Every gigging band has asked that question at one time or another (and if you haven’t, you should have!). The answer is simple, and this may save you some reading. NO!
Really, all an engineer would bring to your group is someone who takes another part of your gig pay in exchange for what? Dedication to the band, actual caring about how you sound, technical support, consistency between venues, and all around better sounding performance? Who needs that, right? Seriously, you already sound awesome, so why bother trying to get better? Besides, most of the venues you play already have a sound system, and when they don’t, shelling out 60% or more of your gig pay is no big deal!
Ok, full disclosure here, I AM a sound engineer, and have been mixing bands for over 15 years. I am also NOT a musician. I know my strengths and my weaknesses. Playing is NOT my strength, but getting the best sound I can out of a band, system and venue is what I do. I know that the Front Of House mixing is as important as the band itself being good at their respective crafts. That’s why every big band that you’ve probably paid money to see has their own engineers (in most cases, many engineers for the guitars, monitoring system, drums, front of house, senior technical engineer, and often more.)
That said, do you REALLY need an engineer to be a member of your band? The real answer is: MAYBE.
It really depends on what your goal is as a band. This requires your band to be brutally honest with itself. If your aspirations are to play the local bar circuit or Mister Wiggins son’s 16th birthday party, then the real answer is: Probably Not. Use your garage PA, save the scraps of cash you do make, and keep it simple (please just watch the gain, sound levels, and for all that is good and holy in this world, control the feedback!)
Now, if you have aspirations beyond that, even if it is still being a “local” band, but to play the better halls, parties and venues, then the real answer is probably YES, you need an engineer to be a part of your band. This may sound strange, but when you get down to it, even if one of the band members IS a sound engineer themselves, they are NOT going to be able to focus on the monitors, front of house, venue acoustics, crowds, and actually playing the songs all at the same time. Yes, they MAY be able to get things sounding passable, but if you are really looking to make a name for yourselves, you want better than just passable.
So, what does an engineer look like as a member? In short, they should be considered just as important as everyone else, period. Now, I know plenty of musicians that may balk at the thought of that, and I totally understand that. Really, I do. They don’t spend hours practicing with us, they just show up, set up their gear, play with a few knobs and faders, and wander off. Here is the thing, however: as a band member the sound engineer MUST consider themselves a part of the band too. They can’t just show up at the gigs, they need to attend practice, give feedback, listen to the musicians, learn to “feel” the way they play and be just as in sync with the bass and drums as the rest of the band. No, they don’t play an instrument, they “play” the soundboard, “play” the groove, “feel” the room, tweak the reverb for this song and that, edge the bass just a little for that cool groove the song needs, know when the guitar is supposed to shine. The sound engineer as a member should be just as invested in making the band sound as good, clean, tight and awesome as the rest of the members, which means attending practice and every gig (even if the venue has their own sound system and venue). Yes they may just sit there, but they sit there and LISTEN! They become the ears of the band OFF STAGE. They learn to communicate with the band just like the players on stage, and get a feel for the audience that the band can never gain from on stage. They should be able to know the songs from the first chord and be able to “air drum/guitar” the end of the song right on cue with the rest of the band. And lastly, just like every other member of your band, they should be interviewed and auditioned to make sure they are not only technically able, but that they are a good fit and personality for the band too.
So, as a band, you’ve decided that a sound engineer as a member is worthwhile, how do you go about finding the right one? Honestly, the same way you find any other band member. And, just like every other musician, you will find some that only want to be a “hired gun”, and they won’t want to actually join a band. They think they are “too good”, or have the idea that they spent so much money on their gear, that they can’t be locked in to that, they may think they deserve more. Let’s be honest, yes, their gear is expensive, and it is also big, bulky and heavy, so it IS a pain to lug it around. But, I’ve seen guitar rigs, drum kits, and keys that were just as costly and just as much of a pain to lug around too. They may also pull the “But I have to be there earlier than you, and stay later” line out too. That is true, but to how much time (in most cases) did the musicians put in learning on their own time, and then actually booking the gig (and if it was booked by an agency or manger, did they do that using a kind of magic shamanic booking dance that took no time?). And let’s not forget that the band members should be working the crowd at the break and after the show. Time. Please, get over it! If the sound engineer is working out of PASSION, just like the band, then none of that should matter to them anyway, right?
None of that is to say that they shouldn’t be picking up other gigs or be members of other bands too. Even the musicians in a lot of cases may do that, but they should be up front about that too. For me, as of this writing, I am a full member of 3 bands. What does that mean? It means that I go to practices, band meetings, attend all the gigs (even if there is an in-house engineerand sound system), and I’m involved with all other aspects of the band too. I am one of the people who can say “that song does/doesn’t work for us”, etc. It also means that, when I joined, I and the band agreed on payment terms.
Payment? You mean, you don’t just say “It’s X-Hundred dollars to get me to the gig!”? The answer to that is, MAYBE. To be fair, if I am a “Hired Gun” sound engineer for a gig jere and there, then yes, I have a fixed minimum I am willing to work for. But this is NOT about the hired gun, this is about the “Band Member”, so as a band, you have to have an idea of your expectations and limitations before you ask the engineer to join. This can come in many forms: Is it a fixed percentage of the each gig, a fixed rate off the top, even split with the rest of the members? Do they get paid as a member even if there is house provided sound (or is part of the deal that we do our own sound either via the house board or a “Main Feed” to the house system from our console, etc.)? These are the types of questions that need asked and, if not fully answered, at least discussed BEFORE making the final call on membership in the band. These are also the questions that I don’t have an answer for, since every band and engineer are different.
All of that being said leads to one thing: having a sound engineer as a band member can provide a lot of benefit to the band. The right one will be invested in your band and their craft, and have all of the passion for the music and the sound that the rest of the members do. They will put in the effort and research to learn their craft, know their gear as well as the band’s, and strive to make all of it sound as good as it possibly can. They will be dedicated to making the band the best that it can be.
So, does YOUR band need a sound engineer? The answer should be, if you really want to be the best band you can be, ABSOULTELY!
A sound engineer is a technical and creative combination, so find one, but find the right one for your band. It may not be easy, but it is definately worth it.
“It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”