Arena rock

May 10, 2006 at 12:00 am

It's 1989. The NBA Finals. Pistons vs. Lakers. The Bad Boys hold their own against Los Angeles and win the series in four games to secure their first championship. But what was it that drove them forward, besides mad-dog attitude, rock-solid defense and clutch scoring? In those moments when you could cut the tension in the Palace with a butter knife, what inspired the Pistons and their fans? One word: Europe.

"The Final Countdown" is all that remains of the poodle-headed Swedish pop-metal group. But its triumphant, laser beam keyboard intro has become a part of Piston lore, just like the post-up zen of Rasheed Wallace ("The ball don't lie!") and 22,000 rabid fans raining down calls of "DEE-troit BASKET-ball" on the heads of opposing teams. And as the Palace's chief audio engineer, Steve Conway is pretty proud of that. He was there during those heady days of the late 1980s, programming the minute-by-minute pace of the games with little more than enthusiasm and a few cassette decks. And he's here today, as the Pistons compete for their second championship in three years, coordinating the all-consuming entertainment experience that runs concurrent to every Pistons game. The technology has advanced, but the thrill remains the same.

"It's all about the playoffs right now," Conway says before Game 5 of the Pistons' Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks. "But it's still a cool feeling to see people dancing to what I play." Since he's reacting to the action on the court, Conway might only have enough time to play the first 10 seconds of a song.

"The hook that hits early is key," he says. But with iTunes and a cache of .wav files to choose from, he seems to nail it every time, whether it's Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," a brand-new jam like Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" or the simple but effective pound of a techno soundbed. Everything sounds better at 90 decibels.

It's an hour or so before game time, and a few players are taking jump shots as fans start to arrive. Conway's open-air sound room overlooks the court from a perch nearly even with the Palace rafters. He's going through his own pre-game routine, checking the wireless mics for the Pistons Drumline, cueing the player introduction sequence and tweaking dials on an enormous mixing board. To his left sits Russell Ford, who operates the wildly blinking "impact boards" that surround the court with LED-powered advertisements and out-of-town scores. As they work the two keep up a running conversation of jokes and self-deprecating asides.

The room's like any office, with one wall packed with family photos and a tidy refrigerator stocked with Diet Coke. But then there's that gigantic mixing board, and the intercom that chirps with constant questions: Are the microphones ready? What time did the network schedule the TV timeout? Does anyone need any Red Bull or coffee from the cafeteria?

There's also Conway's right hand, which hovers constantly over a separate mixer. He's keeping one eye on the action down below, waiting for Ben Wallace to come out of the tunnel so he can hit the fans with the Big Ben clock chime. "The little details matter more here than they do anywhere," he says, and just then Wallace comes out of the tunnel. Big Ben booms out of the Palace PA, and the growing crowd erupts in response.

Conway's work unfolds live. There's no room for mistakes. That's why he uses sound files exclusively, instead of compact discs — a skip through the Palace's megawatt sound system might jolt the building's foundation. It's also why stress would seem to be a big part of his gig, but if Conway has an ulcer he's hiding it well. Dressed casually in khakis and scuffed cross-trainers, he could be the friendly, laid-back guy in your office. "I love this job," he says, grinning as he strolls through the busy bowels of the arena on the way to the sound room. "It changes every day."

Tonight Conway's pre-game setlist includes Sean Paul's "We Be Burnin'," Seger's classic "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," "God is a DJ" by Pink, a random Creed or Third Eye Blind tune, and Murphy Lee's "What da Hook Gon Be," which gets everyone in the sound booth and the accompanying video room moving. Conway's music mix reflects the racial and social makeup of the crowd. With Pistons fans of all walks filling the seats, he can't stick to one genre or style. But he agrees that there should probably be a "no-play" list for people in his line of work with all the tired old tracks that no wedding DJ should ever go near, let alone an audio engineer in charge of crafting an arena experience for more than 20,000 people. That list would include all the saggy clichés — 2 Unlimited's "Get Ready for This," "YMCA," "The Macarena," "Mambo No. 5" — all songs that Conway's more sick of than anyone. He needs his mix to be fresh just to keep his sanity.

The Palace becomes a frenzy of sound and light as the teams meet at half-court for the opening tip, and suddenly it's as if Conway jacked up every level on his 32-track board. The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" surfaces over crowd noise that's being recorded at courtside and looped into the sound mix. Then Trick Trick and Eminem trade lines on "Welcome 2 Detroit," but that quickly morphs into an explosive electronic throb, which becomes a snippet of DMX screaming something in his distinctively hoarse yawp, which then blends into the Pistons' "Detroit's Going to Work" theme song. It's an incredible moment, a stimulating rush of sound that would probably give you a stomachache if it lasted any longer. But it's better in short bursts, since they match the ebb and fast break flow of an NBA game. Conway triggers the first "Yessir!" of the evening as Rip Hamilton scores and 40,000 inflatable ThunderStix clap in unison.

As the game unfolds it becomes clear that the Pistons are on their way to the semifinals. Hamilton alone has scored nearly 25 points by halftime. But watching Conway and his team is nearly as exciting. Working from a complicated, fast-paced "script" of audio, video and personnel cues, they envelop the hardwood action in three or more dimensions of sound, and the result is the seamless, colorfully chaotic experience of a Pistons home game. As Conway works he settles into a professional groove, still chatty and affable but always stationed in front of his mixing board and computer. He's ready with the chorus of "My Name is Prince" for a Tayshaun field goal, or a new dance remix of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" to fill up the next 20-second timeout. The new single from Yung Joc is primed and ready in iTunes, and he's conferring with the sound guy for the Sun Messengers, the Palace house band, about an upcoming sequence. As everyone keeps saying, this is the playoffs, and the action on the court is what counts the most. But when you're at the Palace, doing the running-man in your seat and screaming half-remembered lyrics to Snow's "Informer" at the visitors' bench, it's Steve Conway, the swami of the sound booth, making you the Pistons' sixth man.

Johnny Loftus is Metro Times music editor. Send comments to [email protected].