So You Want To Be A Sound Guy: What You're Really Signing Up For

 Photo by Dillon Klassen

 Photo by Dillon Klassen

You've poured hours into setting up and configuring the PA. You ran a smooth soundcheck and even spent 20 minutes on the hi-hat. Then the show comes along and you absolutely NAIL the mix.

As you're packing up and the crowd starts flooding past you, you look up and try to catch an eye or two -- hoping that just maybe they'll send a compliment your way. That they'd rave about how you kept the vocal right up front. That the RE20 over the SM7B for the bass cab was a fantastic clutch decision. Or that they literally. just. could not. believe how wide you got the drums to sound with those Earthworks overheads. 

No dice.

The crowd's gone, the band's already downing their 7th post-show mountain, and you still have 5000 feet of cable to over-under. Doesn't sound very fair, does it? You worked so hard and did an incredible job! Don't we deserve some recognition?

In the audio world, no one should notice you.

If no one ever notices what the sound guy's doing, that means they're engaged in what the sound system is supporting. The entire point of having a sound reinforcement system is to be just that, a system that reinforces the message of whoever's on stage so everyone in the room has the opportunity to receive it clearly.

I'm not saying that no one should or ever will compliment you. Many folks truly understand and appreciate what lengths some of us go to in order to ensure an ear pleasing show. Even still, we must remove our egos from the equation.

Some people may perceive the situation above as a failure. I think quite the opposite.

Silence is oftentimes the best compliment you can receive.

Silence means that the people you were serving were able to focus on the message, not the medium. You gave them a truly wonderful gift: clarity.

Webster's Dictionary defines it like this:

  1. the quality of being easily understood
  2. the quality of being expressed, remembered, understood etc, in a very exact way
  3. the quality of being easily seen or heard.

With that in mind, consider this a new modus operandi:

Serve Well. Build Trust. Give Clarity.

That's it.

If you're really wanting to excel in live audio ( or any audio field), you should constantly be asking yourself "How can I give more clarity?" I'll tell you first off that the answer is not buying expensive wireless mics. Or upgrading your line array. I love working with great gear as much as the next guy, but if the gear is not being wielded to ultimately serve your audience, you might as well pack it all up.

Your pastor does not care that his belt pack costs more than his pension. He cares if his people hear The Gospel. Your mixing client does not care how much money you spent on your Waves Gold Bundle. She cares if her fans can connect with her music.

Gear was made to serve us, not the other way around. The audio world has this WAY backwards. Have you been on Gearslutz lately? Troll city.

Gear lust aside, trust is built when you have removed your ego and have shown your clients that your number one goal is to make sure their message resonates with their audience.

Building trust means shaking every musician's hand and introducing yourself before they get on stage. It means running your cables clean so your talent doesn't feel scattered or unorganized. It means getting out of the booth and actually talking to the human being sitting behind the kick drum about his stage volume. 

When people feel served, they are much more likely to trust you. If you've made every effort to make the A-list diva guitarist feel at home, maybe he'll listen to you when you suggest bringing things down from 17 to 11.

Service. This is what you're signing up for.

Why do I love serving? Because I love giving the gift of clarity. Running sound, writing music, or mastering records is how I do it.

We all give the gift differently. The end goal's the same: a smooth, technically transparent show/record. The techniques you use, how you interact with your clients, and how you listen make up your personal delivery method.

I have seen way too many bags of hot cheetos devoured in sound booths. Working with a lazy fader pushing robot isn't edifying for anyone involved.

Be someone who gives life, not takes it. Serving people well through a craft you're truly passionate is one of the most life giving things you can do. It would be a shame to let your ego get in the way.

The cure? Give much.

There are lots of us sound folk, but only one of you.

How do you give the gift of clarity? Let me know in the comments below.

Michael Curtis

A mastering engineer and composer who loves helping you sound awesome.