Audio Engineering Careers
Live Sound Engineers:
Welcome to the second in a series of Dark Horse Institute blogs covering some of the dozens of jobs available to a person who has the skills, ears, and passion for pursuing a career as an Audio Engineer.
Besides Studio Engineers, another excellent career path for those wanting to work in audio engineering is Live Sound. While the winds of digital audio recording buffeted the recorded music side of the industry, digital distribution and streaming, Touring remained a steady and lucrative force. And that means there are thousands of jobs in Live Sound.
When you go to a show at a club, theater, arena or stadium, you’ll notice an engineer running sound from the “FOH” or Front of House position, and perhaps a second one running the on-stage monitors so that the band can hear themselves. But did you know that it can take up to 100 people to put on a live performance?
The surest way for a band to lose fans is to sound lame on the road. Solid, loud, perfectly EQed and mixed sound, along with the visual spectacle, are why people come out for shows. And it takes a whole team of engineers working together to pull it off.
1.) Front of House Mixer (FOH)
All of those speakers you see hanging (or “flown”) from the ceiling (or “deck”) or suspended from trusses (or “rigging”), plus the sound coming from the microphones and “back line” gear on the stage, are in the domain of the Front of House engineer. This is one of the most critical, and lucrative, positions on the touring team. To succeed, you need to know the gear, know the room, and know the songs, plus be able to read the Artist and audience throughout the show.
2.) Monitor Mixer
Stage-right or Stage-left of where the band is playing you’ll find “Monitor World.” The band can’t play well if they can’t hear well. The Monitor Mixer has to blend the dozens of possible inputs and sound effects to achieve the perfect mix for the Artist, band or background vocalists to sing off of. And believe me, everyone on that stage wants a different mix. The lead vocalist typically wants lots of themselves and whichever rhythm instrument—keys or guitars—they can use to get the proper pitch. The bass player wants lots of himself plus kick, snare and high hat. Background vocalists (BGVs) want the lead singer’s mix plus themselves and anyone else doing harmonies. The drummer wants a blend of all of the rhythm section (drums, guitars, bass, keys) plus tons of “click” or “track” if they’re playing along with them. Oh, and if you’ve got auxiliary instruments like a fiddle, squeezebox or horns, get ready to concoct all kinds of weird monitor mixes for them. For your troubles, after running monitors for a while you’re in the perfect position to get bumped up to FOH.
Before either the FOH or Monitor Mixers can do their job, an engineer is responsible for running cables from the input source on stage through the “snake” and out to the mixing consoles. And it’s called a “snake” because that one big fire hose of a tube holds dozens of independent cables that have to be hooked up to the right channel on the mixing desk so that when the engineer wants “more cowbell” he knows which fader to reach for. Being the FOH or Monitor Patch is a grueling job laced with pressure to get everything hooked up quickly and correctly. No wonder Patch Engineers are always angling for a way to get moved up to Monitor Engineer and beyond.
4.) Live Recording Engineer
Ever since the first pundit declared that “Content is King” touring performers and their handlers have insisted that every note of a concert be recorded. Who knows—you might get lucky and have a live album in the can before you know it, or at least some B-side and rarity goodies to share with your super fans. So, while you’re waiting for your next recording studio gig, sign on to be a Live Recording Engineer and go see the world.
The real action, of course, happens on stage. A well-rehearsed band with a batch of great songs needs near-perfect conditions on stage to do their magic. And great Audio Engineers and Technicians can make the difference between “massive” and “meh.”
1.) Stage Manager
The Stage Manager oversees the transformation of a boring wooden platform into a musical and dramatic wonderland. As the Production Manager is responsible for everything “in the air”—sound and lights—the Stage Manager is responsible for everything on the ground. Staging, risers, ramps, backdrops and scrims have to all go in before the first piece of gear can hit the stage. The Stage Manager then directs a team of local and touring “Roadies” to unload the truck, move in instruments and amplifiers and get ready for the Stage Techs to set everything up.
2.) Backline Tech
The Backline refers to all of the gear behind the performers’ microphones. If it’s an “overland” tour, the band brings their own equipment. If it’s a fly date, the Promoter is responsible to provide everything. Drums, keyboards, bass and guitar amps must be procured, positioned and prepped to the players’ specifications. If you have training as an Audio Engineer, you can be an especially valuable Drum, Keys or Guitar Tech because you know how to match and position the right mic to the right drum, amplifier or acoustic instrument. And if the band uses tracks or loops, who better than an engineer to set them up for fool-proof triggering? Many pro musicians have their own personal Techs who maintain and set up their gear, traveling everywhere the player goes, whether on the road or in the studio.
3.) Special Effects and Pyro Technicians
If you like live concerts, you probably like bright lights and big explosions. Enter the Special Effects and Pyro Techs to set up these inherently unstable devices to safely flash, boom and shoot flames without ruining somebody’s hearing (like famously happened to Pete Townsend of The Who) or setting someone’s hair on fire (hello, Michael Jackson, doing that Pepsi commercial)!
