As the emcee leaves, having completed his introduction, the house lights in the theater go down. The room is quiet, the mood calm but expectant. The musicians, poised in the glare of stage lights, begin to play.
The lead singer’s voice is resonant and fulsome. The lyrics of the song are clearly comprehensible, the passion in her delivery palpable. The accompaniment — thrumming guitar, sawing fiddle, rolling bass and thumping drums — is distinctly present and balanced, individually and collectively, in relation to the vocals. In the ears of the beholders, the overall effect is beautiful, enthralling, as sonorously enveloping as a wooded meadow on a spring day. For this sublime concert experience we can thank not only the talented artists on the stage but also Shalom Aberle, sound engineer extraordinaire.
For the last few years, Aberle has been doing sound at Red Clay Theatre. In 2008, Duluth city officials hired Eddie Owen, the founder of Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, to run a concert series in the downtown church, which the city had refurbished reportedly at a cost of some $800,000 to accommodate a theater company. When the theater folded, Owen was brought in and he brought Aberle, who at the time was working at Eddie’s Attic with him.
“Shalom is an artist as much as he is an engineer,” says Owen.
Situated in a small second-story space located on the square in downtown Decatur, the main room of Eddie’s Attic holds about 120 people who sit on the floor at low tables and on stools at higher tables and at the bar. The wait staff serves food and drinks before, during and after musical performances.
“It’s a cramped, pack ’em in, clanging and banging bar with a raised four-inch platform for a stage,” says Owen.
And yet, ever since its grand opening in 1991, Eddie’s Attic has been known as a place where, when the music starts, audiences are expected to quietly and respectfully focus their attention on the performance rather than the vittles and idle chatter.
In 2002, eager to spend more time with his growing family, Owen sold Eddie’s to Jennifer Nettles and Todd Van Sickle, who hired Aberle. Three years later, the club was sold to Bob Ephlin, who convinced a reluctant Owen to handle booking for the joint. Upon returning, Owen was delighted to discover that the place sounded better than ever.
“What Shalom does better than any other sound engineer I have worked with,” Owen says, “is create in a live environment the same listening experience you get when you listen to your favorite album in your preferred manner, whether that means a vinyl record on a turntable, a CD through headphones or whatever.”
Echoing Owen, singer-songwriter Michelle Malone says, “I have worked with Shalom in many venues going back to the early 1990s. He’s an intelligent, sensitive music aficionado and, above all, a live-sound perfectionist.”
Aberle was born in San Pablo California, on November 6, 1959. At the age of four he inherited a high-end stereo system, which included a reel-to-reel tape deck, when his parents divorced. At nine he was recording live radio broadcasts on KSAN from the Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco. At Pinole Valley High School, the band director put Aberle in charge of recording and running the sound system for jazz band rehearsals and performances.
“I was always the lead A.V. geek in school,” he says.
An avid singer, Aberle took voice lessons from Judy Davis, a highly regarded teacher whose former students include Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Boz Scaggs. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Aberle worked the sound board at a new-wave/punk club called the Berkeley Square, mixing everything from Primus and Red Hot Chili Peppers to Chris Isaak and Charlie Peacock.
In 1989 he became the first full-time house engineer at Yoshi’s, a jazz club in Oakland where he mixed sound for Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Jim Hall, Chick Corea, Ahmad Jamal and Bill Frisell. The following year Aberle moved to Atlanta with his now ex-wife, who was employed by AT&T. When he wasn’t on tour with a band called Jellyfish, he was doing sound at the Chameleon Club.
“When I first got here, I was shocked that people talked during shows,” Aberle says. “I remember calling my friends back in California and telling them, ‘People here don’t shut up. It’s horrible.’”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Aberle worked extensively on a number of projects at Exocet Studios in Chamblee with owner Scott Patton, the guitarist for Sugarland (the Grammy-winning country music duo featuring Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush). The relationship with Nettles led to Aberle’s employment at Eddie’s Attic. Five years later, he walked into Red Clay Theatre.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” Aberle says.
Red Clay seats 257 and has a wide stage on which a large brass band would comfortably fit. Aberle thought the PA system sounded fine for dialog but was sorely lacking as a music delivery system. “I spent many days tweaking the sound by ear,” he says.
For Aberle, that meant playing Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters” over and over, listening from every point in the room and analyzing the sonic characteristics of the space. For years, thanks to their superior production values, Steely Dan recordings have been used as test references by audiophiles and sound engineers.
“‘Sisters’ has horns and female vocalists coming in at the same time, and if the sound is too harsh, it will slap you in the face,” Aberle explains. “There’s a Fender Rhodes electric piano on the track; if your system is muddy in the midrange, that’s where you’ll notice it. The low end is tight, not boomy — there are so many elements in the song, and I’m so familiar with them, that’s why it’s my go-to.”
In any live-music setting, whether it’s a seedy nightclub or symphony hall, the sound engineer is the wizard behind the curtain. Next time you visit Red Clay Theatre, give a little love to Aberle — the knob-twirling, fader-sliding prestidigitator who makes the magic happen between your ears.