Engineer Etiquette for the Gigging Performer

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The sound engineer. Ah, yes. As a performing musician, I’ve encountered my fair share of them, so I understand the stereotype. They can seem disinterested, a bit preoccupied, perhaps brusque.

And sure, there are bad apples out there. I'll never forget playing Kenny’s Castaways (a classic, now-defunct New York City venue), the engineer loping onto the stage mid-song to swap out my microphone while I was singing. Startled by this, I refused to play Kenny’s for years.

That sound engineer became an emblem to me. I had no pathos for him—that is, until I became an engineer, whereupon I saw the demands of the profession firsthand, how little control one has, how much pressure there is, how loud and in the way audience members can appear, how dodgy venues can be with payment; and yes, how rude performers can seem.

With feet in both disciplines, I’ve come to realize that circumstances push engineers and performers into direct conflict: Often a performer doesn’t know (and has no reason to trust) the engineer. This perception has been informed by prior experience. Likewise, engineers have their own horror stories: musicians tipping drinks over on their equipment, blowing off sound checks, displaying bad onstage technique, blaming the engineer for their poor onstage technique, etc.

It’s a vicious cycle, but it ends here. Doubtlessly, there'll be an article from the other side, but presently we’re writing for performers: Here are eight ways to get into an engineer’s good graces.

Upon Taking the Stage, Do Not Say the Following…

“Can I get more me in the monitors?”

It happens all the time—a musician strolls up to a microphone and, before ever playing/singing a note, utters these words. The performer in me understands. You need to hear yourself. But saying this before testing the gear telegraphs three things:

1) You’re not seasoned/willing enough to try out the setup before asking for tweaks.

2) You're assuming the engineer won't do a good job (why else would one need more “me” without knowing how it sounds?).

3) You’re most likely a pain the neck, and therefore, not to be taken seriously.

You might be the nicest person in the world, but in that moment, the engineer will peg you as a problem. There’s even standard protocol for handling such a request: We pretend to turn down a knob (but touch literally nothing), ask “how does it sound now?” and then laugh to ourselves when the performer says “great!” It happens 99% of the time—and it doesn’t need to.

If the Engineer Wants to Touch Your Gear, Let the Engineer Touch Your Gear

We all have our precious settings, and yes, recall in the analog world is imperfect. As a performer, I understand this. But you know who else understands? The engineer. The engineer also understands the acoustics of the room, the gain-staging of the board, how the signal is routed, and more.

Keep in mind that you and the engineer both have the same goal—a great-sounding gig. So, if the engineer asks to tweak the EQ or level of your gear, please let the engineer do it. Not only will the sound improve, but you and the engineer will have embarked on a journey toward trust. This will come in handy the next time you play the venue.

Do Not Blow off Sound Check

Sound checks happen hours before the gig, and are rarer and rarer in smaller venues. If you’re offered one, take it. You’ll have a quieter opportunity to meet the engineer, build a rapport, and achieve a good sound.

Too many times I’ve seen performers blow off sound check thinking they don’t need it—but everyone does. Even the solo singer/songwriter benefits from learning the space and working with the engineer in a more relaxed environment. The process is a bedrock of trust, crucial for turning any onstage malfunctions into moments that audiences, performers, and engineers can all laugh about together in real time, thus creating a more memorable experience, instead of resentments.

Keep Your Drinks off the Gear!

Yes, you need water (or something stronger) on stage. But water, while great for vocal cords, is terrible for everything else on that stage. You are not only being inconsiderate by leaving water rings on the house gear, you’re exposing it—and yourself—to electrical hazards.

So, if possible, bring a bottle of water with you and set it down on your least expensive piece of gear. Make a conscious effort to keep the cap screwed on when you’re not drinking. The engineer will notice, and you won’t just earn trust; you’ll earn respect.

Don’t Touch Anything Without Prior Consent

That cable plugged into the stage box? It’s there for a reason. Please don’t unplug it without asking—you might mess up the house's peculiar routing scheme.

