SOUND ARTIST

“ I am mainly a composer-sound artist, but I also work on the intersection of arts with other things. So yeah, I am sort of multidisciplinary artist “ - Elias Merino -

(SYNSPECIES by Elías Merino and Tadej Droljc)

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Over the last century, the distinction between art, music, and sound became hard to identify sometimes. A Sound artist is an artist who makes art that you can listen to, using a variety of sounds combined with other forms of art from visuals to unconventional sound sources.


Creating sound was always driving me in my production process and I feel now more drawn to become a sound artist than to hit the top of the chart on Spotify!

Let’s discover what it is to be a sound artist today.

GETTING SARTED

After interviewing several sound artists, it seems that there is not only one way of becoming a sound artist. For Robert Henke, it came from his love for synthesizers and his knowledge of programming, for Thomas Ankersmit messing around with sound as a hobby became his main activity and Kurt Hentschlager was an architect who started building surreal machines before incorporating sound art into his creations.


First of all, you need to have an interest in Art and somehow know how to work with sound.


“Anybody who would consider themselves a sound artist is a sound artist.” said Kayla Painter in an interview for dBs music.


They are several ways to develop your skills when it comes to working with sound:


  • Going to a music production school. 

  • Undertaking small production courses.

  • Watching video tutorials on the internet.

  • Learning by doing and getting help from people you know.


Going for an academic path is not the only way. After having spent two years in a music production school I can say that being surrounded by other creative minds and supervised by established audio professionals is definitely a plus. You can start creating your network and you will also gain knowledge about the music industry which is something that you don’t find so much in youtube tutorials.

“Definitely not easy… in my experience, what makes or breaks a career is whether you can come up with something that sticks out above the average level, ideally something that has everybody drop their jaws… and then, once that happens do not let that get into your head but keep building from there.” - Kurt Hentschlager -

(Ulf Langheinrich & Kurt Hentschläger / Granular Synthesis "MODELL 5")

Collaboration is very common in the sound art world as you might have some music production skills but depending on the nature of the idea you have you may need other people’s help to bring the project to life.


Here is a list of some of the skills you might require from your collaborator : 


  • Programming

  • Buildings 

  • Performance skills

  • Choreographing 

  • Light engineering

NETWORKING

“ Find people in the world who have the same interest, write a message, and become part of the discussion. It is important to find the right people, which is always difficult, even now. Especially if you don’t know yet which things you are really interested in. Don’t lose time hanging out with people who are not helpful for what you want to do. Listen to your own voice, and figure out if the group of people you are communicating with is really the group of people who is providing you with the inspiration you need.”  - Robert Henke -

(Robert Henke - Fragile Territories)

A good way to meet people and start building your network is to actually go out there, attend events, shows, conferences, and talk to people to show them your interest and that you exist. But it is important to approach people you are truly interested in to start building your community and find ways to maintain the relationship over time. Eventually, you become friends, and friendship will last longer than a strictly work-based relationship.


To build your network you need to be: 


  • Nice

  • Humble

  • Confident

  • Generous with your knowledge

  • Curious

  • Open to new influences


In the world of Sound Art, a lot of work is being commissioned via open briefs. It is good to start applying as soon as you feel ready, if you are selected, it will boost your visibility, help you develop your network and maybe launch your career. But sending your work to festivals, art galleries, artists collectives can also help you to land your first big project.


Some examples of art festivals and galleries that are worth paying attention to in Berlin and Europe:

MAKING A LIVING

As a sound artist, it is most likely that you will work as a freelancer. When you are a performing artist, your income comes from touring. When you are making installations you get paid to present your work in a specific location or event. 

But your income may vary from month to month, year to year. Sometimes you might get an offer to display your work that is not going to bring a lot of money to the table but can be beneficial for you and help you get more opportunities in the future. 

When I interview Robert Henke, he told me that some projects actually cost him money because he had to invest in specific pieces of gear and hire people to help him with some parts. 


But Hey ! YOU are an artist, and you make ART! 

Earning money for it is definitely a good thing, but not an easy one.


So unless you have a very low cost of living, which is not necessarily a bad thing, earning money from your art only might not be enough. 


You better have more than one trick up your sleeve!


And there are many other ways to find other sources of income. In the case of Robert Henke, developing programs to help him with his sound art, brought him to create Ableton and allowed him to be financially stable. If you secure a stable income from your “secondary activity” it can then give you the possibility to create your art projects without being limited by the need to earn money from them. That is something that can allow you to fully express your creativity.

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(Robert henke - CBM 8032 AV )

But really anything that has to do with music in some ways can become another source of income. Depending on your personality and your other technical skills, you can manage to have many small income streams, like for example:


  • Teaching 

  • Giving lectures

  • Doing sound design for film/video games

  • Releasing and/or performing music

  • Getting grants

  • Crowdfunding campaign


And one thing to also consider is creating a Patreon page, so your audience can also help you financially. In exchange for a monthly subscription, you give your fan access to exclusive content. A couple of artists I know are now using Patreon and it can definitely help them have a stable source of income that can be used to pay for your costs as an artist.


