Growing Pains

Lately I have been talking to a lot of either experienced sound engineers or people who want to become sound engineers, discussing their career paths, experiences and expectations. During those interviews one question kept popping up: what advice do you have for people who are starting out in the industry and are eager and willing to learn? It got me thinking about my own journey and the experiences - good and bad - that shaped my approach and philosophy on live sound. Here are five pieces of advice I have for budding future audio professionals:

1. It is about relationships

One of the most important things you have to realise is that although we keep discussing the technology, live sound is ultimately a people business. You are mostly working as a part of a technical crew, who are there to support the act. The artists you are working for, the producers, managers, the audience - there are numerous relationships you have to create and maintain if you want to become successful. Make sure that you are courteous, kind, and approachable. Saying “please” and “thank you” even under the most stressful of circumstances lets people know that they are appreciated. Try to remember the names of people you work with, even if just for one night while touring at a venue that you will probably never visit again. Always be ready to help out - you might be a part of the audio crew, but if the lighting guys need a hand, lend it. I rely heavily on the support from tech crews and fellow engineers- talking to them can sometimes present solutions or time-saving ideas that are beneficial to everyone. In a nutshell: be a team player that people can rely on and have your back, because they know you have theirs.

2. Give it time

Realising that you have to be in it for the long haul is probably something you should figure out early on. I have been learning about sound and engineering for more than 20 years and the more I learn, the more I realise how much more I have yet to learn. My approach to live audio mixing is constantly changing (I have written about some of those revelations in Live Mixing or Mastering and Sound Check Priorities articles) and learning new ways of doing things better, faster, and with more reliable outcomes is a daily occurrence - and I love it. I truly appreciate the fact that I still find new and exciting fields of audio I can dive in and explore extensively - it keeps my interest and deepens my passion. So if you think that audio is something you can learn in a few months and then rock the biggest stadiums and do large shows reliably and consistently day in and day out, I think you should reconsider your career path. There are absolutely ways to get there faster (courses, books, videos) - but getting there faster just means you have to devote more hours in a day towards your goal. There are no corners to cut, you simply have to put in the hours.

3. Do the grunt work

My own personal journey started when I was 10 years old and I started playing bass in a school band. The really crappy sound system we had then was an 8-channel active mixer and two worn-out speakers that were already considered ancient when we got them. But it was enough for me to get me thinking (even at that age) how components of an audio system are connected together and why I have to plug something in a particular socket, otherwise there would be no sound. A few years later I started working for a local rental company, running stage cables, carrying speakers, connecting amps. And while I was doing that, I got first hand experience with signal flow, PA behaviour, and all of the roles that make up a live show. During my breaks I would sneak up to front-of-house and watch engineers mix, I watch bands prepare their gear and listen to how rooms, venues, consoles, PA systems would affect the overall sound. Even today, I still get called out to do low budget shows as favours for friends and colleagues, and I try to make the best of the situation. I always consider every job, even the crappiest ones, as learning opportunities. If you do the same, there is a great chance you could get to a level you envision yourself doing today. I consider no job too small, no gig beneath me, no act "so not worth it" that I can't realise something new that might make me either a better engineer or sometimes a more grateful human being (take a look at my Educational Disasters piece). If you don't shy away from work, chances are that work won't shy away from you.

4. Realise that “good sound” is subjective

The same way we all see colors a bit differently, we also hear sound slightly differently. Not only that, but we are also heavily influenced by the content, which causes different emotional reactions with various individuals in the audience differently. I can’t tell you how many times I have been working at events, where there were multiple musical acts, performing different music genres. The same audience that enjoyed the first act, came to the FOH position complaining that the second act was either too loud, too harsh sounding, too (insert an annoying quality at your discretion)... There was no measurable change in loudness, from my end no perceived difference in frequency response - the only thing that changed was the musical genre, which triggered a negative emotional knee jerk in some audience members, who as a result started complaining about sound. Please, be extremely careful here not to dismiss the opinion of the listener off the bat - always consider if their complaints are valid and take them under consideration. But also realise that the sound a certain engineer created could be completely valid, it is just you that do not like it. All engineers have the “I would have done it differently” mode turned on when listening to other people mixing - and it is great. It means that you imagine the sound differently from them and would probably approach the work from a different angle. All I am trying to emphasise here is - do not consider your sound to be the ultimate sound that everyone should create “if they knew what they were doing”. Listen to other people’s opinions and work with an open, non-judgmental mind and try to deconstruct the way they hear music - it might reveal something that you could improve or use yourself.

5. Approach sound from all possible angles

My stomping ground is doing sound for bands as FOH engineer, so this last point will be driven from this experience. I have found that learning about music from all possible angles adds immensely to my level of proficiency. As I have mentioned, I started out as a musician and I have played everything - from the smallest of bars to the large open air festivals. So I have first hand knowledge about music creation process, arranging, singing technique, musical instrument sound design and performing on stage - the musicians approach to music. I also have a project studio, where I have learned about the recording process, microphone selection and placement, post production possibilities and mixing/mastering process - the recording engineer’s approach to music. I have taken courses on sound system design where I have learned about PA system placement and alignment, acoustical principles of amplified sound and ways of covering a venue in ways that help deliver sound within the minimum variance approach - the system tech approach to sound. All of these aspects help me in my work and provide handy tools when talking to musicians, system engineers, tech crews, producers - all of the people involved in making a show happen. I would say that most of the successful engineers I know work with the same approach - learning about every aspect of your craft not only provides a working vocabulary, but helps you understand the intricacies that are a part of creating a live show. Even if it seemingly does not relate directly to live sound or mixing, that knowledge will help you become a better live audio professional.

I know that when people ask me about advice on how to become live audio engineers they expect me to tell them to learn about microphones and consoles. They do not realise that all of that is second to your personal approach to sound, which might be much more instrumental in ensuring that your career is successful than really nailing down the attack and release times for a particular compressor on a particular vocal. Although technical prowess is very important, in my book it is always second to being a punctual, reliable and helpful team member that is always hungry for knowledge. If you can develop that attitude, it will help you enjoy your work for years to come - not only because of the work, but because of true friendships that you will develop with the people that share your passion.