Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Rules of the Road: The Soundman - Til Death Do You Part

As I mentioned previously, I am on tour with my band at the moment, so I thought it might be valuable to share some tips on things I've learned over 16 years of doing live shows.  I thought I'd start out by talking about one of the most important rules of all: don't piss off the sound guy (or girl).  On the surface, this rule almost seems self-evident.  But anyone who has done a bit of touring knows that not all sound people are created equally.  Most will be great to work with, but sooner or later, you're going to have a bad experience.  How you handle that situation can make the difference between a good and a bad show.

Regardless of the skill or lack thereof your sound tech possesses, they have ultimate control over how you sound to the audience.  The first thing you should always do when you arrive at a venue is to introduce yourself to the sound guy and learn his name.  It sounds like a very small thing, but so few bands bother to do this, I think it really does at least show some respect.  Being a sound tech can be a soul-crushing job.  They generally aren't paid well, they have to work with tons of bands they probably can't stand the music of, and they get abused a lot.  Keep that in mind and afford your sound person some patience.

This doesn't mean you have to put up with everything.  If you're having legitimate problems working with a sound person, you are well within your rights to talk to the promoter or venue contact about said problems.  But take a second to ask yourself whether what you're up against is really a problem or if you're just being a dick.  Not every venue you play is going to be the Hollywood Bowl.  Chances are, a good deal of the venues you'll play in will be downright shitholes.  What matters here is not whether the venue is "worthy" of your brand of musical genius, but how you can get the best possible results for your audience with what the venue can deliver.  If that means a mono mix through the front of house, or less monitor mixes than you'd prefer, you can make it work.  Don't be a pussy.

Sooner or later, you'll encounter the Angry Sound Person.  This is usually someone called in at the last minute because the usual person called out sick.  They're pissed.  They're not happy to be there.  And, in their minds, YOUR shitty band is to blame.  Sometimes they are inconsolable.  No matter what you do, they're going to do a half-assed job and try their best to make you feel guilty for having the audacity to want to play a show.  But you'd be surprised what a difference it can make if you offer to do something as small as carrying the monitors to the stage.  Call your sound person by their name.  Be cool and collected.  Offer to help however you can.  Let them know, you're not stressed and will give them the time to do what they need to do.  This has turned around bad situations for my band more times than I can recall.  It takes virtually no effort, and it generally gets them on "your side" and wanting to do a good job for you.

Under no circumstances do you ever speak abusively or get aggressive with your sound person.  I don't care if they are King Asshole of Douchebag Mountain.  Even if you're having problems in the middle of a set, let them know what your problem is politely, and I guarantee you get better results than if you berate them in front of a crowd.  Abusing your sound staff also just makes you look like a prima donna.  Seriously.  No audience member has ever thought a band was cooler because they yelled at a sound guy.  Ever.  If you give a good performance, the audience will like it whether it's coming through a knackered set of speakers in a metal club or a pristine 5.1 surround system.  If your sound person is impossible to work with, talk calmly to the promoter or venue management. Sometimes alternate arrangements can be made.

At the end of the night, always make an effort to thank your sound guy for a job well done if you feel they've done so. Shake their hand.  Make them feel appreciated.  Again, it takes virtually no effort, but so few bands bother to do even this.  Your sound person is your lifeline to the crowd.  Remember that and appreciate it.

One final Tour Truism I would like to share is a bit on the flip-side of what I've been talking about here, but I swear it's true. The more the sound person drops names or talks about all the "big stars" they've worked with, the worse they are likely to be.  In my experience, the people who have the skills don't brag about it.  They let their results speak for themselves.  Only afterwards do I usually find out from other people that a sound person worked at Abbey Road or toured with Pink Floyd.


Anonymous said...

"But take a second to ask yourself whether what you're up against is really a problem or if you're just being a dick."

Very true and could be used as an "everyday" application as well..

"I don't care if they are "King Asshole of Douchebag Mountain.""


Overall very nice article Tom! Great suggestions. My cousins play inna very popular local band and I've seen/heard a lot of sound guy/girl stories...


MrNullDevice said...

Until Death us do part? Well!


I'm never one to let a good 242 reference go by.

I've found that often the crankiest soundguys are the best. There was one dude at a gig in Ohio - short, looked like Yoda, had hair growing out of his ears and was wearing in the midsummer heat naught but a pair of what would be cutoffs on anyone but we Daisy Dukes on him...he was the most cantankerous, angriest soundguy we'd ever come across...and he made us sound like gods among men. Why? Because we were nice to him. The other acts in the lineup were whiny, complaining about the venue and how the soundguy wasn't helping set up their stage props...he gave their monitor mixes a cursory glance, if at all.

So yeah, be nice, be professional, don't be a dick.

Jeff Knapp said...

Tom, you are a class act all around - to your sound guys and to your fans too. My wife and I were at your show last Friday in LA and you were there at the merch table completely available to anybody who wanted to say "hi." I have never seen any artist or band be that available to their fans than you. You were gracious and nice to each and every person who wanted to greet you. That shows true class all around. And you put on a fantastic show! And the sound quality kicked ass - when it didn't pop off unexpectedly ;)

We will be back next time you come around.

Gerald said...

Thanks for this article, Tom. Although I'm more of a studio guy, I am currently trying to learn more about live mixing and so I take every chance I can get to do live sound, no matter what genre the band plays.

So, your article is quite interesting in my position as well - and I think many rules also apply the other way around. Sound technicians and musicians should never work against each other but try to do a good job together.

And regarding the appreciation thing: a thing that I have experienced a few times now is, that it is truly a sign of kindness if the members of a band do not only introduce themselves to the audience but also mention me / the technician. Most people only seem to notice the sound guy when they are annoyed by feedback or other issues, so it's kind of nice to be mentioned in a positive context :-)