Front Of House Engineer • Sound Engineer • Sound Man
The front house engineer is the main sound engineer for live performances. These technicians gather all the sound information being played and sung on stage, and mix it to achieve optimal volumes and blends. That is the version the audience hears.
To succeed, you should be well-versed in how to set up and operate sound equipment and have a basic understanding of music. You need an ear for pitch and overall sound quality. “If you have a guitar player that is a whole step or a half step flat or sharp, you don't want to put that on the mix as much,” explains Fernando Alvarez, Jr. “You want the end result to sound good, so you have to control certain things like that. Knowing every aspect of the electronic side helps out a lot: what a console does, what an amplifier does, what the speakers are supposed to be doing.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Most bands and crew travel by bus through the night, arriving at a hotel or venue in the early hours of the morning. The crew then wakes up at the venue, where breakfast is catered and shower facilities are made available. Smaller bands might rent a hotel room for members of the crew to shower and change clothes, and then eat breakfast at a local diner. “The first thing that is done is unloading the trucks,” says Fernando Alvarez, Jr. “Every venue has stagehands [usually members of a local union]. Everything is put into its proper place and uncased, uncovered, and so forth.” Each crew member is ultimately responsible for setting up the gear he uses. The front house engineer's equipment may be some of the last to be unloaded and set up. The lighting generally goes up first and comes down last, and then stage set pieces are added. (Usually the venue provides the actual stage, although some large touring artists carry their own.) Sound equipment and gear complete the set-up.
The sound engineer does everything in his power to ensure that the gear and equipment are working and in place, so that when the band comes in to sound check, things will run smoothly. Sound check is the time each band member and singer tests the microphones and amplifiers to ensure proper sound is achieved. They also work with the monitor man at this time to get proper mixes for each individual. The front house engineer then is free until show time (which may be in just a few hours) and often uses the time to eat dinner, take a nap, or watch a movie on the bus. After the show is over, the equipment is broken down by the stagehands and loaded onto the trucks, and the crew is off to the next city.
The crew rarely, if ever, sees a hotel room, opting to stay at the venue until show time and then loading out afterward to hit the road. Sometimes set-up might be done in time for a quick excursion to a music store, an outside restaurant, or a point of interest in the city, but this is rare. Generally the crew spends their day at the venue.
“There is something my dad told me when I was young: ‘The minute you think you're too good to sweep the floor is the minute you need to be handed a broom, in order to sweep the floor.’ ”—FA
“I'm always trying to be on top of things so that they [the artist] are not having to ask for something or wondering why I didn't take the initiative to get something done. In this business, I think, it's almost 75 percent networking and marketing yourself, and the other 25 percent is technical. The schooling will help, but we're looking for someone that is able to represent our company and themselves in a proper manner.”—FA
“People who ask questions and are interested in learning more, and who will actually go out of their way to get things done, are the people that I spend my time with. I don't like working with people who just sit and wait to be told what to do.”—RO
“Don't give yourself a backup plan. If you don't give yourself another choice, then you have to stick to it and make it work, one way or another.”—RO
POINTERS FOR THE JOB SEARCH
Take classes in sound engineering or contact local clubs and see if there is a house sound person that you can assist for free, to learn the basics. Next, find a local band or club that needs help with sound, and offer your services to get some experience. As you become more experienced, give a business card to bands coming into the venue, or others you see out performing, and let them know you're available. Even if you work for free in the beginning, get experience. No one wants to pay someone with no experience.
FERNANDO ALVAREZ, JR., FRONT HOUSE ENGINEER, DIXIE CHICKS
Fernando Alvarez, Jr. was studying architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) when an opportunity to work in music presented itself. The San Antonio native's brother was playing in a local group that needed crew assistance and Alvarez got the call. “I started with the group as lighting engineer, and then moved to monitors, and eventually became the front of house guy. I liked every position and started seeing that music is something I wanted to do.” Mostly self-taught, Alvarez later enrolled in a course at the Audio Engineering Institute in San Antonio. “I would sit in that course to just gather information on how things are done in a basic form so that I knew what was going on—so I used the right terms and lingo when I was hanging out with the real dudes. I learned a lot, but most was self-taught. To a certain degree, it's all about your own ears. Hearing everything exactly, or trying to hear it, the way it's supposed to be heard.”
