Ari Herstand recently wrote a “matched pair” of articles about audio humans. You know – sound guys. Noise boys. Audio craftspersons. FOH engineers. I guess there was a bit of a kerfuffle over it all, some of it being fueled by musicians who have had terrible experiences with “aerial vibration management technicians.” (Sound guys.)
Now, a lot of my articles put the onus on musicians. I don’t think I’ve been unfair when I’ve done that. At the same time, though, audio humans bear their fair share of responsibilities – and when they fail to uphold their part of the bargain, extremely frustrating situations can develop, and morph, and snowball into a cluster[censored] of epic proportions.
But…beyond the fact that craptastic and infuriating sound dudes/ dudettes do exist, a question remains. What causes certain audio humans to be so painful to work with? I believe that, in many cases, you can trace the issue back to a fundamental, “negative” force, which is:
Lack Of Knowledge
Now, sure, there are some highly knowledgeable audio techs who are jerks. There are highly-experienced and entirely competent people who are the very picture of “a control freak.” However, I’ve found that many bad behaviors are initiated and intensified by having insufficient understanding of a situation that you’re a major player in. There is also, of course, flat-out incompetence…which can actually happen alongside a great attitude.
To talk about this more in-depth, let’s take a look at some of the points made in Ari Herstand’s piece that addresses audio humans directly.
The first heading, “Not All Of Us [Musicians] Suck,” addresses the issue of the sound guy who – from the first moment – is clearly uninterested in working with you. My feeling is that these situations are driven by techs who only want to work with their favorite kind of music, or their favorite kind of people. On the surface, this is about preferences – but I would suggest that the root is “lack of knowledge.”
There are plenty of audio craftspeople out there who are “button pushers.” That is, they’ve learned an explicit procedure for getting workable results, but don’t truly understand why that procedure exists. I would venture to say that most techs spend some non-trivial amount of time in that phase – I know that I certainly did. The problem with being a button pusher is that, when confronted with something that’s unfamiliar, you aren’t well suited to adapt to it. The narrower an audio human’s experience is, the less they will be able to work competently on your show – and this can make the tech feel threatened. Threatened people are often unpleasant, and so if your genre is unfamiliar to the sound guy, or even if it’s just you as a person that’s unfamiliar, you may get the cold-shoulder as a result.
This also carries over into Ari’s second point, which gets neatly wrapped up in one sentence: “You may know how to run a 5 piece rock band, but I have more experience with my gear and my show. Why not put your ego aside for a second and work WITH me?”
Again, the issue is lack of knowledge. The engineer has the procedure for “making a full band work” down to a science, even to the troubleshooting of any problems. Even so, there isn’t enough understanding of the general, fundamental underpinnings of the craft to be able to adapt to an unfamiliar situation.
Lack of knowledge is also why some techs absolutely lose their minds when you move a mic, or your instrument, or want to substitute your own mic, or use your own DI, or sing at the “wrong” distance from the mic.
(Please do sing closely enough that your monitor-mix desires and hopes for the sound out front are in accord with the laws of physics, but beyond that…)
These folks go bonkers when you change things because they only know how to make things work when the setup is PRECISELY in accord with their experience. Their comfort zone is tiny, because their understanding of their craft is restricted. Mess with their comfort zone – especially when their self-worth rides on their results – and BOOM! You end up with a very pissed-off technician.
Why Is There So Much Lack Of Knowledge?
I could go on, and on, and on, and on with the examples in the previous section, but I think that what’s more helpful is to talk about why you are so likely to encounter audio humans that suffer from “lack of knowledge.”
1) All audio techs have to learn their craft.
There’s not a single audio human who knows everything about live-sound from the moment they’re born. Learning the discipline takes years, and that’s often just for the functional part. The fundamental principles behind everything – the math, the science, and getting a feel for how those fundamentals express themselves in practical reality – can take even longer. In my own case, I’ve been doing something with audio for just short of 20 years…and I can’t say that I was really comfortable with the craft until I was about 15 years in. I didn’t actually become internally confident (consistently, anyway) until I had 17 or 18 years under my belt. I still have a “breakthrough” every now and again.
I wish I was smarter.
Anyway, getting to be competent at real-time audio takes a while.
2) Not all audio techs really want to learn the craft.
Coupled with the first point is that not everybody is fascinated by live-audio to the same degree. Some folks are happy to learn just enough to be able to work in a few specific situations. At that point, they’re done, they’re fine with it, and they may even be highly confident – especially if their experience has been limited enough to fuel that confidence. If that confidence becomes challenged, however, they may suddenly turn into a very unpleasant sort of creature (as described earlier).
3) Misinformation is everywhere.
The world of audio is rife with mythology, and even outright falsehood that becomes accepted as fact. This is driven by how incredibly deep the craft is. There is a massive amount of science that underlies the working of any given piece of live-sound, and it’s entirely possible to reach a conclusion about “x causes y” that seems consistent and correct…and is UTTERLY FALSE. This misinformation can be believed and propagated by even very competent and respected audio humans.
For instance, I was taught by a live-audio instructor who was clearly a knowledgeable guy. He knew how and why things were done, as far as I could tell. He was also convinced that “clipping destroys speakers because the signal contains DC, and the DC stops the speaker from cooling itself via movement.” When he said that, I believed him.
He was COMPLETELY incorrect – but he was still a good sound guy, and an instructor that I learned a lot of correct things from. (For the record, clipping does NOT destroy speakers, and most power amplifiers probably won’t pass DC at their outputs anyway. That’s not the point of this article, though.)
4) Techs are often hired by people who know less than they do.
When an audio human goes to work for a sound company, especially when the founder is still in charge, they’re probably going to be mentored. They’re probably going to grow in their knowledge. They’re probably going to become a better, more flexible craftsperson, and it’s because their boss is better at live-sound than they are.
However, there are plenty of other situations where audio humans are employed by definitely-not-audio-people. The tech gets hired because they can consistently make sound come out of the PA, and nobody else in the building may even know where to start. There are some techs who aren’t even people that are dedicated to live-sound. It’s just that they know enough about hooking up A/V gear to make things work, and that’s it.
5) Really good techs are expensive.
The real, honest-to-goodness top talents in live-sound are very spendy to hire. Some audio-humans charge a “per day” rate that’s a multiple of what a small venue can expect to gross in a night…perhaps even by an order of magnitude. As a result, there are a lot of venues that have to settle for what they can get on a small budget. People with the experience and maturity of, say, Dave Rat, are unlikely to be found at “some bar.” It’s just economics.
Heck, even average techs are expensive. The club I work for pays me more than they can really afford, because they believe in doing the best they possibly can for musicians. People seem to enjoy working with me, but I’m not exactly a guy who could mix FOH for a stadium act, or do realtime, rock-and-roll monitors in Vegas.
6) You wouldn’t believe what floats to the top.
Up there, I said “the real, honest-to-goodness top talents.” This was to distinguish from the folks who are working above their level of actual experience. There are plenty of stories out there of people mixing big acts in big rooms, but who aren’t really “Varsity Level” craftspersons. Politics and “right place at the right time” play a huge role in this business, and it’s not just for the musicians. If getting promoted past your level of competence can happen at the high levels, just imagine what can happen in bar-and-club land.
Anyway – this article could go on for days, but I think I’ve hit the major points. Obviously, the problem of the “sucky sound dude” can’t be fixed by simply talking about the causes. Still, I think it’s helpful to have an understanding of why things are the way they are. If you’re a musician, you can be more prepared to recognize the signs of an impending problem. If you’re an audio human, you can take a good look at yourself…and try not to suck.