A few times a year, some festival or business or convention organizer needs performers or speakers to be made louder. They pay me be the guy behind the mixing board. So I pack my car with a few hundred pounds of speakers, amplifiers, mixing board, microphones, and a couple of giant Tupperware crates filled with cables; unpack it and set it up; and plug performers into the system to make them louder. “Audio tech” or “sound reinforcement engineer” or “sound guy”–I’m the guy behind the mixing board who will be there for a couple of hours after the event is over, and was there before it starts.
I fell into editing books after doing it for a friend, and I was doing these audio jobs years before I redlined my first page. But there are parallels between editing and mixing-board monkey. Both professions are there to make an artist sound even better than they are. We take the good stuff and make it more obvious, and de-emphasize what we judge to be bad stuff.
Aside from all that setup and running cables, what does the audio tech do?
The best-case scenario in a show: The audience can hear the music clearly and at a reasonable volume. That’s not always as easy as it sounds. Look on a modern stage and you’ll see guitars with on-board mixers built into the side, keyboard players who send us pre-mixed sequenced tracks, and Macbooks sending us backing tracks. The guy running the mixing board doesn’t always have as much control over the sound as you’d think. And sometimes the music is too loud because the drum kit is loud, or whatever.
But on a good day, we can do more than get rid of feedback. We can shape a mix, carving out a space sonically for each instrument so it’s all clear and easy to listen to. On a good day, we’re there to listen to the musicians and make them sound like they want.
The editor of a book has even less control than a live audio engineer, but for different reasons: It’s the author’s novel, and we always must remember this. Unlike a concert, there will be a record of our decisions on the book: The book itself. The only tools the editor has are words. We can reshape them or change them, but ideally we want to do this as little as we possibly can.
It’s fairly common that there are paragraphs or even chapters that make no sense at all, and the writer can be blind to that. But this is where we leave a nice note to the author, with some tactful suggestions to steer them in (we hope) a direction of clarity. And we have to be nice, or the writer might decide that our suggestions are bad ones.
This weekend, I’ll be moving from one part of my “composite career” to the other, running the board for bands and singers and dancers at a small festival. And I’ll remember that both of my professions are there to bring out a sense of structure, to (at best) clarify and shape a creative vision.
Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band.