I was recently asked a handful of questions to help a young musician with her coursework. Please find below my musings on each question.
1. How does being a live sound engineer affect your lifestyle (social life, relationships etc.)? Socially, I am fortunate to have musician friends and business contacts who offer me (and my girlfriend) fun ‘off duty’ activity, often in the environment of music, theatre and art. It is hard to actually escape the environment of work. My fave times are often times in and away from hustle and bustle of events with true ‘non music business’ friends. I am lucky to each year spend at least 2 weekends with friends camping in the woods. These are truly my ‘down times’. I am lucky to have a girlfriend who both enjoys the going to gigs professionally and to our downtime. We often meet ‘professionally’ at gigs where I am engineering and she is taking event photos allowing some kind of professional crossover. Although we get to see each other, beyond these times we seek to still have ‘our downtime’. My girlfriend doesn’t come to the gigs where i am ‘head down’ in work, as she can soon feel as if she is a ‘PA widow’ and doesn’t like to see me heavily occupied with the sound tasks. It is unfortunately and unwittingly too easy for a busy sound man to not have time for a girlfriend, but I’d advise giving it time to have a relationship as well as sound for a healthier balance and to recognise ‘play’ times as well as just ‘work’.
2. What is the most challenging aspect of being a live sound engineer? I personally don’t always enjoy the environments that live sound often puts you in. Festivals demand very focused listening and response times, with long, long hours of concentration and responsibility at the desk. Often eating whilst still mixing at the desk, let alone taking a pee break! Often festivals have very quick change-overs, so when you have just got the band sounding good, you are there again setting up the next band! It tends to command anything up to 18 hr days for 3 or 4 days with often distance driving either side. When mixing front of house, it is common to have drunk, or somehow ‘stimulated’ audience members bothering you about their views on the sound. Alongside this comes plenty of heavy lifting, which can be a drag at 3am in the morning!
3. What is the most rewarding aspect of your job? We, as engineers are basically sculpting the very beautiful elements of melody and harmony, soft and loud, gentle and forceful, happy and sad and playing with the vital elemental forces of music and sound. As an engineer, you can’t help but see what music does for people, what it means for them, their inspiration, message and how music bonds people together. It truly is a beautiful thing! What is lovely as an engineer, is when you just think you know as much as there is to know about music and sound and then ‘boom’, a complete new discovery is found to awaken your senses. I like to be able to marry my knowledge of music to recording sessions, my technical side, with the understanding of people and the studio environment to allow for best case practice and good recordings to be made. I also like knowing and working with so many great musicians and minds who have a wonderful and haunting take on the world.
4. What is the most difficult thing about working live and how do you deal with things going wrong? With the ‘live sound’, there is often much that can go wrong. More misunderstood is the audiences misconception that everything can be done with our tools, ie desk, PA, effects etc… More often, the engineer is working in a compromise situation. His preferred environment is often not possible and he is working the best he can with the situation in hand. Believe it or not, the engineer wants the show to sound GREAT, maybe even more so than the audience, as the engineers next gig may come from word of mouth and reputation based on his current gig! Although and this is a great thing, that when the sound is good, that engineer can make a LOT of people VERY happy, when the sound is bad, that engineer can feel dragged through the mud for weeks, if not months after that gig. Aww…it’s such a hard life! Sometimes engineers don’t get the credit they are due for a good gig and will often get the blame for other things that aren’t even of their making! Sometimes audiences just don’t understand that we are trying to do our best, sometimes in ridiculous circumstances!
5. What is the most important thing you’ve learnt along the way?
Communication is key! Whether its talking with the bands to gain trust and gain insights into what they are after in their mix, to apologies for stuff, to give confidence to a shy performer, to discuss fee with promoters or venue owners to allow for fair business and generally just to keep all on a level and everybody happy! I’ve found, that when the communication isn’t on a good par, that everything devolves into chaos and bickering. Which is what we can all do without! Keep your chin up, It’s about the music (and a bit about the money too!). Keep chirpy, ’cause no-one ever loved a grumpy sound man! and we must all remember, that it is all of the crew, the musicians, the sound men, the promoters and all of those lovely audience members that make the gig, music is bigger than just YOU!! xx
Go out and enjoy your music and the music of others, after all, it is a great pastime and a very nice thing to be into. Don’t miss the good bits whilst your head is down at it and remember to support local and upcoming artists! I hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of advice for budding music enthusiasts and hope to see you out there at a gig, or in the studio!