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Artists and Their Engineers: Part Two

Ryan Smith interviews three monitor engineers about building trust with their artists, and the role of that trust in the artists' ability to deliver confident performances.
August, 19 2015 |

A great performance depends just as much on confidence as it does on gear, technology, and talent. Monitor engineers make sure artists are hearing a mix that allows them to perform with confidence. Making that mix gets way more complicated than simply managing the volume levels of all the instruments the artist hears in his or her monitors. If the engineer has a deep understanding of what the artist wants to hear and adeptly manages gear and technology to deliver it, then the artist can give a confident and inspired performance.

I spoke with several monitor engineers at the American Country Music Awards in Arlington, Texas, in April. Three of them really honed in on the relationship-building between artists and engineers that leads to the artist feeling confident onstage.

Stuart Delk, monitor engineer for Rascal Flatts

Mark Gould, monitor engineer for Brad Paisley

Mike Parker, who now primarily handles monitors on major awards shows including the GRAMMYs, American Idol, The BET Awards, and the Academy Awards

In a nutshell, they all point to honesty and empathy as the cornerstones for building trust and confidence in the artist-engineer relationship. Here's how they explained it.

Straight Talk That Builds Trust

Sometimes engineers have to tell artists things they don't want to hear, and sometimes they struggle to understand what the artist is asking for, but Delk and Gould know that those tough conversations are the gateway to the good part. It takes dedication to push through, though.

As a monitor engineer, I've always told people it's a fifty-fifty thing when you are working with an artist at this level. Fifty percent of it is ability, which is what you know and how you mix. Fifty percent is what I call "the hang:" how you get along with people and how you communicate. Being open and honest with them, they respect that. Artists respect honesty. I cut the BS out of the equation. I don't try to sugar-coat anything. I tell them how it is. Sometimes, they may not like it.

I've got a relationship with them now where I think they know when I'm cutting to the point; I'm doing them a favor by not sugar-coating it. I'm here for them. You've got to be in it for them. You're there to help the artist.

As a monitor engineer, you go through different phases with the artist. When you're the new guy, you are trying to figure out what the artist wants, and you're trying to figure him out as a person. Then you go through the phase of them accepting that you know what you are doing. You are trying to get to the phase of them trusting you. There's a time when you might be considered the enemy because you are not getting what he is trying to say.

As your time evolves, he starts counting on you. He starts looking to you for help. He gets used to your sound as an engineer as well as you getting used to his sound. He counts on that so that when you go do a one-off or something on different gear, he knows that you are going to give him what he wants because you are used to hearing it. They begin to trust you, and that's a big step to get to. Some artists are quicker to trust than others.

Getting Inside Artists' Heads (Literally)

Understanding what an artist wants to hear requires a lot of intense back-and-forth, and it's not always in the language of pro audio. It's on the engineer to learn to speak the artist's language, and to educate artists who want to learn Audiospeak. Good monitor engineers know how to put themselves in the shoes of the artist, never giving up on tweaking the mix until the artist says it's right.

All I ever want them to do is go out there and have a good time. If they have to worry about if something is working or not, if a microphone is not working or their ears are not working or not fitting right, then it's going to take away from their experience on stage. They need to be comfortable to give their best performance, which is going to benefit all of us in the long run.

Dealing with three different personalities, you just have to be a people person and understand how each personality works. They want three different things, and sometimes I have to give them that. At this point, they are wearing different sets of ears. It's all about communication. If you build a rapport with them about communicating what they want, then I can give it to them faster.

As an engineer, I'm trying to get inside Brad's head. He's got his hands on the instrument and he's playing with feel. He feels it and hears it. He wants what he hears to represent what his hands are doing. If he wants to hear a "thumpiness" between notes, he wants to hear that instead of a bunch of high end or mushy low end. He wants to hear the attack and "thumpiness" of the Chicken Pickin' style. It's getting inside his head, forgetting about what I think sounds good, and trying to give him something that he can use. It's not about what I want. I'm here to provide a service. It's about the engineer giving them what they want so that they play comfortably.

I'm happy where I'm at because people look to me for help, and they count on me to do what I do. I'm glad to have that freedom.

Confidence: The Two-Way Street

It's one thing to manage the confidence of an artist or band. It's another thing entirely to manage the confidence of a whole bunch of them, plus their monitor engineers. That's exactly what Mike Parker does for awards shows.

At the ACM Awards, his primary concern was making all of the artists and their respective monitor engineers comfortable.

What we've found is that when the engineer is comfortable, the artist picks up the energy. This translates to a better performance. They are confident that they are going to get the same mix they had on tour or close to it. If the engineer is real nervous, that just filters to the artist, and they'll never be happy. Whatever we need to do, whether it's mixing or making sure they have the proper equipment they ordered prior to hitting the venue…whatever it takes, we do it.

Ryan Smith
Ryan is a Regional Manager of Artist Relations at the Shure office in Nashville, TN. He started at Shure in 1993 in Customer Service and joined the AR team in 1996. Ryan has over 30 years of performance experience playing drums and percussion in various groups and genres. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, watching movies, videography, and camping with his family. His Twitter handle is @ryan_smith1969</a>.