Shut Up and Tip Me:
A Sound Engineer Fights Back
I've seen solar eclipses. I've seen dogs walk upright. I've seen a dead body. I once saw a two-headed calf preserved in alcohol. I've seen a hermaphrodite make love to a hemophiliac on several occasions. But I've never seen a band and a soundman socialize offstage.
Nancy Stouffer isn't in a band and she isn't a soundman. She's a sound engineer and she works Fridays and Wednesdays at Boulder 's Baja Club, a three hundred person venue on North Broadway that just opened up in what used to be known as the Slipstream. She allowed me to interview her on the condition that I would not reveal her name or place of employment. I am an asshole.
Strapping Danforth: Please describe your duties as a sound engineer.
Nancy Stouffer: Well, it's supposed to be real simple. I show up to the club around nine o'clock , set up mics, do a sound check and tell the band to go on. While they play I make adjustments so they sound nice. Sometimes I do lights. After the show, I put the mics away, cover the soundboard, collect my money, and go home.
SD: You say it's supposed to be real simple. Do things always work out smoothly?
NS: Never. Bands never have their shit together. They're always late. They're always drunk or stoned or just plain stupid. I have to keep an extra tuner on me at all times. You wouldn't believe how often a band with three guitars comes to a gig without a tuner. Then they always want my advice like, “How do we sound?” I never tell them the truth because it would hurt. They never get tired of saying, “Turn down the suck knob.” That was funny once, in 1993. My favorite is when I set up for a three-piece and over the course of the show seven other people are invited up on stage. They expect me to run lines for sax mics, vocal mics, and jug mics on the fly while maintaining tolerable levels. And then the jerks yell at me if something feeds back.
SD: That's part of the game isn't it? In my experience there's at least one episode of ear-splitting feedback at every show.
NS: When I'm working the board, it doesn't happen at every show, just the ones I choose.
SD: Tell me more.
NS: No, someone will read this and…and I'll be [screwed up the wazoo].
SD: C'mon, I swear I won't use your name. I'll call you Jane Deere and say you work at the 700 Club. No one will know it's you, Nancy .
NS: Okay. Here's the deal. As a sound engineer, it's my responsibility to make the band sound better than they are. Simple, really. If the bass player really sucks I turn him down. If the drummer sucks, I turn the rest of the band up. I smooth out the rough edges. But let me tell you a little secret: don't piss me off. There's been more than one show where I screwed a band royally because they came in acting like prima donnas. If some Elvis Presley wannabe comes in and wants the monitor turned up all the way, and if he can't get it through his head that if the monitor is too loud then it's gonna feed back into the vocal mic, then screw him. I'm not going to conduct an elementary logic class.
SD: Indulge me a little. What is a monitor?
NS: When a band's on stage just about all they can hear are the drums. In order for them to hear themselves we hook up monitors. Those are the wedge shaped speakers on stage that point up at the musicians. I adjust the monitors to make the musicians happy. For instance, if the singer wants to hear more of herself I can make her voice the loudest thing in her monitor. When things go wrong is if the singer wants her monitor to be louder than she is actually singing. At that point the sound from the monitor goes back into the microphone and creates the feedback squeal you were talking about. A lot of musicians think that the louder the monitor is the better they sing or play. I subscribe to the theory that if you're good you're good, if you aren't I'll make your life miserable.
SD: You're a woman in an industry dominated by men. How's that?
