Study Hall

Becky Pell in the hot seat on Westlife’s recent stadium and arena tour.

Stage Left Harmony, Part 2: “What Do You Like — And Dislike — In An Engineer When You’re The Tech?”

The veteran panel returns to flip the discussion the other way, as well as offering advice for engineers and preferences in the group for one role over the other.

Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with a handful of touring friends with whom I’ve worked closely in both the monitor engineer and monitor technician roles. Previously (here), I shared the first part of our conversation, where we discussed the attitudes and behaviors we appreciate from our tech when we’re mixing.

This time the boot’s on the other foot: what makes an engineer a pleasure – or a pain – to work with when you’re the tech? What advice would we give to engineers? And is there a preference in our group for one role over the other?

Some strong universal themes emerged in answer to this question! Unanimously most highly valued was general appreciation, respect, and courtesy from the engineer. We found that commonly, the best treatment comes from engineers who have themselves been techs who understand that the tech is not there as a servant but as a skilled technician to ensure the show runs smoothly and who is there to help the engineer but not to be treated like a servant or to do the engineer’s job for them.

With thanks to my colleagues Stu Watson, David Darlington, Eiran Simpson, Ricky Spiers, Jack Murphy, and Rod Matheson, let’s dive in.

Becky Pell: Welcome back everyone! What you all shared in the first part of this conversation was so interesting, there are some great guidelines there for anyone in the technician seat, regardless of experience and time served. Now, let’s switch sides and hear it from the tech’s point of view: What do you value and appreciate from an engineer when you’re a tech? What makes an engineer a pleasure to work with?

David Darlington: It’s a pleasure to work with someone who has tech’d before; someone who is willing to get involved, who appreciates the tech and doesn’t treat them like a slave. The engineer is paid more because of the responsibility and because they usually have more experience, but we’re all there for the same goal.

Eiran Simpson: Politeness and appreciation go a long way. Having a friendly and personable relationship with your engineer always helps, it makes you a lot more willing to bend over backwards and strive to achieve the best results for whatever artist/show/engineer you’re working for. I know that’s ultimately what you’re paid for as a tech, but this job gets much easier when you’re feeling appreciated and not just the guy that runs around making things happen.

Becky: Yeah, that’s huge isn’t it – being appreciated and treated respectfully, whatever the role, is the bedrock of happy touring relationships and makes even the toughest circumstances more manageable.

Ricky Spiers: A pre-existing working relationship really helps as there is already trust. Good communication is key; an understanding that we’re both playing pivotal roles and we are a team.

Jack Murphy: I think the most value is in working as a team with someone who shares the knowledge with you and treats it as a team effort. They’re very much relying on you, and as a tech you’re generally wanting to move into the engineer role, so having someone who’s working with you and trusts you is a pleasure – that relationship then means they’ll impart knowledge to you for you to go on and move forward. I’m very lucky to have stood next to several top engineers, and everyone has put a stamp on my personality and the way I work.

For instance I remember a moment tech’ing for you Becky, where we had a problem during the show. You calmly dealt with the situation, and from that I remember knowing I wanted to work like that, to be prepared and ready in those situations.

Ricky: Professionalism and good house keeping – tidy, organized and labeled is the only way!

Becky: That goes for both roles, doesn’t it?

Rod Matheson: Be an articulate well balanced human being with good technical skills and a sense of humor.

Becky: Absolutely! Personality is key, and touring is at its best when we get on with each other. I think it’s important to put our heads together really early on – ideally at the prep stage – and discuss who will be responsible for what each day.

Eiran: Great communication is a must – you can’t just expect things to happen exactly how you want them without actually explaining how you want them to be done in the first place.

Also, a constant caffeine supply – this goes in both directions. A lot of the time during a load in you don’t necessarily have the time to go and make the mission to catering to make yourself a brew. Days can be long and tiring, so a warm cuppa will always go down well for all parties involved. The same goes for something as simple as a bottle of water.

Becky: Definitely. Engineers do well to keep techs supplied with drinks when they’re at their busiest during a load-in, and the favor can be reciprocated when the engineer can’t leave the console once we’re up and running. So that’s what we like in an engineer…. Let’s get down to the dirt, what don’t we appreciate?

Ricky: Laziness, and thinking it’s all about them and not the bigger picture. Oh, and not labeling things. I love a hands-on engineer.

David: An engineer who walks up and says ‘I need power here for my laptop!’ You would get the power for yourself at home, so don’t use your tech as a slave. Also, an engineer shouldn’t be spec’ing gear they don’t know how to use. A tech is not your teacher… we’re there to help the engineer do the job, not do their job for them. I’m happy to learn together, but there’s nothing more annoying than knowing you’re doing their job for them and they’re getting the money and the thanks.

Becky: Yes, there’s a theme here isn’t there… ego, not working as a team… certainly there are some engineers who are ‘white-glovers,’ and I think that’s OK as long as it’s made clear right at the start that that’s the situation and there’s not an accompanying superior attitude. I don’t have a problem with any of it as long as communication is clear so we all know what’s expected, and there’s respect and appreciation. That way we’re still working as a team.

