In the grand scheme of things, audio engineering is a pretty mysterious field, at least for most people.
When asked what I do for a living, “I’m an audio engineer” is often met with puzzlement, so I quickly amend, “You know, I’m a sound person. I run sound for concerts and events.”
For many folks, this is when the light comes on – one woman said, “Oh, you’re the guy, like at my church, in the back who turns all of the knobs.” She was pensive for a second, then asked, “So, you know what all those knobs do?”
Sometimes, though, even that explanation proves insufficient. Recently I was the recipient of “Oh, cool man! So, like, what clubs do you DJ at?” Of course, this wasn’t intended to be insulting. It’s just that there’s not that many of us out there doing this.
Then I thought that, maybe, working in relative obscurity is a good thing. When everyone leaving a concert has a comment about the sound, it’s usually “The band sounded so good!”
If they have something to say about the person operating the sound, it’s usually not positive. So we are, at our best, invisible. If our presence is unnoticed, it’s considered a successful gig.
I subscribe to the Dave Natale school of mixing philosophy. To paraphrase: “People don’t come to the show to hear me mix. They come to hear the artist. I just make it louder.” We’re on a constant search for the most pristine preamp or most recent PA system. So we “live people,” as my studio buddy calls us, are a relatively discreet bunch.
People who ask me about life on the road are usually appalled by my description of the long hours, tough conditions, and often less-than-princely pay. I frequently hear, “Why would you want to do that?”
And that’s the question to which I have no rational answer. My answer is from a simpler place: I love it. I live A/D converters, eat FFTs, and breathe chain hoists. I dream of flawless festival changeovers. I actually have a recurring nightmare in which I’m juggling acts on an analog desk and keep running out of channels (scary stuff!).
For me, it’s exhilarating to be able to play a role in a successful production, a memory that audience members will carry with them for life. It’s a way to couple my passion for music with my love of science and technology. I like to think of live sound as “elegant precision.”
And I’ll get involved in any way I can. Watching, learning and studying others for years has contributed greatly to my appreciation for every aspect of production, and broadened the horizons of my knowledge so I can help with whatever needs doing. FOH? Mons? RF tech? System tech? Need me to calculate the force vectors in that rigging bridle, or battle for the optimal placement of the arrays? I’m on it.
On my first “big” show, I was the youngest/smallest and thus the unopposed nominee for the always-glamorous job of pulling 100 feet of feeder through the dirt underneath the SL260. The cables weighed more than me, and by the time the task was complete I was a muddy mess and had hit my head on the screw jacks three times. But I emerged from under the deck with a huge smile. Over a decade later, I still feel the same rush when powering up my console or pinning boxes into an array.
Rational or not, that’s my reason, my response to “Why would you want to do that?” Because I love it. It’s one of the great things about our particular field – no one gets into it to get rich. It’s a labor of love. I love being surrounded by people who are stoked about putting on a killer show.
There’s probably not a mansion in my future, but as long as I can support myself and get up every morning and look forward to what I do, isn’t that more important?