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Atlanta Sound & Lighting

by Mike Wharton • in
  • July 2018
  • Regional Slants
• Created: July 17, 2018

“If You Don’t Ask, We Can’t Say Yes…”

Atlanta Sound & Lighting (ASL) has been providing solutions for events since 1977. It has morphed over the years from its beginnings as a backline and rehearsal company to the multi-million dollar, full-service production it is today under the helm of Scott Waterbury and his silent partners.

“I worked at a music store in Chicago in the early 70’s and was a musician in a regionally famous local band, Tobin Star,” says Waterbury. The owner of the music store, “C” Etian, who is still one of his partners, started a space in Atlanta with Dave Westrom and Nick D’Allen called Soundz Music Atlanta. He wanted to turn it into a backline company/rehearsal studio, and asked if Waterbury was interested in joining in to help get it running. “I was familiar with how well S.I.R. Chicago was doing, so I thought it could be a good move.”

An affable guy who is quick to laugh at himself as much as the situation, Waterbury is an encyclopedia of the Atlanta music and entertainment scene. His great sense of humor as much as his inability to say “no” are just two of many attributes that bring him and ASL to its 41st anniversary this year.

The front door of the first facility, with its offices downstairs in the basement of a strip mall, faced the loading dock of the Great South East Music Hall (GSEMH). Atlanta Sound provided backline support as needed. At first, the popular venue booked a lot of lighter contemporary acts, both from the local music scene as well as national artists such as Leon Russell and Arlo Guthrie.

When the hall booked The Sex Pistols, “Soundz” was asked to source a P.A. “We knew a guy who had a P.A. system,” recalls Waterbury. “So we bought it just for that show, and the Music Hall wound up renting it from us many times afterwards.”

With the success of those rentals, and because “the backline wasn’t quite taking off as expected, we decided we should go into P.A.” The company started renting special effects, tape echoes, digital delays, EQ’s and eventually got out of the backline business.

Scott Waterbury and Mike Ertle

‡‡         Humble Beginnings

In late 1979, Waterbury and his partners decided to form a corporation and called the company Atlanta Sound. Both partners are relatively silent. “They’re so silent, we barely even exchange Christmas cards,” notes Waterbury. The company’s first investment was in JBL 4520’s and 4560’s. “In the south, we have nicknames for everything, so we called them ‘double sugar scoops’ and ‘Perkins boxes.’”

When it came to consoles, they started with an Altec 1220 that had “huge round knobs on it as big as your fist. One per channel; it was awesome,” chuckles Waterbury.

The company, called Acoustic, which the Doors made famous by using its guitar amps, made a console with 16 channels and built-in 10-band EQ’s. “That was our first big console,” Waterbury recalls, “and let me tell you, it did not get us jobs!”

Next, they tried a Kelsey 24. “That baby put us on the map; 24 channels of British invasion! We did a lot of great bands with that board, such as Herbie Hancock, the Yellow Jackets, and Hiroshima, to name a few. We did a lot of outdoor concerts during that time, such as the Atlanta Jazz Festival in its formative days.”

“One day this guy shows up at our door and says, ‘I hear you guys are the big deal in Atlanta. Everybody says I should talk to you.’” Waterbury, who had doubts about that statement, invited him in to talk.

The man was Steve May, Prince’s former FOH engineer. He was building a nightclub in Atlanta, and he wanted “the best P.A. in the country.” Waterbury and Dave Westrom designed and built a lot of gear specifically for his club, which became the legendary 688 Club, which opened in 1980 and closed in ‘86. During that time, it featured hundreds of punk rock, New Wave and alternative rock bands, many who later became famous, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs and Billy Idol.

“We were getting 500 dollars a month at the 688 Club for sound… and lights! That was our big break. We had steady income. Steve drove a hard deal, and he was always coming to us, saying ‘I really need more stuff. I can’t pay any more, but I really need it.’”

Soon Atlanta Sound was investing in monitors and bi-amped gear. “We got some really great exposure through 688, though. I got to mix Iggy Pop, the Go Go’s, Swimming Pool Q’s and Psychedelic Furs, along with other relative unknowns at the time.”

Athens, home to the University of Georgia and the Bulldogs, was entering the national music scene at this time as well, and Waterbury’s work extended east to the busy college town. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, “we were trying to get in working with (legendary Atlanta promoter) Alex Cooley. He wanted to do one-stop shopping, so we were put in the position of having to sub-rent lighting from a local vendor. We decided to add ‘and Lighting’ to our business cards.”

This was a bit like putting the cart before the horse, so Waterbury began purchasing lighting gear. “I know it sounds crazy, right? But this was our business model! We put ‘and Lighting’ on our business card… so we gotta do lights now.”

The company has been based in Chamblee, GA for the last 20 years.

‡‡         Expansion in the 80’s and 90’s

Waterbury and ASL started doing much larger, high-visibility gigs going into the next decade. In September 1987, Atlanta Sound & Lighting provided gear for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Miami, one of several stops on the Pontiff’s fourth tour of the U.S.