NS: I get all the sexist bullshit. A lot of guys leave this club thinking I'm a bad sound engineer ‘cause I'm a woman. The truth is that I'm a bad sound engineer when I want to be a bad sound engineer. And I usually become a bad sound engineer the second I hear the singer whisper to the guitarist, “What do you expect when they send a woman to do a man's job?” If you come in here expecting me to suck, I'm going to do everything I can to humiliate you. One night this band from California came in. They're called Canker Augustus. One of the guys actually slapped my ass and said, “I hope you do sound as good as you look.” How dumb is that? Is that even a sentence? I could have slugged him but instead I turned everything down but the lead vocals. It was a shoe-gazer band with a shoe gazer crowd. The singer usually sang real low in the mix for atmospheric effect and he had no concept of pitch. After about five minutes of his off-key caterwauling at full volume, the club cleared out except for three drunks who heckled them relentlessly. The band took a set break and asked the owner if they could shut down since the club was basically empty. The owner said, “Keep playing. Those [hecklers] will leave if you stop and I can't stand to lose their business.” By the time it was over, all five band members were crying and the hecklers were buying them shots just to get to stop playing, which of course they couldn't do because the owner wouldn't let them. Don't mess with me.
SD: Why haven't you been fired?
NS: Like most club owners, my boss is completely clueless. Beyond that that I have no explanation. Christ knows, I should have been canned weeks ago.
SD: Do you have any advice for bands?
NS: You should be paranoid. Very paranoid. If the sound sucks, it's because you suck. If the sound's good, keep your ducks in a row. Another piece of advice is remember to tip your sound engineer. We usually ask for 10% of the night's take. Very few bands do this so I think that bands should start tipping 30%. That way, if only a third of the bands tip, we still get an average of 10%. It's a service industry. We do more for you than a waiter. A hell of a lot more than a taxi driver. Give us your money.
SD: I've heard stories before about bands that played the Lion's Lair and brought home only $12 to split between the members while the sound engineer walked home with $50 in his pocket. What do the bands do in that scenario?
NS: You should still tip us.
--Strapping Danforth, February, 2003
Learn more about Nancy Stouffer
Sent: Monday, February 10, 2003 8:17 PM
Subject: Comments for RIFFRIFF
I made my first trip to Denver this weekend and had a great time. My wife and I and two other friends came up for the Neil Finn show at The Gothic this weekend. It was a GREAT show and an excellent venue to say the least.
After the show at the coat check, I saw your mag and picked one up. I wish I would have picked up ten! We could use a mag like this in the Dallas /Ft. Worth area. Ever consider expanding?
I am a semi-professional (yes, I have a good day job) musician. After reading the article titled "Bitter Bastard" on the plane back, I couldn't wait to get home and blow the whistle on this 'sexist bitch' that Strapping Danforth was writing about. I searched the web trying to find this club to let the manager know what was going on, to no avail. Maybe Strapping Danforth isn't the asshole he thinks he is. I know from personal experience how hard it is to get a show ready for a club and how seriously 'most' players take it. And if you have this unknown variable thrown into the equation, it could easily make for a disasterous evening. And, if the club owner/manager gets the wrong impression, get the forks out. YOU ARE DONE!
What amazed me the most, this Nancy Stouffer, claims to be a 'sound engineer'. Now that's funny! A sound 'engineer' would never pull the stunts this woman is apparently getting away with because the sound is the credibility. If an 'engineer' can make an OK band sound even better, people might say, "hey, the band was all right but the sound was incredible". Not to mention the fact that she wants her self indulgent cut of the bands 12 bucks. If I EVER found out that she did that to a band I was playing in, it would be bad news. Headlines read, 'Phycho Sound 'Engineer' Severly Beaten At The Baja Club'.
Maybe she doesn't realize the effort and time players put into getting ready for a gig. Maybe she doesn't understand that everybody's got to start somewhere. And most of all, maybe this is just a night gig that she doesn't give a shit about and is just in for the pocket change.
An 'engineer' tries to make things better, turns bad situations into good ones. Does innovative things that make life better for those around them. The ones that don't usually fail. How do I know? I'm a Mechanical Engineer by day. I take my job(s) very seriously whether I'm 'engineering' or playing the music that I love so much.
Maybe she should! And if it's all about the pocket change, she can hang out with the bums at the 16th Street Mall to get it. I'm sure they would like hanging out with an 'engineer'.
Sincerely, Michael 'Bassman/Engineer' Bullman