But what cost are we talking about?


Spending on the size of your artistic project, you might require some help to run your business. Yes, as a freelancer, you are a business! And as an artist, you might not be so much into the “business side” of it. You then need to find people to take care of things for you so you can have more time to focus on your projects. 


These are some typical things where you use external help : 


  • Accounting / creating contracts

  • Managing your website and/or social media account

  • Applying for grants/art fundings

  • Assistant for specific projects: planning, building, etc.

HOW IS IT TODAY? WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?

With the recent event of the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation for artists nowadays has never been so dramatic.


“Wiped me and everybody I know out good. Then everything went online, without much possible revenue, but the question of time only.” - Kurt Hentschlager -


With most cultural places having to close down globally, many artists were not able to show their art to the world, and consequently not able to earn money from it. In many cases, the work of a sound artist requires a place to be shown and an audience. So unless you were working with visuals that can look good on a computer screen, there were no more opportunities. And it is then that your other sources of income can save you from getting into a really bad financial situation.


But is the covid-19 pandemic the only reason why many artists struggle to make a living out of their art only? 

Even before the pandemic, the world was broken. It doesn’t take a lot of research to realize that people of colors are, like in many other fields disadvantaged, and less likely to get grants or funding. 


And for a lot of people, being an artist is a luxury, making art is a privilege.


I think that there is one change that needs to be made, and that is to re-establish in people’s minds, that art is necessary! Everyone should recognize the value of art, it can educate, transform, provoke, and we all need this.


And the world needs to evolve in a way that will give their creative power back to all artists, and allow them to focus on creating, not surviving!


Here a link to an interview of Toby Lloyd, a Newcastle artist who questions the relationship between art and work, but also looks in the future and focus on the Universal Basic Income :


https://cbin.scot/2019/10/29/basic-income-and-the-blurring-of-art-and-life-a-qa-with-toby-lloyd/


I think that could be something very beneficial for artists.


What do you think ?

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(Thomas Ankersmith - Live in Paris)

And to finish on a more positive note, what or perspectives can we look at for futures sound artists? 

New technologies are coming to light every year and can offer new ways for sound artists to interact with sound but also with the audience and the way the piece is shown to people.


Virtual reality and augmented reality are getting better and can offer unprecedented possibilities to create immersive installations.

Check out the work of the society Sofilab which experiments with AR and aims at bringing those new technologies into the game.


Another interesting thing that came to life in Israel, Noveto has developed the “Sound Beaming” technology which allows beaming sound directly to the listener’s brain. Imagine an installation where you could walk in a space and hear sound based on where you are situated, without interference from the other people present around you.

Published 18th May 2021 / Alix Willhelm aka Parallel Processing

LIVE SOUND ENGINEER

“There’s a feeling that you get when the house lights go down. And it’s just you with the front-of-house engineer in this little cage in the middle of a huge crowd and everybody is incredibly excited. And the first song happens, and it’s loud and it sounds good. And for the crowd, it’s what they’ve been waiting for for months. You do the long hours and go the extra mile because if you make somebody’s year, you know about it because all the fans are going to go wild. I think that’s the best bit.”

- Chris Drew, System Technician and module leader at dBs -

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After the creation of microphones, speakers, then amplifiers, live music took a new turn. Bands were bringing their PA system with them to play, and sometimes combining them for bigger events.

In summer 1965, The Beatles perform the very first stadium concert in front of 55000 people, and the sound system didn’t perform as expected. People couldn’t hear the music very well, and the band was barely hearing themselves playing over the sound of the crowd screaming.

Setting up the system so every party is happy, and making sure that everything goes well during the show, has to do with the live engineer. 

Let’s have a look at the role of live engineers.


How to become one? What’s the reality of this job?

These are the question we going to answer. 

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WHAT DOES A LIVE ENGINEER DO ?

Live engineers are audio engineers, responsible for controlling the sound at live events. They have to make sure that the audience is happy as they paid for the ticket and should be able to enjoy a well-balanced mix. 

And they also need to make the artists happy by making sure everyone on the stage can hear themselves and the other properly. 

In most cases the artist is paying the live engineer, so you better be sure the artist is happy otherwise they might not want to work with you anymore. But a live engineer can also work for a specific venue or festival and then has to make sure every band coming to play is as happy as possible.

The key is to be able to adapt to new situations all the time and make the best out of them.


Most of the time, it is only on one person’s shoulder, there are different roles within the live engineering:

  • Front of house engineer (FOH)

  • Monitor engineer

  • Stage Patch

  • Systems technician


Depending on the size of the event, and the budget, of course, one engineer can take on different roles at the same time.

