. The crew includes John "JT" Taylor, who's been with the organization for 37 years. "You need to have good people, and most of our guys have been with us 12 to 15 years. That's what keeps the company good. Equipment is equipment, but without good people it doesn't mean much."


Otherwise, he's developed something of a "farm team" through his alma mater, San Francisco State College. He studied broadcasting there with a buddy who stayed on and became a professor, and he tips Pfeffer off on especially worthy grads (including Wes Norwood, who now "runs the company"). Otherwise, he does take note of those who are persistent. "We get a lot of resumes, but the really serious ones keeping coming back until you say okay."


Staying Power


It's remarkable how long Sound on Stage has held onto to some clients. Eons ago, they worked with a band called Pablo Cruz, whose management also took on a young kid named Huey Lewis. To this day the company still supports Lewis' bands. "It's very cool when you get an artist who is that loyal to their sound crew," he says, lamenting that some can choose to start making phone calls hunting for that low bid. "The artists who have been with us for so many years enjoy working with us."


Looking back on his career, Pfeffer is hard-pressed to define his success. "I don't know what to say - you have one amp, and then you buy two, and then four, and then you start improving ..."


Naturally he has concerns. One is the trend of live event venues getting their own sound system. He calls out the Warfield Theater, which Bill Graham ran for years. "It's a 3,000-seat facility, and we'd go in all the time and do 10 or 15 shows a month. When new owners took it over, they installed their own PA system, and that took us out of the loop. But as one part of the business starts to fade, others pop up."


He's had personal proud moments: Last year when San Francisco Giants won the world series, the celebration was right in front of city hall and front of house was Sound on Stage. "Around one million people came in for that, and we had little time to pull it off. We started at three in the morning setting up, finished and took a two-hour nap, and then did the show. That was great."


And there's an enduring fringe benefit that hasn't lost its luster, even after all these years. "We get to hear good music."