A while back, Chris Huff at Behind the Mixer wrote an interesting post about how musicians see sound techs. It’s a good, enlightening and sometimes hard read. I recommend it.
One of the comments that really got me was this one:
Q: Do you give suggestions to the sound tech?
A: All the time and he always dismisses everything anyone says.
That got me thinking and inspired this article. I don’t know that I’ve attained the status of “old sound guy,” but I know I’m getting close. I thought about this the other night when one of my new sound techs and I were making cables.
I realized that I had been mixing longer than he has been alive. That realization led me to think about some words of wisdom that I wish someone had shared with me 20 years ago when I started. Probably would have saved me (and the bands I worked with) a lot of hassle.
What you’ll read are some things I’ve learned along the way that will hopefully make your career as a sound engineer more productive and fun.
#1: You Don’t Know As Much As You Think You Do
I’ve met and worked with a lot of sound guys over the last 20 or so years. One trend has stood out to me; the best ones are always learning and are always open to picking up new tricks from someone else. The “less good” ones seem to think they’ve arrived and have nothing more to learn from anyone. Oddly, the latter group tend to have a lot fewer hours at FOH than the former.
Just because you’ve figured out how to mix with subgroups doesn’t mean you have mastered the art of mixing. If you read the blogs and talk to the best FOH engineers out there, you’ll find they are always experimenting, always talking to other audio guys, always reading; always learning something new. They never seem satisfied with their competency, now matter how high it is. They are always willing to share their knowledge and take suggestions; even from people who “know less” than they do.
A lot of younger sound guys I know seem to vastly overestimate their competence, and that trait does not serve them well. They often show up late for sound check, cop an ‘tude at a simple suggestion, and generally give off an “I’m the expert, leave me alone” vibe.
If this describes you, I have but one thing to say: Knock it off. You’re giving the rest of us a bad name. You’re the reason that musicians don’t like sound guys (and gals). You’re the reason the rest of us have to work so hard to build credibility with the bands we mix.
I’ve mixed for 20-plus years and have yet to feel that I’ve mastered this art. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, but I have so much more to learn. Yesterday, one of my newest sound guys (who’s still a set up tech at this point) made a suggestion about mic’ing cymbals that made a lot of sense to me. I’m going to try it this weekend. He’s a great example of how sound guys should act. Paying attention, learning and making suggestions. I expect great things from him in the coming years.
#2: Attitude Is More Important Than The Mix
Demonstrating a servant’s heart and going out of your way to make the band and audience happy will take you a lot farther than focusing exclusively on your mixing chops. I know a lot of engineers (especially monitor engineers) who were perhaps not the most skilled, but had a reputation for doing whatever it took to make the band happy. Those are the guys who never lack for work.
I found this to be an interesting phenomenon; when the sound guy can put the band at ease early in the sound check, the band plays better, the mix is better and everyone is happier. When the engineer gets defensive or argues with the band, the rest of the day doesn’t go well.
I’ve been surprised more than once by a band member telling me they thought the mix was great and they enjoyed working with me. What surprised me was that I felt the mix was anything but great, and I may have been struggling with it all night. But what I did do was take good care of them, and make them happy. The right attitude can make a mediocre mix sound great.