Music by VICE

The Light and Sound Engineer Is Live Music's Overlooked MVP

Lessons learned from behind, and beside, the DJ booth.

by Oscar Bouwhuis; translated by Jens van de Meulenhof
May 18 2017, 3:54pm

This article originally appeared on THUMP Netherlands.

There they are, hidden in the shadow of the stage. Every night they stand there again, bent over a giant mixer panel of buttons and slides, creating expressionistic landscapes of light flashes, smoke, and lasers. As a humble servant of the artists, they try to limit the damage your favorite DJ will inevitably do. Their one eye stares at the screen in front of them, while the other eye is aimed at the half-empty beer glasses placed terrifyingly close to the DJ equipment. Yes, we're talking about the lighting and sound technician you find in most modern nightclubs. Lars* is one of them.

Lars has done this job for over ten years. He still has bags under his eyes from last night and was late today. In the next hour and a half, the club will be flooded with thirsty, aspirant alcoholics, hedonistic pill poppers, and the non-stop partiers of Amsterdam's nightlife scene. But right now, in the fluorescent light, the club looks awfully empty. "I always start by making the whole room completely baby-proof," says Lars. "You need to be aware of the fact that people are strolling around with drunk, infantile baby brains. When they see a plug in a socket, they start pulling. You even have to mind the smallest details."

"In this club, the audience can go everywhere, even into the DJ booth," Lars continues. "That's great for the atmosphere, but it's a nightmare for me. Sometimes, tall people put their drinks on the speakers, dance on the booth, or twist the disco ball on the ceiling. That looks great in pictures— promoters couldn't wish for better advertising—but it's also just fucking dangerous." Lars points to the DJ booth. "Those tables over there aren't built to stand on," he says. "If someone trips and a monitor falls on his or her head, it's over. No more fun. Lawsuits. Club closed. And I'm responsible for it."

Clubs are all a big mess

Every time a half-full glass of beer is placed near the equipment, Lars has a small heart attack. "I've seen so much equipment be destroyed," he says. "Last year, during the year exchange, someone had the marvelous idea to pull a bucket of drinks and ice over the DJ gear. Of course, the gear shut down immediately. The only thing you could do to save it is turn it upside down."

"Then you have to let it dry, open it up later and clean everything," he tells me. "A lot of DJs are pushing that CUE button like idiots, so they have to be replaced very often. When I worked at the Melkweg [the Milky Way, a music venue in Amsterdam], I once saw someone accidentally push a flight case with a guitar amp into the canals. Fortunately, the flight case was airtight and kept floating. Hence why stagehands are always so grumpy and strict: they know what can go wrong."

In the rankings of the biggest morons in nightlife, number one is (as always) the student groups—[guys and girls from fraternities and sororities]. "[We had these students once who] just pulled a whole light installation out of the ceiling and broke the door to the beverage storage in half," says Lars. "Later, they started pulling plugs out of power sockets, which shut down the DJ gear. I had to figure out what was happening. In the meantime, the crowd was getting upset and started to yell. It was my fault. Apparently, I didn't get everything hidden and clogged up properly."

Most dreams don't come true

Lars is often forced to stick a needle into the balloon of a promoter's wildest dreams. They have the perfect party in mind, but don't take into account the details of reality. "Promoters sometimes act just like little toddlers, and then I feel like the grumpy uncle who says: ' Hey! Stop! This is very dangerous. What are you doing with those scissors?,'" Lars says. "

"Sometimes [they] want to hang lightbulbs in the club, but they don't keep in mind that a drunken visitor who keeps his lighter in the air can burn down half the club," he continues. "Another example: promoters need tape to stick posters on the walls, but don't realize that when you pull those things off, the tape destroys the wallpaper itself. Or sometimes, [they] want to bring their own lights—that's okay, but they forget that I have to be there to install that shit during the daytime. When they see the price tag attached to that, they quickly drop the idea. At the end of the evening, they thank me very much for the good worries and stroll out of the club. That's nice and stuff, but who's going to clean up all the mess? Not my job. In the morning, they lay in their beds defeated, and it's not like they plan on coming by to help clean up. So that work ends up on my plate too, even while I have to get ready for the next day, the next party, the next group of promoters."

