Don't Be "That" Sound Guy
Let me start by saying I love sound techs. They are the first to get there, and the last to leave. They get no recognition unless something goes wrong. They deserve appreciation. But just a few clunkers can give the rest a bad name. So let this cautionary tale encourage you to be better than mediocre.
A few years back I had a gig at a local club. As my band mates carved out their square inch of space on the small stage, I went to talk with the sound guys. There were two, one of which seemed to be apprenticing with the other. I asked which input I would need to plug in my gear. They brought me a cable for my DI box (a gizmo that makes the conversion from a guitar cable to a mic cable).
I plugged my guitar into my gear, and began to play. They looked down at the board and after a moment said, “Your DI must not be working. You won’t be able to use it.” I sat there perplexed. I had used this DI at other gigs, so I knew it worked. I had also tailored the settings on the box for this guitar, so it was integral to the sound I wanted.
If sound isn’t getting from the stage to the board, the first rule of sound tech-ery is to trace the signal chain. You start from the source and check each connection until you arrive at the board. Usually something isn’t fully plugged in, or patched wrong, or maybe there’s a bad cable. All it costs you is a short walk. But as I sat there the two guys behind the board stood motionless, like Greek columns.
So it was up to me. I looked around and saw an unused drum set on stage. Why they couldn’t have taken the drum set off stage for us I don’t know. I stole the mic from the snare drum and performed what’s called “the 57 test”. The Sure SM57 is a tank of a microphone, and they almost never fail. So all you have to do is plug the 57 into the dubious cable and tap on it. If I tapped on it and got signal, I would know immediately it was my gear’s fault. I tapped- no signal. So I began to trace the signal. I followed the cable to the input in the wall and yelled out, “What input is my guitar supposed to be?”
It wasn’t. It was in 8.
By this time one of the sound guys had followed me to the inputs, and saw the problem. He switched the cables, and went back to the board. Behold! An acoustic guitar in the PA system! We played the show, and I packed up shaking my head.
The sad part about this story is that the fix was so simple, and it had nothing to do with technical ability. I make simple mistakes like this all the time. If one of those guys would have come up and taken 30 seconds to find that problem, I wouldn’t be besmirching him in print. I don’t remember if the gig sounded good. All I remember is the attitude of mediocrity.
Good engineers communicate. They take a short walk to fix a small problem. They serve their band and as a result, the band plays better. Those aren’t technical skills. Those are relational skills.
Bad engineers can’t be bothered. They blame the players before they take a short walk. Bad engineers don’t trace the signal path. They stay behind their board. Bad engineers don’t have relational skills.
The good news for young techs is that you can easily set yourself apart from those Greek columns. People are starving for customer service, and they will remember if you were pleasant. There’s not enough “pleasant” right now.
So if you want to be promoted quickly, run, don’t walk to trace a faulty signal path. Meet your band with a smile and ask, “How can I help you guys out?” Communicate clearly and with a relational tone. Yes, you need technical skills. That’s what YouTube is for. There is more quality training out there than ever before and a lot of it is free. But people who are technical and relational? They will go far. Who wouldn’t want to work with someone pleasant and competent?
And don’t be “that” sound guy.