What goes into being a great tech that engineers request or want to work with? The first in a series of articles on system techs and their advice on what it takes to be a great tech.
Suzy Mucciarone started out as a stage tech and now is well respected system and Engineer and FOH Tech. She has mixed countless corporate, one offs and events as a FOH, Mon or Broadcast engineer. She has had the pleasure to mix
for everyone from BB King to Alan Jackson. She recently has obtained her Green Card and is building her freelance work and touring mixing credits. Suzy has had the opportunity to work with people who she believes display the standards in audio that should be achieved on all tours. She has spent more than a decade working for Baltimore based Maryland Sound International.
Q&A – Questions from our members and SoundGirls.Org
SG Member: As a woman who has completed her formal education in audio and is still working on the networking part. When people ask what I do, I never know what to say because there are so many terms that can describe what abilities and knowledge I have. Everything I’ve learned about sound and signal processing, and electronics, etc. would easily make me by definition a “system tech” but does that mean I should consider myself a sound engineer and technician?
Suzy: I think it’s almost a sliding definition depending on what and how big the set up is. It sounds like you are doing it all to get the show running, so I think at this point, audio engineer, covers all. The job descriptions don’t start to define themselves until you move into a bigger company/shows where duties and responsibilities start to divide and often specialize. Growth within the companies is determined by what you know and how well you’re doing it. Generally, you are classed as a tech if you’re doing the setup and not mixing.
SG Member: What type of equipment do you use for room measurement? Mics, computer programs, audio interfaces, things of that nature.
Suzy: Well, first we have to recognize that pro audio gear is expensive! However for people starting out there are far more economical alternatives that will do just fine also. So to cover both ends of the spectrum –
The Dolby Lake/Mesa processors are always in my drive rack. They are an incredibly powerful tool for routing, EQ, delay and such. However, these are very expensive items and may not be in everyone’s inventory. Before they were around, the job still got done with the board i/o, routing, onboard processing and an outboard graphic EQ or two. With a great deal of tuning and time aligning being done by measuring or by ear.
If you are working on a decent small frame digital console – and you can pick up some great ones now that won’t break the bank. Sufficient routing, EQ and delay for the job are all at your fingertips.
For room measurement, the Smaart program ($$$) with a 2ch (+ if you like) usbPre (about a $100 US) and measurement mic, (M30 runs about $800 (but a $50 one from a music shop will do just fine). Will measure delay, show phase, and room response thru the Smaart program.
Alternatively, the app “Signal Scope” ($24) is a very accurate pocket RTA. No delay on that one, but it will show room response and EQ spikes. Great for tuning wedges.
If I don’t have these, or time simply isn’t on my side – and that happens more often than you think, especially in the corporate world, I’ll tune and delay by ear. A Disto ($500ish) or rangefinder type product ($100-ish) measures distance for delay. Work off the ballpark math of 1 foot per milli second – then fine tune by ear.
All are options.
SG Member: What have you worked with in the past and how does it compare to what you use and how you are able to do your job now?
Suzy: I got into live sound right at the start of the introduction of digital. From a tech point, analog vs digital processing, you can obtain very high quality results with the digital tools at hand, and there is far less to rack up and put in a truck. People still argue that the sound from a good analog console sound better than most digital products.
SG Member: What sort of ear training should be done to help in tuning a PA?
Suzy: Know what you own voice sounds like. An SM58 and a gentle high pass (112hz or so) is a good place to start. Then I would suggest getting hold of a good quality set of reference headphones such as the “Heil” or “Phil Jones Bass” brand (both around $100-ish), and listen to some “tuning songs”. Really well engineered and produced songs that highlight overall specific qualities. Learn what they are really meant to sound like, because you’re trying to get the PA to reproduce that faithfully. Taking a graphic EQ and boosting freqs will also will also train your ear for feedback frequencies. There are a couple of “feedback trainers” app type things I’ve seen also. They can be fun.
SG Member: Have there been any helpful books or training courses that you would recommend?
Suzy: I attended the Institute of Audio in NYC even after working in radio back home in Australia because I, like so many, learned on the job. IAR filled in the info gaps and gave me a good educational foundation. The other courses I have done, have been specific to new products in the inventory. Learn the gear that you have and you will be able to maximize their usage.
SG Member: What are the job duties of a System Tech vs. FOH Tech?
Suzy: For me, an FOH Tech would be responsible for setting up and breaking down the FOH rig and snake. Making sure it’s all working and maintained correctly and assisting the FOH engineer with anything they need. A Systems Tech is responsible for the racks and stacks – amps & PA. From measuring the room, deciding on and implementing the hang/placement on the configuration of the speakers. Making sure it all works and assisting the FOH Eng in time aligning and tuning. They also look after the power distribution. These two titles are often combined.
SG: How does being an FOH Tech for a tour or engineer differ from being an FOH Tech for a One Off?
Suzy: For me it doesn’t really. The one-offs tend to have more “oh, by the way,” moments, where as a tour becomes set and rather consistent. On smaller productions, you will often be both system tech and FOH Tech. I have been FOH Engineer, FOH Tech and Systems engineer on many occasions. In the corporate world, I experience it constantly.
SG: How do you prioritize roles and duties?
