Live sound has come a long way since the 70’s – when it was only just becoming practical to balance the dynamics of a band on a massive system – and continues to evolve as the years go by. The age-old battle is nearly over as analog gives way to digital, sound engineers are seeing a paradigm shift toward being perceived as “friendly”, and tiny monitors seated directly in the ears of performers are now an industry standard.
Fortunately, one thing will never change: beyond technical prowess, the biggest role in entering this industry is played by personality and networking. Here are six simple strategies for breaking into a competitive yet steady and highly rewarding line of work:
1. Connect with the head sound engineer of the venue
The head sound engineer has the means to bring you into the fold; talking to whoever is behind the console is a good way to find out who the head engineer is. The bar or general manager may also point you in the right direction. Find out the next time the head engineer will be in and come back, start up a casual conversation, and try to lock in a night to shadow. Most sound engineers are very friendly when they feel they are talking to someone who appreciates sound.
A good time to approach is sometimes between soundcheck and the show, and especially after the show during strike (wrapping cables onstage can be a lonely task – if you know how, offer to help). Don’t just drop off a resume and leave. Don’t just drop off a resume and leave. They will
maybe never call without first meeting you, and a successful career in live sound starts with positive interactions. They will definitely keep in touch if you make a good first impression, and follow up every week or two with an offer to shadow!
The Head Engineer of Yoshi’s SF brought me into the fold after graduation, this picture was taken two years later working with Dave Chappelle
2. Shadow as many venues as possible
Shadowing is the easiest and most non-threatening way to get a foot in the door and a feel for the flow of the venue. It often entails working a night or two for free, following the sound engineer and getting a feel for the flow of the venue; it’s the only way to show the head engineer your work ethic, and completely worth the resulting spot on his “Panic List”: his call list of engineers who know the system when a shift needs to be covered and none of the regulars are available (happens more often than you’d think). Once you pull off a night working solo, you will likely be moved to the top of the list and soon become a regular.
The most efficient way to get steady work, is by working. It’s the best way to show your personal and technical skills, prove why you are desirable to have on-board, and get good referrals from bands and other engineers. Once you’re in the cycle, the momentum will carry itself.
3. Be personable with artists
Not only are they the ones who will pass along to management how great of a job you did, your work will be infinitely easier and more enjoyable when you are connecting with artists. If you’ve ever practiced an instrument you will sympathize with where they’re coming from, and they will return the vibe. If you don’t play or sing, I strongly recommend making an effort, as it will unlock a whole new level of enjoyment, patience, understanding, and appreciation for their craft and yours.
You can’t EQ an uncomfortable performance to sound good. Artists need to feel welcome in communicating with you openly about monitors and other needs, so you can get a good source performance and focus on building an amazing sound. When band members feel comfortable onstage, it shines through in their playing, making your mix worlds better without touching a knob.
Good vibes make for good work!
4. Don’t turn down work…ever
Even the worst, most punishing shows can lead to the best of opportunities. To get consistent work and pay your rent sans student loans, you will need to build reliance with venue(s) or a sound company. The most reliable way is to work as many gigs as possible, often at the expense of sleep and leisure time (don’t worry, by the time you’re “in”, you won’t miss it).
The ultimate goal is to be at the top of their list when an engineer is needed; be responsive to SOS emails and phone calls, that open slot will fill quickly. During shows, you will need to be on point, punctual and friendly, with a solid knowledge of your craft.
The glorious life of a sound engineer
5. Have a nice business card…but don’t rely on it
How many times have you given out a business card and sat by the phone, waiting for the tone that never rang? Most people who are busy and working won’t have time to follow up on a piece of cardboard given the night before, crumpled in a corner of their wallet, from a face they blearily remember. In contrast, a brief follow-up email or phone call the next day will set you soaring above the competition.
A business card is to show you are serious and professional…that’s it. I usually wait to give out (or even mention) my card until I have theirs, or at least an email address/phone number. “Oh, by the way, here’s my card” is a comfortable way to end a conversation after you have their contact info, also setting the stage for future contact. Bonus points if your card looks good – it’s easier than ever these days with Photoshop, and more than worth every penny for the cost of design and/or printing.
Tasteofink.com will help with your design, and make high-quality cards at a great price!
6. Keep your eyes and ears open for a Sensei (and become one)
You reinforce known knowledge through doing and teaching. You gain new knowledge by observing and listening. They are equally important, and jumping at every opportunity to do either will rocket you up the right path. If you’re lucky enough to meet someone knowledgeable who is willing to share information, ask every question you can possibly think of.
If someone asks you questions and you have enough of an understanding to answer, do so as thoroughly as possible. Even if you can’t, try. You will learn very quickly which chapters in your mental encyclopedia are strongest, and which need work, refining until you’re an audio Jedi – able to summon willpower when needed, and become an unstoppable machine during shows.
A good instructor offers guidance to his students
Live Sound is one of the very few professions where, if you do everything right, the night can be a total win/win for everyone in the venue (and beyond). Having a show go off smoothly where fans, artists and management leave the night fulfilled and energized, is one of the greatest and most inspiring feelings in the world.
These strategies will help you find work, achieve victory on a nightly basis, and grow exponentially as the scale and scope of your shows increase. Please feel free to email me any questions you have, technical or otherwise – now, during, or after shows, and I will do my best to help as quickly as possible: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to hearing from you, best of luck, remember to have fun and enjoy the music – it’s why we’re in this industry!
I couldn’t ask for a better job in the world – doing sound for my favorite band!
Ian Hicks – FOH