When mixing monitors is like fighting fire
Volunteer firefighting is a long-lasting and proud tradition in my country. More than 5% of the entire population in Slovenia is actively contributing to this phenomenon, and I am no exception. In addition to being a sound engineer, I have been an active service member for a local firefighting company for over two decades. Now, before you immediately jump to imagining burning buildings and kitten rescues, the reality is slightly less glamorous. Small companies like ours deal mainly with minor incidents and provide support for larger scale events. But I have had enough training in both fields to find interesting comparisons between the two.
I guess this one is true for many professions, but firefighters are notorious for running drills and their training sessions. One aspect of it is getting yourself in a mental and physical state that allows you to act almost instinctively, reacting to an automated script, so you waste no time and reduce the reaction time to the lowest possible amount. The other is to get up close and personal with all of the gear you are using. I found the same approach to be the trademark of great sound engineers as well. Spending time with the gear you are using on a regular basis, comparing microphone sounds, learning workflows of consoles, plugins, outboard - basically training your mind and your ear to be able to make fast and informed choices when working on events. That includes creating workflow checklists, gear lists, and other documents that help you perform with greater speed and reliability.
I was at a training session to become a company commander, when an instructor told us to “be ready for the chaos”. Whenever you get on the scene of an incident, there will be a period of time where you will be faced with utter and complete chaos. Facing a complicated situation with no real information while all eyes are on you, waiting for your command - the pressure is on. The advice we were given: first, get all the information you need before issuing any orders. Then go at it one step at a time, but always keep thinking two steps ahead.
Admittedly, the pressure and the stakes are not the same. But I get the same feeling of chaos every time I am doing monitors and a band walks on stage without a sound check. All eyes are on me to provide a workable environment in almost zero time. Combine all of the inputs with all of the monitor lines for performers - that can be a true definition of chaos that you have to untangle as quickly as you can. So the traits of great firefighting commanders and great sound engineers are similar- they both turn the chaos into a working environment in the shortest amount of time possible. As for issuing commands while doing monitors - I found that engineers that take control of the sound check and guide the artist through it with calmness, clarity and precision are the ones that are most efficient and most revered in the industry.
When there is chaos and uncertainty present in any environment, we tend to look for signs of reassurance and stability. I have seen this on literally every call we went on as a part of a firefighting team. In those moments, people are going through a personal crisis and having a figure present that seem to know what they are doing, with resolve and systematic calmness instantly makes them feel better. The same aspect applies to the relationship a monitoring engineer has with the artist on stage. When artists perform, they are vulnerable. The stage can be an intimidating, disarming place where a lot is at stake. So the artists rely on their technical teams for psychological support more times than they would care to admit. When there is an issue, the look on the engineers face can either be “OMG, where is this feedback coming from??” or “I acknowledge the problem, I am working on it, you are in good hands”. Even when there is no problem, just the fact that every time a band member looks your way and can immediately lock eyes with you because you are paying attention is immensely more reassuring than seeing the monitoring engineer on their phone or having their back turned towards the stage, chatting to someone else. We are not taught this aspect of our work, but it is inherently a huge part of the process and we should pay a lot of attention to it.
The last aspect I want to touch upon might seem a bit surprising. After all, almost every aspect of firefighting comes with procedures and guidelines that have been rehearsed. Scenarios have been prepared, executed, analysed and improved on many occasions. But out in the field, those playbooks can quickly get tossed away because even with all the planning, there are always unforeseen circumstances that threaten to derail your efforts. So firefighters have to be immensely creative and responsive to the environment, quickly assessing their immediate surroundings to determine the best course of action. Running low on water? Call in another rig, shut off a part of the waterline, use the neighbour’s pool - whatever you have to do to achieve your goal. I see the same mental process when doing monitors on stage. No sound from the wedge? Change the wedge, adjust the mix in side fills, run another cable - whatever you need to do to keep the show going. Neither of these fields offers an option where you can go: “Hold on, guys. Stop everything, let’s fix it and then move on.” You have to provide solutions out of thin air sometimes, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. That creativity, however, is in both cases fueled by experience and the ability to foresee as many possible issues as possible.
I am certain that you could find parallels for our work with many more relatable occupations. But I found it fascinating how similar my mind can work during either of these activities, which can both be extremely stressful, yet immensely satisfying when done right. I truly believe that drawing comparisons with seemingly unrelated passions in our life can make us perform better and maybe sometimes even provide surprising and fresh solutions to complex situations.