Live Sound Explained:
2. The Sound Technician

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So what’s the job description, exactly?
One of the most frustrating aspects of live sound engineering is that most people (bands, promoters, and the audience) don’t have a very good understanding of what the technician is actually supposed to be doing. With a basic understanding of where a sound guy’s responsibilities start and end, you’ll be able to efficiently address and solve logistical problems before and during the event.

First and foremost, the sound technician is usually an employee of either the venue or the sound contractor. Over the course of their employment, they are generally tasked with the maintenance, set up and operation of the employer’s sound equipment. On a less formal basis, the expectation is that they will seamlessly implement any and all technical requirements for shows, create a comfortable environment for performers, and present a flattering mix to the audience. In doing so, the technician is effectively acting as a customer service agent on behalf of the venue or sound company.

Stage manager refers to whoever is in charge of keeping the show running smoothly behind the scenes. This is the person responsible for keeping track of the show’s schedule, making sure that performers are ready to get on and off stage as required, and acting as a liaison between performers and the sound technician. Since the circumstances can vary greatly between gigs, you should be aware who will perform this role. For small shows, the headline band or the sound guy will often casually perform this job. For larger shows, the booking agent at the venue, or a freelance promoter will often fill this role. Music festivals almost certainly have a dedicated employee or volunteer stage manager acting as the festival organization’s representative at the venue.

The promoter or booking agent is the individual in charge coordinating the logistics for shows. He/she is in charge of booking the bands (and venue), negotiating the terms of payment, fulfilling the conditions in the rider, and scheduling the performances. This intermediary absolutely needs to know about any unusual technical requirements and/or scheduling requests relating to your performance before the show. That said, please don’t ask the sound guy to reschedule your set because your friends aren’t coming ’till 11:00. – a) That’s lame. – b) I don’t care what order you play in. – c) It’s not my job to: indulge your every whim, okay it with the promoter, and inform all of the other bands on the bill.

I’m feeling anecdotal:

I just work here…
A good while ago, Xzibit was booked to play the venue that I worked for. (Fuckin’ rights. I totally mix famous people and then name-drop them in my blog.) About six weeks before the show, the promoter and I sat down to go through the technical rider for Xzibit’s set. Against my recommendation, he decided that we would simply use the venue’s existing sound system, rider be damned. Come the day of the show, I had to run what felt like the longest sound check of my life, explaining throughout that “yes, I saw your rider,” “no, this system is absolutely not up to the specifications outlined therein,” and “the promoter would be happy to address all of your concerns after sound check.” In the set preceding Xzibit’s, his tour manager confronted me in the sound booth insisting that I turn up the bass. Unfortunately, any additional bass that I could add to the signal would just distort at the amplifiers, which I was more than happy to demonstrate. They were actually really easy to work with during the actual set, but the shit should have fallen on the promoter’s plate, not mine.

 

Gosh! You smell like whiskey!
Not too long ago, I worked a night that, as far as I could find out, had been booked by my regular venue’s booking agent. I showed up at the venue with ample time to sound check the first band and to start the show at an appropriate time for a four band bill. About halfway through the third band’s set, a frantic (and well-liquored) individual burst into the sound booth to insist that I “cut this band off immediately” because “the show is way behind schedule.” She scolded me angrily, and fumed that the headlining band had been contracted to play a set starting at a particular time (which had just passed). This is where it gets difficult. Apparently this ‘promoter,’ who I had never met, was suffering from a severe tact deficiency, was poorly organized, and had let her show run for three hours without introducing herself to the person she thought responsible for keeping her schedule. And I was supposed to cut off the sound immediately on her say so? See the problem?

 

I’d cut you off, but I’m kinda new here.
Even less long ago, I was working the afternoon shift as relief for a venue’s resident sound tech during an all day show (10:30am – 2:30pm). Their schedule allotted 30 minutes, including setup, for each of about 20 bands, the last few having one hour slots. The last band in my shift drove to Calgary from out of town to perform their set, and had some trouble setting their equipment up quickly. With half their time gone, they embarked on what should have been a 15 minute set. They segued from (what I informed them should be) their last song into an additional song, and subsequently ‘indulged’ the audience with an encore. In the meantime, I had no option but to go find the promoter, find out whether he was willing to take pity on an out-of-town band with gear problems, and apologise that his tight schedule was unravelling as we spoke. Nobody wins.

You wouldn’t call your car salesman to help you dislodge a deer from your radiator on the side of the highway, because – a) it’s not his job, and – b) there is probably someone who is better positioned to handle that situation. In the anecdotes above, I couldn’t comply with what was being asked of me, and had to mediate trivial and unnecessary disputes instead of focusing on my job.

Sound guys do better work without the distractions. Don’t middle-man the tech.

Return to the Table of Contents, or read on: Live Sound Explained: 3. The PA System


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