A good sound man is like a good referee: If he’s doing his job correctly, you should hardly notice he’s there. Save for the most persnickety of audiophiles, few people give the sound engineer a second thought at a concert. Unless, of course, a singer’s vocals are set back too far in the mix, the rumble of bass muddies a speaker or the squeal of feedback pierces our ears. When the sound is so clear you can hear every detail, most of us leave a show saying something like “Man, the band sounded great!”
Behind every great-sounding band, however, there is a great sound person. And in Burlington, few people have been responsible for more bands sounding great than Sergei Ushakov. The Russian immigrant has been manning sound boards in and around the Queen City for close to two decades.
Ushakov is a quiet, unassuming fellow. He’s short and stocky, and his most defining physical trait might be his ponytail. You’re apt to notice it trailing behind him as he darts around Nectar’s or Club Metronome connecting cables, setting up mic stands and checking levels. Recently, he’s also been sporting a pretty killer Fu Manchu ’stache.
While Ushakov is on a first-name basis with most local musicians, chances are most of them didn’t know his last name until two paragraphs ago. And fans could be forgiven for not having any idea who he is. That, in a way, is a tribute to his talents.
Jamie Masefield, whose former band the Jazz Mandolin Project employed Ushakov as a personal sound man for a run of shows in 2004, calls him the “consummate rock sound man.”
Says Swale’s Eric Olsen, “In all of New England there is no one better at making your band sound like Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden in 1973 than Sergei Ushakov. Never mind that he’s thinking Scorpions, Rock in Rio 1985; the result is the same: He makes us sound better than we are.”
“He sure knows how to give a band’s sound some balls,” Lendway’s Matt Hagen suggests of Ushakov. “I feel like that guy can see sound and map out its most beneficial path. He may just be Burlington’s most seasoned sound wizard.”
Indeed, in local rock circles, Sergei is the man behind the curtain.
Ushakov, now 54, was born and raised in Burlington’s sister city of Yaroslavl, Russia. He grew up playing guitar and drums in classic-rock cover bands. In the late 1970s, he spent two mandatory years in the military and was stationed in Armenia, where he played trumpet in an army band.
After his service, Ushakov resumed his music career, playing drums in a rock band called Telephone. One day, at a festival gig in Yaroslavl, the sound man failed to show up.
“Somebody made a joke: ‘Hey, Sergei. You wanna do sound?’” recalls Ushakov recently over coffee at a local café. “I’d never done it, but I said I’d try it. And I fell in love with the sound.”
He quit the band shortly thereafter and focused on learning how to be a sound engineer. Ushakov began hanging out outside clubs waiting for national bands to load in so he could help lug gear and tag along with the roadies. He shadowed other sound engineers, peeking over their shoulders to absorb everything he could about the trade.
“I just hung out, patiently, watching and asking questions,” he says.
At the same time, Ushakov worked in a military factory, building prototypes for electronic aerospace equipment.
“I was learning the sound business and electronics at the same time,” he says. “So I started building my own sound equipment, circuit boards, speakers.” That’s a hobby he continues to this day, working on electronics in the basement of his Burlington home.
Eventually Ushakov began working as a full-time sound man, traveling with a Russian band called Tangeizer. Before a national tour, the band purchased a massive sound system big enough to rock arenas.
“They dropped it off and said, ‘It’s all yours,’” says Ushakov, who describes crate after crate of wires and speakers. “I spent two months, day and night, putting it together.”
Armed with his own equipment, Ushakov began providing sound to venues all over Russia, and building a reputation as a premier sound engineer. His ability to solve problems on the fly — often by repairing busted equipment on the spot — earned him the nickname “Mr. Fixer.”
In 1991, a Burlington act, Big Joe Burrell and the Unknown Blues Band, toured in Russia for two weeks. According to guitarist Paul Asbell, it was a challenging trip.
“Any tour of that nature, you fly by the seat of your pants,” he says. Beyond obvious cultural and language differences, the technological necessities bands take for granted in America were often lacking in Russia, he explains.
“We needed so much help just to put shows on,” Asbell says. “We assumed there would be knowledgeable people at each of the venues to lend a hand. But that proved not to be the case a lot of the time.”
Until the band met Sergei.
“I can’t describe how in need we were,” recalls Asbell. “Not just with translation but with people who knew where to get a certain type of adapter, or what that weird plug in the floor is connected to.
“Sergei knew all of that stuff. But even more, he and his gaggle of friends took us under their wing in a way I can’t imagine anyone would do in this country,” Asbell continues.
The band struck up a friendship with Ushakov, which led to his being invited to come to the United States with a group of Russian musicians for the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival in 1992.
In March 1993, another Burlington band, Science Fixion, played the Yaroslavl Jazz Festival, for which Ushakov was running sound. Traveling with the band was a woman named Marina Collins, with whom Ushakov fell in love. A few months later, he was back in Burlington to visit her on a three-month visa. By the end of that summer, the pair were married, and Ushakov remained in Burlington. They divorced several years later, but by then he was settled in his new country.
When Ushakov arrived in 1993, he worked building cables for a small electronics company in Williston by day. At night, he freelanced as the sound engineer for numerous Burlington clubs and bars, most of which no longer exist. In 1994, Anne Rothwell, then owner of Club Metronome, hired him to run the club’s sound board, a position he’s held ever since.
Ushakov’s reputation grew, and he began working clubs and festivals. He did sound for nationally touring bands, including a three-year stint with the Samples. In short, he became Burlington’s go-to sound man.
To watch Ushakov work is to witness efficiency in motion. Before a sound check, he moves around the stage running cables and angling microphones with workmanlike precision. During a set, he carefully monitors the mix, subtly tweaking levels to capture what he refers to as each band’s “signature sound.”
“He can sound check a band faster than anyone I know,” says Alex Budney, a local bassist and the president of Nectar’s Entertainment. “I’ve got … quotes from singers claiming that he set monitor mixes perfectly without a single word or adjustment.”
That deliberate focus, not to mention the blunt quality of Ushakov’s Russian accent, can sometimes be mistaken for prickliness. The reality is that he simply cares deeply about getting the job done right. This is a man who, every couple of weeks, takes all the club’s microphones home and runs the wind covers through his dishwasher to clean them.
“No one cares as much as Sergei, that’s for sure,” says singer-songwriter Andrew Parker-Renga, who recorded a live album at Nectar’s in 2011. “Dude’s a wizard at dialing it in.”
“He’s the best sound guy in town,” enthuses Blue Button vocalist Jason Cooley. “He can come off as cranky sometimes, but it’s because he’s weathered every bad situation you can think of: shitty bands, shitty attitudes, people breaking his gear.”
“Don’t let the gruff fool you,” Olsen adds. “He’s sweeter than the finest vatrushka.”
Unless, of course, you mistreat his tools.
“If you mess with my equipment, I’m going to be not as nice,” says Ushakov with a grin.
Pet peeves aside, he has become a pillar of the local music scene, an unheralded master whose work, when it’s done well, is likely to be overlooked by most of those who witness it.
“We take a lot of shit for granted in life,” Olsen says. “So I’m stoked to take a moment and remember how fortunate our community is, our community of music makers and music listeners, to have Sergei at the boards.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "On Boards"