Andy Coules on why those less glamorous gigs should be just as important as large-scale shows to good engineers.
One of the great ironies of live sound is that the job is harder when you first start out and gets gradually easier as you progress up through the industry. This may sound like I’m stating the obvious, as any career path involves a learning curve, but I’m referring more to the conditions you work in.
When you first start out you typically work in small venues with equipment that has almost certainly seen better days. The PA was probably quite average when it was installed and it’s been hammered by four bands a night, seven nights a week, 50 weeks a year in the 20 years since. The mixing desk features a series of scrawled annotations explaining which channels don’t work – or exhibit unpredictable behaviour – and a number of knobs and fader caps are bent, missing or clearly from a different desk. The microphones are badly worn and full of a thousand singers’ spit, the DI boxes only work when you give them a kick, the cables have been cut up and repaired so many times that you’ve only got one that will reach the side of the stage furthest from the stage box, but you need to use that for the lead singer who, in his own words, “likes to wander”.
On the other hand, if you’re lucky and skilful enough to progress to the upper reaches of arena/stadium level shows then you find a quite different picture. Your PA is the best that money can buy and utilises the latest technology to bathe your audience in a warm shower of perfectly balanced frequencies at precisely the right volume to convey the power and clarity of your mix. Your console is digital and comprises more computing power than NASA, yet still sounds warm and reassuringly analogue. Your microphones are fresh out of the box and still have that new microphone smell, your DI boxes all work perfectly and your cables are neatly coiled and available in any length you might desire.
Most of us operate in between these two extremes, but one interesting thing I’ve noticed is that engineers who operate at the higher levels of the industry tend to have a hard time adapting if they’re required to scale down to a small venue. This is something I’ve witnessed as a result of the trend of large acts playing in small venues, either to play an intimate ‘secret’ show or just to re-engage with their audience and suggests that we tend to lose some of the skills we gain on the way up.
The very nature of small venues means that the speakers and the microphones are often in uncomfortably close proximity to each other; add to this the fact that the acoustics were probably not designed for amplified music and you have a challenging environment to mix sound in. This forces us to develop excellent feedback combating skills, primarily in tuning the system to obviate room modes and standing waves, but also in being able to quickly identify and eliminate unexpected bursts of feedback – which are as often caused by the inexperience of the performers as any iniquities of the system. Thus we have the crucible in which many a great engineer is forged.
However as we progress through the industry, getting exposed to better sound systems and more agreeable room acoustics, we rely less and less on those skills hard-won in the battle against feedback, and inevitably lose them. This is perfectly logical because any skill not regularly used is gradually lost but is this loss a valid trade-off, and more importantly is there anything we can do to maintain these skills?
The simple solution I’ve found is to continue working in small venues. First and foremost it helps keep you grounded as an engineer. There’s no time for pretension or ego when you have to get down to the nitty-gritty of mixing in challenging environments without the benefit of pre-production or lengthy sound checks. I also find it keeps your ears sharp, not just from chasing the spectre of feedback but also in dealing with a multitude of different instrument tones in a short space of time. It’s also great for honing your speed mixing skills as you invariably have to deal with multiple bands on a nightly basis, none of whom you’ve heard before – a skill which is particularly handy come festival season when you’re confronted with speedy changeovers and the absence of sound checks.
We often measure the progress of our careers by the size of venues we work in and not everyone has fond memories of working small venues, but there are definite benefits to be had from putting in the occasional shift at one. It’s never a bad thing to be reminded of where you came from and it’s nice to be able to stay in touch with the grass roots of music – plus there’s always a chance you might bump into the next big stadium band.
Andy Coules is a sound engineer and audio educator who has toured the world with a diverse array of acts in a wide range of genres.