The sound man is your friend

There are plenty of tense and troubled relationships in professional bluegrass music. Minor scraps to major feuds can often develop between label and artist, artist and event producer, side musician and band leader, musician and landlord, but one of the most common and perennial struggles is the one between performing artist and sound engineer. This is a dysfunctional relationship that often results in bad feelings, bands leaving the stage in the middle of a show, engineers leaving the sound board in the middle of a show, and occasionally, bitter arguments, fist fights, and the use of an SM-58 as a blackjack.

Why is this so difficult to work out? Both parties are trying to do a job well. Both parties want the same result: a show that sounds good. And yet, arriving at that result can be harder than performing surgery on yourself with a butter knife, and sometimes just as painful.

Let’s be honest, and say that sometimes it’s a simple issue of incompetence. But the fact is that neither party in this fight owns the exclusive rights to incompetence; it can be found on either side of the microphone. The fact that we’re never willing to look at our own responsibility in the situation makes it very easy for misunderstandings to develop. So beyond incompetence, a bigger issue may be a lack of respect.

I’m not a sound engineer, so you’d naturally expect me to take the musician’s side exclusively here, and really I’d like to. In fact it would be pretty easy to do. We all have our sound horror stories, like the time a sound man, in a southwestern city that shall remain nameless, was so confrontational in the sound check that I had to get the promoter to intervene before the bass player physically attacked the engineer (and I would probably have helped).

However, I think that sound engineers have plenty to beef about with us. They would say that they often have to work with arrogant musicians with big egos,  who are rude, who want their monitors too loud and who don’t know how to work a microphone. And then there are the bad ones.

They often get involved in exchanges like this:

Guitar player: “I can’t hear the guitar at all.”

Engineer: “I don’t have anything turned on yet.”

Banjo player: “There’s no banjo yet either.”

Engineer: “I still don’t have anything turned on yet.”

Mandolin player: “I can’t hear my mandolin.”

Engineer: “Okay. Here we go. Let’s try the guitar first.” (guitar player is now chatting with a girl backstage)

Bass player: “Do you have the bass on? I can’t hear it.”

Engineer: “We’re starting with the guitar.”

Banjo player: “Steve, get over here. He’s starting with you.”

Guitar player: “Can you turn me up?”

Engineer: “Can you play something first so I can get a level?”

Guitar player (turning to mandolin player, but still audible through his guitar mic): “What an idiot.”

Engineer: “How’s that for you?”

Guitar player: “Can I get some more?”

Engineer: “Is that better?”

Guitar player (whose monitor level is now bordering on deafening): “I could use some more.”

With the system already on the edge of feedback, they turn to the mandolin player, who begins by playing at a quarter of his normal volume, two feet from the microphone. Rather than talk to the engineer, he simply holds a finger in the air waiting to get the mic turned up to a mind-blowing level.

The fiddle player chimes in: “I think the 2K is a little hollow sounding. Can you smooth that out?” (the fiddle player has no idea what that means, but thought it would sound good to say).

Banjo player: “I still can’t hear the banjo.”

And on it goes. In order for the show to not disintegrate into an audio buffet of feedback, the engineer has to disregard most of the band’s requests during the show. They feel ignored and angry, but in reality the situation is their own fault.

What can we as performing musicians do to make this situation better? Well, we could start by treating the sound engineer as an equal, and as someone who deserves our respect. It’s also worth bearing in mind that this is an equal who has the power to mute everything we do for the remainder of the show, so rudeness can be very self-defeating. It’s a little like being really belligerent to the staff in a restaurant, forgetting what they have the power to do to your food back in the kitchen. So remember that the sound engineer is in control, and may, if pushed too far, choose to spit on the caesar salad that is your show.

It might even be advisable to bend over backwards to win the sound people over: Try walking up to the sound engineer and saying something like “Looking forward to working with you. I’ve heard great things (probably a blatant lie). Love the shirt, by the way (it’s a coffee-stained, lime green T-shirt that says ‘born to boogie’)”

Okay, maybe that’s a little extreme, but simple cooperation is always good. Be attentive during the sound check. Determine which instrument he/she wants to check first and be ready to check it. Delaying your complaints until you’ve actually played into your microphone is a common courtesy.

Next, a little restraint in your monitor level wouldn’t hurt. It’s a fact that inexperienced bands and artists (and a few hard-of-hearing mandolin players) have a tendency to want very high monitor levels, not necessarily thinking about the consequences, or the vicious cycle that can develop when each band member keeps requesting higher and higher monitor volume. I believe the thinking is: “Hey, hearing myself is a good thing, so hearing more of myself would have to be better.” Not necessarily, especially when everyone else in the band is doing the same thing.

It’s easy to forget that getting good sound out of the house speakers is more important than the sound of the monitors. That is, after all, what your audience is hearing. Don’t let your craving for ear-splitting levels on stage compromise the quality of the sound of the main speakers.

Then, when you do need to ask for something to be turned up or down, do it civilly (yes, this does mean without obscene gestures). There’s really nothing to be gained by making the sound engineer feel foolish. This only serves to make you look bad to the audience. This brings up an important point: remember that your audience is hearing every exchange with the sound engineer on stage. It’s best to make these exchanges pleasant and rare.

What if mid-way through your show, you realize that you’ve got a good old sound disaster on your hands? You may be justified in being angry, but you may also have to face the fact that there isn’t a thing you can do about it. The best you can do is get through the show calling as little attention to the debacle as possible. A certain percentage of the audience won’t notice, as long as you seem like you’re having a good time (insincere though it may be). Most of the rest of the audience will understand that the sound isn’t very good. And yes, sadly, a handful of people will just think you’re a crappy band, but there still isn’t anything you can do about it.

Next week, we’ll look at this from the musician’s perspective, and offer some thoughts on how sound people can help us do our job better.