Still, Lars always wants to help the promoters as much as he can. "Just to clarify: I'm always on the promoter's side. Always. I'm here to serve them," he assures. "They have big dreams, but often forget the practice. They always ask: ' What's possible?' and the answer is: ' Everything.' Everything is possible. When you have enough money, and do your planning and preparations properly, the sky's the limit. Unfortunately, not every organization [gets that]. When I get a video of a few gigabytes in a wrong file format at the very last moment, there's little I can do—I probably don't have the time or the materials [required] to convert that file."

A group of enthusiastic young promoters walks into the club. They look at the ceiling with sparkling eyes. "Sir, are you the sound man?" one of them asks Lars, who is installing the DJ gear nearby. "I have a video on a USB stick here—can you play [it] on the beamers tonight?" Lars looks up and laughs. "I'll see what I can do for you, man."

They're not all party poopers

Although the sound technician is usually seen as the grumpy party pooper—the one who strictly waves his finger when the DJ plays in the red—he is also the silent power that solves problems the average drunken club-goer doesn't even notice. "It's often about frustration," says Lars. "The audience isn't loose enough, and of course, it's never the promoter's fault, so I get comments that the lights are too bright or too dark. I can do anything they want. 'Do you want brighter lights? Sure thing!' They're the ones in charge and I really want to help them, but I'm just the amplifier of what's happening on stage," he continues. "When you play like shit, I'll make sure diarrhea comes out of the speakers. When you're on fire in the booth, I'll make sure the whole clubs gets lit. DJs taking over from other DJ often think: okay, I have to pump up the volume! I always get the same excuse: 'Yeah, the previous DJ turned up that gain knob.' Dude, don't bullshit me. I've been looking at those panels the whole time. The moment the volume gets up, I notice. I can try to make some volume adjustments with my mixer, but that sounds like shit. Besides, when you play too loud, the speakers will shut down. There's also a legal limit on how loud you're allowed to play. Don't give people a permanent injury. You don't hear what the audience hears in the booth too, you hear the monitor. More often than not, DJs aren't aware that they're causing earthquakes in the club."

Lars has a modest piece of advice for the (novice) DJs among us. "Learn to work with the gain! If you're continuously pumping up the volume, you force me to walk through the audience to the booth and tap you on the shoulder while you're talking to a girl," says Lars. "If you don't respond, I have to turn down the volume myself. That's super embarrassing for you. I don't want that, you don't want that, nobody wants that. So, trust the sound guy! We want the same thing. It's ironic. I often want to pump it up even harder than the DJ, but I can only do that when the sound is right."

Sound and light techs are like bus drivers

Lars has isolated himself in his box in a corner of the lively, sweaty club. He scans the venue. Dressed in the international uniform of the stagehand—black pants, black sweater, black beanie—he completely dissolves into his surrounding environment. Like an anthropologist, he studies the (often uncomfortable) social behavior of the human children on the dance floor. "It's not like it's lonely in this box," he says.

"I just feel like a bus driver driving his drunken passengers from point A to point B. But you have to understand that I often bore myself to death in [here], so most of the night, I'll peek at people. I often look for hot girls. If you dance well, I'll look at you," he continues. "Sometimes, I'm even considering handing over an award to some people on the dance floor. I would almost go to them and say, 'Congratulations, you're the best dancer of the evening.' Sometimes I see a group of girls dancing in front of the DJ booth. It's beautiful. They carelessly enjoy the music and have the best night of their lives. Everyone's laughing. It's fucking magical," he continues.

