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Old Soundman: Dealing With Critics In The Audience

A gentleman, possibly in the audiovisual business, asks about an age-old problem...

Why is it that people like us, night after night dealing with musicians, and the person at every gig that comes up and says the sound sucks, let me at that thing pal, just because he got a new CD player for Christmas. Why do we still want to mix live music? I swear it’s a sickness!

1. You’re right, it is a sickness. Seek help from qualified medical personnel before it’s too late. Turn yourself in for re-grooving. You can probably still be converted into a tire on an SUV.

2. Nobody but me is allowed to use the term pal, pal.

3. I myself have been known to ask someone (yelling at them during the song they are “critiquing,” actually) where they work. Like donkeys, they would respond, “Whuddaya wanna know that for?”

And I always snarled, “So I can come to your job and criticize how you work!” Often they would say “It’s not the same! You don’t know how to do my job!” I would answer “Hello, McFly??!! Yes, it is! I am at work and you are bothering me and you have no idea what I am dealing with!”

At other times I would bellow “Why weren’t you here at the sound check?” To which they would say, “I wasn’t supposed to be at the sound check!” And I would cleverly retort, “But you seem to consider yourself so knowledgeable about sound! And you seem to know so much about how this band should sound! You must be a sound engineer or a close friend of theirs, right? Because you sure feel mighty free to come up and express your opinion!”

In my old age, I have struck on a plan that works around 80% of the time. These people are looking for attention. They are really, to quote Howard Stern one time, saying “Love me daddy!” So, I smile at them and make eye contact and nod my head. Meanwhile I silently project “Get away from while you still can.” So, I am not a mean old soundman screaming at them, but they get the message.

Many of our colleagues go to amazingly complex means of expressing their resentment. There used to be different Xeroxed forms floating around, some of them were pretty funny. I used to like the one that began “Dear sound helper” and went on to ask them to list their work experience and audio studies, and what venues they have mixed in.

Another good one asked them: When you are in an airplane and it encounters turbulence, do you go up and knock on the door to the cockpit and insist on talking to the captain? Truly, it is most irritating when something is going wrong, and you are trying to fix it, and people are trying to tell you something’s wrong.

A few years ago, I was working with a younger band, and their manager asked me to escort them into a real dive that promotes itself as a music room but doesn’t at all about the bands. I am not exaggerating in the very least, every HF element in the passive monitors was blown. It was all woof.

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The keyboardist did not bring an amp, so when he plugged in and I fed him foldback from the filthy house board, he shook his head. If the rest of the band was playing through their beefy rock dude brand amps, he could not hear a thing. He was standing pretty close to a main, and he said, “You are just going to have to turn me up really loud in the house.” So I did.

Later, during their set, here comes “Mr. Thinks-He’s Cool” with his leather jacket and hair just right, who stands on tiptoes and puts his fat head between me and the band to holler, “The keyboard is too loud!” I screamed “Get the EFF out of my face!” He was completely astonished. I am a mere soundman! He is the swinging-est guy he knows. He actually expected me to tug at my forelock and say, “I’m sorry, squire! I could not hear that the keyboard was very loud! Smite me, by all means! I shall turn it down for you immediately, guv! Thanks for pointing that out, now may I have my crust of bread and some brackish water?”

After the song was over, he had the nerve to keep it up. “Hey, man. The keyboard is really too loud!” I lost it – I blew up – I told him that he had no idea what was going on up here, and that I did have the power to have him thrown out of that club. (Not true, but he didn’t know that) And unless he shut up and walked away from me right then, I would have him tossed into the street! He walked away shaking his head and telling his buddy that the soundman was an a-hole.

Could I have told him that the monitors were half-blown out, and that the keyboardist, like 90% of keyboardist, thinks that for some reason “Guitar player has to bring an amp. Ha Ha! What a sucker! Not me bring amp! Me special!”

Bottom line: If he had spoken to me like a person, with respect, I might have gone to the trouble. This guy, in every mannerism he displayed at first, indicated that he thought I was an absolute buffoon and that it was OK for him to project that. That’s what he thought! He was a rude yuppie scumbag and he go what was coming to him, much to the astonishment of the venue soundman. I acted like I was personally ready to jam this guy out the front door, and I was.

But, after the show, I told the band manager that I would never work a show here with any of his bands again and be subject to that kind of embarrassment. The “soundman” there was not a professional. He did not force the owner to finance the much-needed maintenance of the gear. He showed up for work, probably got fifty bucks and a few drinks. He was the one who deserved that moron’s harassment, not me.

So, my nameless correspondent, best of luck to you. I don’t give ‘em hell anymore. Because, in the long run, it only riled me up, and distracted me. The rule of thumb is that I am never rude to people who are polite. I will ask people not to talk to me until the song is over. I am often running cues during a song.

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Ya know what, anonymous? You’re a celebrity. Think of it that way. What we experience is related in a twisted way to what stars get when they are asked for autographs. Another favorite of mine, back in the old days, was to say very distinctly, “If you think you can do my job better than me, there are applications in the manager’s office, and you can go fill one out, goodbye!” and then turn my back on them.

Once, a guy said to me, “This is the worst mix I have ever heard!” I knew that it was probably the worst band he had ever heard. The worst guitar tones, beyond salvaging with EQ. The worst mic technique and caterwauling by a very disturbed young person. The audience complainer said, “Doesn’t this sound terrible?” I agreed that it did. That’s what really set him off! He stomped away, glaring at me and probably told all his friends the next day how screwed this soundman was.

People don’t know. They don’t think.

But, be nice to the ones who are the exception. Because that is being fair. And your original complaint is about people being unfair, right?

The Old Soundman

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