Bus LifeFREEDOM TO EXPRESS
“The president has just told a joke. Everyone please laugh.”
Thus spake then-President Carter’s Chinese translator to a large gathering in Beijing during Carter’s diplomatic visit to further develop the recently-opened U.S.-Sinai relations. Carter had just told a joke that was innocent to Americans but would be very offensive in Chinese culture. It was a deft, astute move on the part of the translator in the face of such pomp and potential circumstance…and it’s one of Jimmy’s favorite stories from his time in office.
To any musical act playing venues that require big P.A. systems, the soundman is The Translator, and the final hands through which your performance passes on its way to the listener. In short, he has at least as much an effect on the success or failure of your show as any musician in the band.
Yet he rarely gets his due.
While you’re up on stage enjoying the bewildering and improbable adulation of a frenzied crowd who is deifying you like you’re a god because…well, who the hell knows; I’ll never understand it…the soundman is making all of that possible through constant changes to everything from levels, to EQ, to pans, to effects and much more, in an effort to hit the constantly-moving target of minimizing the ‘nasty’ while emphasizing the ‘sweet’. It is a difficult, thankless job requiring many, many years of experience, great ears, lightning reflexes, a sixth sense for the technologies involved—which really are pretty advanced these days—great understanding of acoustics, Apollo 13-level troubleshooting chops and at times, perhaps most importantly, the ability to appear genuinely supportive of a diva’s drama. And all of this while the industry and the public blithely minimize the imperative nature of what the soundman does, whether out of ignorance or actual disrespect.
This piece was inspired by Rich Picard, soundman for the band with whom I’m currently making a bit of noise. The band is comprised of seasoned, talented professionals who know how to do it right, and Rich is every bit the artist as anyone in the band and is just as involved and invested in, and vital to, the moment-to-moment doings of a show as anyone on stage. We’d be immediately and unequivocally dead in the water without him, as is commonly the case with well-developed shows.
But I can’t count the number of gigs I’ve been on where the “talent” was less talented than the soundman, yet put on airs and treated the soundman with the disrespect of addressing a lesser-than (“lesser-than” categorically being a flawed concept in my book, where any and all human relations are concerned), or even delivering the odd temper tantrum. That such behavior is suicide for any musical act would be obvious enough, were it not for the evident impossibility of rational thought to coexist in the same head as a diva’s vanity.
So whether you’re a touring musician, a fan, a manager, booking agent, venue owner or a plumber, please take a moment to appreciate our great benefactor, The Soundman—better called The Great Facilitator—without whose tireless, selfless efforts the music would quickly sour, rendering us all penniless, homeless and on the streets.