THE LEAST FAVORITE THING ABOUT THE JOB:
“What I hate the most is exactly what I love most: having to overcome challenges. At times it's a little stressful.”—FA
“This last summer I probably worked between 90 to 98 hours a week. This past March I did 70 to 80 hours, with only a day off each week. The long hours start to get to you.”—RO
THE BEST THING ABOUT THIS JOB:
“It's a different scene every day out there [on the road] in the sound business. Different faces, venues, cities—that's the best part of it. Seeing a lot of different things and trying to overcome the challenges.”—FA
“It is exciting to realize some of the people I've worked with: Loretta Lynn, Michael Bolton, Ray Charles, Spyro Gyra, Roberta Flack. Because I was a piano player, Billy Joel has been an idol of mine since high school. Working with him—standing three feet from him while he played for 45 minutes—that was probably the biggest moment in my career so far.”—RO
After a year at UTSA, he set aside architecture for a full-time career in music, and landed a gig with Century Music Systems, a full-line production company. Over the next six years, Alvarez continued to hone his skills, working with artists like Robert Earl Keen. Along the way he met steel guitar player/producer Lloyd Mains. Impressed with Alvarez's skill mixing Keen, Mains asked if he would be interested in mixing the Dixie Chicks, his daughter Natalie's band. “I had heard about them. Their first single had just come out, so I gave him my business card and said, ‘Sure, call me if they ever need someone.’ I really didn't think much about it.” Three months later, Senior Management's Simon Renshaw telephoned and offered Alvarez the job. He joined up in June 1998 and says of the experience, “It's been incredible. I've learned quite a bit, seen a lot, and done a lot.” www.gsdpro.com
ROB OWENS, SOUND ENGINEER, GLENN SCOTT DAVIS PRODUCTIONS (GSD)
Rob Owens' future was cast in eighth grade when he saw a local high school theater production. “As soon as I saw that play, I knew I wanted to do this [production],” he says. By the time he reached high school, he was playing piano in the pit band and running sound for his classmates’ theatrical productions. After graduation, he attended Nassau Community College and got further production experience with the Nassau Concerts series at a 600-seat venue, working with such artists as Jeff Healey, Meatloaf, and Melissa Etheridge. At the time, he was studying to be an accountant, until a guidance counselor asked him the question that changed his life: “Do you want to wear a suit and work at a desk, or wear a tee shirt and meet famous people?” It was an easy choice. “From that point on I devoted myself to music.”
Accompanying his piano teacher to an Aerosmith concert, Owens got to hang out backstage, where he struck up a conversation with the sound contractor. This chance meeting led to a job as a laborer at Eastern Stage Productions. As is typical with New York production companies, new employees have to prove themselves by working their way up the ladder from the bottom. “I started out just pushing cases. I always carried the attitude—I still do—that I'll do whatever has to be done to make sure the show starts on time and that everybody is happy.” Over time, Owens built a reputation for his work ethic and reliability, such that artists asked for him by name.
In 1990, he returned to his roots, running sound for a small Long Island theater company for two years. While there, he met his future employer, who was handling the theater's lighting. Owens worked freelance jobs for the company for six months before joining Glenn Scott Davis Productions full time in 1992 as a sound engineer. He assembled and operated the sound system for touring artists’ gigs at major venues and coliseums. While working, he continued to attend college, and graduated in 1993 with a degree in music business with a concentration in audio recording technology.
During a live show, the vocalists and musicians require different mixes of music in order to achieve the best overall sound. For instance, the rhythm section may want the drums and bass mixed hotter so they can hear one another to keep the beat tight, while the background vocalists may require the lead vocals and guitar mixed louder so they can harmonize and stay on pitch. The band's overall sound would be distorted if they heard only the feedback from their live performance, with no monitor playing a mix back to them. The monitor engineer gathers all the sound produced onstage, mixes it to each performer's specification, and feeds it back through their respective monitors. This enables the performers to hear the sounds each needs to achieve the best performance.
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