Valuable Audio Engineer Skills - [ Mastering The Personality ]

I'm starting a new series here on valuable audio engineering skills I've learned over the years running sound and recording music. I don't consider myself an expert, just a student going through the ranks of the school of hard knocks...

I often find myself teaching others how to "run sound". As the lead audio engineer working and volunteering in the Church world, I have the privilege (and the curse) of working with all types of people with all types of backgrounds and personalities on a weekly basis. When attempting to impart my audio knowledge on to others, I find it comes down to two genres of knowledge: technical and personal. Technical makes sense: "This is how gain works.... this is what a compressor is... this is a microphone..." etc etc. But personality? What does that even mean? 

Have you ever heard, "That sound guy was a jerk."? No? Then you've either live under a rock or you found utopia where very one thinks highly of each other. The fact is that there are all kinds of people out there (no, not just sound guys) who have less than desirable personalities. People can, quite frankly, suck. That is why I teach my students and teammates how not to be jerks, and how to deal with those who haven't conquered that part of their personality. Where did this mindset come from? It probably has to do a lot with the fact that I majored in Sociology in college (strange, right?). I found it less marketable so my free time was spent learning audio, but it did teach me some valuable life lessons. The other origin of this mindset is my own tendency to be introspective. 

the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes.

Understanding yourself and others is as important as understanding gain structure, EQ techniques, or how to dial in the perfect effects. Why? Because if you can get the guitarist to trust you and listen to what you have to say, you'll both be able to deliver a better result than if you just fought over who is right. One of the contributing factors to me becoming a better sound engineer has been because of my relationship with the musicians I work with. When we're on the same side of the fence we can work together towards getting the best sound possible. 

So how is this accomplished? I believe following these steps is a great start. We're all at different places with different obstacles, but work on each of these and you just might start seeing some change around you.

