Kevin Browning

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Kevin Thomas Browning (born September 19, 1978) manages creative and business development for Umphrey's McGee, the Chicago-based “Improg” band which has gained notoriety for merging its original style of progressive rock with improvisational techniques. Browning began his 15 year career with UM as the band's live Front of House and studio engineer, and has produced or co-produced hundreds of the band's live releases, studio albums, and DVDs. He has helped to create many of the band's signature events, brand and media strategies, and fan experiences.

Sound engineering[edit]

Browning has been Umphrey's McGee’s sound engineer, or “sound caresser”, since the band’s formation in December 1997. Kevin’s first attempt at mixing sound dates back to March 1998 as a freshman at the University of Notre Dame. During the previous semester in the fall of 1997, Browning recalls attending a house party hosted by a neighbor of his brother Christian. Kevin heard faint sounds of Phish’s Bathtub Gin being covered by the house band in the basement. Browning proceeded to follow the sound into the basement. It was there he first encountered then Tashi Station founders guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss and bassist Ryan Stasik. After being captured by Tashi Station’s musical stylings long into that night, Browning found himself at nearly every Tashi show from that point forward.

Bayliss and Stasik then merged with keyboardist Joel Cummins and drummer Mike Mirro, who previously performed with Stomper Bob, a fellow Notre Dame rock band of Tashi Station. Together, Bayliss, Stasik, Cummins, and Mirro were the founding personnel of Umphrey's McGee. Browning continued to attend every Umphrey's McGee for the first two months. Kevin then came to the realization that as he was finding difficulty missing a single show, he might as well contribute his time and talents to the band’s betterment. So, his brother Christian approached Bayliss about having Kevin manage the band’s sound, and Bayliss embraced the proposition.

In March 1998, Bayliss and Browning met for a sandwich at the local Blimpie restaurant. During the meal, Bayliss taught Browning how to use the PA system that Umphrey’s was using at the time, a simple 8-channel Crate mixer with adjustable gain, bass, and treble only. As Browning had no prior mixing experience, Bayliss’s lesson was put into layman’s terms by showing which channel, for example, to kill in case of microphone feedback.

Style[edit]

Browning has produced every record released by Umphrey's McGee. Their multi-hour shows are complex productions, so much that in addition to Browning’s live sound caressing, record liner notes credit monitor engineers, stage managers, and lighting technicians.

UMLive The UM Live program was also started by Browning. Each night's show is offered for sale directly after the show. This translated into a partnership with Disc Logic and the band began to offer their shows for sale online as well. A few years later all of the band's shows would be moved to UMLive.net. Nearly all live performances of the band for the past five years are available for download or hard-copy purchase at the site.[1]

Use of MP3HD[edit]

Because Umphrey's McGee is one of the few touring acts that record and release every show that is played, sound quality is paramount. As one of the first artists to embrace the upcoming MP3HD, Browning explains that the HDMP3 format is a welcome addition to their existing arsenal of lossless and lossy formats made available for fans. “Offering a much richer sound spectrum combined with the convenience and familiarity of the MP3 format, we expect HDMP3 to be a hit with the band and fans alike.” [2]

Thomson, a software company and leading contributor in the development of the MP3 file, developed the MP3HD format which upholds backward compatibility with the old MP3 format. Already competing with several existing lossless audio codecs, including FLAC, HD-AAC, and Windows Media's own lossless format, backwards compatibility poses as a key advantage for the format. Thus, when employing hardware which does not support the MP3HD file, it will play back simply as a generic MP3 file.[3]

S2[edit]

The band announced a band and fan experiment called "The Stew Art Series" (or "S2" for short), whereby lucky fans get to "conduct" the band, in a way.[4] An S2 event is an experiment in crowd-sourced improvisation. One hundred percent of the music performed at a S2 event is improvised, and fans are the ones who serve as directors. Using communication mediums, which could range from text messaging to prewritten cue cards to chalk boards, fans send out ideas, descriptive words, phrases, and pop culture references. The band’s soundman, Kevin Browning, sorts through them in real-time through a mobile database and projected them onto a screen for the band to then interpret musically, mid-jam. These are presented to the band who then composes jams on the fly based around those ideas.

For instance, a fan might send the phrase “frightened rabbit”, causing the band to play a frantic, nimble jam. After a period of time, the word “rabbit” might get changed to “brontosaurus” which would take the jam in a heavy, slower direction, though the word “frightened” is still in play. Then perhaps the word “skydiving” morphs the “frightened brontosaurus” jam into a soaring, powerful piece of music that evokes the feeling of being airborne. But then the phrase “without a parachute” gets tacked on which changes the jam into something else entirely. And so on. The event also includes one or more Q&A sessions to provide an opportunity to ask about what the fans are witnessing or anything else they would like to ask the band.

The inaugural S2 event was at the Eagles Ballroom at the Rave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Saturday October 3. Shortly after everyone was effected in, Kevin Browning came in and explained: fans would text ideas to the crew. [5]

"The improvisational elements of our shows have always been one of our favorite parts about playing together, and we think the audience feels that way too," keyboardist Joel Cummins explains to Spinner. "That's the inspiration for the S2 series. It's also a great way for us to stay on top of our chops."

Every attendee receives an autographed CD of the Stew Art Series they attend minutes after the event has concluded. The Q&A session is included on the disc. As a bonus, fans are treated to an improvised light show by lighting designer Jefferson Waful.

Origin of Jimmy Stewart[edit]

The origin of the Umphrey’s-specific expression “Jimmy Stewart” began in a reception hall the band played named after the late actor. It has since become a staple of Umphrey’s concerts. After playing a wedding for friend Jeremy Welsh in 2001, the band returned to the basement of the swanky hotel to the Jimmy Stewart room with their soundman Kevin Browning. “It was at about three in the morning that night, we were—I don’t how many drinks we were into the evening—but we went down to the concert hall and just did a little jam and Kevin (Browning) taped it,” Bayliss said, “We had one of the best improvs we’ve ever had. It was really kind of a different approach to playing that we had never done before and we really liked it.” Cinninger said the original recording is still floating around somewhere between Browning and himself.[6]

At the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in 2008, Browning tells Radio Bonnaroo how a Jimmy Stewart session contributed to the composition of the Umphrey's McGee track entitled “Gulf Stream. “Gulf Stream actually came out of what we call a ‘Jimmy Stewart’, which is our version of an improv. And it came out of one at the Eagles Ballroom at the The Rave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin not too far from our hometown in Chicago. It was actually a pretty neat night because, typically the improvs are based around mostly instrumental music, but that night Jake actually stepped up to the microphone over that chord progression and started singing. And Brendan not to miss a beat stepped up and started singing the round with him. So the two of them were essentially just improv-ing not only music but the vocals as well. And when we got off stage, everyone loved it and said ‘Hey, we should, I think we just wrote a song!” [7]

References[edit]