Jack: (I struggle with) engineers who see it as ‘my show.’ That often goes with another thing – a slight culture of younger engineers who feel they don’t have to do much. I think that’s fine when you’ve made it, but I’ve often found even big names in the engineering roles stick around and load trucks until it’s not necessary (unless of course collared to the dressing room!)

Becky: Oh that’s interesting, isn’t it? I’d agree with that, I’d find it far less odd for a more seasoned engineer not to load in or out than I would a new face – gotta do the time to earn that privilege.

Personally I really enjoy the set-up and pack-up anyway, and I think it’s very dangerous to not know how things are patched. What if the tech gets injured? You need to know your own gig and be able to be your own tech if necessary.

And to circle back to the labeling thing – I like the monitor tech to have an understanding of how I mix the show. I have the console clearly labeled, including show notes, so that if something happens to me, they could step in with minimal fuss. Know each other’s gig, and then trust each other to get on with it without micro-managing.

Jack: An engineer not being sure of themselves or questioning everything that you’re doing can be a pain. If you’re a good tech you know what needs to be achieved and you achieve it, you don’t need them on your shoulder.

Eiran: I completely understand that as an engineer, you have a lot of different pressures and difficulties involved with your job, especially when dealing with certain artists/management, etc. The worst thing that can be done in these situations though, is to take it out on your tech. An unhappy working environment isn’t healthy for any of the parties involved.

Becky: Yes, it’s really quite simple isn’t it. Respect, appreciation, communication, organisation, teamwork. We’ve got some great pointers there – any advice you’d add to that?

Eiran: Be nice to your tech – they might have been in many hours before you and will be leaving a few hours after you no doubt and are probably incredibly tired.

This goes both ways, but checking in on a regular basis with each other is important. You never know what might be going on outside of work, or even within the tour that could be affecting that person – mental health is a real thing and developing a healthy balanced relationship and support network between you and the engineer/tech is a must.

David: Treat your tech like a human with respect – they can make or break your gig. Don’t just walk in push faders and leave, but do some work as well – coil some cables, tidy up, help out. We are a team.

Jack: Never get too cocky. Same for techs really – only the people on the poster are needed for the show and engineers are usually in hot seat positions. Don’t take it for granted, we can all be heading home on very short notice.

Becky: 100 percent – we are all just hired guns and we can all be replaced!

Jack: Learn from others and work as a team. Oh, and don’t just walk away from the board!

Rod: Take your techs out for dinner and ply them with good food and expensive wine…the gig will only improve.

Becky: Ha ha, yes Rod. I have very fond memories of how well you and front of house engineer Chris Pyne treated us on the many tours we did together. You guys set the standard in respect and appreciation of crew, and how we can do a great job as a team and have a lot of fun at the same time. It made for some of the best touring experiences I’ve had, and everyone in this conversation is an absolute don at their job and a joy to be on the road with.

Last question: Do you have a preference for one role over the another, and why?

Eiran: This is always a difficult one to answer – nowadays I feel having a knowledge and understanding of all aspects of a gig is essential. It certainly keeps your options open and makes you far more attractive and employable.

That being said, at this point in time I do find myself preferring the monitor end of the arena – you feel a bit more involved in the action, whether it’s mixing, tech’ing or looking after RF. I’ve done all three over the past year and enjoyed them all. I seem to go through phases of preference. It definitely keeps things much more interesting.

David: It depends on the band really – I love engineering if there’s a full live band as it’s always changing and evolving. I prefer to tech a gig if it’s playback tracks with minimal live things. I’m happy to tech for people I know and like due to all the factors we’ve talked about. It’s got to be a family event for me. The main thing is it’s fun… it’s a job and there are times when we need to be serious, but for the majority of the time it should be fun.

Becky: I couldn’t agree more. We’re away from home, the days are long, let’s make it a good experience for everyone involved.

Jack: It’s something I’ve thought long and hard over recently – I’m happy with my hands on the faders. It feels a realization of my ambition to be an audio person from a young age. When I envisioned that, it was as the person on the faders and that’s what I really want to do, and as I’ve done it more in the last couple of years I feel comfortable. That has come from the experience and knowledge from standing next to and working with so many of you top engineers over the years.

Rick: (I prefer to) tech. Rather than the intense focus/concentration needed to operate, I like providing experts with all they need and a solid environment to do what they do well. As a tech I feel more in control of the bigger picture, which I’m always thinking about. Plus, I don’t like having to second guess if the mix is bang on or what some barking mad artist may want.

Becky: Ha ha, yes. Most gear tends to be more predictable than creative humans. I tend to mostly mix these days, but I always love tech’ing too, especially if we’ve got a great team.

It’s interesting what you said, Rick, about providing the engineer with a solid environment – that’s how I feel about mixing for the artist. I want to give them their ‘audio comfort zone’ so that they can forget about all of that and get on with their job of giving a great performance. When I trust the monitor tech, and the people on stage trust me, we’ve got a good thing going.

Everyone, this has been fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing your insights – see you stage left sometime soon.

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