Why would anyone want to be a live sound engineer?
In one of my previous articles I was discussing the question of whether or not anyone could learn sound engineering skills. But the feedback I got raised another musing: WHY would anyone want to become a live audio engineer?
Looking at it from afar, it seems like a very illogical choice for anyone. First of all, there is no formal education that is required for our career. Sure, there are programs and even schools that teach what we do, but you could just as easily be self taught. There are no requirements of follow up courses, no systematic approach of checking whether or not your knowledge of audio grants you access to the shiny knobs and buttons of a mixing console or the lack of it puts you back to running cables and unloading racks from the truck. In fact, the only thing that makes you a live sound engineer is your claim that that is what you do and the market that judges your ability by either hiring you or not.
The second argument that concerned parents can use when their kids choose live sound engineering as their path in life is the fact that we are in the vast majority of cases severely overworked and grossly underpaid. The hours can be brutal, especially for small production companies where audio engineers also set up the system. Waking up in the middle of the night to load the truck, drive to the venue, set everything up, being mentally and physically depleted by the time the sound check starts and you have to do your best work. You have to be able to maintain high levels of focus for hours on end, especially during festival season, where souchecks can start at 10am and the shows end at 4am the next day. After all that you are faced with the tear-it-all-down and load-it-all-in tasks, where you always think that you have surely not laid down as many cables as you now have to clean up, then load-in all the racks (which again, just like the cables, seemed to become somehow heavier than you remember), drive back to the warehouse, unload the truck, catch a few hours of sleep and do it all again the next day. When you factor in the travel times, road closures, weather conditions, grumpy organisers and fast food, sprinkled with high levels of stress and lack of time - I mean, really? That is what you want to do in life?
And yet, for many of us, the answer is an unequivocal “yes”. Mind you, there will be a lot of people who try this and quickly figure out it is not for them. Rental companies seem to have a lot of people on probation periods, but not a lot of them return the following season (some don’t even return for the following gig). So what exactly is it that keeps us doing what we do? Since I can’t speak for everyone, here are my reasons.
Feeding my addiction
One of the most prominent reasons that keeps me coming back is the fact that I am addicted to it. Now, people who know me will tell you that I am as vanilla as they get. I don’t drink, don’t use recreational drugs, don’t drink coffee, don’t use energy drinks, nothing of the sort. But I get my rush every time I am in front of a console and the show is about to start. The bigger the show, the bigger the thrill. I could be an act that I have worked with for years. I could have the same gear that I had time to setup, check and doublecheck, running the same show I have run hundreds of times - the feeling still does not go away. Even if there is no evidence supporting the possibility of anything going wrong, you know that this is live. There are no second takes, no edits, no cuts. In that particular moment you have the responsibility of making the show happen, sometimes for thousands of people, and you always feel the pressure. In fact, I think that if you don’t feel the pressure, you should get out. Complacency is your worst enemy in live audio. I remember a quote from Robert Scoville who replied to the question what was your biggest mistake in a live audio setting with: assuming anything. I think it sums up our mindset perfectly. Even when you think that nothing can go wrong, or maybe especially then, something might happen that could endanger the show- leaving you sometimes as the only person who knows how to fix it and keep the show going.
Granted, this pressure is not for everyone. As much as I love it, some people find it too much to bare. I have personally witnessed great studio engineers that completely froze up in live audio settings. It takes a specific type of personality that can remain calm under pressure, go into problem solving mode and find a quick fix to either resolve or mask the problem and not make it evident for the public. Those moments pump so much adrenaline through my system that I don’t need coffee, drugs or alcohol - I am hooked on live sound.
2. Community of Peers
Live sound environment is one of high stress levels, severe lack of sleep, time constrictions, and extreme levels of responsibility. If it sounds a bit like a military regime, it’s because it sometimes feels like that. And just like in the military, you have to count on the people next to you to help you out, do their job and have your back. True characters are revealed in these extreme conditions, and bonds are forged that are strong and long lasting. Our community is a bunch of guys and (increasingly so) gals that share the same goals of making the show happen by any means necessary and being content with our invisibility - we did our job perfectly when no one notices we are there. Through those shared goals we are able to work those long hours and still stand at the end of the day. Sure, everyone has off days when they don’t work well with others or personal issues creep into our work environment - we are all human, afterall. But most often there is good natured humour that blankets the teams, and if that does not help, early morning venting rants that blow off steam and leave you feeling better when sharing some of the frustrations with the only people that actually know first hand how you feel - your brothers in arms.
3. The Marriage of Arts and Tech
Being a live sound engineer also feeds some of my passions in life. One of them being my love for music and sound, the other my interest in technology and gadgets. This environment is a perfect marriage of arts and tech, allowing me to be ethereal and creative on one hand and logical and technical on the other. It occupies both sides of my brain and forces me to stay on top of the latest developments in both music production and tech innovation. Putting it bluntly, I am a bit of a geek and playing with new consoles, discovering new technological tools at my disposal and testing out new gear is a great source of joy for me. And there are variations on the theme - some are more interested in IT and networking, some are more focused on exploring the latest musical instruments. But if you share this desire to bridge the gap between the artistic and the technical, then live sound engineering might be right up your alley.
4. The Cool Factor
Now, this last category might be completely made up and in my head only. But I think that there is still a public perception that being a sound guy is “cool”. It is one of those professions that still have not anchored themselves completely in the general public’s eye as a worthy career pursuit and that still brings a bit of mystique to our job title. That is fueled by the fact that very few people actually know the scope of what we do, since they only see (or hear) a very tiny portion of it. It is by no means as awesome as being a race car driver or a hand model or whatever your definition of the coolest job on earth might be, but it should still score some points when you introduce yourself with that title. Then again, I could just be me …
If you are thinking about getting into our profession, know this - you really have to love it to keep doing it long term. It will demand a lot from you, sometimes more than you are willing to give. But it is also immensely rewarding and exciting and that is why I keep coming back.