How to Become a Backline Technician
Depending on the size of a live concert tour, many people are employed behind the scenes to produce a successful show. Have you ever gone to a concert and wondered, “how do they get this whole stage set up, and torn down in one day?”
Typically, a live concert production arrives at the venue between 7 am and 12 noon and is ready for showtime at 7 pm. After the show, the entire production is loaded back into trucks and is headed off to another city by 2 am for another load-in the next morning. This incredible feat is made possible by the hard work of several small crews that travel with the tour, with the help of larger local crews. Touring crews are broken down into categories and can include production, audio, lighting, rigging, video, pyrotechnics and backline. Here we will discuss what a backline technician does, and how to become successful.
A backline technician is someone who travels with a band and sets up their guitars, drums, keyboards, and any other instruments or band gear being used. They are responsible for keeping everything in tune and working properly. At the end of the show, the backline technicians pack up the band gear and load the trailer or truck.
When you see a large concert in an arena or stadium you must realize that in most cases the band you are seeing started out touring in small clubs and theaters. Large touring acts will have huge crews traveling with them on multiple tour buses, and semi trailer trucks filled with sound and lights. Keep in mind they probably started out in one van pulling a small trailer with only their instruments and band gear. And their first crew members were probably a couple of inexperienced backline technicians!
So in order to figure out how one becomes a backline technician, lets break it right down and start at the beginning. Just like anything else in life, getting into this industry means starting at the bottom and working your way up. Let’s first discuss what skills you need to become backline technician. This is where you are going to begin, and this is what you are going to need to know!
A big misconception is that a backline technician must be a really good drummer or guitar player etc. This is simply not true. Being a good musician is definitely a huge asset, but it is not as crucial as you might think. That being said, you must have a fundamental understanding of these instruments. If you have never picked up a guitar, played a piano, or sat behind a drum kit, you have some work to do before even considering this line of work. If you are serious about becoming a backline technician I would recommend taking some guitar, drum and piano lessons in your spare time. Learn how to tune a guitar and play the basic chords. Learn how to play a drum beat and tune a drum. Learn how to play some scales on a piano. You don’t have to become a pro, just learn the basics. 4-8 weeks of half hour lessons can be done in your spare time. I have worked with many successful technicians on large scale tours who have very little playing ability. This hasn’t stopped them, so why should it stop you?
The next thing you are going to need to do is become educated on the maintenance of these instruments and gear. For this I would suggest contacting local musical instrument repair shops and asking if you could volunteer. Find out who the guitar and amp repair technicians are and try to meet them. Explain to them that you are interested in becoming a backline technician and would like to learn some basic skills of guitar setups, guitar repairs, amp repairs, and drum repairs etc. Ask if you could come in for a couple of hours and watch them work. Maybe offer to sweep the floors, or clean up the shop in exchange for lessons on instrument repairs. As long as you are courteous and show interest in their profession you might be surprised how eager these people will be to help you. You might even get a part time job and get paid to learn! You do not need to be a professional musical instrument repair person, but you need to have a good understanding how the instruments are set up and repaired. If you live in a larger city there might be backline companies that rent gear out to local venues for events. This would be a great place to volunteer and gain a better understanding of backline gear.
Once you have acquired some of the basic skills mentioned above you will be ready to start looking for some hands on experience. Living in a large city is going to make this part easier, but this can be done in smaller urban areas as well. Don’t think you have to live in New York or Los Angeles in order to get into the music industry. Successful bands come from all over the map and the goal here is only to get experience. Once you become an experienced backline technician it doesn’t matter where you live because you will be working all over the world, and never in your home town.
You will need to make some flyers to post on bulletin boards advertising that you are looking to volunteer as a guitar technician, drum technician or a general backline technician for local club and theater shows. Post your flyers with your contact information at local band rehearsal studios, music stores, recording studios, coffee shops, anywhere you think musicians might hang out. You can even put out ads on various free classified sites such as craigslist.com, or backpage.com. Most bands who are just starting out have very little money coming in, if any. They normally set up and tear down their own gear because they don’t even consider the idea of having technicians yet. You can capitalize on this fact by learning how to set up and tune all the instruments and help them during the show. Most musicians dream of someday being able to have someone set up their gear and you will certainly get some bites from your ad.
Since you are working for free, for someone who has probably never had a tech before, you will not be expected to be perfect. You will be making mistakes, but you will also be learning a very unique trade. Just being in this environment will put you in a position to learn valuable lessons from the people around you. Most likely some of these local bands will be on bills opening for national or regional touring acts coming through town. During the day you will be be setting up your band, and meeting the other headlining bands and their technicians. At this stage it is important to work very hard, offer to help everyone, and show that you are a great person to work with. Make sure you meet everyone, especially tour managers for the headlining acts. Make business cards to hand out to everyone and make sure they know that you are an “all around backline tech” that can do drums, guitars, bass and keyboards. Being able to wear several hats makes you very valuable to a tour with a limited budget. Getting on a tour with a small budget is your next step! You want to get gigs with several bands who perform local shows and get as much experience and exposure as possible. This is the type of hands on networking that is necessary in order to start getting paid to be a backline technician.
Once you have an offer to work your first gig, you are going to need to understand the procedure of setting up a band for a live performance.
