By: Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato
I’d like to talk about assumptions and how they seem to run rampant in this business.
As a touring FOH engineer for over 20 years I have worked with a wide variety of artists both in musical styles and personalities. Some have been extremely easy to work for and some have been challenging to say the least. No matter what, I have always tried to do my best work for each and every one of them no matter how big or small the gig. I’ve done tours with full production and tours with no production, in everything from clubs to stadiums, with the occasional botanical garden or zoo thrown in. People assume that once you get to a certain level of touring you never have to do ‘shitty’ gigs anymore. Not true. When I first started touring, the band I was working for was on a fast ride to the top of the charts so I was lucky enough to be able to bypass a lot of the crappy club gigs on the national circuit that some engineers spend years in. However, years later I would find myself working for a band who, while they enjoyed immense success in other countries, had not toured the US in over 15 years and I found myself hitting all of those venues I managed to avoid for so much of my career. Then there are the times when your artist is selling out arenas but decides they want to do some really ‘intimate’ shows and book a handful of small, cabaret style theaters or clubs. Or, the older artist who is very well respected, but their career is winding down and they start playing smaller venues. Even the biggest selling artists do the occasional, random club gig or third world country where standards aren’t quite on par with what we expect here.
1) Don’t assume that when you reach A level touring status you will never have to do a shitty gig again.
I don’t chose my tours based on the size of the venue. I prefer to work for musicians who actually play and sing what you hear coming off the stage rather than
artists who rely heavily on track. Sometimes that means doing smaller venues or even working for a little less money. We all take our gigs for different reasons, but sometimes you don’t have a choice and if you want to work, you take what’s offered. Being independent you just never know when that next tour is going to come. Some of us are just taking the paycheck and some of us have other objectives.
1) Don’t assume every tour an engineer does is exactly like the one he/she is doing right now.
2) Don’t assume because an engineer has chosen to do a smaller tour that it’s because that is all she/he can do or that they have never done anything bigger.
Another assumption people like to make is that engineers can only mix the style of music they are currently mixing. I was pigeon holed for years, mixing female artists and acoustic guitars because I had done it for a few tours and was good at it, when in fact all I wanted to do was mix good old rock and metal, the music I loved. It’s still a hard sell to get people to think of me for a testosterone driven rock band and while all those women and their acoustic guitars are wonderful to mix, I love mixing guitar rock. I also once almost lost a gig because the artist I was working for decided to take a different approach on their new record and go for a completely new sound. They assumed I could only mix them one way and were considering other engineers who mixed that style of music. I had to remind them that I had a long mixing history of many styles of music before being employed by them.
1) Don’t assume your sound engineer can only mix one type of music.
I’m not one of those engineers who feels the need to wear my resume on my sleeve, telling everyone I meet who I’ve mixed and what I’ve done. When I meet engineers who do just that, I always wonder if it’s out of insecurity or are they just trying to impress me. On one festival tour, I worked with a FoH engineer who upon our first meeting, proceeded to rattle off his resume during the first 10 minutes of our conversation. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had turned down one of his recent gigs twice before he got it. After listening to him tell me everything he thought he knew about the business, and how long he had been touring, and how much he knows about everything, I started to regret not shutting him down at the start. It was taxing to say the least, but I was stuck at FoH with him for the next few days. When he started trying to convince me that I should throw my name in the hat for an artist who is well known for their eccentricities, I finally told him I had already been approached about the gig and have no desire to work for said artist. While the artist is incredibly talented and respected, the job also requires you to be on call 24/7 at the artists whim, and a lot of drama and BS that I no longer have any desire to deal with. Not interested. He then proceeded to rave about how much the gig pays. I thought to myself, hmm, what makes you think I’m not making that much already? After I told him it’s not about the money and the drama isn’t worth it to me, he then tried to sell it by reciting a list of all the ways this artist is so ‘unique’ to work for. I burst his bubble by telling him I already work for several acts like that and his artist is not as unique as he likes to believe. On top of that, I’m fortunate enough to work for incredibly talented musicians/groups who trust me enough to do my job without feeling the need to look over my shoulder.
1) Don’t assume another engineer’s salary according to the gig they are on.
2) Don’t assume we all take our gigs for the same reasons, money, size of tour, talent, style of music, etc…
3) Don’t assume that every engineer you meet has the same level of experience or inexperience as you.
4) Don’t assume just because another engineer isn’t citing their extensive resume, that they don’t have one.
Years ago, I was mixing a European band on their first US headline tour. We were using all local production and I had spec’d a Midas Heritage 3000 for FOH along with my usual requested outboard gear. When I arrived at the venue, the local FOH tech felt the need to give me an orientation on the H3000. Even though I told him I was quite familiar with the console, he proceeded to explain it in detail. After several attempts to stop him by telling him, “I know, I’ve got this”, I finally gave up. He wasn’t condescending in any way, just trying to be ‘helpful’, so I laughed it off. I was wearing my hair in a ponytail and no makeup which made me look about ten years younger than I actually was and he just assumed that I was really new at this, when in fact I had been touring for longer than he had been out of high school. He seemed quite nervous that we weren’t sound checking and just before the show he reassured me he would be here, if I needed anything. We weren’t even through the first song when he asked me what I was using on the vocal to make it sound so good? What am I doing with my kick drum? Do I mind if he copies some of my EQ settings, what do I do with the Distressors, can he watch over my shoulder as I mix, etc… It was only after the show, that he asked me how long I had been mixing.
1) Don’t assume because someone looks young, or isn’t telling you everything they’ve done, that this is their first gig.
2) Don’t assume that you can’t learn something from another engineer.
I once went into a venue where the house guy was disgruntled that I wouldn’t agree to use the in house system that he had spec’d and purchased for the venue. It was probably more than capable of handling the local musical theater group and old movies they regularly showed, but would have disintegrated before the act I was mixing finished their first song. He was very new at his gig and didn’t really understand that something which was fine for vocal reinforcement and very small, quiet acoustic ensembles, was not going to cut it for a rock performance. Not only that, but the minute my band walked in and saw the system (or lack there of) there would have been hell to pay. Don’t assume that the touring crew is trying to be difficult or pull rank, we’re just trying to do the best job we can and we know what our artist is looking for. We also know that when we agree to use sub par equipment, when the artist walks in and sees it, the first thing they are going to do is ask why and if there isn’t a very good reason for it, somebody is going to have their ass handed to them.
If we tell you that the equipment you are providing is not going to cut it and we need something else, nine times out of ten it’s NOT because we are trying to be difficult we just know that it’s not going to cut it for our show. There are so many factors involved, the artist and what they want, the management and what they want, the behind the scenes politics, the on stage volume wars, the significant others and their opinions, the producer who is coming to the show tonight, etc…
1) Don’t assume the engineer is just trying to be difficult.
2) Don’t assume you know better than the touring crew what is required for their show.
3) Don’t assume you have any idea of what politics might be involved with a gig.
Finally for all touring crew
Don’t assume that the house tech or local crew are inexperienced because they aren’t wearing their resume on their sleeve or because they are ‘local crew’. There are a lot of touring people working house gigs in their down time or who have retired from the road and some of them have more experience than you.