Likewise, if you’re a DJ, do not plop your rig on top of whatever’s lying in the DJ booth; you could be doing serious damage to the house’s CDJs, or some other piece of gear! If you need to touch the equipment, please permission ask first. You won’t need to beg forgiveness later.

Turn Down on Stage

If you blast your gear loudly from the stage, there’s very little the engineer can do to make you sound better—and trust me, you’ll sound worse. Feedback will creep into microphones; the audience will be annoyed at the sheer amount of frequency you’re driving at them. If the engineer tells you to turn down, oblige. Angle the amp to your ears if you need to. Ask for more of yourself in the monitors. Just turn down.

DJs, please do not go into the red on your own rig. It’s the engineer’s job to make you sound good, and if louder means good, the engineer will make you louder. By clipping, you're taking away headroom from the engineer, and making the job much harder.

Gear Up for the Space

Don’t bring a full stack to a thirty-person venue. There’s no need, and again, it obviates anything the engineer can do for you. If you need tips on what kind of gear to bring, contact the engineer before the gig. It’s no bother: Many of us will be glad that you were considerate enough to ask.

On Stage: Compliments, not Insults

Do not insult the engineer on stage. You’ll look like a jerk and you won’t get rebooked. Unfortunately, this happens too often, which is why it must be written down.

Tip Your Engineer

There’s a surefire method to warming your way into an engineer’s heart, as well as into a great onstage timbre: tip your engineer—not after the gig, but before. If you have twenty bucks to spare, put it in the engineer's hand and say, "I appreciate the job you do."

If you don't have that kind of money, offer to buy the engineer a drink. The point is to show you care up front. If you do so, the engineer will be inclined to put everything on the line for you.

There you have it—eight easy tips for greasing your engineer. Yes, most of them are common sense, but performing is a high-stakes environment, requiring periscope focus. And with periscope focus, niceties often go out the window. Next time you play live, try to keep any one of these tips in mind, and it’s quite likely you’ll be pleased with the result.

4 Comments

Stage volume was one of the first things I learned about during my first gig.  The stage at the venue was setup with these 2 foot high carpeted risers against the back wall.  Even with my 25 watt combo, the sound coming to me at ear level was so much louder that I turned down the volume.  The engineer could tell that I was not used to hearing my amp that he talked to me for a few minutes on how my "knees and feet can't hear" and that I should always try to face my amp toward my ears.

Years later, I find myself behind the board and have experienced all the issues mentioned in the article.  Definitely something every musician should read!

I started out as a live sound engineer, and recordist. Pretty much in my teen years, doing live show recording and mixing for an up-and-coming "garage" band. I can remember many times that the recordings had come out gritty, and usually raw, as the band tended to do "whatever" they wanted. This included jumping around on microphones. Later in my years, I became the sound engineer for my local church. Providing the live sound for sermons, live bands, and announcements. Sometimes with multiple microphones in use. Sound checks were non-existant, and mostly the "performances" were done on-the-fly. As the mixer was used for any sound requirement, it could have been changed, and often was, between performances. About the only time sound checks were available, was actually when we had a live band performing during the service. They seemed to be the only ones to know the importance of them. Only two things I can say about my experiences of being a live sound engineer; one, if the performer knows your job is to make them sound good. On-stage performer monitors only allow the performer to know how they sound, but the sound engineer's job is to make that sound just as good to the audience. And two, it always helps to have your critics sit back and see what you actually do. I have had some performers show up early for another show, and sit back where you work, to see exactly what you do to make them sound good.

By the way, loved the article.

I had been mixing the opening act for a couple of tunes in their set, when the owner club owner appeared from behind the bar.   He watch intently as I tried to get a handle on their erratic sound.  When the next song ended, he strolled up to ma and said something I'll never forget.  "Don't worry too much about it, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t".

Man, can I relate to that!  Just finished an outdoor venue with 7 different groups.  4 were professional and 3 were local 'not-so-professional'.  Mr Hampton is absolutely right...you can't make chicken salad from chicken s**t.  God Bless the sound engineer

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