When I first began in this business a long time ago I had always wondered how the big guys got the good gigs and how much different it was working with the top talent.
It was obvious that experience, timing, luck and other factors were a big part of it. I knew that as an assistant engineer I wouldn’t be working with platinum artists but I always strove for that as a goal. As I slowly made my way up the ranks, sure enough, the better gigs came along and since accomplishments beget accomplishments, they came with increasing frequency. It’s like evolution, it takes a long time but if you keep at it eventually you become the person you want to be.
Back then I thought it was completely up to me to make things happen but found that that is not necessarily the case. I discovered that it’s often the artists themselves who are seeking out the better engineers. That too should be obvious but we’ve all seen examples of a person getting a good gig through nepotism, bribes or other non-ethical means so it’s not always entirely based on merit. It’s a combination of many things that ends up making it possible for someone to work with others at the top of their game.
In my 25 years in this biz, I worked with many, many garage bands and unknowns before I got to a point where I was consistently working with better talent. It took most of those 25 years for me to get there and was a hard road, one that I thought I may not be able to stay on. There were more than a few occasions when I thought about bailing from the music industry and trying to find some other line of work that would suit me. The problem was I had no other skills. So, back to the consoles I went… and I’m glad I did. I just worked harder and spent more time trying to improve my skill set. I took it on faith that if I kept applying myself that there would be rewards.
Eventually I got to a point where I was pretty consistently working with better talent and a number of things fell into place.
1) Better artists will almost always have more money and can therefor afford to pay better musicians and crew members.
2) Once you’re working with better people who will challenge and push you, you will find that for the most part your gigs should get a lot easier. Better bands are usually more prepared which allows you more time with them onstage for soundcheck… that should lead to a better show.
3) Better artists can demand better equipment for the show which lets you play with the big boy toys. The better equipment is maintained by better crews who will have things set up and ready in a more timely fashion, giving you more time with the stage. That too should mprove your show.
Once all of these variables align you get into a situation where you can work on mixing creatively and artistically, rather than from a purely technical point of view.
That was a big revelation for me. Having a band onstage that knew what they were doing and could handle their sound, dynamics and attitude without my input gave me the freedom to stop worrying so much over levels, tones and all that from the stage and work on it sounding great from the PA. These days with Cee Lo’s awesome British band I find that I do much, much less compression and EQ overall and more fine tuning to make the mix stand out. They make me look (and sound) good just by being at the top of their game and still striving for perfection.
Cee Lo himself is much the same way, always looking for ways to improve himself and the show overall. That’s the big difference between the pros and the amateurs. Typically with amateurs you have to work so much harder to reign them in, leaving you little to no time to concentrate on all those little details that make your mixes come together. I remember many gigs on which we spent all the time between load in and the show putting out fires of all kinds and never really having time to work on the sound. I’m thankful that for the most part those days are behind me.
Another big revelation came when I started working with artists who had their s**t together and would therefore take more of an interest in what I was doing and work with me to improve every aspect of the show from a sonic perspective. No longer was it entirely up to me to shape the overall tone of the show. No more guessing games! It was a HUGE help to have the artist themself jump in and give me some guidelines on what they heard in their head. Working side by side at FOH (or monitors) with an artist becomes more collaborative and satisfying because you know you are now truly putting forth their vision.
The bottom line is that all the best gear in the world will not be able to make a terrible performer sound good – but great gear, great techs AND a great band/artist? Now you’ve really got something.