How to be a Live Sound Engineer – Matthew Acreman Interview
I managed to catch up with Matthew Acreman to discuss what life is like on the road and how to enter this industry.
I’ve known Matthew since way back to 2004 when his band The Donde Stars used to come and play at a night I used to promote in Cardiff. Back then he was a bassist, but obviously his future was on a different trajectory.
Now he is a top sound engineer for some of the world’s biggest acts and spends his time touring and doing front of house or monitors for bands such as The Kills, Drenge and Mystery Jets. A job that literally takes him all around the world.
I sent Matthew some questions and eventually got some answers sent back whilst on tour in California…
Can you tell us a little about your history, were you into bands when you were young, and did you play in any etc?
I’ve had an interest in music as long as I can remember. There were always records by the Beatles and the Stones among others lying around the house. I was completely fascinated by the cover art and the photos on the sleeves.
My parents got me my own portable 7”record player when I was around 5 years old. I played Paul McCartney’s Frog’s Chorus and Agadoo by Black Lace to death. Fortunately, my music taste has come on a bit from there I think (I hope). The first record that really made me sit down and listen was Nirvana’s Nevermind. From the first listen, everything changed for me. I spent the next few years constantly back and forth my local library, borrowing cassette after cassette and it all really stemmed from there.
I got myself an awful ¾ size guitar from Argos in the mid 90’s and spent all of my free time putting my family and neighbours through hell by badly playing along to songs in my garden shed.
I’ve played in a few bands over the years; recorded and released a few singles and EPs and toured the UK and Europe in a rusty old Layland Daf minibus named Betty. Unfortunately, that doesn’t pay the bills for everyone so I had to earn some money and the band slowly wound down.
(Matthew with what appears to be a Firebird bass back in the day!)
Did you always want to become a sound engineer?
A few years ago, wading through boxes of junk in my parents attic, I found an essay written by Mathew Acreman, aged 7 and a bit, claiming to want to be a bus driver when grown up, to get to go to lots of places for free. He never did manage to grow up, but this is being written from a tour bus in California. I’m not behind the wheel, but it all kind of worked out.
How did you start in sound engineering, did you do any courses, and if so which one/s?
I actually went to university to study Multimedia with Graphic Design. That didn’t really happen for me and I dropped out after 2 years. You just know when something isn’t right for you and I decided to trust my instincts.
How did you get your first job being a sound engineer, did you have to do it voluntary to start with etc?
Back in 2005, I spent a few months working in a government office. My job was to fold letters and put them in envelopes. This was pretty numbing and it gave me the push that I needed to actually try to do something that I enjoy with my life. My passion had always been for music and I knew that this was something that I needed to pursue. Years of playing in bands had gained me a lot of friends in the local music industry, so I decided to contact some people and tell them about my frustration at having to lick 300 envelopes a day. Over a pint, the manager of local music venue, Clwb Ifor Bach offered me the opportunity to go in and shadow one of their sound engineers on an upcoming show. I went and helped out and the rest as they say is history.
(Working monitors for The Kills in Zagreb)
(Working monitors for The Kills in Zagreb)
What kind of pay did you get early on when working in local clubs?
After volunteering at Clwb Ifor Bach for around a year (whilst juggling part-time jobs to pay the bills), I was offered my first paid sound engineering job and set myself up as self-employed. I think my starting wage was £60 a show, which in time became £70 and then £80, (this was about 10 years ago). I think the smaller venues are now paying around £100 a shift dependant on the hours you’re needed for but the norm would be an 8 hour shift.
How did working locally progress to working on tour with touring bands?
After getting about 3 years of club shows behind me, I was asked to go on my first proper tour; with local band, Kids in Glass Houses. This came about over a quiet pint with their previous sound engineer (who was also Clwb Ifor Bach based) in a now defunct local Irish pub. He needed some gigs covered and thought that I’d be good for it. I made quite a lot of life changing decisions in that pub… some of them good, most of them bad and many of them just plain ridiculous.
Kids in Glass Houses were Cardiff based but were signed to a major label and selling out 1000 – 2000 capacity venues so this was a huge step up for me. Though terrifying at the time this was one of my better decisions and totally invaluable career wise. That was 8 years ago and I’ve been lucky enough to tour pretty consistently ever since. While out on the road you meet a lot of bands and fellow engineers. If you do a good job and don’t piss anyone off, these people will become the sources of future work.
(Matthew engineering a Kids in Glass Houses show in KOKO London.)
Can you explain a little bit about your role when on tour, do you work front of house, monitors or a bit of both?
A lot of people tend to stick to either front of house or monitors. Personally I like to do a bit of both. I spent quite a few years mixing front of house exclusively but have found myself behind the monitor desk with Super Furry Animals, The Kills and Mystery Jets for the last three years. Not really intentional; one job led to the next and so on. We’re just wrapping up the album with The Kills so I’ll be back to front of house duties next year with Razorlight and Drenge who both have new albums coming out.
