Sound Engineer essentials
Updated: Feb 21
We often receive emails from engineers who are fresh out of college and university looking for advice about where they can get their start in the industry.
It's a position almost every engineer in the business will have found themselves in at the start of their career, "I've learned how to do it, now how do I do it and get paid for it?!". Both James and I started out after completing our respective college courses (James at Manchester's SSR and I at SAE Institute in Liverpool) by shadowing local engineers in the various venues around Manchester.
Our founder, Steve Lloyd was a great supporter of young talent and many local engineers have him to thank for giving them their start in the industry. I got my start working under one of Steve's former employees, Rui Feio, a brilliant engineer and one of the hardest-working, most knowledgeable and friendly people I've ever had the pleasure of working with.
My route into the industry was slightly out of the ordinary, given that I went from learning about audio to working for Marks & Spencers and continuing in retail and office jobs for 8 years until I finally saw sense and left it all behind to do what I always wanted to do, but somehow forgot. It all started with an email to Rui (whose address I'd been given by a mutual friend who was the former manager at the Roadhouse, Steve's old venue), I asked him what I needed to do to get a start and whether he'd be happy to let me come and shadow him on a few shifts at Sound Control, another of Manchester's sadly lost venues.
The email I got back from Rui was not only one of the most helpful emails I've ever had, but also encouraged me that this could actually be a viable career option. He asked me when I was free and sent me the rota for the next month at Sound Control and said, "turn up on time, ask as many questions as you can, and bring these things...".
And so, to the list of sound engineer essentials, that I still ensure I always have with me at every gig and to which I've added over the years:
1. A Sharpie (or non-brand permanent marker if you're feeling skint...). The amount of times you will need, use and subsequently lose Sharpies in this industry is proabably second only to the second item on this list. Using an old desk and need to actually write your channel names on some tape? Need to label the end of a cable so it doesn't get lost in a pile? That trusty Sharpie is just the thing you need. You can even get a double-ender that has a permanent marker on one end and a fine point on the other. Never be without one!
2. Electrical tape (AKA "PVC" or "Peevy"). The sound engineer's best friend, used for keeping coiled cables coiled, to label channels on an old school Yamaha M7 or an analog beast, used to mark up the end of an XLR in the middle of a hectic changeover, even used to engineer a makeshift mic clip in times of emergency! Any noise boy/girl worth their salt always has a roll of black and a roll of white somewhere about their person, and, more often than not a host of other colours.
3. A multi-tool (AKA "leatherman", or "gerber"). This little tool can attach to your belt and usually gives you a Swiss army knife-style array of tools to get various jobs done. Usually a small knife, a few screwdrivers, pliers/grips, snips and, if you're lucky, a bottle opener for the end of your shift. Manufacturers like Leatherman often offer a replacement guarantee option if anything breaks meaning you'll be sorted for a long, long time.
4. Bodge. An engineer's favourite term for anything that turns one cable into another. Be that a 1/4" jack to XLR-M for sending a DJM-900's booth signal via XLR, or an Ethercon barrel for extending Cat5 cables, every engineer's rucksack will usually be filled with all sorts of converters to get them out of a bind. Amazing to think that some DJs turn up without the right cable on their headphones sometimes, but it happens, a lot! Be everyone's best friend by having a way of plugging their obscure bit of vintage kit into your shiny new kit by having a bodge pack.
5. Earplugs. Your ears are your livelihood, protect them now or regret not doing so later. There are tons of options available out there, from cheap foam ones that look like delicious rhubarb and custard sweets, to moulded plugs that fit nicely in your ear and can offer an extremely flat reduction in noise levels without affecting the detail you can hear. If you can prove you've worked in the industry for a minimum of two years, it is absolutely essential that you check out the musicians' hearing health scheme, once you've filled in your application form, you can book an appointment to have your hearing checked and moulded earplugs made with a choice of dB reduction options and a huge choice of colours...I went for lime green. The cost is massively reduced as it's deemed a necessary piece of health and safety equipment, and your future self will thank you for it.
6. Head torch. The engineers world is one of darkness and loud noises. The loud noises we can't do much about (apart from the aforementioned earplugs) but to cut through the darkness, a head torch is a great addition. Perfect for getting around the backstage of a festival while the main headliner is on and demanding pitch darkness so they can bring the "vibez", even better for going for a wee in a portaloo at night.
7. Batteries. The three most common sizes are always useful- AA, AAA and 9V. Loads of wireless gear and often musicians' equipment requires batteries and nothing feels better than being hailed as a hero for having AA batteries so that guitarist can use their Korg Miku to make stupid noises and get paid for it.
8. Cable tester. If you've still got space in your bag after all of the above, a cable tester is another helpful tool. Sometimes referred to as the "blame shifter" and forever giving engineers a reason to say, "yes, that may be the case but everything worked up until the last time it worked." when someone tells you, "well it was working in rehearsal".
9. Headphones. This is a pretty obvious one but I've had DJs turn up to do a set without their headphones, which, given that nowadays all many DJs have to bring to a gig is a USB stick and a pair of headphones, was pretty impressive.
Honourable mentions: Soldering iron/solder, plectrums, drum keys, USB sticks, drum sticks, jack cables, gaffa tape, SM58, SM57, switch mic, guitar strings, mic clips, mic stand thread adaptors, 45 adaptor for turntables, moon gels.