GETTING STARTED

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“I actually never intended to become a sound engineer. I fell into it as a fluke. I was at a women’s music festival and one of the sound people didn’t show up, I said that I could probably figure it out and was put to work. I managed to do a good job and then started getting calls for jobs until it then became what I was doing full time. After I had created a career, I formally studied it to improve my knowledge.” - Julie Rix -


There is not one way to become a sound engineer. Like Julie Rix, many started by helping backstage in a concert venue or by being a roadie for a band. If you can get the chance to shadow a professional live engineer, it can be a really good way to get to know what it takes to be one.

But you can also follow a more academic training as a sound engineer and then specialize in live events. 

Here a couple of university/music school in Europe where you can study live sound (in English):


  • Point Blank London (UK)

  • University of Derby (UK)

  • dBsMusic Bristol (UK)

  • SAE Institute (DE)

  • Catalyst Institute (DE)

  • Spirit Studios (UK)


As a live engineer, you need some solid knowledge of sound engineering. You can get a solid understanding of microphones, speakers, audio lines, and of course how to operate a bix mixing console, by undertaking an audio-engineering course. But they are a lot more skills that can come in very handy:


  • Acoustic

  • Communication

  • Team-work

  • Work under pressure


These are also skills you can develop during your studies, but having some real-life experiences is definitely going to help you improve those skills and help you build your network!

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NETWORKING

“I never got a job by sending a motivation letter or anything like that. I mostly got job opportunities by meeting people at a bar, or in cultural places, places where people meet each other.” - Guillaume Simonet - 


To develop your network, it takes some serious social involvement, be out there, meet people, talk to the local live engineer in your city. Don’t be afraid to do some volunteering job in the first place, show them your motivation and that you’re a person they could rely on. Don’t be afraid to say yes to an opportunity even if it is not the one you would have chosen, your need to broaden your knowledge as it is the most valuable thing you can have that will make people want to work with you in the future.

You must be the person they want! 

Most people will rather work with someone with less experience but who is really motivated, than working with someone that is difficult to work with.


Over time you will develop your portfolio and get access to better gigs, with more responsibilities.

Here some qualities a live sound engineer should have:

  • Be humble

  • Be reliable

  • Be adaptive/flexible

  • Be dedicated


While waiting for your network to be big enough an aspiring live sound engineer should also consider searching for job offers. You want to get as many experiences as possible.

These a good place to start looking for those offers:

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MAKE A LIVING

“In the beginning, balancing a day job was really difficult. I was working in a cafe from 8 am - 3 pm, then going home to get some sleep, then off to soundcheck and mixing a show, and then getting home after midnight, going to sleep, and doing it all over again. It was obviously worth it, but you really have to be prepared to work super hard, and that’s the same once you’re working as a live sound engineer full-time” - Fiona Riches, FOH/Monitor Engineer -

As a live sound engineer, you will probably start by being a freelancer. And it is most likely that you won’t be able to cover your living expenses with that only straight from the beginning. So you need to think about other sources of income, whether it is also related to music or not.

If you have studied at the university, you probably have other skills to put to work.

And being a freelancer can also be very interesting if you like to work in various types of situations. If you are into touring and working in festivals, intense working hours on a limited period of time, being a freelancer can allow to you find jobs all year long, and take breaks when you need to or want to.


But eventually, you can also secure a more stable position. That could be working full time in a small venue or for a local event company. Not everyone is fit to be always on the road, especially when you have a family. I had a friend who was touring with a band, he was the sound engineer and manager, when he got his daughter, he decided to stop, settle down and find a more stable job. 

You just need to know who you are and what you want to do!


According to a study from Payscale, a live sound engineer could earn every year between €24k and €46k.


But overall it is not an easy job, you will work around 40h/week, and most likely at night, sometimes pretty late. 

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WOMEN LIVE ENGINEER

As I said, it is not an easy job, but that doesn’t mean women are not fit for the job! there are a lot of very talented female live engineers, but sadly the music industry is still a very male-dominated industry. In the UK only 5% of audio engineers are women, and even if things are changing over time, it is still going very slowly. Women are struggling to stand out for these types of jobs in a society still very much dictated by patriarchy.


“Although there has been progresses, it is slow. It is embedded in society, education, and the core fabric of patriarchy that women still grow up systematically excluded from many professions and opportunities in life. When we do break the barriers, we are oftentimes expected to do more for less. Sound is an excellent example of this but it permeates most fields. It is life and reminds me of the Charlotte Whitton quote “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”.” - Julie Rix -


In the past, the young upcoming engineer would find a mentor to learn everything, there were no courses at the university like today. Most established sound engineers were males and they were not able to see potential in young women as they couldn’t see themselves in them. And vice versa, as a young kid you aspire to do something similar to the people you can relate to.


Nowadays, there are a lot more established female sound engineers and more women are seeking careers in audio. 

I was very happy to see that there were not only guys in my school.


If you are a young woman looking to make a career in audio, you should check out https://soundgirls.org/ and https://womeninlivemusic.eu/organisation/ to get inspiration and support. 

Published 18th May 2021 / Alix Willhelm aka Parallel Processing