Is it best to try and specialise in either FOH or monitors in order to get more work regularly or does this not matter?
I think that it’s useful to have a decent understanding of both. You tend to get a lot of people who specialise in one or the other but having toured fairly extensively in both positions, I find that you get more options and opportunities by keeping your hand in at both sides of the room.
(Working FOH for a huge Myster Jets show)
What is life like on the road, is it all partying, drinking and no shitting on the tour bus?
I’d love to say that it’s all one big party but it rarely is these days. It involves 9am load-ins and 1am finishes. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly has its moments and depending on the band (no names mentioned), you see some proper weird goings on but it’s all generally pretty civilised these days. When you’re going out on an 18 month album campaign you have to look at the long road ahead and try not to get too carried away. It’s easily done.
Who have been the best bands to work with and why?
That’s a tough one. I’ve been very lucky over the years to have toured with some of the best bands and crews (both musically and as people) that I could have hoped for. Sometimes you have to be quite careful who you choose to tour with and if your fortunate enough to have options, do your homework and try not to end up on a bus full of maniacs. You have to live with these people 24/7, so try to make it as enjoyable as possible.
(On board a plane with the Mystery Jets in South America)
Is there a difference working say abroad in the USA to over here in the UK?
A few stone in weight. I’ve got this terrible habit of not knowing when to stop eating when I’m in the states. I regret nothing though.
There’s no such thing as a short drive in the US. What seems like a short hop on the map is an 8 hour drive in reality. This is all good when you’re on a tour bus and sleeping through the long journeys but I’ve done a few tours in the states with vans and early morning flights. Repeat that daily for a few weeks and it can really get on top of you.
Would you be able to say approximately how much each show would pay?
It differs from venue to venue and act to act. If you’re working as a house engineer in a small venue then you can expect to be getting about £80 upwards per show then it can go up to £300 – £400 a gig if you’re touring with a big, established act, maybe more for the lucky few! You can’t expect to just walk straight into a high paying gig. Those £80 club shows are where you learn your trade, what you learn there will be invaluable for the rest of your career. You’ll get so much more out of it than just a wage. Start there, be patient and never stop learning.
What is the best thing about being a sound engineer working on tour?
You can’t really beat the adrenaline rush that you get when the the lights go down and the band walk on stage, there’s the roar of the crowd, you hit un-mute on your desk and the band kick in. From that moment absolutely anything can happen and I love that feeling. It’s something I really miss when not touring.
I also love the travelling. There aren’t too many jobs out there that pay you to travel the world. Yes, it can be exhausting at times but I’ve seen some absolutely amazing places and done some incredible things through working as a sound engineer. We all have our off days where we just want to be somewhere else but I honestly wouldn’t change it for the world.
(Nothing to see here, just engineering Drenge at the Letterman Show!)
Can you explain a bit about the working hours? Are you away for long periods, and are there any times when work can be slow?
Due to the nature of the job the hours can be a bit crazy. I recently found myself waking up in Serbia, flying to London for a show at the Olympic Stadium then after 3 hours sleep catching a train to Paris, doing another show and then taking 2 flights and finishing up in Munich. If you like your solid 9 hours sleep a night then it’s probably not the job for you.
You can be away for up to 9 or 10 months a year and this can really affect relationships with family and friends. Be prepared to miss births, deaths and marriages and get used to seeing your family through a Skype window. It’s totally not for everyone and can be a massive struggle at times but setting yourself aside some time to chat to or video call people back home can really help.
What, in your opinion, is the best way to get into the industry?
There are some really good courses out there but there are also some pretty bad ones. Even if you are doing a course, try and get in with your local venue and ask if you can go in and shadow their engineers. Be prepared to work long hours for no money (I did over a year for free before getting my first paid show). Don’t be afraid to ask questions but try not to get in the way. If you can’t get in with a venue then try local stage crew companies. You’ll essentially just be loading in and out of venues but this industry is all about contacts and knowing the right people. Get out there and meet as many people as you can
A lot of people say that live music is dying, is this your opinion? If so, do you see sound engineering jobs becoming more difficult to get, or do you think it is thriving?
I think that live music is in a pretty healthy place right now. Festival season seems to be starting earlier and finishing later every year, with more and more small festivals cropping up all the time. I’ve certainly seen an increase in my workload for the last 3 or 4 years and it doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of the UK’s small venues fall victim to increasing rates and others being hit by noise abatement orders but live music is thriving on the whole.
Obviously I thank Matthew for some great insights into what it takes to be a live sound engineer. There’s some fantastic advice on how to enter this industry for anyone starting out. If anyone has any questions please post a comment below.
You can check Matthew’s website out here.
If you like this kind of article be sure to check out the rest of our site for similar ones, such as how to be a music promoter.