Hello everyone! This is guest writer stevie weenie, coming at you from Prague. I went through audio engineering school with your indestructible host Nathan Lively, who asked me to share some thoughts about making a living as a sound engineer.
[block]The most important thing you need to learn about building your career as a sound engineer is how to recognize which situations will lead to money — and which won’t![/block]
PART ONE: HOW TO GET PAID
IDENTIFY SPECIFIC PROBLEMS THAT EXPLAIN BAD SOUND
Most venues with sound problems know that something isn’t right, but they have absolutely no clue what the problem is. By the time they call you they’ve spent a ton of money on expensive fixes that didn’t help. If you can find simple, cheap solutions that make a dramatic improvement in the sound, you get the cookie. You would not believe how often a lovely pro audio system is spoiled by one weak link.
example 1: surround sound madness
Problem: DJ’ing a one-off gig at a new sports bar with a stage for live bands: it is a mess. The IT guy who built the sound system had the right parts but all the wrong connections. The FOH sound goes from a mixing board up on the balcony, DOWN AN UNBALANCED RCA CABLE TO THE BAR, into a surround-sound amp, through a digital processor (adding a 250ms delay to everything), then back to the speakers. The stage monitors are basically a quarter-note out of sync with FOH sound. Bands are physically unable to play their instruments because the FOH sound is so badly delayed.
Solution: Bypass the entire surround sound amp. Send the main L/R mix back through the snake to the stage box, extend XLR cables to a line splitter, and run all six amps in stereo with a mono sub. Install an A/B source switch-box at the amp rack to choose between the bar’s surround receiver-amp and the live mixer sound as inputs.
Result: Regular job as house soundman.
example 2: gain staging from hell
Problem: “It always comes out at the wrong volume.” I look in the rack. I see unbalanced Y-adapters plugging two sources into each amp input! They were amplifying an iPod with its volume at 15%, plus a Sky TV system with its volume at 85%, and asking me for a compressor to keep it at the right level. Oh jeez…
Solution: Plug only single balanced connections into the amps. Recognize you are dealing with a human problem, not a technical problem. Tell the bar staff “This big knob with the blue light is for the volume control, you don’t need to touch anything else.”
Result: Flirt with the blonde waitress and go home with money in your pocket.
example 3: surround sound medieval torture chamber
Problem: Basement restaurant has four small rooms and one surround sound unit to power them all. Their speaker cables are all pigtail spliced together and rammed into the speaker jacks. They are using the”Back Left” speaker jacks as a stereo pair for the back room! They wonder why it sounds weird.
Solution: Grab the receiver’s model number off the faceplate, download the PDF owner’s manual and look up how the LED display relates to the audio going out to the speaker jacks. Set up the system to run in “all channels stereo,” tighten up the cable splices, and solve their problem. Then I write notes for the bar staff about which button to press on the stereo to get it working again.
Result: They pay your invoice, offer you a free breakfast and call you back again next time they need something. It might not be enough to live on, but this is building your network and in the end, that’s what keeps you alive. Which leads us to the next point:
DON’T BE AN ARROGANT DICK
MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS THAT PROVE THAT YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING
Usually the boss is fed up with getting ripped off, so he wants somebody who knows what is going on and he doesn’t want any questions. Your job is to fix the problem, then go away. If you start complaining, you become one more person on his list of useless people to fire ASAP. You cannot survive in this business unless you make life easy and pleasant for your clients.
example 1: the soundman vs. “the architects”
Problem: An expensive hotel builds a music stage in the bar where there are flat concrete walls, ten-meter ceiling, hardwood floors, GIANT PLATE GLASS WINDOWS PARALLEL TO EACH OTHER. Check out the photos below. The complaint is that the press is giving them reviews of “bad sound”. The owners have been asking their architects to fix the acoustics, the answer comes back 10,000€ for ceiling panels and one custom-stitched thin velvet curtain on the back wall of the stage. You know this will not work.
- Be professional and don’t laugh at what other people suggested.
- Suggest simple, cheap, non-destructive solutions that are easily reversible if they change their mind.
- Put a carpet on stage.
- Hang some curtains over those plate glass windows.
- Get some portable acoustic absorber panels on the back wall of the stage.
Result: In the end the bosses take your advice because your ideas made sense to them, you removed their fear of permanent damage, and your solutions are thousands of Euros cheaper than what the architects said.
example 2: overworked restaurant owner
Problem: A club owner spends 2500€ on expensive sound treatment for the room. He goes on to connect a computer, satellite TV, unbalanced mics and a cheap four-channel mixing board through a DJ mixer, all buried under a pile of ashtrays in the DJ booth. He uses booth/zone output jacks from the DJ mixer to control the different rooms in the bar. He doesn’t know why it sounds like crap and wants to buy a subwoofer to fix everything.
