Got American Idol fever? Wanna be in the music biz? I was a freelance soundman on the Cleveland circuit from 1992-2000. Thinking about a career in sound? Read on!
Jeeze, where do I begin? First things first. Sound mixing is largely a labor of love. Be prepared to work for cheeseburgers, if you’re lucky.
1. Sound mixing don’t pay too much: The prerequisites for becoming a soundman (or soundwoman) are largely two fold. A strong aptitude for electronics, and a strong back. A love of music is usually what motivates one to delve into sound support in the first place, but once the seriousness and demanding technical requirements sink in, that love fades quickly, and can even turn into a wee bit of hatred. Be prepared to load and unload racks of very heavy amplifiers, main speakers, lights, staging, mixing counsels, cables and snakes into a rented U-haul at about 10:00 A.M. Friday morning, set up, run the show until 2:00 A.M. Saturday, tear down,truck the gear back to the warehouse at about 4:00. If you’re a rooky, or a free-lancer, you’ll make about 75 bucks for the job. The most I made ever, was mixing a stage show for the Painesville haunted house, (Ohio) about 180 dollars for the weekend. The reality is, so many jobbers are in the biz, the market is saturated by competent, well equipped ‘amatures’ who can do an ample job for about 50 bucks. Youch.
2. If the band sucks, it’s your fault: Get ready for this one. The reality of the live music biz, is that almost all of the bands you’ll find yourself running sound support for, are, well, just o.k. talent wise. Fact is, they usually downright suck. Be forewarned: If the band members don’t get a standing ovation, get ready for a beating; The Big Golden Rule of live music: the band will never admit to being lousy. If they get booed, it’s because the sound guy screwed it up. It can get very lacerating, believe me.
3. Don’t bullshit about your ability: Listen carefully, Jimmy. If you can’t handle a gig, just say no. Start small. A Jazz trio or a solo guitar player in a small night club or Church are ideal for beginners. All you need do is set up the amps and speakers, fly a snake (cable bundle extension) to the stage and plug in the mikes and guitar. Nice and easy. Set it and forget it. Don’t over-mix or get too involved with the music. Nothing, I mean nothing, pisses off musicians more than a dopey sound-guy who tries to lay his own reverb, delay or other special effects on their scores. Talk to the musicians. Ask them what they do, how they do it, and what they expect of you. In 3 out of 4 gigs, just running a ‘clean’ show with no failures, cutouts or breakdowns is all they ask. Remember: You are not a member of the band, dummy.
4. Be prepared for equipment failures: Examine your equipment. You need to be able to problem solve on the fly. Most of the time you’ll be renting equipment, and you’ll find out last minute (last second more often than not) that the first 3 channels on the mixing counsel don’t work, the wireless mikes aren’t tuned correctly or the batteries are dead, cables are shorted and cut, etc. If a microphone cuts out in the middle of a song, you need to fly on the stage like Michael J. Fox, swap it out, and get back to the boards. Gotta be fast skippy. Keep in mind that all the audience cares about is consistency. Most of the time, you’ll be doing night clubs, and most of the people are there to get laid or get drunk, and really don’t care much about the music, unless it cuts out altogether or repeatedly, and you can’t figure out why. (shudders at memories)
5. Listen to the music on the radio: Don’t listen to your favorite CD’s all the time as a rule. Why? You need to know what’s Hot, and how to mix it. Listen…listen…listen! Listen to the type of effects, duration, vocal, guitar, keyboard levels, etc., and try to memorize it. Remember, if a band plays a tune from Smashing Pumpkins, it’s your job to make it sound like Smashing Pumpkins, period, or at least something close.
6. Be prepared to deal with some really hostile people: To be truthful, the music biz is rough. Even vicious. Think about it, you’re dealing with massive, over inflated egos who all think they’re the next Beatles. A lot of them use drugs. Get tough, and be thick skinned emotionally. Be prepared to be thrown off jobs, being told that you suck to your face, and move on. Big rule. Learn to put your mistakes behind you and learn from them. Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you, for real.
7. Look for the EZ gigs for cash: Nothing is smoother, and cooler than a church gig. Get up at 7:00 on Sunday, mix a couple services and be home at noon. Pay? about 75 bucks. All you need to do is set levels on a mike or two, maybe a keyboard or guitar. Church services are nice and slow. EZ, and you’re dealing with ‘churchy’ people. They usually won’t tell you that you suck, even if you do.
8. Study sound equipment: The Internet rules. Before the web, I relied on trade magazines, or a trip up to Sam Ash. Now you can look up Crown’s latest line of amps or Yamaha’s latest SFX generator, and even get a demo online. Coool. Nothing is more embarrassing than committing to a gig, and not knowing how to run the equipment. IF you make it through the night, you’ll never get another call from them again, believe me.
9. Don’t drink and mix: You don’t drink and drive, right? You shouldn’t drink and mix, either. Stay sober all the way through the third set. If you party when you produce, you’ll lose your reactions. You might spill beer on the mixing board, an offense punishable by hanging. I can always tell when a soundman has been drinking because the music gets progressively louder and sloppier as the night goes on. Plus, you need to tear down stage, and it’s a real bitch to do it drunk. Keep in mind, you want the club owner to invite you back week after week, and if you’re gooned on Jack Daniels while you’re working, they won’t ask you again. That’s the key: Remember that you are at work.
10. Sound mixing is hard work: It’s not all fun and babes, Jimmy. That’s why you probably got suckered into the trade in the first place. To be Seen. To be part of the Music Scene. That wears off quickly, if you survive the first 5 or 10 gigs or so. Also, stick with it. You will get good at it in time. There is no substitute for hands-on experience, not even an education in music production. You have to get down and dirty in the field to grow. Once you qualify as a ‘pro’ sound dude, sound mixing takes on a larger than life dimension all of its own. Being an established sound engineer is one of the greatest feelings you will experience in your lifetime. Ignore your critics. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Illegitimus non carborundum.
11. Stay in good physical shape: At least if you’re planning on the big load-up-a-U-haul gigs. Plus, if you look good, you’ll get more gigs. After all, music is about being sexy, right? Again, this is why simple gigs like churches are cool: The system is already in the house, and you just need to bring in your own sloppy self, set up stage, and read the bible.
In closing, on the bible note, say a prayer that everything goes smoothly. You’ll probably need it!