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Making The Leap: Becoming An Independent Mix Engineer

Veteran front of house engineer Dave Natale offers his views and experiences in making the transition...

By Danny Abelson May 1, 2014

Dave Natale (Photo credit: Steve Jennings)

Almost every aspect of evaluating, selecting, operating, and maintaining sound reinforcement gear has been thoughtfully proposed and dissected in these pages over the years. So in this series, we’re instead going to explore topics having to do with the human element in sound reinforcement, and are fortunate to have journeyman mixer Dave Natale to offer some guidance.

Our first topic, viewed through Dave’s personal experience, is transitioning from sound company staff to an independent mix engineer.

After working 20-plus years at Clair Global, Dave worked with a considerable stable of popular entertainers at front of house, including Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Lionel Ritchie, Stevie Nicks, and Yes. He’d successfully climbed the ladder at Clair, determined the type of artists he preferred, and no longer wished to accept tours without sufficient notice.

Further, his two daughters were growing up quickly; he preferred to be at home more with his kids. He was at a crossroads of his personal and professional lives, and taking the leap to independence would offer him the opportunity for more control over his work as well as a more fulfilling family existence.

Handling The Transition
“At one point as an employee I was asked to go out and mix a band with absolutely no advanced warning, and I was home and planning to stay home for a few weeks,” he recalls. “It would be awkward for Clair to tell an account they couldn’t provide the services of one of their employees, and they’d always been very good to me, so I didn’t care want to put them in a bad position.

“Yet I’d been thinking about working for myself for a while and decided to make the leap, respectfully resigned from the company, passed on the tour, and stayed home with my girls. I wanted to have autonomy to control my own schedule, and from that point forward I worked for myself, relying on the good graces of my clients.”

“Transitioning from staff mixer to independent engineer depends primarily on your success working for a sound company,” Dave adds. “You must have a certain amount of accounts before you go independent, and hopefully you keep most or all of them once you go on your own. If you’ve done a good job there’s no reason they shouldn’t use you, and it goes from there. The rest usually comes from word of mouth.

“It’s critical to understands the risks when considering leaving steady employment. There ‘s a very real chance you may not get work when you need it. And when you’re successful in getting work, there’s a higher tax bill, as you’ll be self-employed. Finally, if you’ve relied on health insurance from your employer, you’ll need to make certain that you and your family are covered.”

Dave’s first independent account was Tina Turner, who he’d already mixed for many years. Her management company called him to go out, like any other tour, and he proposed to work for them directly. “As far as they were concerned, since the cost was about the same, there was no issue,” he notes. “Honestly, there didn’t seem to be much of a difference to me except where the check came from.”

Transitioning from staff to independent offers freedom, but it comes with uncertainty. “Switching from the comfort of a regular salary and the familiar surroundings of a sound company to an independent who has to find his own work and interact with personnel and equipment from a variety of sound providers can be very stressful,” he says.

“For example, when I signed on to work with Lenny Kravitz, it was something altogether new for me. They were using Sound Image, already had a monitor engineer who I didn’t know, and I was unfamiliar with the equipment package. Sure, I knew the console, and mics are mics, but the speakers and system processing took a little getting used to.

“Also, I hadn’t worked with the system engineer, so we had to get to know one another. I really learned to trust the system engineers; they know their gear better than anyone.”

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