Live Sound Engineer

The Job and What's Involved

Live sound engineers set up, operate and maintain the technical equipment that amplifies speech, music and sound effects in theatrical productions, music concerts, large-scale conferences or other live events.

The job can involve:

  • Discussing the production's sound needs with the director, sound designer, producer or client.
  • Helping to create a 'sound plot' - writing cues into the script/cue sheet and assisting with artistic decisions, such as the exact points at which sound effects, music and changes in sound levels are needed, enabling precise reproduction in the future.
  • Assisting with sourcing and pre-recording of any sound effects and music to be used.
  • Selecting the most suitable technical sound equipment for the production.
  • Setting up the control desk.
  • Positioning and rigging up microphones and laying cables.
  • Rehearsing with the performers and artistic production team, making adjustments to equipment set-up and cue sheets.
  • Taking direction from a deputy stage manager.
  • Conducting sound checks prior to every performance.

During performances, live sound engineers will operate the sound desk. This involves switching between microphones and balancing the sound, including voices, live and recorded music and pre-recorded sound effects. They also maintain and repair equipment, replacing faulty or worn parts. Sound engineers accompanying a tour or hiring equipment in will usually take complete responsibility for unloading, setting up, testing, dismantling and reloading the equipment at each venue.

For large live productions, a sound designer may come up with the initial ideas, which a sound engineer would implement. Sometimes a team of technicians will assist. In smaller companies, sound and lighting roles tend to be combined. In this instance, sound engineers may also set up and help operate the lighting.

Working hours can be varied. During rehearsals, the hours worked may be longer, increasing as the performance and opening nights approach. During actual performances, evening, weekend and late-night work is common. Although many sound engineers are freelance and need to be available for rehearsals and performances, some venues may have sound technicians to cover general sound checks and maintenance.

Live sound engineers spend a lot of time seated at a sound control desk. During performances they work much of the time in semi-darkness. The job can involve carrying heavy equipment and working on high scaffolding to rig sound equipment.

Sound engineers work both indoors and outdoors in theatres, concert halls and arenas and festivals.

Working as part of a touring production crew in theatre or music can involve lots of travelling, in the UK and internationally.

The starting salary for trainee sound engineers may be between £13,000 and £16,000 a year.

Freelance work is common. Freelancers can base their negotiations on the minimum guidelines provided by the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) and other unions and trade associations.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Repertory theatres, opera and ballet houses, and concert halls all employ live sound engineers, some in-house on a fixed-contract basis. They may also work for a variety of live productions, including music and theatre tours, open-air concert venues, road shows, fashion shows, trade exhibitions, political party conferences and on-board entertainment on cruise ships. The majority of live sound engineers are self-employed.

There is very strong competition for entry-level jobs, although opportunities are good once skilled. Many live sound engineers start off as backstage crew, runners, assistant sound technicians or roadies. Practical experience is essential and there's little chance of entry without prior voluntary work experience perhaps with amateur, community or student productions.

Vacancies are rarely advertised. Word of mouth and networking are the main ways of sourcing valuable contacts. There are some websites that specialise in music industry and stage crew jobs, such as uk.music-jobs.com. Sound engineers also register in trade directories and post their details on trade association websites. Doing some voluntary work experience with influential hire companies and theatres can also be a good way to make contacts.

Education and Training

There are no set entry qualifications for live sound engineers. Most complete a technical course or degree, giving practical knowledge and vital industry contacts.

There is a wide range of relevant courses at various levels, including:

- City & Guilds Certificates and Diplomas
- BTEC National Certificates and Diplomas
- BTEC Higher National Certificates/Diplomas (HNC's/HND's)
- Foundation degrees
- Degrees

Some suitable course titles include music technology, audio technology, sound engineering, music production and electronics. The new Diploma in creative and media may also be a good starting point.

There may be specific subject requirements for entry onto diploma and degree courses, for instance maths, physics and music. Check entry requirements with individual institutions.

Several drama schools also offer degrees and diplomas in technical theatre, incorporating lighting, stage management and sound, which are accredited by the National Council for Drama Training.

It may be possible to enter sound engineering via the new Creative Apprenticeship in technical theatre, which focuses on introducing people to working backstage in a theatre or live events setting.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Even with a qualification, most live sound engineers start their career as an assistant or technician, receiving direction from experienced sound engineers and sound designers.

This practical training may be complemented by short training courses in areas like new equipment, health and safety and rigging to keep skills up to date. The following offer technical training, seminars and membership:

  • Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT)
  • Professional Lighting and Sound Association (PLASA)

Further qualifications, such as the Edexcel BTEC Level 5 Professional Diploma in light and sound: technical theatre management, live sound, and stage sound may aid progression.

The Institute of Sound and Communications Engineers (ISCE) also offers training. However, it's aimed mainly at sound engineers in the engineering sectors, rather than cultural entertainment - for instance, installing public address sound systems and induction loop systems for hard of hearing.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A live sound engineer needs:

  • Good hearing, awareness of what they are hearing and the ability to critically analyse it.
  • Good musical understanding, including pitch, rhythm and timing.
  • Some knowledge of electronics and acoustic equipment.
  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills.
  • Good organisational and time management skills.
  • Confidence to make recommendations to directors/artists and articulate their views clearly.
  • Basic practical electronic skills.
  • Patience and ability to stay focused throughout a performance.
  • Stamina to cope with long hours and meeting tight deadlines.
  • Awareness of stage and rigging health and safety procedures.

Your Long Term Prospects

As most live sound engineers are self-employed, progression often depends on establishing a solid reputation, networking and securing more contracts. Having knowledge of stage lighting and other electrical work may increase prospects.

Sound assistants/technicians can progress to sound engineer and then sound designer. With experience, some may set up their own sound services companies.

The skills acquired as a live sound engineer are equally transferable and may be used in a broadcast setting, including radio, film, television and multimedia. Postgraduate courses, including an MA in audio production, a Diploma in sound recording and an MA in sound design for film and television, are available.

Get Further Information

Association of British Theatre Technicians,
55 Farringdon Road, London EC1M 3JB
Tel: 020 7242 9200
Website: www.abtt.org.uk

Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph
and Theatre Union (BECTU),
373-377 Clapham Road, London SW9 9BT
Tel: 020 7346 0900
Website: www.bectu.org.uk

Creative & Cultural Skills, Lafone House,
The Leathermarket, Weston Street,
London SE1 3HN
Tel: 020 7015 1800
Website: www.creative-choices.co.uk/music
and www.ccskills.org.uk

Institute of Sound and Communications Engineers (ISCE),
PO Box 7966, Reading, Berkshire RG6 7WY
Tel: 0118 954 2175
Website: www.isce.org.uk

National Council for Drama Training (NCDT),
249 Tooley Street, London SE1 2JX
Tel: 020 7407 3686
Website: www.ncdt.co.uk

Professional Lighting and Sound Association (PLASA),
Redoubt House, 1 Edward Road, Eastbourne BN23 8AS
Tel: 01323 524120
Website: www.plasa.org

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