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Here at Get Sad Y'all, we thought it would be a great idea to interview numerous people in various aspects of the music industry to serve as guides for those that might want to pursue a career. Those interviews can be found here
Below, we chatted with Eli Webb (Imurj) about engineering live sound.
Who are you and what do you do?
EW: My name is Eli Webb and I’m a recording/live sound engineer. I run the stage and do studio work at Imurj
in downtown Raleigh, and I also do freelance work for other venues and festivals.
How long have you been a sound engineer?
EW: I’ve been doing it professionally for 5 years, plus another 4 years of college. So I have almost 10 years experience in all.
What are some of the bigger shows you've run sound for?
What's your day-to-day look like?
EW: My day always starts with a lot of emails, honestly. Getting advances and tech sheets from promoters, scheduling engineers to cover shows when the calendar gets hectic, and generally just keeping tabs on things to make sure the shows can run smoothly. After that, it’s turning over the room and making sure the stage is ready for load-in/soundcheck. This is usually the most stressful part for a lot of different reasons, but usually it’s just because it doesn’t feel like there’s enough time to get everything done. It always gets done though, and then it’s time for doors and the show. If I did my job right during check, then that’s the easy part where I get to relax into it and just mix. After that, there’s usually a little hanging out with the artists and audience before you strike and load-out. Then comes the best part: you get to do it all over again the next night.
How did you get on the path to becoming a sound engineer? What made you want to become one?
EW: When I was 12, I got my first instrument and I knew pretty much immediately that I wanted to pursue a career in music. I ended up getting into Western Carolina and got a degree in Commercial & Electronic Music, which is basically a program that’s 50/50 performance/engineering. I’ve always been interested in the technical side of things, so taking a more analytic approach to music felt natural to me. It’s like this blend of art and science that really appeals to me.
What is something you've learned about sound engineering over time that you wish you had known from the start?
EW: There’s no magic fix-all for a problem you’ve run into and your mix is never going to be perfect. Unless you’re touring with one band and working a room that you’ve done a hundred times, there’s going to be something that didn’t turn out exactly how you wanted. Even then, you’re in a live environment and things can always go wrong. It’s not like a studio setting where you can go back and tweak something to make it right. The important thing is to not get discouraged by any of that and constantly work to make sure that the next song, next act, next show, the next whatever, goes better than the one before it.
Where should someone looking to become a sound engineer start their career path?
EW: Honest answer? At home. There are tremendous resources out there for anyone wanting to learn how to mix, and it’s good to explore that and learn on your own. YouTube tutorials, blog posts, online communities, that type of thing. A lot of these might be geared toward studio work, but there’s a pretty big overlap between that and live sound. Whenever you listen to music in your free time, you should try to practice critical listening and analyze what’s going on from a technical perspective. Beyond that, get involved with your scene and look for chances to talk to people who are working the shows. Most live engineers are giant nerds and if you give them a chance, they’ll talk about it for days. If school is your thing, like it was for me, then you can also go for that. I don’t think it’s required though as long as you have a passion and you’re willing to put in the work on your own.
What are three key things that someone looking to become a sound engineer should know?
- Check your musical preferences, if you have them, at the door. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with liking one type of music more than another. I definitely do. You just have to put that aside. Part of that means that you should know how different genres are supposed to be mixed. Is it vocal forward or is the emphasis more on the instrumentation? Should you push the low-end or should it be more open and airy? These are questions you’ll need to be able to answer and adapt to, so it’s good to at least be a little familiar with stuff outside of your preferred genre.
- Learn how to use analog gear. This means learning how to patch, use inserts, and properly gain stage things in the chain. I know it’s the 21st century and most things are digital, but there are still tons of places that use at least one piece of analog equipment. If you’re freelance and walk into a place that does, you’re going to need to know how it works.
- Do it for the love of the game. As fun and rewarding as it can be, at the end of the day it’s still a job. There are going to be days when you don’t want to be there for whatever reason and there are going to be times when things go horribly wrong around you. As long as you hold on to your passion for it and stay true to your personal standards, you’ll get through the hard shows and they’ll just seem like blips in what is an otherwise exciting career.
Anything else to add?
EW: I’ll just add that there’s one thing that goes not just for engineering but for every aspect of the music industry, and maybe even life in general: try to make genuine connections with the people around you. You’re a face for the venue and you’re an anchor point for the acts that come through. Be friendly, professional, and accommodating to their needs. If there’s something that might be an issue, do your best to talk through it together and find a solution that’s going to work for everyone. The more comfortable you can make the artist while they’re working with you, the better they will perform, and the more satisfied the fans are going to be. No one is going to remember that the guitar was a little too quiet in the monitor during that one chorus, but they will definitely remember if you were difficult to work with. Live shows are as much about the experience as they are about the music and it’s your job to make sure everyone in the space has the best experience possible.
Be sure to follow Imurj and check out their calendar for upcoming shows. Don't forget to say hi to Eli behind the booth!