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End of the Sound Man

He’s probably not the snappiest dresser and is more likely to wear a fanny pack and tool belt over scarves.

The DAW revolution has truly democratized the job of audio capture. Soon (if we’re not quite there already), people of all walks of life will be equally represented in our industry. So who is the historical “sound man” we all know and love, that haggard stereotype we increasingly see in our respective rearview mirrors?

He was often the smartest person in the room and likely a little shy or introverted, at least compared to the Type A posers in the band. He’s probably not the snappiest dresser and is more likely to wear a fanny pack and tool belt over scarves. Sustained on junk food, cigarettes and coffee, doing fader “curls” for exercise, he’s in questionable physical shape. Although quiet, he is known to launch into spirited tirades on archaic gear (and/or archaic bands) that finally sputter out with a string of indecipherable vocabulary choices and statistics. Lastly (but hardly least), the sound guy, the engineer, the producer is talented and effective … but a major grouch!

The Grouch

You know what I’m talkin’ about because you’ve either fallen victim to the audio grouch when asking for more monitor, or (God forbid!) some FX in the house. Or, you’re (we’re) that grouch, grumbling about how some idiot dared to question your kick-drum EQ or still can’t hear themselves with a Marshall (plus your glares) shooting them in the back. Whether it be in-studio or onstage, the list of inane questions and irritating inquiries seems endless, doesn’t it? “Yes, I do actually know what all these knobs do,” “I’ll let you know if you’re my all-time favorite band after we get a second song tracked,” “Your son is very talented and I’m sure you’re proud, but I don’t need mix advice,” etc.

Fact is, there’s plenty to be grouchy about in a typical tracking session or routine night in the club trenches, with anywhere from two to six bands of underpaid musicians scrambling for attention and position. Sometimes the amount of ego flying about the room is nearly choking, with everybody screaming for their signal to dominate the wedges. Sometimes it seems like the only means of survival is the ol’ Darwinian “intelligent domination” verbal abuse technique. “Well, I could turn up the toms-toms a little more, but (with a smarmy smirkiness to the tone) I don’t know if you’d like all of that out-of-phase, low-frequency information from the kick drum, due to the cardioid directional patterns of the transducers, to create comb filtering and phase cancellation in frequencies that won’t ‘kill-o-Hertz’ you, but might just hurt you at high soundpressure levels,” blah, blah, blah.

At least with tape machines, there were enough moving parts and high-speed mechanisms to scare off a stoned and curious bass player or drummer bored to death by the guitarist’s umpteenth overdub. Tube stuff was mostly idiot proof, too; those glowing vacuum chambers, with their eerie orange/blue glow and associated heat, looked like they were about to blow up if touched. “Fear the gear,” or so I was told; make the client feel like they’ll be quickly electrocuted if they do anything out of line with the gear — unless approved by you, the audio police.

Many of our superiors taught us these tenets, as this is simply how it was done. Whether on stage, in the private studio or the commercial facility; whether producing television programming or live sports events; or whether warding off the unwelcome criticisms of musicians, clients, producers or directors; the answer was largely the same: “You don’t understand what you’re asking for — this is high-falutin’ audio science stuff here, buddy — and your questions are making me grouchy. You shouldn’t piss off the sound guy!”

Yeah. Try that today, Mr. Anger Management! First of all, the moment you step out of the sweet spot, there will be a dozen underemployed video guys who have been waiting for this moment to say, “I can fill in; I do audio, too!” And they’ll be followed by two-dozen, fresh-faced suburban princes armed with Daddy’s credit card, a MacBook with GarageBand, and rates lower than your per diem.

And finally, nobody is afraid of your DAW or believes you alone have the magic powers to use it. Try telling a client, “You can’t do that,” in a session today. Within five seconds you’ll be elbowed out of your Aeron, sulking at the producer’s desk while the bassist programs some new macros, over-processes all the tracks with gratuitous plugs and downloads a pirated software bundle to your IP address. All our clients have something between baby and full-grown DAWs at their own home studio … and you know what they’re doing the whole time you’re automating that plug or copying channels on your digital mixer? You guessed it: taking mental notes, co-oping your chops and thinking how much moola they could save next time around by eliminating your job. And after one day in our chair, I’ll bet they turn grouchy, too.

Rob Tavaglione has owned and operated Catalyst Recording since 1995.