The harsh truth about being a live sound engineerMark Ellis
So, you wan’t to be a sound engineer. Great! It is one of the best, most rewarding and – arguably – coolest careers out there. But it isn’t easy. Far from it.
In fact, some would argue that, at times, it is one of the most unenjoyable jobs going. Look beyond the many frustrations, though, and you’ll realise the dream of doing what you love and getting paid for it. As the old adage goes, if you find a career like that, you cease working for a living.
So, in this post, we’re going to take a look at the harsh truth about being a sound engineer. And we’ll try not to put you off – we promise.
1. You’ll see less of your family and friends
For some people, this may be the very reason they consider becoming a sound engineer, but let’s assume you get on with those closest to you. Working in live audio means you’ll often be grafting while others are enjoying nights out or time snuggled up in front of the TV.
Weekends, evenings and public holidays will likely turn out to be your busiest and most profitable days, therefore an acceptance that you simply won’t be able to attend quite as many social gatherings any more is very important.
2. You’re unlikely to become a millionaire
While experienced sound engineers can make a tidy living, those just starting out will have to get used to relatively low pay. Sometimes, you’ll even have to work for free. No, really.
Like many careers, there are few opportunities in sound engineering to make an absolute fortune, unless you start your own business or somehow fall into the world of the rich and famous. But we’ll assume you’re not doing this to become rich (good on you), and we’ll move on…
3. You’ll have to work with musicians
We love musicians, honestly, but it really is a love/hate or – perhaps more accurately – brotherly/sisterly relationship that is often struck up between those performing on stage and the person ensuring they can be heard.
Many musicians are lovely to work with, but the more trying performers will expect you to kill feedback instantly, turn up vocals so that they do nothing other than drown out everything else and, at the end of the night, you’ll probably be the one packing up while they enjoy a few beers at the bar.
4. You’ll have to tie up cables
Ah – cables. In a live environment, you’ll have to tie up XLR and speaker cables that are always, without question, absolutely filthy. That means dirty, black hands every time you set up or de-rig.
5. You’ll have to listen to terrible music
Beggars can’t be choosers and if you’re starting out in the world of live audio engineering, you won’t have the luxury of choosing which bands you work with. So, that dreadful progressive jazz outfit you’re due to provide sound for on Friday will have to be endured.
6. You’ll have to work with crap kit
Not all kit rocks. As much as we wish NOVA kit was everywhere, it simply isn’t, and the gigging sound engineer will quite often have to use whatever the band or venue supplies. Sometimes, that might be a couple of 15” powered speakers better suited to a wedding DJ and a mixer that only has four working channels. You simply won’t have a choice but to use it.
7. You’ll run out of time – always
In a live situation you’ll always run out of time to do crucial things, no matter what you do to try and prevent such occurrences. Sound checks are a prime example; you may want to achieve that perfect kick drum sound, but if the venue owner opens the doors early and asks you to switch to background music, you’ll often have no choice but to obey.
Have we put you off? Hopefully not. In fact, every single challenge above represents an opportunity. If you’re forced to use rubbish kit – show what you can do with it. If the band proves difficult, be the bigger person. Being a sound engineer is about compromise and technical proficiency. If you’re capable of both, you’ll go very far indeed.