Sound thinking

Picture the scene. My band are booked to play at an event which is a multi media conference (rather than a multimedia conference). We have a brief soundcheck and then wander off for a bit. When we re-enter the venue before we play the venue manager greets us and says that they’re having real problems with the PA and they can’t stop it feeding back. There is only one spokesperson on stage who is having difficulty giving their presentation because the mic is ringing every time they try to speak. We have our soundman with us who is a young apprentice that I’m training. I turn to him and say, “Just go and take about 2dB off the mic at 1½K.” He scurries off and does just that and the feedback problem is instantly solved. For 10 minutes I am a god.

I thought this month I’d share a few thoughts about being a sound engineer.

One of the problems with being a live sound engineer is that kind of thing above doesn’t happen very often. You are an invisible partner in events and very often the only time you’re noticed is when something goes wrong. If I do sound at an event and no-one thanks me then either I’ve been working for very rude clients, or I’ve done my job well. I obviously presume it’s the latter. In the studio it’s a completely different picture. There, your client is very definitely coming in to your territory and they usually cannot function without you being there. I think you get treated with more awe and wonder and your share in the outcome is more readily recognised. And yet the live engineer has as much control over things as the studio counterpart. Bands I have played in have suffered the consequences of a poor soundman and reaped the benefits of a good one. I’ve even been the victim of a deliberate sabotage of the sound by an engineer who took exception to a roadie we were using. If the live engineer has a bad day, everyone has a bad day. Remember that, musicians. Invisibility is a good thing, but not as good as a Thank You.

One of the most important pieces of equipment you need as a sound engineer is a decent pair of ears. we like to buy toys and we lust after the latest pieces of equipment and if we can justify buying more stuff then we will do: we need to understand how the equipment we own works and use it to the best of it’s function to create beautiful sound. We need to know how sound works and predict what will happen when we press that button before we press it, but all that is useless without a good pair of ears. I’ve worked with sound engineers in the past whose technical knowledge has far outpassed mine and who have years and years more experience than me, but then I’ve heard the mixes they have put together and my respect for them has diminished. The aural sculpture we produce is the sharp end of what we do; if all you have is technical knowledge or a keen eye for the latest equipment then go and work in a shop. A good ear is learned over time and often goes hand in hand with a familiarity with the equipment you’re using, but I think there is more to it than that. It’s an innate skill, it’s like the difference between knowing where the notes are on a musical instrument and actually being able to play it. For me at least, I was born to be a sound engineer – it just took me a while to realise it.

And on a related matter, know the equipment you have. Learn it, understand it and get everything you can out of it. Don’t buy new toys unless you need them. It is far better to have total familiarity with a small amount of gear and be able to work miracles with it than to have a state of the art studio you barely know how to switch on. The only people we impress with lots of gear are other geeks. Clients generally only really care about the end result, not how we got there.

And here we come to a final thought: and that is the curse of being a sound engineer – being unable to turn your ears off. It is very difficult to go to a gig or listen to an album or the radio without critiquing what you’re listening to (which kind of links back to my other points). Being able to hear the ‘flaws’ in a mix can sometimes really spoil a piece of music. even when listening to a live orchestra I can sometimes find myself thinking how the second trombonist is being lost behind the cor anglais and could do with a bit more upper-midrange to help it cut through more. Then I remember that it’s all unamplified acoustic and I’m glad that I didn’t point it out to anyone. As much as love what I do for a living it’s necessary to train yourself to switch that bit of your brain off to prevent it spoiling a night out. And if something goes wrong at a gig I’m attending that becomes impossible.

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