Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Of Being The Guy On The Desk

Have you ever encountered an aggressive and grumpy sound engineer?  I've met a few and have often thought their behaviour unnecessary.  I believe I have discovered why some sound engineers resort to grump and rudeness.

Recently some dear friends were booked to play for an event organised to raise some funds for an organic gardening project. There were several bands and soloists as well as some circus performer friends booked for a most-of-the-day event at a secret location. A week or so before the gig the organisers realised they were one p.a. short of a gig.  Whoops! My mate from my own band put out a Facebook S.O.S. so I thought "what the hell". It seemed like a worthy project so I volunteered to provide the rig and look after the sound at the gig in exchange for good, organic, free food.  The workload would amount to about thirteen hours' work for a project with which I had no particular connection or affiliation. I have a small, but rather nice system and I generally only use it for my own projects - although there are plenty of those. Flying the desk while performing is a juggling act and I always feel like I haven't done justice to the sound, so I was looking forward to an opportunity to use my rig without having to panic about all the stuff I usually fret about when I'm performing. I could just focus on getting the best sound for the audience and for the performers. The only downside I could see was that I was not so much looking forward to being in this particular venue. In the past, when I've played there, I have found it presents some acoustic challenges. 

The requirements of each act were unknown.  I only knew that half of my friend's band plus a depping drummer were playing and would require two vocal mics along with d.i. boxes for bass and keys.  I thought there would be several acoustic acts ranging from soloists to four or five piece bands.  I didn't really know what instruments would need mic'ing up.  I decided minimal would be best - vocal mics along with and d.i. boxes for guitars and keyboards - and for bazouki, mandolin, mandola, accordion and loop station as well as it happened.

I was rather pleased to be told by some of the performers that I was giving them some of the best sound they had ever had and one man in the audience came to ask for my details because his band often needs a dep sound man and he liked what I was doing.

As it happened I knew a quite a few of the people who turned up. There was more than a smattering of dreads and ethnic threads. Lots of home-schooled kids, lots of delicious food mostly created from beautiful locally-grown organic produce. In my innocence I thought that such an audience would be discerning enough to be interested in the creative efforts of the performers and that together we could make a joyful day.

The reality was that it was like one of many awful pub gigs I've been to where people seem to go to ignore the musicians, hold loud conversations and send deputations demanding the music be turned down. The audience also reminded me of the very worst of parent audiences I have experienced at children's performances here in the UK as well as in France.  To be honest I don't like overly-loud live music (and I have had to walk out of some painful gigs when my ears have had enough (Public Image in Norwich a few weeks ago, anyone?), but I firmly believe the music does need to be clear and audible to those who have paid to come to an advertised music gig. 

In any room there are acoustic variables that affect the perception of level and, especially with a basic system, there are often  compromises that have to be made. Getting the levels right for each band took time, especially given my relative inexperience in this work, but I did what I could to keep the performers happy.  I was rather shocked, though, to be on the receiving end of demands from members of this "right-on" group to turn the sound down.  The musicians were disturbing their conversations.  From where I was sitting i could hear the conversations perfectly well.  This audience had talked all the way through the first performer, a somewhat delicate performance by a female singer/songwriter.  She had a very good voice and wrote some interesting, slightly quirky, songs - at least I thought the substantially pastoral subject matter of the songs would have interested this audience, but no, the audience wouldn't know because they didn't hear it.  This woman, like the rest of us, was giving up her afternoon for free and I thought the audience was very discourteous not to give her some attention.  I gave her as much sound as I could, but it was difficult finding a satisfactory e.q. setting for her unusual guitar, so I gave her the best I could.  

One of the bands was an electric band with a full drum kit.  The drummer played acoustically.  To have full control over the drums I would have needed to close-mic his kit, but I had neither the microphones nor the time to oblige.  After the first number I told him not to hold back too much because the sound needed to carry to the back of the long, narrow room.  That meant that everything else in that set needed to be balanced against the drums, with the vocals being to the fore.  These songs had messages and it was important they were heard.  "I've been asked to ask you to turn it down," said a man from across the room.  To his credit he did look slightly uneasy about it.  I looked over and saw several ladies in earnest conversation near one of the front of house speakers.  I wondered why they needed to be in the same room as the music since there were other rooms and spaces in this village hall in which less musical types could be free to congregate.  And why sit under one of the main p.a. speakers?  Puzzling.  I brought the faders down to show willing and immediately started pushing them up a little at a time to avoid the sound being completely compromised.  

Hush!  Sound engineer at work.

I came to realise that many demands to turn the music down appeared when the bands played an uptempo number. Strangely, I do not have a tempo fader on my mixer. If, when at a gig, I find the music too loud I use ear plugs or, as I mentioned above, I leave the immediate area.   Had I turned down the level for a jolly song I would have had to turn it up again for a more contemplative one thus completely ruining the dynamic contrasts in the band's set.

I consider myself a reasonably patient and passive person. I can probably count the number of times during my life I have been moved to contemplate violence on the fingers of one foot. This afternoon and evening I learned that it was possible to contemplate violence many times in a short space of time and my tongue is raw from where I was biting it to try and stop myself saying something I knew I would later regret.  

So what I learned about myself is that am not cut out to be a sound engineer and it has nothing to do with my ability to use a mixing desk. What I learned about other sound engineers is why many of them seem to be unapproachable.  There isn't time to deal with the demands of individual members of the audience.  It may be quite a different matter when the client approaches and asks for the levels to be reduced.  In this case she only came over after a deputation from others.  Who knew there were so many experts in the world?  Why book an amplified electric band and a p.a. system if that is not what you want?

I was very pleased to have an opportunity to test my sound engineering chops and I feel I pretty much passed the test.  I don't think I shall be volunteering for another event any time soon though.  At least with a paid gig there is a more obvious line of command.

1 comment:

  1. You will probably attribute some of the difficulties you encountered that day to the particular shape and acoustics of the room, as you stated before. Some places are probably easier to keep at a reasonable level of sound and some are not quite so easy. You're lucky that your ears still function quite well, whereas a sound engineer's might be so 'shot' that they would be deaf to anyone's complaints, haha.