Freelance Audio Engineer: Brett Dicus, Lawrence, Kansas

Below is the results of an interview between Brent Kembell, an Entertainment Management student at Missouri State University and Brett Dicus, Freelance Audio Engineer in Lawrence, Kansas. The interview was conducted in the spring of 2001.

Q – What is your position?

A – My title is audio engineer. That means that I engineer things. I don’t produce them, I engineer them. I facilitate things being produced by that I mean a producer has something in mind, and I am the person who actually does the technical thing to make that happen. It can apply to live sound production or recording, like the music industry.

Q – What do you do, in general?

A – Taking the approach as a live sound engineer. My job would be working with a team of individuals like myself, who would be contracted to provide the sound re-enforcement for an event, from fashion shows, to graduation, to weddings, etc. Typically what I do 99% of the time is concert production. My company would be hired to provide the sound re-enforcements. We would know what to do. For example, we would be contracted to do a tour. It might be where I was hired for BB King, and BB King’s people who are producing his tour have hired us to put together all the gear for the show. We would have all the venues in mind, if we were playing in theaters, stadiums. We would put together our most ideal set of gear. We would leave on the tour, which can last from 6 weeks to 6 months. The day to day things that we would do is – wake up on the bus, 2 semi’s and 6 buses. We would wake up on the bus, get off, unload the truck (unloading consists of telling the local crew, the hands, what to do). They do what we want them to do. Probably touch things when we needed to. Once unloaded, we would rig the cables to make everything work. Then it would go into different Worlds.

1) Front of House Engineer – in front, what the audience hears, mixing it for the audience
2) Monitor Engineer – engineering for the band. Providing all the audio that the band needs to do their job. I typically do this, work for the band.
3) System Tech – the person that makes sure everything is set-up properly. He is almost a supervisor. His job is equally as important as anyone else. Throughout the day we would make sure everything would be set up for sound check. There is downtime in the afternoon. Show, which consists of typically one to three bands, and sometimes festivals, which are 10 bands. After the show we load out, go to bed in the buses, and do this for a period of three months. In this job, there is about 5-8 days and then you would get a day off.

Q – Regarding education, what courses or programs should someone follow for this field?

A – People get into it many different ways. There are schools called FULL SALE, that along with other, very small schools. There are specialized schools that might last 10 weeks to one semester. Basically, that is the specialized way. University of Indiana and UCLA and University of Miami, Florida all teach sound production. They each have 4-year programs where you can go into sound production.

Q – Is there on the job type training or is it more field experience training?

A – Well, all the things that I previously listed are classroom and close up sort of style. They are semi-hands on training. Most people get into it because they are musicians. The way most people go is they just pick it up. Once you get the basic concept of what needs to happen, it is a matter of getting familiar with the gear. Because what happens in a lot of guys out there, is you might be hanging out with a band, and working with a band. Maybe that band will get popular, and you have a resume. Then people will call you because they sounded good. It’s all about REPUTATION.

Q – For personality types, is a more social personality recommended for this career?

A – Definitely! Especially because most of the job is communicating with people. In terms with the business side you are working with producers, tour managers, crew people, band members, venue managers, and you have to get through what you want to do in a civilized way. It is more difficult for people to get further if they are not nice.

Q – Other personality types that you recommend?

A – Yes, in my line of work there is long difficult days, and all types of weather conditions, and situations that may change. Very OPEN mind, very FOCUSED mind, as well as keeping common sense, keeping afloat during the day.

Q – What are the common salaries of your field?

A – Opening Salary for some grunt on a tour would probably be $500-$700 a week. Audio Engineer for the Rolling Stones get $1 million per show, and barely lifts a finger. Typical Salary would be $1000, – $1500 a week. Might be on one week, and off another.

Q – Are there advancement opportunities?

A – Oh yes, always. From here, you can go many different places; it depends on your end goal. If I wanted to go on to being a tour manager, I could. The better the band does, the more advancement you have.

Q – Have you advanced in your career?

A – Started out doing small shows. Doing things on my own, learning on my own. Basically as you start to socialize and get involved with your industry and community, people start to know you. It just so happens that my job is very high in demand and hard to find. Basically, once my name gets out, people call me. Then you start to grow with the company, and you do bigger and bigger shows. Then you, along with your company, start to build a reputation.

Q – How has this job changed over the past decade or more?

A – TECHNOLOGY! As technology improves you have to have a much broader understanding and you have to adapt to the new technology. Faster, Cheaper, Better! If someone can produce a better sounding product, then he is going to get the job. The job has not changed, but the knowledge level has increased. The bar has been raised. Any Joe who used to do this from his brothers band cannot come in and engineer a show!

Side Note: people cannot stay in the live industry production because you will start to lose your hearing.

Q – Do you have any insider information or tips for this job?

A – Yes, BE SMART! You have to be willing to adapt, you have to be a team player because you might be able to snake your way out of a situation here or there, but these things cannot be done alone, and you have to be able to work with people, and there will be people who are not too smart, but there are going to be people who you cannot control what they are like, and you have to adapt with that and be able to work with anyone. BE SMART, STAY CALM, PAY ATTENTION.

Q – Where is the largest market for a position like this?

A – There is a very large market for people like us in the corporate world, business conferences, and presentation, and award ceremonies. That is probably the highest paying job that a company can get. The highest demand for people like me would be anything in the music industry from bars, to companies, to bands. People are hired on all different levels.

I am a freelance audio engineer. I do this because I can say no to someone, and it allows me to set my own schedule. I get to work with whom I want, when I want. Disadvantage: some companies like to have a consistent staff for each show. Now, I say that, but that really is the case because a lot of companies in KC cannot afford to have three audio engineers full time, so they would hire the same three freelance guys every couple of days.

Q – Could you take me through some PROS and CONS to this position?

* Fun! Money! Basically, you live the rock and roll lifestyle and getting paid for it.
* Tour the world. Get to work with very diverse crowd.
* FAME: get to work with famous people.
* I like the life of I wake up and I have three fully catered meals, and I get money for other things.
* Networking! Opportunity to see things that you would not get to see.

* On the road, difficult to have a family.
* You cannot have a week off for about 3 months to 6 weeks.
* Long days, a typical day would keep you busy from 8am-12am EVERY DAY!
* Hearing can get destroyed – definite CON!
* Dangerous! It is a risky job, things can fall, one friend of mine just almost died, broke his pelvis.

Q – Could you tell me if there are any professional affiliations, and or unions or associations for this position or field?

A – Trade Publications like Pro Sound and News ? Magazine for our industry that talks about recording, current live events. There are unions for every position. The main example would be the Hands. IATSE ? International Association of Theater and Stage Employees?Kansas City Chapter is 139. We will have 30-40 IATSE Stagehands to do all the work for us. That is the union for the HANDS. There is a Union for the audio engineers, but this can be good and bad, you have to pay dues?this is where you are an audio engineer for IATSE.

Q – What would you say to someone in the business side of concert, or live production about your job? Do they understand your job?

A – That would probably be a producer or the promoter. The producer or the promoter depends on you to come through with what they have in mind. I am the technical person to the producer or promoter. Such as the producer says, “I want you to make a rock show out there, and you are the person who makes it into a rock show, and who gets it into.” When we do shows, for instance, to make our lives easy, a lot of planning can go into us. There are a lot of people who do not understand what we need. We get into debates with the set designers for corporate things. For example, you cannot put a speaker in front of fabric in order to function properly. Lots of times people do not give us a list of what they have, and this will lead to confusion, etc.

The most successful show is where everyone knows what everyone else is doing!