In the live industry, audio engineer training happens on the job.
You’ll never take a college class on how to load a semi. You’ll never have to bribe a union forklift driver at the academy.
In general I believe it’s pretty easy to get started at this job and much harder to stick with it. I even said so in How To Become A Sound Engineer: “Anyone can become a sound engineer. Getting your foot in the door is easy, but it can be difficult to move up.”
Simple, right? Except if you’re the person trying to get your foot in the door for the first time. Then you might think I’m full of shit.
10: The truth hurts?
“This is not a very nice book…But, it is a truthful one.”
Right out of the gate Darryn De La Soul prepares you for pain. In her free eBook Getting A Foot In The Door: How to make your way in the Live Sound Industry, she paints a pretty bleak picture of working in pro audio. I don’t agree with her on this issue, but I respect her and what she has to say. Her experience is based on a decade of touring and doing shows.
I disagree because I’ve worked in places that have much lower barriers to entry and demand much less sacrifice than the ones she talks about in her book. I’m not going to dive into that right now, but those places include jobs in theatre and corporate AV, for example. My theory is that De La Soul has spent so much of her career working concert sound and helping others do the same that to her the entire industry looks like an uphill battle. I can’t fault her too much for her approach, because the people coming to her for help want to mix the next U2 tour and so the first thing she has to do is a reality check.
9: Climbing the career web
Unlike many careers, such as banking and law, there is no ‘ladder’ in the Live Sound industry; it’s more like a web, only a web that has a lower end and a higher end.
This is my favorite section of the book, because it puts into words something I’ve been trying describe for years. If you want to be an electrician the ladder looks like this:
- Training School
- Master electrician
If you want to be a sound engineer the process might include any combination of training schools, assistantships, apprenticeships, part-time jobs, full-time jobs, and working for free for friends. If you want, you can cut through all of those by getting your own clients. Or you might also have a job in audio but still need or want a second job, so nothing is ever black and white.
This giant gray area is the reason it can take so long to get rolling after you move to a new city, even though you have years of experience. If you use it right, it also allows you to save a lot of time, make the right connections, and launch yourself into the higher end of the web.
8: Audio Engineer Training Qualifications
Most of the degrees out there don’t really mean much because they haven’t taught you how to push the boxes and load the truck and be awake for 15 hours and still have a smile on your face.
There’s no one certification that is required to call yourself a sound engineer. Again, this is good and bad. You may excel very quickly at a job through hard work and aptitude, but the status you gain is generally not transferrable to your next job.
That being said, there are some qualifications that help. If you come in with a rigging certification, well, that’s badass and not very common. More on that in a future post. Also, everyone should be CPR and First Aid certified, because it’s easy to get and could save a life.
7: (Don’t be) A bit of a dick
This is the most helpful and the most abstract advice that De La Soul gives in her book. Without certifications or a clearly defined career ladder, first impressions are most of what we’ve got, unfortunately. How do you create a good first impression? Read The Charisma Myth, and thank me later.
De La Soul shares other behavior guidelines that that will help you play well with others. Our industry has a reputation for being disorganized and unreliable. When is the last time you went to a concert that started on time, for example? Being punctual and reliable will make you stand out by contrast.
6: How to look good on your first job
Two words: Tight pants.
Just kidding! I made that one up.
De La Soul gives a whole list of ways to be valuable on the job, but I’ll tell you a secret right now. I can always identify the inexperienced techs because they stand around waiting for someone to say go. As soon as you get in there, start putting together the missing pieces. If it’s not clear, ask whoever is in charge rather than waiting for them to tell you. If you want to look really sharp, ask for the next three steps and write them down so you won’t have to keep coming back for the next step.
5: Pushing Boxes
Seventy percent of the job is…loading trucks.
Goddammit, I hate load-in and load-out. Why didn’t I just become a flute player?? My suggestion is to ask someone more experienced, “What’s the best way to lift this?” and “Is this a two-man job or can I get it myself?” You’re not going to be the superstar you want to be with a blown disk.
4: CV, Resume, Cover Letter
De La Soul spends a couple of chapters talking about how to get these three things right. Only once have they ever gotten me a job. If it’s not a posted position, just go there. If you can’t, call. If all else fails, email. Repeat as necessary.
3: Now that you’ve got the job
Respond to messages and emails promptly.
Employers, clients, significant others: everyone looooooooooooves this. If you respond quickly, clients will learn to contact you first because they know that you will get back to them right away, but Molly Molasses will take two days to respond. I’m not the best role model, but a good practice I’ve developed is to write people back immediately, with the answer if I have it or to let them know I’ll get back to them in a few days.
You MUST have public liability insurance.
This was a surprise to me the first time I heard it, but it is the same in the US. If you do not have general liability insurance then your employer does and technically, you are an employee, which is fine. You just need to be clear on what your status is. Read the IRS Independent Contractor 20-Factor Test.
In my interview with Stephen Fishman, he didn’t think it was necessary since a lawsuit would most likely be filed against the venue owner or event organizer, who are more likely to have the money. When I talked to Jim Digby from the Event Safety Alliance, he said to err on the side of caution and have your own policy for protection. You can buy it online in about 30 minutes for about $40/month, so for me it’s a no-brainer.
2: It’s worth a Google.
First thing just about anyone does these days is ‘Google’ you; so make sure your Internet presence says only good things about you.
I disagree. I’ve spent a lot of time building an online presence. It’s done good things for me, but it’s never gotten me a job or stopped me from getting a job. I would love to change this, but at the moment it’s just not how things work, at least in the US.
I personally found that if I saved 10% of each and every job, that equalled – more or less – the amount of tax I owed after I had offset my business expenses. Start saving those little bits now.
Where were you ten years ago when I needed to hear this?! Pfff…
For more on this please read The Sound Engineer’s Pain-Free Guide To TurboTax.
Although De La Soul’s frightening description of a career that demands “total dedication and balls of steel” might turn you away, remember that it’s still just a job. Jobs are very important, but like everything else in life, ultimately they are what you make of them.
So, if you want to bust your ass interning at a recording studio for thousands of hours waiting for a break, you can do that and it will have its rewards. But you can also get a full-time job at a corporate AV company tomorrow, and it will have different rewards. Every career and audio engineer training path is unique. Don’t try to be Darryn De La Soul or Nathan Lively. Those two are taken and cannot be repeated. You do you.