I tend to think that being a good sound person isn’t rocket surgery.
It really comes down to modifying your approach based on the band, the situation, the venue, as well as the audience.
I’m not necessarily a schooled sound engineer, and yet the reason I keep getting called back seems to be rooted in the fact that I demonstrate sensitivity in every situation I walk into. I don’t just turn the soundboard on, adjust a few knobs, and then walk away to have a few drinks and hit on members of the opposite sex!
Again, sound isn’t necessarily hard, but you do need to exercise a certain degree of professionalism if you expect to get more gigs.
If people like what you do, you can bet that you’re going to gain a positive reputation and become more in-demand. You’ll start getting more calls back!
So here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to be a sound engineer that your clients genuinely love.
It doesn’t do you or your client any good if you “set and forget”.
Sometimes, there are gigs where you can literally set the faders and EQ and never have to change a thing for the remainder of the performance. But this doesn’t show your client that you’re paying attention to what’s going on.
A lot of singer/songwriter shows may allow you to walk away from the soundboard after initial setup, but when it comes to bands – especially bands that are made up of three or more members – you should be keeping a constant watch on the stage so you can make adjustments on the fly.
Regardless of who you’re doing sound for, the best practice is to have quick access to the soundboard so you can make tweaks as necessary.
This communicates care. Your client wants to know that you care about your work and their sound, and when you can demonstrate that you do, they will love you for it.
Be sensitive to the artist or band you’re doing sound for. They may have multi-instrumentalists within the band that need to switch out instruments from one song to another. They may have multiple vocalists within the group, even if there’s only one primary singer.
If you simply aren’t sure, talk to the band beforehand and get a sense of what they’re going to be doing for the show.
Use Your Ears
It’s a great idea to get your education in sound engineering. However, if you do “everything by the books”, your education is all for naught.
Fundamentally, sound engineering is about how things sound, and regardless of what your training has taught you, setting certain instruments at specific thresholds without actually listening to the overall mix will sooner get you into trouble than lead you to meaningful solutions.
Some musicians are exactly the same way; they practice in a room all day, only to show up on stage “without an ear”. Sure, they can play really well, but they’ve lost all sensitivity to the music! Shawn David Evans talked about this in episode six of the podcast.
By all means, take advantage of what you’ve learned in school or what you’ve learned from your apprenticeship or training. But don’t be a slave to it!
It’s dangerous to assume that every situation will be exactly the same, because most of the time, the rooms and the gear will change from one gig to another.
Even if the gear stays the same, the weather, the environment, and sometimes the band do not, so you have to match the sound to the situation.
Sometimes this will go against your instincts, and sometimes you will find that what shouldn’t work does!
So do yourself and your clients a favor by leveraging both your experience and your ear! You’re a sound person, remember? If you can’t actually hear how the sound is coming together, you’re not going to do a great job no matter how many years of education you have behind you.
Be Open To Feedback
Sometimes education and training can puff us up and make us proud. It’s great to have confidence in yourself and your work, but if it gets in the way of being open to feedback, it’s actually a weakness rather than a strength.
Sound is both subjective and abstract. That may not be what you’ve learned in school, but running sound isn’t just science; it’s the practice of shaping an experience.
Have you ever been to a show where the sound really ruined the experience? Hopefully you have, because that should show you what can happen when you aren’t hearing what others are!
Now don’t get me wrong here; you certainly can’t please everybody, nor should you try. But you can’t ignore smoke signals when they begin to rise, because they could be indicative of fires that need to be put out. Not all of them will result in fires, and that’s why you have to pay attention at every gig.
The band will have their own thoughts, and the audience will have their own thoughts too. There’s always a delicate balance of keeping the band happy, and keeping the crowd happy.
You don’t have to accept every bit of criticism that’s launched at you, but do keep in mind that these comments could be revealing weaknesses within your game that could be improved upon.
Final Thoughts On Being A Sound Guy Or Sound Gal
To some extent, knowing your gear is also important.
But in my experience, you aren’t always working with the same gear, and that means you aren’t always working in the same venues either. There’s a need to adapt and customize as you go.
If you have the desire to do a great job for your clients, remember to stay flexible in your approach. It isn’t just about twiddling a few knobs and pushing a few faders; it’s really about having a great attitude, being willing to experiment, and making sure you’re meeting the needs of your clients in addition to pleasing the audience (which is in-line with the band’s objectives).
What do you think? Is there anything else sound engineers should know? Do you have any additional tips for them?
Let us know in the comments below!
Author: David Andrew Wiebe
David Andrew Wiebe has built an extensive career in songwriting, live performance, recording, session playing, production work, investing, and music instruction. In addition to helping musicians unlock their full potential, he also continues to maintain a touring schedule with multiple bands.