Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Five Things I’d Say to Young Sound Engineers Pt. 1

Chris Huff at Behind the Mixer wrote an interesting post last week. He wrote about how musicians see sound techs. It’s a good, enlightening and sometimes hard read. I recommend it. One of the comments that really got me was this one:

Do you give suggestions to the sound tech?

– All the time and he always dismisses everything anyone says.

That got me thinking and inspired the series we’re starting today. I don’t know that I’ve attained the status of “old sound guy,” but I know I’m getting close. I realized this the other night when one of my new sound techs and I were making cables. I realized that I had been mixing longer than he has been alive. That realization led me to think about some words of wisdom that I wish someone had shared with me 20 years ago when I started. Probably would have saved me (and the bands I worked with) a lot of hassle. What you’ll read this week are some things I’ve learned along the way that will hopefully make your career as a sound engineer more productive and fun.

#1: You Don’t Know As Much As You Think You Do

I’ve met and worked with a lot of sound guys over the last 20 or so years. One trend has stood out to me; the best ones are always learning and are always open to picking up new tricks from someone else. The “less good” ones seem to think they’ve arrived and have nothing more to learn from anyone. Oddly, the latter group tend to have a lot fewer hours at FOH than the former.

Just because you’ve figured out how to mix with subgroups doesn’t mean you have mastered the art of mixing. If you read the blogs and talk to the best FOH engineers out there, you’ll find they are always experimenting, always talking to other audio guys, always reading; always learning something new. They never seem satisfied with their competency, now matter how high it is. They are always willing to share their knowledge and take suggestions; even from people who “know less” than they do.

A lot of younger sound guys I know seem to vastly overestimate their competence, and that trait does not serve them well. They often show up late for sound check, cop an ‘tude at a simple suggestion, and generally give off an “I’m the expert, leave me alone” vibe.

If this describes you, I have but one thing to say: Knock it off. You’re giving the rest of us a bad name. You’re the reason that musicians don’t like sound guys (and gals). You’re the reason the rest of us have to work so hard to build credibility with the bands we mix.

I’ve mixed for 20+ years and have yet to feel that I’ve mastered this art. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, but I have so much more to learn. Yesterday, one of my newest sound guys (who’s still a set up tech at this point) made a suggestion about mic’ing cymbals that made a lot of sense to me. I’m going to try it this weekend. He’s a great example of how sound guys should act. Paying attention, learning and making suggestions. I expect great things from him in the coming years.

12 Comments

  1. emyers@colonial.org

    Amen! I have a funny story about this. While I was in college, I played in bands, and ended up getting a gig working for a cool vintage guitar store. I became good friends with the owner of the store and started traveling with the him to all the guitar shows around the country (back in the mid 90s). I learned a lot, formed some opinions about gear, particularly what I liked and didn’t like with a lot of vintage effects pedals. I had access to EVERYTHING. My friend was the guru of pedals. This was about the same time I became fascinated with the recording process and live sound mixing. At the show, a guy came up to me and asked about a pedal. Ibanez had just released a ‘reissue’ of the original and he wanted to know what I thought of it. I suggested a model Ibanez made in the 80’s instead and described to the best of my ability at the time why I preferred the sonic qualities of that particular model over either the original, which was very temperamental and pricey AND the reissue. Ultimately he bought the original and the then obscure 80s version. The owner had not been at our ‘booth’ while this took place. He asked if anyone stopped by, just then, the guy came back by and they began to talk. When he left, the owner asked me, “THAT’S the guy you sold the pedals to? You know who that is right? Thats Jack Joseph Puig.” I had heard the name, but had never seen his face before.

    So, OK – long story, but here’s what I learned from that. Here is a guy who by the very nature of what he gets paid to produce/engineer a record (Amy Grant, Russ Taff, Switchfoot, John Mayer, etc….) should be entitled to “cop a ‘tude”. But thats obviously not how he got to where he is. I was just a student, and he took the time to pick MY brain! He wanted to know what I thought about those pedals. And he was willing to take my suggestion about a pedal. I was pretty floored by that, and never forgot it. I’ve tried to remember that and incorporate that approach to working with musicians AND with my volunteer techs – no matter their age.

