I meet a lot of sound engineers and techs around my age (mid-20s) that strictly stick to audio and don’t dare to touch anything else, whether it be to stay focused on audio or to not get roped into something they don’t particularly want to do.
There isn’t anything wrong with this. Laser-focusing on one discipline can yield some great results. I know that my passion lies in audio, live sound especially. I study it, read about it, train myself, and I find it the most thrilling of all of our disciplines. But I’ve noticed something: very few clients want to pay audio engineers properly. It’s an endless undercutting massacre of our income.
As a result, something that I’ve done to make sure I get my preferred rate of pay is to learn other aspects of event production. It’s hard to justify less pay for someone who does more than “just” sound.
Again though, there’s nothing wrong with sticking with and focusing on audio exclusively. Each of us must follow our own particular passion.
I’d like to present some of the other things I do to supplement my audio work. I’m a full-fledged member of a band called Funk Syndicate here in my home base of Kansas City. I serve as the sound engineer, although I typically tell people I’m the production manager. Getting the sound dialed in is my number 1 priority, but I do so much more. In addition to FOH and monitor engineer duties, I also handle lighting and run the band’s social media efforts.
All eight band members use in-ear monitors, so getting their monitor sound correct is an ongoing and delicate task. As much as it hurts to admit it, the monitors are arguably more important than FOH (please don’t throw anything at me). I have plenty of time to get FOH dialed in, but need to get the monitors optimized ASAP in addition to checking in regularly during the gig (they often request changes throughout every set).
There are many, many times that I’m trying to fix something with FOH when one of the musicians needs an immediate monitor change. I drop everything and fix that first. When the monitors are precise, the performance is better, which makes my FOH role easier. Musicians finding the ‘pocket’ can take a performance from OK to incredible.
In designing the band’s lighting. I don’t do anything crazy because I don’t consider myself a lighting engineer. We’ve got LED bars and some other lights in the works, as well as DMX lighting software. I’ve bothered to learn all I can about the lights and the software so that this aspect of a show is as polished as possible.
I want them to look great, and further, enjoy seeing an entire show come together. I also know every song forward and backward, who is singing what parts, who’s got solos, the length of each song, and so on. Knowing this so well is important because it helps me with not only mixing FOH, but also which FX and lighting presets to deploy, and when. “Uptown Funk,” in particular, is a real hoot (people go crazy for this song, it’s ridiculous). Doing three different things at once—FOH, monitors and lighting—is something I’ve found to be very thrilling.
Now, it gets more daunting, because I’m also handling photos, videos and social media. Here it’s important to add the caveat to make sure one thing is as perfect as it can be in a certain moment before moving on to the next thing. I don’t give four mediocre performances. That’s unacceptable. I strive for four fantastic performances.
The key is staying calm and knowing the technology as thoroughly as possible. Don’t take on more tasks if you can’t handle them, and don’t sacrifice quality for ego. I see this way too often.
I frequently do more than just audio outside of working with the band. I also serve as an IT media supervisor at a large church and a graduate seminary, where I take care of all media-related needs like chapel production, videos, and large events.
What I’ve discovered as that I’m most excited when handling more than one thing because there isn’t a single moment where there isn’t something to be done. Then it becomes a challenge to wrangle every single thing in and see if it can all be made calm for a few precious moments. It’s a game for me.
For some of the simpler events, I can set up audio and keep referencing back to it, but then also run graphics, and cameras, and streaming switches. “Why do one thing when I can do all of them?” is a joke I frequently tell myself.
I also have the luxury of working with the same musicians every week and mostly the same people outside of the band. I know these people, and thanks to digital consoles, the work gets saved for each event so that I’m not starting from scratch every time. Doing four things at once can be a little more complicated when there’s potential for total chaos in working with three different bands you just met two hours ago.
Still, I’m an audio person first, and if I needed to pick one thing to do for the rest of my life, that would be it. But I’ve made my value higher and am much more indispensable in developing skills to do other things that nobody else can do.
So at the very least, if you love FOH, learn monitors. And vice-versa if you love monitors. This doubles the number of potential gigs you can work. If you’re OK (or better) with lighting, seek to become the same with video. And so on…
Not only is it fun to learn about new things, but it makes you far more valuable. Why, when all other things are equal, would a company/client hire someone who can only do one thing when they could hire someone that can do two? Or three? Or four?
The bottom line is to never quit aspiring for more information and more experience. Never become stagnant. Always be moving, and always be striving.
Samantha Potter is an IT media supervisor and audio engineer for the largest Methodist Church in the U.S. and a production manager for Funk Syndicate in Kansas City. In addition, she’s head of the Kansas City chapter for SoundGirls.org, where you can read more from her.