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The Audio Diplomat

by Baker Lee • in
  • December 2018
  • FOH at Large
• Created: December 11, 2018

There is more to being a live audio engineer than just being a knowledgeable technician. While it’s fun and exciting utilizing and applying one’s technical prowess, it must be understood that technical skills and ability are only one part of the equation for an engineer who is doing live sound. In the same way that great musicians often find themselves taking work with wedding bands or showcasing with unknown artists, an audio engineer also needs to be flexible if they want to keep working. Engineering for a single band on a daily basis and being afforded two to three hours for a sound check in a venue that is set up for live sound is a luxury that most engineers do not have. For those engineers coming off the road and taking freelance jobs or, for those who work in local and regional sound companies, the available work is usually a little more diverse.

‡‡         Diversity is Everything!

Diversity is challenging, and one needs the proper temperament to make a difficult situation into a rewarding experience for all involved parties. I have a client with whom I’ve been working with for about 10 years, and once a year, they stage a fundraiser in multiple rooms of a large photo studio — with several acts playing in each room. Not only do they need to bring the required staging, lighting and audio, but they also cater a full dinner for the 300 perspective donors who come to see performances by top name and up-and-coming jazz and blues artists. This requires some extraordinary scheduling acrobatics, as we have only one day to do the event. To top off our angst, the rooms are oddly shaped and lined with pillars, so we often need to be creative with our stage and speaker placement. As the organizers are not production coordinators, they often come up with an artistic vision that they place in my hands to realize.

‡‡         Closing the Gap

Over the years, we’ve managed to close the gap between the client’s dream and the actual production of the event, and we now have stage managers and talent wranglers to ensure that musicians don’t just wander on stage and start moving gear and barking orders to the sound technicians. Despite our best efforts, the client still keeps dreaming large, and we often find ourselves in charge of managing controlled chaos with 17-piece bands and a schedule that allots for a five-minute changeover. It’s a daunting task which we try to make less overwhelming by changing things that cannot work and giving the client realistic expectations before we even load the truck.

In spite of all of our production savvy and counter-planning, we still find ourselves jumping through hoops to make each of the stages happen in a professional and timely manner. It’s definitely not a job for the faint of heart, and it requires a bit of fortitude and serenity to make sure that the once and future luminaries of the jazz and blues universe are treated as equitably as the current stars. While we set the stages up festival-style and try not to make too many moves, it is often a difficult proposition, as the client sets the various acts in each of the rooms based upon their own vision of cool — rather than a design of practicality.

‡‡         Dealing with Logistics

Load-in is from the dock and — utilizing two elevators that take us to the 13th floor — we then push the gear half a block around the building to get to the studios. The stages load-in and start building at 6 a.m., lights and video arrive at 7 a.m. and backline and sound come in at 8 a.m. It’s not the best scheduling, as the staging isn’t necessarily ready for us by the time we get everything loaded in, but we need to be free of the elevators by 9 a.m., when décor and catering begin to arrive.

We work quickly and have a large and competent crew, but the bands start arriving for their sound checks at 12 noon and — since some of the bands have been put together specifically for the event — they require a bit of rehearsal time. Therefore, sound checks are a bit unorthodox, as we cannot just run from last band to first band. Typically for one of these events we are set up just in time for the bands to start walking onstage and giving the backline and audio techs a list of their needs and requests. In a perfect world this might be okay, but with so many musicians and so much gear there are always little things that slow down the process. A piece of gear malfunctions; a bass player needs a bass to replace the one that was stolen from his hotel room; a different drummer unexpectedly has to sub for the original drummer and cannot use the same kit, since he is endorsed by another brand or, the drummer (being a jazz purist) demands that no microphones be used on his kit when he plays.

Granted, these are production calls, and a production manager is required to handle these types of emergencies, thereby freeing the audio engineer to go about doing what they do best. Unfortunately, with so many people and things going on at once and even with a production manager, these small moments of crisis are distractions that easily interfere with an engineer’s focus. Therefore, there are a few skills a live mix engineer needs that don’t relate to frequencies or gain structure, but are necessary to getting a good mix.

‡‡         Required Skills

Good engineers need to be able to multi-task, while at the same time stay focused to ensure that their arrays or monitors are rung out and stable. Since it’s also in the interest of the FOH engineer to have a stable stage sound, it would make sense for both the monitor and FOH engineer to work as a together, hence team-playing also has to be part of the soundperson’s mentality and skill set. It’s required of an engineer to be helpful and giving, but since we often find ourselves in these less than perfect situations it is also essential that the engineer retains control of the stage and sound. Sometimes that means clearing the stage and having the chance to get situated before bringing the band back and, in an orderly manner, getting each of the band members situated as well. This maneuver requires the engineer to be bossy and forceful, yet tactful and tolerant at the same time and, while politics may not be a live engineer’s forte, the job often requires patience and good diplomatic skills to make for a great mix.

Illustration by Andy Au

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