The following July, ASL did the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. “ASL has done work for six of the last presidential administrations; everyone since Reagan. Whenever the President had an outdoor address, they called us at Atlanta Sound & Lighting,” Waterbury says. “It didn’t matter where in the country it was taking place.”

Providing P.A. for the Pope came about through partnering with an older, established company called Wynn Sound. Its start — and claim to fame — had been made in the 1940’s and 50’s through broadcasting.

Wynn handled the main stage and first set of arrays for the Pope’s celebration of Mass on Sept. 11, 1987, but needed help with the other 38 delay towers, the last of which was nearly three-quarters of a mile from the stage. “We just put it on paper, and it looked like we should do it,” says Waterbury.

Apparently, Wynn had been told by every major sound company that it couldn’t be done — information he neglected to share with ASL. “Not knowing it couldn’t be done, we figured out a way to do it. We didn’t make beans on the job, but we did it cost-effectively.”

Saying “yes” to everything became a working business philosophy. “Our growth and expansion came from forming partnerships, and the inability to say ‘no,’” Waterbury says.

Over the years, ASL occupied a series of early facilities close to the heart of Atlanta, that they either outgrew or “the lease ran out.”

The company has been headquartered in Chamblee, GA for the last 20 years, which is just inside the northeast perimeter of Interstate 285. “I’m pretty frugal with renting space from landlords. We tend to go up rather than add more square footage.”

Waterbury’s full-time staff runs at 14 these days with roster of roughly 40 “permalancers.”

ASL’s markets run heavily in the festival, corporate, clubs and worship sectors.

“We do a lot of installation work in dance clubs, which has been a consistent market for us the last 20 years,” Waterbury says. “It started much earlier when ASL first did an install at the famous Limelight Club in Atlanta, which was the second in a string of clubs founded by owner Peter Gatien, a Canadian “party promoter,” who later was nicknamed the “King of New York Clubs.”

“A lot of places were trying to mimic the success of Studio 54 back then,” says Waterbury, “which is what opened that market. Later, we hooked up with another promoter, again by not being able to say ‘No.’ He has built about a dozen clubs in Atlanta that are huge, just huge.”

Waterbury is speaking of the well-established landmark clubs Vision, Rain, The Velvet Room, Agora, Vanquish, Compound and Amoré.

“It’s funny, we used to do club work as filler until the concert season started up or after the corporate season slowed down. The nightclub business was a great way to generate cashflow. We didn’t make a lot of money at first, but man, you could really get your chops up! We learned a lot doing installations that becomes valuable when applied to doing shows.”

The company’s EV gear provides ample audio reinforcement for various gigs.

Pressed to nail down a philosophy, Waterbury remarks, “I guess it’s a willingness to partner with vendors, clients and employees equally. It needs to be a win/win situation. We view it all as a partnership. If the deal gets too slanted one way or another, I don’t consider that a win.”

In talking about lessons learned over the years, Waterbury mentioned one from an Electro-Voice (E-V, now owned by Bosch) sales rep, one of ASL’s prime vendors.

“I tend not to switch vendors much. I had a really good sales rep in the 80’s named Wally Wilson. He sort of challenged me once by asking me how many dealers I represented at the time. Back then, I had this huge binder full of price lists and catalogs I used to go through. It was probably around 165 manufacturers. He then asked me how long it took me to get a quote done, which sometimes took days. He then asked me if he could show me a way to cut that time down so I could do more sales. Of course, I said ‘yes.’ It took me hours to put together a $50,000 normal P.A. quote pulling from about 30 vendors to put it together. He was done in about five minutes, because he was able to pull from the E-V catalog list. Afterwards, he points out the important part about all this. He said that, to the 30 manufacturers, who each got maybe $2,000, I was a nuisance. But to E-V, I’m a $50,000 customer. I have honestly run our business that way ever since that moment. I’ve tried to be really loyal to my vendors, like E-V, Crest, Shure, Elation and American DJ. These companies were smaller, just like when I started working with them. They have been loyal to me, and I’ve been loyal to them, and we all have grown,” says Waterbury, noting that L-Acoustics is about to be added to that list.

Console options run to Midas and Avid; both FOH and monitors. “I still have some small Midas analog stuff that I do little shows with. We’ll do everything from a 6-channel mixer to hundreds of channels.”

Waterbury attributes luck as a considerable part of his success. “I seem to have been able to attract nice, polite, talented people who are reliable. They also have a desire to learn and not be satisfied with the way everybody else does it.”

Top Picture: Part of the ASL crew pause for a group shot. From left, Benjamin Maxey, Kelton Brenton,
Kira Fitchart, Mike Ertle, Scott Waterbury, Joel Barnes, Jon Waterbury and Robby Dial.

For more info, visit www.atlantasoundandlight.com

 

 

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