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It’s What We Do: Why Would Anyone Actually Choose A Live Sound Career Path?

Working in the live sound environment is addictive but also one of stress, responsibility and time constrictions often accompanied by severe lack of sleep.

In a previous article I discussed the question of whether or not anyone could learn live sound engineering skills. The subsequent feedback I received led to another musing: Why would anyone want to become a live sound engineer?

Looking at it from afar, it seems like an illogical choice. First, there’s no formal education that is required for the profession. Sure, there are programs and schools that teach what we do, but the reality is that one can just as easily be self taught.

There are no requirements of follow-up courses, no systematic approach to checking whether our knowledge of audio grants us access to the shiny knobs and buttons of a mixing console or the lack of it puts us back to running cables and unloading racks from the truck. In fact, the only thing that makes someone a live engineer is the claim “that’s what I do,” with the market judging our ability by either hiring us – or not.

The second argument, and it’s one that concerned parents can use when their kids choose live sound engineering as their path in life, is the fact that in most cases, we’re severely overworked and grossly underpaid. The hours can be brutal, especially for small production companies where the team must also set up and strike the system.

Waking up in the middle of the night to load the truck, drive to the venue and set everything up, and then being mentally and physically depleted by the time the sound check starts and it’s time to do our best work. It requires maintaining high levels of focus for hours on end, especially during festival season where sound checks can start at 10 am and the last act finishes up at 4 am the next day.

After all the load-it-all-in and tear-it-all-down tasks, where we constantly think that surely we’ve not laid down as many cables as we’re now having to clean up, followed by loading all the racks (which, just like the cables, seem somehow much heavier than we remember), then driving back to the warehouse, unloading the truck, catching a few hours of sleep – and then it’s time do it all again the next day. Factor in travel times, road closures, weather conditions, grumpy organizers and fast food, sprinkled with high levels of stress and constantly working against the clock – I mean, really? That is what we want to do in life?

And yet for many of us, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Granted, there will be always be a lot of people who try it and quickly figure out it’s not for them. Rental companies often take on people for a probational period, and not a lot of them return the following season (some don’t even return for the next gig). So what exactly is it that keeps us doing what we do? Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone, but here are my reasons.

Feeding The Addiction

One of the most prominent motivations that keeps me coming back is that I’m addicted to it. People who know me will tell you that I’m as vanilla as it gets – I don’t drink alcohol, coffee or energy drinks and don’t use recreational drugs, nothing of the sort. My “rush” comes every time I’m in front of a console and the show is about to start.

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The bigger the show, the bigger the thrill, but it can be an act that I’ve worked with for years, with the same gear that I’ve used for them countless times, and with ample time for setup, checking and double-checking – the feeling still doesn’t go away. Even if there’s no evidence supporting the possibility of anything going wrong, this is live. There are no second takes, no edits, no cuts.

In that particular moment I have the responsibility of making the show happen, sometimes for thousands of people, and I always feel the pressure. However, I think that if you don’t feel the pressure, it might be time to get out. Complacency is our worst enemy in live sound.

I remember a reply from veteran engineer Robert Scovill to a question about his biggest mistake in a live audio setting. Simply, he said, “Assuming anything.” I think it sums up our mindset perfectly. Even when it seems that nothing can go wrong, or maybe especially then, something might happen that can endanger the show, sometimes leaving us as the only people who know how to fix it and keep the show going.

This pressure isn’t for everyone; for some, it’s too much to bear. I’ve witnessed great studio engineers completely freeze 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 issue so it’s not evident to the public. Those moments pump so much adrenaline through my system that I don’t need coffee, alcohol or drugs – I’m hooked on the live craft.

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