What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles:
Resident Sound Technician, Audio Technician, Sound Engineer, Live Sound Engineer, Sound Person, FOH Engineer
Career Overview: Sets up and uses soundboard and other sound equipment during concerts or performances, ensuring that levels are correct and the sound mix is right.
Career Salary Range: $60,000 to $120,000+
Become a Sound Technician
Sound Technicians use the soundboard and other audio equipment to ensure sound levels are correct and the sound is mixed well. Their work is the finishing touch on the artist’s performance, guaranteeing that the music sounds good for both the performer onstage and for the people in the crowd. In some cases they also assist with lighting and special effects.
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Chris Thoms, Production Manager at London’s famed Ministry of Sound club has extensive experience as a Sound Technician. When starting off, he says, “If you’re freelance it’s very much gig to gig, if you’re in-house somewhere then it’s usually salaried with advancement taking place as you progress in your role or take on management duties” (such as his job as Production Manager). Advancement can also mean getting hired to work at a more prestigious venue.
Education & Training
Many aspiring Sound Techs start off by essentially apprenticing themselves to working Sound Technicians, assisting them for free in exchange for their experience and tutelage. A degree in production or audio engineering from a trade school or college can also help an aspiring Sound Technician learn the ropes. Hands-on experience is essential for learning, so any program you’re interested in should have internship or work opportunities. And be sure that the program you attend is well-regarded and has instructors with current, real-world experience. Thoms says, “Both ways can work. The only education in sound I actually undertook was a Music Technology AS level which was pretty pointless – I ended up helping to teach the course because there was nobody qualified to run it, and I knew my way around Cubase fairly well! Education isn’t for everyone, but there are some great courses out there these days, far more than when I was looking at uni back in the early 2000s.”
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Experience & Skills
The only way to get the necessary experience and skills to work as a paid Sound Technician is to get out into a nightclub environment and learn on the job. Having people skills is also important in a business that depends so much on whether people want to spend late nights working with and relying on you. Thoms says, “I was a nerdy kid who was always into both lighting and sound, and have always had an interest in music and production. I went freelance when I was 18 and started working in nightclubs, theatres, bars, recording studios and on live events as crew. I’ve done lots of different jobs over the years, and grown my knowledge in several disciplines, which helps to set me apart from the pack a bit. For the role I’m in now (Production Manager) I need to be as competent in specifying, designing and operating lighting, video and laser systems as I am building sound systems, mixing bands or monitors. Similarly, the job is actually very little about knowing which buttons to press, or even technically doing the right thing all that often – the most important aspect is that you’re approachable, work well in a team and have the ability to put artists and clients at ease, and deliver their show confidently and professionally. Your personality is the most important thing you can bring to the table. That’s what gets you employed above anything else.”
A Sound Technician should be someone other people want to work with, but they should also be responsible enough to deal with long hours and late nights. Thoms says that the type of person who’s right for the job is “someone with an absolute thirst for knowledge, passion for technology, understanding and appreciation of epic-ness, and the ambition to push the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Thoms says, “The hours are long, and it makes it pretty difficult to have much of a social life outside these walls so you need to make the most of your downtime. Luckily, Ministry is one place where our downtime is actually respected, so we tend to work around 45 hours a week – with the weekend trading sessions taking up the bulk of the night hours. We close at 6am on Fridays and 7am on Saturdays so those are usually 12 hour shifts, sometimes a little longer if we have to come in earlier for maintenance or for other events. During the week, we usually skip Mondays (nobody does good work on a Monday anyway) and work 9am-6pm Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with one of us covering our Tuesday student night until 4am. Getting in for 9am after you’ve been working nights at the weekend is always a bit of a stretch but does help get you into the rhythm of the week.”
After learning the necessary technical skills to work the soundboard, how do you get a job? Go out and talk to people who are currently working sound, and build those relationships. Thoms advises, “Bother everyone… but in a way that isn’t annoying! I got almost every job I’ve ever had by being in the right place and showing an interest – most places welcome shadowing, and even if you don’t have the experience they’d need to send you out on a job, they will notice that you are keen. They’ll be more interested in whether you bring half decent chat to the table, and as long as you know one end of an XLR from the other they’ll find something for you to do. Ask the questions they don’t get asked all the time, and show an interest in learning on the job.”
Freelance Sound Technicians are paid per event. Sound Technicians who work regularly at a venue are salaried.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
There isn’t a specific union for Sound Technicians at nightclubs and concert venues, although some might be members of the Audio Engineering Society.
Thoms suggests using online resources to further your education and skill set. “So much information is out there on the internet, if you download manuals and free software from manufacturers’ websites you can learn how most lighting and sound consoles work, so when you’re faced with one in the real world, you’re already pretty up to speed on how the thing works. Once you know a couple of desks you can very quickly learn others, and eventually, it really doesn’t matter what desk they give you (as long as it’s not an LS9, they’re just horrible),” he says.
- “Be proactive, and take every opportunity to shadow, help out for free, just turn up and make the tea, whatever it takes to get your foot in the door. Once you’re through the door, don’t mess it up by being annoying, lazy or getting too big for your boots.
- Be helpful when the situation demands it, invisible when you need to be, and bring some good chat – you’ll probably be working some long hours, so it can’t all be about noise & lights.
- Don’t work for free forever either. There will come a time when you’ll need to start getting paid. If they’ve not made a move within a couple of months then it’s time to move to the next gig…If they want you, they’ll call.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Be diverse. Learn to do several things well, then you’ll never be short of work.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Thinking that it’s all about being a great Engineer and forgetting the human aspect of the job. If you can’t string a sentence together, have the personality of a ham sandwich or you regularly say wildly inappropriate things in front of artists and corporate clients, then nobody will care how good at your job you are!”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Do I need to wear earplugs? Yes, Yes, Yes – get some high quality moulded ones. We use ACS custom moulds. And get a variety of filters so you can work out a comfortable level which offers you adequate protection whilst allowing you to hear what you’re doing. If you ruin your ears on the job, then you’ll have to find something else to do for a living.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“How do you stay awake all night? Very simple – we have a Nespresso machine at front of house.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?