When multiple bands are performing, the last band to perform is usually called the “headliner”. The headlining act normally sets up their gear first, and does a sound check. Then, the band that plays before the headliner sets up in front. This band is referred to as the “opener”. It is not uncommon to have multiple openers and depending on the size of the stage, the first band to perform sets up last, in front of each band playing after them. If the stage is too small to fit every bands’ gear, some of the middle openers will have to move their gear off stage. They will move it onstage right before their performance. This is called “striking”. For instance, if the second band’s gear is not able to fit on the stage, it must be striked. If any gear is set up during a sound check, and then striked, it is important to mark the exact spot that piece of gear goes when it is brought back onto the stage. this is usually done with small pieces of colored tape and is called “spiking”. It is rare that a headlining band will be expected strike any of their gear.
A well run show will have what is called a “day sheet” posted in multiple locations around the venue. This day sheet will outline the load-in times of each band, the sound check times, and show times for each act. It is important to pay close attention to the day sheet and make sure you are in the right place at the right time. Always be courteous to the stage manager and try to stay out of the way as much as possible.
Most likely you will start out working for an opening act and won’t get a sound check. You will have to test and tune your guitars, drums, and amps off stage and do a very fast check right before your band goes on stage. It is still a good idea to watch the headlining act do their line check and sound check to learn how this works.
Before the artists come in for a sound check, the backline technicians must perform what is called a “line check” with the audio crew. Each instrument is individually sent out to the speakers and monitors through lines. These are either microphone lines, or direct input lines also know as D.I. lines. Each line is sent to a channel on a mixing board where the audio crew will adjust levels and frequencies according to the acoustics of the room. If the band does not have any technicians they will have to do this themselves.
To fully understand what a line check is, one must realize there are two audio systems involved with a live music performance. The large speakers hanging from each side of the the stage pointing towards the audience are operated by a “front of house” engineer, often called FOH. There are also smaller speakers on the stage pointed towards each band member called “monitors” or “wedges” that are operated by a monitor engineer. Larger acts often use in-ear monitors connected to belt packs that transmit their mix wirelessly through headphones. This eliminates the need for wedges on stage and gives the artist a much more controlled and isolated mix. These systems are becoming more common and affordable, but you will most likely only encounter traditional monitors in small clubs and theaters.
While the large FOH speakers are a master mix of the entire band that the audience hears, the monitors on stage pointed at each artist are individually mixed according to what that artist needs to hear during the performance. The singer might want to hear his voice louder and have less bass, the bass player might want to hear more kick drum in his mix. The technician will know how each artist likes his monitors mixed. During a line check, the technicians will run through each instrument line, and work with the monitor engineer to make sure levels are correct. The technicians will also work with the FOH engineer making sure each line is getting to FOH properly. Once the line check is complete, the band can then come on stage for the final sound check to make sure they are comfortable and make any adjustments. The band will usually perform a few songs so the FOH engineer can make sure everything will sound good to the audience.
The most important part of being a backline technician is preparation. Make sure you have all the tools you need and always be thinking ahead! You need to be aware of how much time you have and then prioritize accordingly. Be aware that your main goal is to do everything in your power to make the artist comfortable onstage. They shouldn’t have to worry about anything but performing. Always make sure the gear is working properly first. It doesn’t matter if you changed strings on every guitar in the rack if the guitar amp doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter if you polished all the cymbals if the kick pedal is broken. Make a routine of always checking every battery, and that every jack is properly plugged in. Learn to anticipate problems. Tape cables to the floor so they don’t become unplugged when they are kicked. Then move on to less important tasks depending on how much time you have. Try to understand what is most important to each artist and make sure you perform those tasks first.
Before and after the sound check is your time to prepare. Always make time to get a bite to eat. You need to be thinking clearly. Working on an empty stomach is never a good idea. You will probably have to make set lists for the band. Set lists are a list of the songs the band plans to perform during the show. These can be written out with a sharpie pen, or typed and printed out. Guitarists and bassists often use different guitars for different songs, that are also in different tunings. It is a good idea to plan in advance to make sure all the guitars are tuned properly. You might also have to get water, other beverages, towels, and anything else the band members might need during the performance. You will also have to make sure the band has extra sticks, picks, strings and any other supplies you might need during the show.
Once you have done everything in your power to prepare for the show it is time for the band to hit the stage. Your most important task is to pay close attention to the band members at all times. If something goes wrong, try not to panic. Nine times out of ten the problem will be very simple to fix. If you loose your cool you will probably make it worse. Take a deep breath and analyze the situation. If a problem occurs, do your best to fix it. After the show explain what happened to the artist, apologize, and most importantly, learn from your mistakes. Suppose a guitar stops working during a show and it turned out it was because a power cable was knocked loose from a pedal. You should explain later why the problem happened, and accept responsibility. Then explain that from now on, you will secure that cable before every show, along with every other similar cable in the guitar rig. The artist should appreciate your honesty and be confident that problem will never happen again. Remember that you will be making many mistakes when you first start out. Only once you learn from these mistakes, will you become a valuable backline technician.
After the show it is absolutely imperative that you carefully pack up every piece of equipment that came into the venue, and make sure it all makes it back into the trailer or truck. Do not leave things laying around during the day as this will make it very difficult to find everything at the end of the night. Keep your work station tidy and organized and make sure you know where all of your gear is at all times. Make sure everything is labeled clearly. It is very common for gear to be stolen from venues so you must be aware at all times. When you load into a venue, count each piece that goes in. When you are loading the trailer make sure you have the same amount of pieces!