Anyone who’s been on tour for any period of time will find the following scenario all too familiar.
You arrive at the venue and the first thing you do is introduce yourself to the house engineer, who grudgingly acknowledges you with a derisive sneer. You go over your requirements and they set about their work as if you’re tearing them away from the only thing they truly enjoy doing and forcing them to perform the most menial and humiliating of tasks.
Despite experiencing this many times on my travels I still find this kind of behaviour quite startling; at the very least house engineers are being paid to be there so why do they sometimes appear to resent your very existence? What’s so wrong about expecting them to do their job?
To answer these questions we need to look at what motivates us to pursue a career in live sound. Is it the usual things such as glory, money, girls or a desire to be part of an exciting, dynamic and above all clear and undistorted concert experience?
There is certainly glory to be had but only for the select few at the top of their game working with the biggest acts. Reaching that pinnacle of achievement involves not just a supreme degree of skill but also a healthy dose of luck, so if it’s glory we’re after there are quicker and easier ways to get it. If we’re in it for the money then we should think twice; it can pay well but the work can be quite sporadic. Artists have an annoying habit of disappearing from the live circuit to write, record or pursue their acting careers. Girls have certainly been spotted hanging around stage doors and clambering up drain pipes to get a glimpse of the object of their desire but are those really the kind of girls we want to pursue?
Truth be told I suspect our motivations are a combination of all of the above.
A lot of the engineers I know never actually set out to be live sound engineers; it seems to be one of those professions that people drift into from parallel paths. Musician, studio engineer and electrician seem to be the most common vectors for live sound engineers. I myself started out as a musician with dreams of rock stardom but reality soon kicked in and a career as a sound engineer seemed like a safer bet. Even then I spent quite a few years toiling as a studio engineer before I saw the light and made the switch to live sound.
Let us not forget that getting into live sound is not easy. Despite many colleges offering excellent courses you still start at the very bottom. You work in small venues with inadequate PAs and terrible acoustics. The money is paltry and often you’re expected to work for free. The bands are inexperienced and unprofessional (while believing they are the next U2/Coldplay/Oasis/whoever is hot right now). It’s a miracle that any of us get through this process to actually make a living.
But many of us do and there is, of course, an additional motivating factor that we almost take for granted – a love of music. Music is a truly wonderful thing and the concert experience is one of the most enjoyable group experiences we can have so it’s quite natural to want to be a part of the creation of that. This explains why so many of us are willing to endure the difficult circumstances and non existent pay that starting out in this industry entails, and it also goes some way to explain the behaviour I described in my opening paragraph. If, for whatever reason, you lose that love or become jaded by the endless procession of bands that never quite make it you find yourself in a job you no longer enjoy with a skill set that’s not easily transferrable.
Look at it from the point of view of the house engineer working in a small to mid range venue. Most of the time you’re the king of the castle, responsible for all this exciting equipment, you might even have had a hand in the design or purchasing of the gear and thus have a vested interest in it’s continued operation. Then you turn up for work and you hear those five dreaded words: "we have our own engineer." You are then required to be subservient to someone who walks in off the street, who may have no formal training or very little experience and who’s only qualification is that they know the band.
So how, as touring engineers, do we deal with obtuse house engineers? The key is attitude – stroll in with confidence, declare yourself to be the sound guy for the band and most crews will instantly default to you. If you shuffle in, hide behind the band members and then timidly ask if they wouldn’t mind you touching the desk every now and then you’re definitely in for a bumpy ride. If you’re perceived to be knowledgeable and experienced you will instantly be treated with respect. It helps to do your research on the venue. Go over the venue technical specifications, be prepared and research any equipment you’re not familiar with.
But it’s important to remember that there’s a fine line between being commanding and downright bossiness. People respond better when they feel they’re part of a team that’s working together; no one likes having orders barked at them.
If you encounter someone who is being overly territorial start asking them questions about the system, show an interest and their attitude will change, flatter their ego. Sometimes it’s even useful to ask basic questions about the equipment because it gives them the opportunity to talk down to you and thus regain a modicum of superiority.
But every situation is unique so it never hurts to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes and try to understand the situation from their point of view. At the end of the day the only real difference between touring engineers and house engineers is the commute home.
Andy Coules (andycoules.co.uk) is a sound engineer and audio educator who has toured the world with a diverse array of acts in a wide range of genres.
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