Communicating With The Sound Engineer (Another Letter)

Dear Musicians,

Over the years that I’ve worked with you, many things have become apparent. One of those concepts is that, quite often, you need me to make some sort of change in the middle of a show. Often, that change is necessary to make your life on stage more comfortable, such that you can create the best possible experience for your audience.

At times, it may have been hard to get that change made for you. Such difficulties commonly arise due to communication problems. As such, I am writing this letter to help you transmit your needs and wants to the audio humans you will inevitably encounter.

First and foremost: Please use your words.

I understand that there is a stubborn stigma attached to “talking through” an issue in the middle of a show. However, any aesthetic problems this can cause are quite minor, especially when you consider that not getting a need met may cause real problems with your performance.

When it comes to a complex topic, especially in a pressure situation, the ability of spoken language to convey nuance and relay information unambiguously is a huge bit of leverage. By speaking over the PA, you can make it very clear, say, that “I think my vocal is starting to feed back in the highs.” There’s actually a lot of information in that sentence, yet it comes across quickly and elegantly when turned into speech.

On the flipside, I’m not sure how that concept would be effectively transmitted by way of hand signals – unless there was a lot of rehearsal time with the engineer involved.

Also, concerts are full of distractions to the eye. A sound operator may have their visual attention elsewhere, while still devoting their ears to the music. As such, addressing them over the PA is generally a sure method for getting their full attentiveness returned to you.

My second point is in regards to visual signals: Think big, think simply, and think patiently.

When you don’t have the opportunity to verbalize a request, visual communication is a necessity. However, as I’ve alluded to already, it has limitations. You have to restrict yourself to basic concepts that have a small number of interpretations, and require no rehearsal to understand.

(Many years ago, I had a musician attempt to take me through a large number of hand signs that would convey things like “The stage-left guitar needs more midrange in the monitors” and “Less reverb on my vocals for this next tune.” I can’t say that it worked out very well.)

Simplicity and “largeness” go together. Remember that the audio engineer may be quite a distance from you, causing detailed motions to become lost. Ad-hoc sign language at shows must be “big” so that it can be seen, and only so many ideas should be signaled in a short period of time.

I highly recommend the approach of “Who, What Instrument, Where, and Up/Down.” For instance: Point at the guitar player, mime the guitar playing, point at your monitor, and then make an up or down motion until the guitar level is where you want it. It’s compact, relatively unambiguous, and the involved motions are easy to see.

As to patience, please do remember that it takes time to interpret your signals, figure out how to get you what you want, and then start to make it all happen. Several seconds may have to elapse before you hear any change, and some “iteration” may have to take place before you’ve gotten exactly what you want. This is simply an inherent hazard of doing things on the fly, but when taken in stride it’s not too hard to handle.

Hopefully this all makes sense. Effective communication is important for a good show, and a little bit of forethought about how to go about it can make a huge difference.

Thank you for taking these thoughts into consideration.

Your friend,

Danny (An Audio Human)

About The Author

Danny Maland

Danny Maland appears here on loan from The Small Venue Survivalist, where he muses about all kinds of things related to doing local shows.