The Value of Specialization
I was 22 when I got my first tour, and there was no specializing for me back then. There was only me, a tour manager, and a four-piece rock band (Jimmy Eat World) driving around the United States in a van. Opening the tour was another high-energy outfit from El Paso, TX (At The Drive-In). Even though both bands went on to have some really good success in their careers, this was definitely a small budget precursor to those times – the venues maxed out around 500 capacity.
My job was ostensibly to focus on the front of house mix, but I was also responsible for much more, including helping with monitors, setting up backline, and pitching in to get the van packed. This gig did not pay well by any means but it was really fun and I totally fell in love with the pace of the work, the travel, and being involved in live music. I’m sure those bands raised their crew rates as their budgets grew and like many touring personnel have done- I worked my way up to bigger and bigger tours and was able to raise my rate along the way.
My job also became more specialized- mixing FOH audio for pop/alternative/rock bands like Haim, St. Vincent, Passion Pit, etc. At a certain point, even the genre of music became pretty specific: I was once turned down for a mellow artist because I “only mix rock bands” and “they don’t want their show to be too loud”. Which is pretty silly, but it’s all about perception when working with artists and their managers.
As I’ve been developing online education for live music production (www.theproductionacademy.com), one of the questions I get all the time is:
“How do I make more money/get more work as a sound engineer?”
one easy answer is: SPECIALIZE.
There are tons of specialized jobs in touring production, and many readers of this blog are talented tour managers, production managers, lighting designers/directors and so on. But as an audio engineer, I can speak to the opportunity that specialized audio work can bring – not only on tour but in high-level production work worldwide.
So, for this post I just want to lay out a few obvious options for audio specialization. These certainly aren’t the only options out there but they’re definitely applicable to modern production:
Mixing monitors used to consist of managing wedges and side fills and making sure all the microphones are loud enough for the performers without feeding back- And there are still many performers who rely solely on these methods for their shows! But most modern pro-level tours use in-ear-monitors (IEMs) as the primary method for monitoring on stage.
If you’re an audio engineer looking to break into the touring industry, specializing as an IEM mixer can be a great way to go. Mixing IEMs is much more akin to studio mixing, where compression can be used creatively and EQ adjustments are made to enhance the mix instead of fighting feedback. Combining the high quality of professional molded in-ears with the sonic possibilities of digital consoles can result in some amazing mixes for performers.
Mixing IEMs can also be really difficult! There might be a dozen or more people that need their own mixes and adding things like talkback or ambient mics can further complicate the workflow. The best engineers are able to handle all of this quickly and make sure everyone involved in the production can hear exactly what they need to hear but this isn’t easy! It can take years to develop these unique skills and get comfortable managing the workflow and mixes for multiple performers. When I see the best monitor engineers in action, I’m totally in awe and fully realize that I couldn’t do what they do. That’s why they probably get paid a higher rate than I do!
Of course, some artists are terrible to work with and they burn through monitor engineers super quickly. But others are quite the opposite, and they often develop trusted relationships with monitor engineers that last many years.
If you can establish yourself as a trustworthy IEM mixer who can work with top-tier clients, there are definitely opportunities to develop a successful, sustainable touring career.
Working directly for artists isn’t always the best way to have solid work booked. Many of them work in album cycles, when the touring part is happening you can end up being pretty busy! But when they go into the studio to work on the next record, you’ll be looking for another job. Another option is working directly for an audio/production company. These companies not only provide audio and lighting for tours, they’ll provide gear and labor for other events in their region. So, when the tour is done you’ll hopefully have more work available closer to home, or have another tour with a different artist booked right around the corner.
An obvious skill that puts you in a valuable position for these companies is systems technician. Modern speaker systems are super complex and require specialized training using proprietary software to determine the exact position and angle for each speaker. Whether it’s d&b, Adamson, Meyer, L-Acoustics, or another kind of professional speaker manufacturer, these systems require a lot of training to master.
When an audio company sends a full speaker system out for a show or tour, they’ll send audio technicians to deploy that system and make sure it’s right for each venue. They’ll use the proprietary software to enter the size and shape of the room and figure out exactly where each speaker box should be located. Plus, they’ll use measurement tools like SMAART to check the phase coherency for the entire system once it’s set up.
This isn’t just about running software; there is an art to it as well! Recently, at the famous Redding and Leeds festivals in the UK, I mixed the same band on two consecutive days, once at each festival location. The acoustic environments were the same (outside) and the speaker systems were exactly the same make, model, and size, both coming from the same audio company. They definitely did not sound the same… And the only difference was the system technician who was in charge! It’s no wonder that the better-sounding systems tech was talking about the big worldwide tours he was about to embark on as a critical member of the audio team.
While specializing as an IEM mixer or system tech can be an effective way to increase your value as an engineer, the most obvious choice to me for specialization is RF (Radio Frequencies, or wireless audio). After all, the people who tend to get paid the most in any industry are the people who can solve very specific problems that exist in that industry at any given moment.
For live music production, this problem is wireless.
Most critically, the available bandwidth we have for wireless audio is shrinking as governments worldwide have been auctioning it off to mobile carriers. As a result the audio world is getting squeezed and we are continually working in a very crowded wireless environment. At the same time, in live music production, we are being asked to use RF more and more. The biggest driver here is the popularity of IEMs for performers on all levels and it totally makes sense! They’re awesome and have improved stage monitoring dramatically, especially when they’re wireless and you can run around the whole stage with a super consistent mix.
…But put five band members up there, each with a wireless stereo mix, and we’re already up to 10 frequencies that need to be clean and solid. Add another 10 to 20 channels for larger productions, throw everyone together into a field for a festival with 30 other bands and things can quickly go wrong.
Luckily, the technology is advancing quickly to keep up and industry leaders, Shure and Sennheiser, are constantly improving their products to adapt to the wireless landscape. Other specialty companies like RFvenue make high-quality wireless products to help get a successful show going. Mastering these tools and being able to reliably secure multiple channels of wireless audio is a hugely valuable skill set. This not only involves using the right tools but understanding and implementing best practices, including antenna position, proper scanning techniques, and managing gain throughout the entire wireless system- Plus, these skills can be used outside of the music world in places like corporate or sporting events (potentially for even higher pay rates).
In addition to RF technicians,
another specialized position on large-scale tours and festivals is RF coordinator. This person will organize the frequencies for each performing act and communicate with the engineers for the performers. Good RF coordinators will plan well, communicate clearly with everyone, monitor the wireless spectrum during the show and quite often make more money than other audio engineering positions.
Learning any of these specialty skills takes training and experience, for sure. On my website, www.theproductionacademy.com, we focus on training for beginner through intermediate levels, and as of early 2019 we don’t have advanced training (yet…). But here are some resources you can check out for more specialized tutorials.