Solution: In this case, if you tell the boss he’s an idiot for spending all that money on acoustics, you’re gonna have a problem. What you do is quote him a price that includes the subwoofer and a new mixing board to unite all the sources. Use the new mixer to feed all the amps and run the DJ mixer into it on a stereo channel. Bump the price up enough to include balanced cables on top of your fees, and don’t say peep about the previous mistakes.
Result: They ask you to train the staff on how to use it, everyone likes it because it’s easier now, and you end up with another working relationship for ongoing tech maintenance.
(By the way: if you’re in the music business you are either working to sell alcohol or you’re working for drug dealers. The people who think they’re gonna be on a Midas desk for a road touring company with Aerosmith are like saxophone players in music school who say they will never do a wedding.)
FIGURE OUT WHERE THE MONEY COMES FROM
GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT AND SHUT UP
At every step the question is the same — where does the money come from? From people buying drinks at the bar? Sunday brunch? Fast turnaround for video? A stoner dream of nonsense?
example 1: restaurant dining room
Problem: An expensive bar wants music 18 hours a day. It could be a DJ, playlists, anything; their clientele gravitate toward the atmosphere. Boss uses a battery-powered wireless instrument mic (TS unbalanced) going into the headphone jack of a DJ mixer and over to a receiver at the bar. He complains that it’s too hard to set up and there’s too much bass in the ceiling speakers.
Solution: This one requires some finesse. Dress clean when you go in to talk with them. Seriously! Make a service agreement with your friend who owns a record shop. Your friend books classy DJs, you install a pair of wireless DI boxes with 12V adaptors, and you enjoy a nice working relationship with a posh hip new spot.
Result: The bar manager passes out free slivers of prosciutto, and the people keep buying champagne. Bingo. Your professsional network grows.
example 2: dreamy video soundtrack
Problem: Video producer calls and asks, “can you make me a thirty second piece of music for a commercial soundtrack? It should sound energetic and young and jazzy. The budget for the music will pay half your monthly rent. Can you do it by tomorrow?”
Solution: HELL YES! You crank out an eight-bar piano loop with some minor seventh chords and a simple half-funky bassline, drop a beat loop on it from your sample library, hit some reverb, bounce out a stereo mix, and send it the same day for comments. The producer asks for a few easy changes. (THEY NEVER LIKE YOUR FIRST VERSION.)
Result: You make the edits, return it the next morning and get paid. This falls into the category of “nice work if you can get it.”
example 3: star-struck managers
Problem: Budweiser books your home venue to shoot a commercial. The boss loves it, he’s taking in two days’ normal income for what will become literally three seconds in a beer commercial. He doesn’t know enough to ask if they plan to use location sound. He doesn’t know anything about lighting, one-day property lease agreements, or any of the stuff their crew expects to see in a normal day. Budweiser comes in with a generator truck, a million watts of lighting, catering, a pile of extras and a pro film crew.
Solution: You spend the day climbing your truss to turn off the moving gobo lights because their soundman can hear the fans. You silence phone ringers, printers, espresso machine steam hiss, and ice machine internal avalanches. You crawl around under the bar to turn off the refrigerators because they buzz. You turn off the fire alarm and illegally bypass it because their lighting rig sets it off every five minutes. You smile at the extras and get dissed at the catering truck; you even find a color printer for the director’s PDF of the script for his next project.
Result: In the end, you prevent catastrophic failure and get ignored by the honchos. One peon thanks you for saving his ass — it’s the location scout. Anyway, you charge your boss triple your normal day rate and go turn all the refrigerators back on.
CONCLUSION: Please be mentally smart inside your brains and notice that in nearly every example, the goal you are going for is not quick cash, it is to grow your network. Success depends on people; this is so obvious that most people miss it. After the first few years, most of your new business comes from your network, by recommendations and personal contacts. When you solve problems for other people, you get paid, and that’s the last word.
Next read Make A Living As A Sound Engineer, Part Two: How To Get Played.
How would someone with no professional experience go about getting their first gigs though, for example getting that first job doing live sound or making a soundtrack for a video or a game etc.. I’m at a point where I’m pretty good at producing, mixing and mastering but I’ve done it all unprofessionally so I don’t really know where to go to get that first initial experience. I’ve even looked for and found jobs online but there is so much competition I feel I need the experience to compete.
Nathan Lively says
Thanks for writing. I think any answer I could write here would not be as good as Darryn de la Soul’s free eBook, Getting a Foot in the Door – https://www.soulsound.co.uk/getting-foot-door-full