"But then, a wolf pack of douchebags approaches the girls and ruins everything! [Apparently it's trendy for] boys to grab girls by their necks when they want to start a conversation. I think that's the creepiest way to talk to someone. An action like that deserves a left-handed fist punch right in the nuts, doesn't it? Aggression and awkwardness, that's what it's about. The world would be so much better off if boys would quit the macho behavior and just started dancing. You don't have to be a great dancer, you just have to groove a little. It will make everything better. But that's just me. I'm not a woman, so it's hard to say something about it."

Or just a hawk in its nest

Like a hawk in its nest, the sound guy sees everything that happens on the dance floor. "If you tap on someone's upper leg to pass on your drugs, I'll see it. If you try to puke in a corner, I'll see it. If you've fallen asleep on a bench, I'll see it," he says. "The corniest guys want to have a chat during the evening. They'll ask things like: 'There's a lot of competition tonight, isn't it?' Or they'll ask: 'How do I talk to girls?' Well, there are no girls here, dude. More often than you would think, people come with requests. Really? As if there could be a misunderstanding of whom the DJ is? Like, do you see that guy over there, in the middle of the stage? It's the one with all the lights on him, the one everyone has been staring at for the past few hours. That's the DJ. Or this one: 'Can I press the smoke button?' Sure. Go on. I've been drunk at times too, so I understand," Lars admits.

"Recently, a girl asked me if I wanted to smell her," Lars tells me. "It was a nice but strange question. Unfortunately, there's little I can do with that. When you're standing behind the bar, you can easily flirt with people and go to the office for a quickie. It happens all the time. I can't leave my place during the party, and when the evening is over, I'll still be busy unplugging and cleaning up everything. No one wants to wait for an hour, especially not when you're a little drunk. You'll just fall asleep then. I never get the girl."

Try living like a vampire

When you work in nightlife, you're doomed to live like a vampire with a pale skin that practically screams 'I have a Vitamin D deficiency'. And the beverages and drugs are never far away. "Always being awake at night is so unhealthy for your body," says Lars. "It also affects your psyche and the way you treat people. Many colleagues encounter the same issues in relationships. If your partner works from nine to five, you'll never see him or her. They'll see you, on Instagram, with girls that work behind the bar, [at which point] you'll get the well-known 'Who the fuck is this?' question. I know a lot of light technicians who smoke a big joint before work. I understand that. Light has a lot to do with feeling, so they have to get in the right vibe for such a party. I also know audio guys who are absolutely shitfaced behind the knobs. It's easy in a club—free drinks are at your fingertips. A few years ago I drank way too much, not during the work but after. It's not a nine to five job, and if you've worked hard, you think: fuck it, let's go."

There are benefits, too. "I haven't stood in line for a club or a concert since 1996," he says. "Usually I'm on the guest list, or I know the bouncer or the sound man. For years, I couldn't enter a concert hall or club without thinking: why did they put the speakers down there? Why does the mix sound so strange? At one point I couldn't even enjoy a concert anymore without thinking of those things. However, I would never go up to the audio tech and criticize what he's doing. That's his territory, and I don't want a kick in my nuts."

They only get small thanks for their pains

"I only do this work so I can live," says Lars. "I prefer working for a band for four hours, instead of working for a DJ for ten hours. Light and sound technicians in Amsterdam are heavily underpaid, in my opinion. In recent years, Halbe Zijlstra [a member of parliament in The Netherlands] has made sure a lot less money [was allocated] to culture and the arts, and that's changed a lot for us too. Everyone works as freelancer. Many new guys who want to be a sound tech say yes to every price, just to get a foot in the door. You often get paid almost nothing, which also has a lot to do with the fact that people don't really know what we actually do. We do things that people don't know they need. In this job, [you're responsible for it all]: the light, sound, maintenance, repair, production, fireman, and DJ. In addition, you always have to be available and work for long days. During an Amsterdam Dance Event, I worked 36 hours in a row. Money is only paper, but it affects people like poetry."

*Lars is a fictitious name.