    Ultimately, the best equipment we have is attached to our head. And, you know, everyone has ears. So, it stands to reason that you don’t HAVE to be an educated sound engineer to figure out how to make something sound good (to you).

  2. emyers@colonial.org

    Amen! I have a funny story about this. While I was in college, I played in bands, and ended up getting a gig working for a cool vintage guitar store. I became good friends with the owner of the store and started traveling with the him to all the guitar shows around the country (back in the mid 90s). I learned a lot, formed some opinions about gear, particularly what I liked and didn’t like with a lot of vintage effects pedals. I had access to EVERYTHING. My friend was the guru of pedals. This was about the same time I became fascinated with the recording process and live sound mixing. At the show, a guy came up to me and asked about a pedal. Ibanez had just released a ‘reissue’ of the original and he wanted to know what I thought of it. I suggested a model Ibanez made in the 80’s instead and described to the best of my ability at the time why I preferred the sonic qualities of that particular model over either the original, which was very temperamental and pricey AND the reissue. Ultimately he bought the original and the then obscure 80s version. The owner had not been at our ‘booth’ while this took place. He asked if anyone stopped by, just then, the guy came back by and they began to talk. When he left, the owner asked me, “THAT’S the guy you sold the pedals to? You know who that is right? Thats Jack Joseph Puig.” I had heard the name, but had never seen his face before.

    So, OK – long story, but here’s what I learned from that. Here is a guy who by the very nature of what he gets paid to produce/engineer a record (Amy Grant, Russ Taff, Switchfoot, John Mayer, etc….) should be entitled to “cop a ‘tude”. But thats obviously not how he got to where he is. I was just a student, and he took the time to pick MY brain! He wanted to know what I thought about those pedals. And he was willing to take my suggestion about a pedal. I was pretty floored by that, and never forgot it. I’ve tried to remember that and incorporate that approach to working with musicians AND with my volunteer techs – no matter their age.

    Ultimately, the best equipment we have is attached to our head. And, you know, everyone has ears. So, it stands to reason that you don’t HAVE to be an educated sound engineer to figure out how to make something sound good (to you).

  3. clarkj007@gmail.com

    I think what you are describing is the same thing they are talking about right here. http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=406 The title of the post is called unskilled and unaware. It is interesting to see that even as the skill of the individual increases, their rating of their ability does not reflect it.

    As a beginner myself, I am interested to see what I can learn from other people’s mistakes in future editions of this series.

  4. clarkj007@gmail.com

    I think what you are describing is the same thing they are talking about right here. http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=406 The title of the post is called unskilled and unaware. It is interesting to see that even as the skill of the individual increases, their rating of their ability does not reflect it.

    As a beginner myself, I am interested to see what I can learn from other people’s mistakes in future editions of this series.

  5. mikeallenmusic@gmail.com

    Good story. TS-808?

    Nice post! I can never have too many reminders that I don’t know as much as I think πŸ™‚

  6. mikeallenmusic@gmail.com

    Good story. TS-808?

    Nice post! I can never have too many reminders that I don’t know as much as I think πŸ™‚

  7. emyers@colonial.org

    yep, and an 80s TS-10. Nowadays the TS-10 with the Keeley mod is KING! But there are so many options with other good sounding pedals that I get “Option Anxiety”. Haha!

  8. emyers@colonial.org

    yep, and an 80s TS-10. Nowadays the TS-10 with the Keeley mod is KING! But there are so many options with other good sounding pedals that I get “Option Anxiety”. Haha!

  9. frizbplaya@hotmail.com

    Cool! I’ve had good luck with a Maxon TS-9 with the Analog Man mod. There’s a dizzying amount of tube screamer options these days. Oh guitar gear.

