Story Jason Browne | Photograph Luisa Porter
Mike Chain lives in the low end, where music is built.
A bass player turned sound man, he likes to stand in front of the stacks of sub-woofers he wheels out for outdoor concerts. To feel the air around him pulsate. Short bursts of artificial wind tickling the hair on his forearms. And he knows the foundation is solid.
“In live sound you need that bass. It’s all about pushing air,” said Chain.
First, each individual drum in the kit is miked and leveled, then the bass guitar, which isn’t balanced to play on top of the drums so much as within them, interlocked in perfect complement.
“My theory is, I’m a stringed drummer. I watch my drummer and listen for the foot pedal. When you can play in the pocket with a drummer and create a groove and layer the rest of the music on top of it, that’s what you want,” he said.
Next are the keys. Then guitars. Vocals are always mixed last.
Bass is the foundation of music for Chain, both theoretically and literally. When he was a little kid, his uncle made him a toy instrument out of a coffee can, a stick and one string. The crudest of basses, but he could pluck out a rhythm nonetheless.
In the fifth grade he bought a little drum set off a kid at school for $5 (it was the ’60s), and quickly realized he wasn’t a drummer. Then he got a guitar, but that didn’t work either. Then he saw a guy on TV playing a guitar that only had four strings, so he grabbed a hacksaw and hacked his guitar, removing the two highest strings. Another rudimentary bass and another stepping stone.
“I always kinda knew I was a musician. But I didn’t start playing until I was 17 or 18,” he said.
However old he was, he got in a motorcycle accident that almost took his leg off. While he was laid up in a cast, his mother took some of the insurance money from the wreck and bought him his first honest-to-goodness bass guitar and amp.
What his mother may not have known was that Chain had been skipping school and hanging out at a music store in Columbus where the owner was teaching him his first walking bass lines via Beatles and Creedence songs.
Within a year or so of getting his first real bass, Chain was playing professionally around Columbus. He evolved through a list of bands, some that played gigs as far away as North Carolina and Florida, others that were essentially house bands at local bars like the old 45 Club.
His tastes were equally varied. Chain started out playing Southern rock, because that was hot at the time. But he loves old-school soul and R&B.
“I’ve dabbled in country music, rock-n-roll classics, disco, a little bit of everything. But the old R&B stuff — the bass lines are so recognizable. When played correctly, they lay in that perfect pocket,” he said.
As Chain searched for that “perfect pocket” with various drummers and various sound men at various venues, he began to pick up on the science behind the sound. He had friends who ran sound that took him under their wing. He helped set up concert-size PA systems all the way down to speakers on sticks at dive bars and learned how to tweak the right knobs to get the best sound out of each.
In the mid-’90s he parlayed that acquired skill into an official business, and Music Depot was born. Chain had a storefront where he sold sound equipment, but he also rented out rigs that he would set up and sound check himself.
He closed the store when the economy crashed a few years ago, but his personal arsenal remains tucked away in a warehouse, where he still runs sound under the Music Depot of Columbus banner.
Truth be told, 90 percent of his business comes from churches, although he continues to work big events like this year’s main stage at the Columbus Market Street Festival.
“Music is such an integral part of worship services now. And I do a lot of other media stuff, projectors and big screen TVs. It’s all gotten so high-tech that it needs constant upgrading,” said Chain.
All that upgrading has landed Chain projects from Yazoo to Vernon, Alabama, but he’s got a permanent home at First United Methodist in Columbus where he runs the sound board as well as maintaining the system.
“I’m not into working at bars anymore. I like giving to the Lord and serving that way,” he said.
Perhaps all those years of playing bass, standing next to booming speakers, infused Chain’s blood with rhythm, because his son, Charles, picked up the bass years ago. And Charles was so in the pocket he earned himself a college scholarship with the bass.
Now Chain is at it again, running sound for his two little granddaughters.
“I keep them stocked with play instruments. For whenever they get ready,” he said.