Suzy: They tend to follow workflow. Nothing happens without power, you can’t fly PA until you have determined points, weight, position and configuration, amplification and the like, you can’t test or tune until it’s hooked up and in the air and FOH has the snake run and is set up, stage is built and jammed… etc
SG: What must have skills and knowledge should a system tech possess?
Suzy: You need to know all the details of the requirements and the gear you’re using. You need to know how to tech it when it doesn’t want to work. From what service it needs to tie into, to reprogramming amps if one goes down, to safely putting it in the air and taking it down and making it sound as good as you can.
SG: What must have skills and knowledge should a FOH or Monitor Tech Possess?
Suzy: Communication and people skills are a must. You are going to be dealing with crews, bands, and engineers. Some great, some not so great. You will save yourself many headaches and stressful moments if you are organized and think and plan ahead and know the gear.
SG: FOH and Monitor Teching often require you to help the engineer to achieve their vision and goals. How can a Tech assist the engineer see their vision come to fruition?
Suzy: Take care of as much as the leg work as you can so they can concentrate on mixing and not too much more. Work with the engineer and find out what they are looking for and trying to achieve. Whether it’s running an RTA mic around, shading this and that or frequency co-ordination. Keep them up to date of any changes or curve balls.
SG: Engineers and Techs that have worked together for several tours or years often compliment each other and have complete trust in each other. They work together as a team. What have you found that has helped build the trust and confidence of the engineer.
Suzy: I think that is gained when the engineer feels they don’t have to question or double check your work. They see that you know what you’re doing and have things covered. When it consistently ends up how they wish it to be, or as close as the circumstances allow it, they leave you to do it. A tech is there to make the engineers day/task easier. Keep them informed of the good and the bad.
SG: Some engineers rely solely on their techs to set up and tune the rig each day; others are very hands-on and involved in every stage of the setup. How do you determine what is expected of you as a tech?
Suzy: I’ll always chat and find out how what they want and expect me to do and where they want to be involved. Some are fine to just turn up and start sound checking, others wish to be involved at some point along the way. Most want to tune their own rigs.
SG: Sometimes the engineer you are working with might have less experience than you or not be as familiar with the gear. How do you navigate around that?
Suzy: Friendly guidance and suggestion. Finding out what they are trying to do or achieve, perhaps give them an option or two on how to do so, the pros and cons of each. Letting them make the actual decision works well.
SG: Some engineers lean more to the musical side vs. the technical side of mixing. Often they can be as quirky as the artists performing. How do you deal with this?
Suzy: There are some who can drive the heck out of the desk but don’t know how to turn it on. (yes, I’m exaggerating) I’m fine with that. I’ll take care of the tech side, and I’ll watch and learn from them as to what makes them so good.
SG: What state should the system be in when the engineer walks in?
Suzy: Whatever they want it to be. If the engineer likes to time align and tune. (Most do) Have it ready to go.
SG: Working in a festival situation what do you feel is important?
Suzy: Sunscreen, mozzie repellant, a packet of wet wipes, and a well put together rig that can set up and breakdown fast. Plan ahead. If you are not the headliner get FOH and the snake out before the last act is done, or you’re stuck there until the crowd goes.
SG: You have spent a considerable amount of time working with some great engineers (Ken “Pooch” Van Druten) that expect a lot from their techs. What have you learned from them?
Suzy: I like to find out their approach to audio. Their workflow and how they get to where they want to be. Sometimes the “rule book” gets thrown out the window. I like to watch them work the console. How they set up the console and treat the sound from input to output? What do they do that sets them apart or achieves a particular result?
SG: Often the techs are responsible to both the wishes of production and the engineer. Often the two desires do not mesh. How do you maneuver around this and make both camps happy?
Suzy: For the production, probably the biggest issue here is sight lines. When you’re at a show, the production wants the least amount of seat kills possible. It will force you to get creative with speaker placement of side fills/front fills or change some plans entirely, etc. Ultimately production has more weight here. You can only let them know a shift may equal a compromise in an area, and that may be the best anyone can do. Let them sign off on it. More often than not, it pans out, and all are happy.
SG: As systems become more technically advanced, how necessary is it to have training or to be certified on the different systems?
Suzy: Always take advantage of training opportunities. You’ll get the most, and headache free performance from the gear that way. Training in flying PA is a must to do for safety. You are about to put a serious amount of weight over someone’s head. About all PA/gear manufactures will send you off with a certification certificate after the class. Some mean more than others.
SG: What training would you recommend for a large scale touring production?
Suzy: Large scale touring will tend to have you doing a specific task and not much more. RF tech, stage tech, PA tech, etc. What ever it is, get to know all aspects of it inside out. The training for this will (hopefully) come from the company you’re working for. Medium and smaller size productions carry the same tasks; it just falls on fewer shoulders. You’ll find yourself doing a broader range of tasks. You will be hands on and proficient in multiple areas, you will also be kept very busy.
SG: What equipment and tools do you feel that every system needs to know how to use?
Suzy: A good multimeter for the power. You will need an array calculator for the PA, amp software control for programming, a measurement system like Smaart, a drive control system like the Dolbys, or a nice console. Beyond that – being able to fix BNC and Cat5e cables, and having the trusty qbox and cab checker will save you many headaches.
A big thanks to Suzy for sharing her experience with SoundGirls.Org. We will be interviewing different FOH/ME/System Techs and Engineers. Send in your questions for future articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
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