  1. Understand Yourself. Are you smart? Quick witted? Extroverted or introverted? Do you smile or is your working face one that makes people wonder if you're going to kill them? Study yourself and find out how other people see you. This is called the "looking glass self" in the sociology world. In fact, you've been doing it all of your life, you just never harnessed the power of it. The key is not to go asking acquaintances. Find a few trusted friends and ask them how you are perceived. This can be unnerving at first, but keep an open mind. What they have to say will teach you about yourself. You may find out that when you though you were being really friendly on stage or in the studio with the musicians you just met, you were really being a know-it-all show off that was seeking only to impress them. Maybe you're in a position of authority over a team of people and you find out that your team thinks you're a bit harsh and demanding when you want things done. These conversations should lead to more productive introspection. Think about why they feel the way they do. It's NOT because they hate you. They weren't born with an innate distaste for you. They've learned that. Maybe it's what you've said or did when you first met. Heck, maybe it's got nothing to do with you. Maybe, like I've experienced first hand recently, that they're having a rough time at work and that stress is compounding and they're taking it out on you. Once you learn things like that you can adapt your own behavior. In my case I learned to give that individual a little more space if he had just come from work. Then, when I knew he had calmed down, I could start in on what I had to say. If you understand how others perceive your behavior you can adapt it to get the results you want. 
  2. Selfish doesn't work. I just taught you a dangerous tool: how to get what you want. Now I will teach you that what you wan't isn't always what you need. Say wha? We're all the center of the universe, right? ah, no. Every situation is different, but I would venture to guess that you report to someone or something higher than yourself. That means you're subject to that person, that vision, that budget, that opinion, and so on. Whatever your situation, one of humanity's shortcomings is it's propensity to be selfish. It also happens to be on of the ways it is most easily aggravated. Acting selfish around a client, teammate, or superior is the fast lane to being thought of less. What I challenge you to do is to put your own desires on the back burner for the bigger vision. For instance, I really, really, really want a new soundboard at Journey Church. I would give anything for it. I could become selfish and demand it, but all that would get me is a negative attitude and a resounding NO by the folks with the budget. Not only that but they'd see that I'm not on board with the bigger picture. Instead I've learned to make the most of what I have and, more importantly, get on board with the bigger picture; realize I'm not the center of the universe. Instead of wondering why I can't get $50k for a sound board, I realize that $50k is going toward ministries that are helping people get out of depression and putting food on other's tables. It's saving lives. This bigger picture perspective helps quench my selfishness so that one day the trust and respect I get from the leadership will help me get what I NEED. And hopefully that's a new sound board...
  3. Small Talk. Start with something other than the topic you want to discuss. Getting right down to business always has it's place, but if you're looking at building a bridge with a musician, promotor, leader, or a fellow techie you need to start with small talk. Maybe try going beyond just the weather. Ask them questions. I personally try to use the 3-deep method. Ask a surface level question, and then try to take it 2 more layers deep. People, generally speaking, LOVE talking about themselves, so a great way to bond with small talk is asking questions about THEM. The important aspect of small talk (and really any communication) is to not always make it about you. We all know that guy. The guy or gal that always has to talk about himself or herself. They'll always turn the conversation towards their experience or their opinion. Do not be that person. If your story would help the conversation, share it. If you're asked for your opinion, graciously share it. If you want to talk to get the others in the conversation to pay attention to you, keep your mouth shut.
  4. Ask, don't tell. Is your mix suffering because the drummer is playing too loud? Is the guitar tone from the lead guitarist ripping everyone's head off because it's too piercing? Most novice engineers would go tell the drummer to play quieter. News flash, drummers do not want to play quieter... unless maybe their jazz players. Or maybe you jump on the talkback and tell the guitarist to turn down his presence on his amp. This is soon followed by the guitarist turning their amp up louder to spite said sound engineer. People, musicians especially, do not like being told what to do when it comes to their art. After all, if a random stranger came up and told you that your low-end haystack is overbearing you'd probably be standoffish. So how do you get a musician to adjust what they're doing? It starts with establishing some sort of relationship with them. But that can't always happen by the time you need something adjusted from stage. The best thing you can do is to ask. But don't just ask them to change something. Ask the guitarist if they think their amp might be piercing. He doesn't think so? Ask him to put his head down near the mic and play, is it piercing now? "Oh, yeah, wow... I didn't hear it from where I was standing but since the mic is here maybe I should adjust it." Maybe you could go up to the drummer and say, "Hi there, I'm having a hard time maintaining a comfortable mix level in the house without loosing the vocals and guitars. I think the loudness of the drums acoustically in the room is causing this. Do you think it would be possible to play a little quieter so that the clarity of the music could be improved?" Don't try to sound like an arrogant prick in the way you ask things. You don't need to act like a bumbling idiot either. Make it clear that what you're asking for is in the best interest of them and the whole band. You are there to faithfully amplify the musical message that the band is trying to convey. Unfortunately, sometimes you'll get that person who just won't listen. In those instances, if you don't have a higher-up person to make the request to, you'll have to just work with it. We can't win every battle.
  5. Be Professional. Show up on time. Be prepared. Always have a backup plan, and when possible have a backup plan for the backup plan. Dress like you care about your job (aka go buy a bunch of black polo shirts. Do it, do it now). Avoid slanderous talk and complaining as much as possible. If you're talking negatively behind the musician's back and the promotor or leadership overhears you, you'll instantly loose credit with them. It's the same deal if you're complaining all night about how the band was late and caused you to re-cable the entire stage because they changed their rider without communicating it to you. Do your job to the best of your ability. Put a smile on your face even if you want to scream and smash things. You'll keep getting called back to gigs because people will SEE you care about what you do.
  6. Be Prepared. Trust is built when you combine all of the about interpersonal skills with your technical skills. Make sure you come prepared with all your tools in your tool belt. Know what the band's needs are before anyone walks through the door, and bring enough to cover any needs they may not have communicated (or that may spring up last minute). Lastly, be prepared by knowing and understanding all of your gear. Read manuals, try things out on your own time. You don't want to be caught with your pants down because you don't know how to do a certain, special kind of routing to meet a need for the show. 
  7. Expand Your Knowledge. Lastly, it's important to never stop learning. Gain experience by reading, watching videos, going to shows, and learning from the musicians your working with. Your knowledge doesn't end with understanding your soundboard. Understand the speaker system. Learn about how room acoustics effect things. Ask musicians to teach you about how their rigs work. You don't need to be the next Steve Vai, but you should know how guitarist's pedalboards and amps generally work. 

Half, if not more, of being an exceptional audio engineer relies on how well you can deal with people. You may be tweaking sounds to create a mix, but at the end of the day your role is all about people. You're translating the musician(s) talent into a room full of people in a way that needs to line up with someone's vision (producer or leadership). Sure sound goes through cables, circuitry, and air, but it all comes down to people. Never forget that. People will book you for gigs when they trust you. People will reward a job well done with a paycheck (or, if you're doing it for free maybe they'll repay you in kind?). If you find yourself in the Church world, you're representing and serving a Higher Power. You are not the center of the universe and the crowd is not there to hear/see you do your thing. Leave your ego at the landfill and get to work creating excellent sonic experience that will enrich the audience and leave the band with a smile on their face at the end of the night. 

Posted on November 24, 2014 and filed under All Posts, How-To, Live Sound, Original.