4.) Stage Hands
Like every industry, the Live Sound business has entry-level positions, and the easiest way to start your way up the touring ladder is to volunteer as a Stage Hand. The Promoter is responsible to round up a local team of loaders and pushers to “grunt” the gear from the truck to the stage, and back out again at the end of the night. Show up on time, carry your weight, be proactive about serving the Stage Manager and Crew, be courteous and sober, and you just might get picked out of the crowd to show up the next night in the next town, and your career in Live Sound has begun!
The Big Picture
The Touring business starts when an Artist and their Manager hire a Booking Agent to contact Promoters (or Talent Buyers) and negotiate a date, location and price for the Artist’s appearance. Once booked, a whole army of people go to work.
1.) Tour Manager/Road Manager (TM)
The Tour Manager works for the Artist and serves as the Manager’s representative on the road. Their primary responsibilities are safely and efficiently moving the Artist from show to show (making arrangements for travel, lodging and meals), overseeing the Musicians and Production Staff, and working with the Promoter about the local details—especially that thing called “settlement”—getting paid!
2.) Tour Coordinator and Tour Manager’s Assistant
On a larger tour, there may be two other people assisting the Tour Manager—a Tour Coordinator who handles all of the money, and an Assistant to take care of the 1,000s of other details.
3.) Drivers, Ground Transport and Runners
When a band goes on an extended tour, they will typically go out in a van pulling a trailer, or if they’re in the big league, a bus and a tractor trailer. That means finding the safest, most experienced Drivers available. Riding around the country in a tricked out tour bus is cool, but far more important is having a great Driver. If it’s a one-off performance, it may be a “fly date.” Even then you’ll need someone qualified to get you to the airport, meet you at the other end, and take you to the venue and hotel. Plus, most Promoters are required to provide a Runner to handle local errands for the Artist.
4.) Production Manager (PM)
Once you’ve arrived at the venue, the Production Manager takes over. While the Tour Manager takes care of people, the Production Manager takes care of technology. Load-in, Set-up, Power, Sound, Lights, Staging, Video Walls, Camera Operators, Projectionists—it takes an army of techies to put on a live show, and the PM is the Drill Sergeant.
5.) Production Assistant (PA)
The job of Production Manager is so complex that larger tours will also have a Production Assistant. Somebody’s got to take care of overseeing Dressing Rooms, Hospitality and Catering, Stylists, Wardrobe, Hair and Makeup…. The PA role also serves as a training ground and launching pad for up-and-coming Production Managers.
These days, you’ve got to not only sound good, you’ve got to look good! That’s where the lighting crew comes in.
1.) Lighting Director (LD)
The Lighting Director has a big job that begins before the band even leaves town. He works with the Artist, Manager and Tour Manager to conceptualize what sort of visual effects go best with the music. Then, once on the road, he or she is overseeing a large crew of technicians and assistants. By the way, the technical skills and familiarity with the band’s music can make for a comfortable lateral move into an Audio position.
2.) Lighting Designer
Before the tour, a Lighting Designer may be brought in to design the look and feel of the stage lighting, with an eye to matching the energy and mood of each individual song. The entire show can be pre-programmed on a laptop so that you can change songs and scenes with the push of a button, or just hit “Go” and let the whole program run.
If you like working 30 feet above the stage and have no issues with vertigo, one of the best-paying jobs on the road is being a Rigger. Your job is to make sure that thousands of dollars worth of lights and speakers are securely attached to the venue ceiling—and stay there! Not only could you be liable for a flight of speakers crashing to the ground, but for the audience members seated below. First up, you determine the “points” in the ceiling where your rigging can be secured, carefully calculating cable lengths and load limits as your crew uses lifts, motors, chains and spansets to hoist trusses, audio arrays and scenery above the stage. Muscle- and nerve-wracking work, but the pay is the best on the road.
4.) Lighting Techs
The Lighting Director can’t be everywhere at once, so they will usually have a team of Lighting Techs. Spotlight Operators, Dimmer Techs, Moving Lights Techs and LED Wall Techs work under the LD’s direction and add to the overall visual impact of the show.
5.) Video Designers and Techs
These days, successful touring groups make dramatic use of pre-produced videos that run during the songs, depicting the mood or storyline of the lyric and adding to the immersive sensory experience. Those mini-films require Projection Techs, Camera Operators and Switchers to blend pre-recorded films with live-action close-up shots.
Music matters. It’s pervasiveness and power in our lives cannot be overestimated. It inspires, energizes, calms, motivates, it can bring us together, and as science has recently proven, make us smarter. Plus, the music industry is a huge part of the entertainment economy, accounting for 50 “Billion with a B” dollars in 2018. And because of music’s importance, those who capture, manipulate and distribute it are among our most valued artists, scientists, craftsmen and citizens.
Want to know if you’ve got the stuff to be a successful Audio Engineer? Call us to set up a tour of our studios and classrooms, or attend an Open House. Our instructors are award-winning professionals with credits out the proverbial wazoo, and our gear is made up of over $1,000,000.00 worth of industry-standard, state-of-the-art, analog, and digital tools. Study Audio Engineering at Dark Horse Institute and start making your dreams come true.