September 27, 2012

Little Things Other Engineers Notice: How to Stand Out

Any schlub with a few bucks can throw on a fancy suit . . . and look like a schlub trapped in a fancy suit. (Here in the state capital of Albany, you can't spit without hitting a political hanger-on in a baggy blue suit.) But a man who chooses tasteful, well-fitted clothing will stand out, even if others may not consciously realize why. Something just clicks.

The same is true of stagecraft, which, though it sounds like some sort of magic art, is actually just a generic term for the technical aspects of live entertainment. There are many hard-charging 'road dog' audio techs who mix loud, brag louder, and leave the stage looking worse than the lead singer's hotel suite.


Don't be one of these guys. Just don't. 

The techs who stand out—and get calls—show a level of basic courtesy which, while probably not noticed by most concertgoers, is readily noticed and appreciated by the musicians, staff, and crew who work with him or her. Like anything else, the devil is in the details. Below are a few of the telltale signs of conscientious stagecraft. Start making a quiet effort to incorporate these ideas into your work onstage, and you'll probably start to notice a little more respect from your fellow engineers and stage hands.

Stop Believing in the Cable Fairy. There is no magical entity that comes around after soundcheck and turns your jumbled mess of microphone cables into neat paths of copper. Keep your cables running together as much as possible to minimize the number of trip hazards onstage. Cables should usually run underneath cymbal stands and other backline to allow these items to be easily moved without dragging your rats' nest with them. Slack in the cable should be coiled up neatly at the base of the microphone stand—NOT at the stage box. 

Electric power cables should be kept as far away from audio cables as possible to minimize interference. If electrical and audio must cross paths, try to cross at a 90 degree angle.

And while on the subject of cables, let's talk a little bit about cable storage. Every venue or studio has a different method for storing cables, so it's good to ask before you start digging in. Most venues I work at have a bin of some sort. Coil cables using the over-under method (if you don't know what this is, there are plenty of great videos out there) and keep the cable tied tightly with a string, velcro tie, or stage knot. Loosely-tied cables thrown in a bin will invariably leave the next engineer grumbling as he or she has to sift through a bowl of spaghetti.

Leave No Trace. At one venue where I work, there are several engineers who rotate throughout the month. I'd say that I can guess with 75% accuracy which engineer was working before me, simply by what I find when I get there. For instance, I know that Mike likes to mix huge, fat kick drums, because he never zeros out the mixing desk. I know that Carl seems to have better places to be after the show, because there's usually a stand or a microphone left onstage in his haste to leave. But I really couldn't tell you anything about Chris, because, like any good criminal and/or sound guy, he cleans up the scene of the crime. He could be a lousy mixer (he's not, by the way), but I'd recommend him over the other two. That's how easy it is to stand out.

Keep a Lid on it. While not strictly necessary, mixing with a decibel meter handy gets a ton of bonus points in my book. Contrary to rock n' roll mythology, there is such a thing as 'too loud.' If you're working at an unfamiliar club, ask the manager what their typical sound pressure level is for the type of concert that you're mixing. More often than not, you'll get a confused look and an answer along the lines of “Well, kind of loud, but not too loud,” but you'd better believe that your consideration will be filed away as a mental note.

These are just a few of the things that set the truly professional audio techs apart from the legion of 'sound guys.' They're small things, to be sure, but they do get noticed.

Rock on, Nathan Schied
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