  10. frizbplaya@hotmail.com

    Cool! I’ve had good luck with a Maxon TS-9 with the Analog Man mod. There’s a dizzying amount of tube screamer options these days. Oh guitar gear.

  11. DRauchpcbc@gvtc.com

    Chris…

    Excellent post! Short and to the point, however after 33 years of mixing secular and church?I could add a bit more!! You, however hit the nail on the head…always be a “sponge” when it comes to learning more and more and check your ego at the backstage door! I have been very blessed and successful in my long and fun career, however I still am learning and don’t plan on ever stopping that discipline. This is something I hope that the ?me / I” generation picks up from us old guys! It takes years, not hours, of hard work to become efficient at what you do and if there is one bit of advice I can throw into the mix for the “up and coming” engineers…sometimes you find it’s a lot more about building relationships than the act of “mixing” audio. Having a good working relationship with the ones you are working with will go miles and that is something you, as the “I” generation are going to need to embrace. Yelling at, Twittering, texting and blogging about the guitar player that doesn’t want to turn the volume knob down from “11” is not the key! Building that working relationship will be one of your / the keys to success. That opens the door to what I like to call ?comfortable communication? so you can ?talk? to them?for instance; ?I want to try and make you sound as good as I possibly can and if you can help me on your end that would be great??and explain that it takes sacrifice on both ends to make things work sometimes. Sure there are going to be touch times and tough ?ego driven? people to work with, that?s the nature of the business, however taking the time to ?communicate constructively?, one on one with the teams / people you work with will be one of the keys to success alongside your mixing skills! In closing…one final thought… and I hope I can speak for us ?old guys??”We” 20+ year veterans of the audio world don’t know it all…so it’s hard to understand how you young guys and gals do, after only days into this world of audio. What you might not know is that you young guys and gals can and do bring some new and fresh ideas into the world of audio…guess what…we do listen, (sponge) especially when there is no ego attached…we weigh the possibilities…and who knows…may even try it!! Take the time to do the same…we old guys have a lot of mileage that we would love to share with the ones who “want” to learn!

  12. DRauchpcbc@gvtc.com

    Chris…

    Excellent post! Short and to the point, however after 33 years of mixing secular and church?I could add a bit more!! You, however hit the nail on the head…always be a “sponge” when it comes to learning more and more and check your ego at the backstage door! I have been very blessed and successful in my long and fun career, however I still am learning and don’t plan on ever stopping that discipline. This is something I hope that the ?me / I” generation picks up from us old guys! It takes years, not hours, of hard work to become efficient at what you do and if there is one bit of advice I can throw into the mix for the “up and coming” engineers…sometimes you find it’s a lot more about building relationships than the act of “mixing” audio. Having a good working relationship with the ones you are working with will go miles and that is something you, as the “I” generation are going to need to embrace. Yelling at, Twittering, texting and blogging about the guitar player that doesn’t want to turn the volume knob down from “11” is not the key! Building that working relationship will be one of your / the keys to success. That opens the door to what I like to call ?comfortable communication? so you can ?talk? to them?for instance; ?I want to try and make you sound as good as I possibly can and if you can help me on your end that would be great??and explain that it takes sacrifice on both ends to make things work sometimes. Sure there are going to be touch times and tough ?ego driven? people to work with, that?s the nature of the business, however taking the time to ?communicate constructively?, one on one with the teams / people you work with will be one of the keys to success alongside your mixing skills! In closing…one final thought… and I hope I can speak for us ?old guys??”We” 20+ year veterans of the audio world don’t know it all…so it’s hard to understand how you young guys and gals do, after only days into this world of audio. What you might not know is that you young guys and gals can and do bring some new and fresh ideas into the world of audio…guess what…we do listen, (sponge) especially when there is no ego attached…we weigh the possibilities…and who knows…may even try it!! Take the time to do the same…we old guys have a lot of mileage that we would love to share with the ones who “want” to learn!

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