What’s it like? How to break in? Is college worth it?
Marcel Cacdac, a touring sound engineer, has been in the music industry for over 20 years. He has worked with Lorde since before her explosive success of 2014, and has also worked with the likes of BB King, Snoop Dogg, MGMT, Cake, Childish Gambino, The Decemberists, and many others. We caught up with Marcel with the hope of gaining some insight into life in the music industry, along with any wisdom or advice he has for young people interested in the industry, and a couple cool stories.
In principle, there are two main sound engineers at a live show: Monitor engineers take the band’s sound and feed it back to them through in-ear monitors and speakers on stage. They’re responsible for what the band hears, by designing and setting up the whole monitor system and then mixing live during the performance. House engineers are responsible for what the crowd hears. There are usually several other sound guys working under the direction of those two. If the show is being broadcast, a third engineer would be responsible for the broadcast mix (what people watching at home hear).
Marcel’s particular expertise and specialty is in monitor engineering.
On monitor engineering
“Monitor engineering…gets you closer to the band. If an artist has a really great performance, it’s nice to be a part of such a big production.
All the artists need to have a vibe; to hear themselves. If one piece of the puzzle doesn’t happen—front of house sound, guitar breaks, or if the audience isn’t great, or the mix isn’t great in their ears—they could potentially have a really bad night. You never really remember the ‘regular’ shows. You remember the shows you mess up on. You’re only as good as your last show.
To prevent an artist from having one of those ‘bad nights,’ a monitor engineer must constantly keep up with what an artist wants and needs in terms of hearing themselves through the monitors, but obviously he can’t directly communicate with them while they are performing.
“I read body language. It’s as close to mindreading as possible. If Thom Yorke kinda tilts his head a certain way when he’s singing, I can tell he’s going flat and struggling to hear his voice, so I just kinda duck everything else down.
On his interest in the music industry
“In sixth grade I had seen KISS. I found myself focusing more on the theatrics than the music. Gene Simmons flying in from the ceiling, shooting flames from his bass… I thought, ‘This is insane! How do you do this? That’s what I want to do.’
I became a singer in a band. We recorded and put out a record in 8th grade, and another in sophomore year. It was just a fun thing, but we had bought a PA system, and had to set it up every time we played. And I was like, ‘Oh, I like doing this.’
I just knew [music] was something that I wanted to be involved with. It was in the back of my mind for a very long time. After we moved to Florida, I was in another band, but I still found myself more interested in the PA and setting it up. I ended up going to sound engineering school.
On college’s impact and getting started
“At this point in my career, I don’t really think [college] had that much of an impact on where I am now. I think if I had just decided to move to California and get into the music industry, [school] wouldn’t really have helped me. It wasn’t quite a waste of my mom’s money, but it was pretty close. I learned some cool soldering skills and I learned how to read schematics, and I learned a little about the studio industry, and it gave me enough fire under my butt to go seek out my future.
As soon as I graduated, I packed up everything I could fit into my Subaru wagon, and I drove across the country with my best friend and my snake. We showed up in San Francisco, and we were living in my car.
I had like 5 interviews lined up for internships with different recording studios. All I wanted to do was win Grammys. (laughs)
But a week before those were scheduled, a buddy from college got in contact with him, and said he had a job for him.
“So within a week of moving to California, I was working at a sound company–Performance Lighting and Sound–a little mom and pop shop, and it kind of sent me on my journey. I learned everything there is to know about sound and lighting. At first, they’d send me out to shows with another guy to help set everything up. I worked my way up, and then I started mixing shows. I didn’t even go to those other interviews.
What you get for what you pay [for sound engineering school] is not great value. The music industry is an industry–while it has grown up from its humble beginnings–where you can still learn hands-on just by being there. And many people still do that. I don’t regret going, but I don’t think I got as much value as I’d hoped.
On “roadies” and modern sound engineering
“The term ‘Roadies’ is a term that has stuck from the 70’s, and a lot of guys kind of take offense to it. It’s a term of endearment if you say it to another guy, but if you’ve never been on the road and you call somebody a roadie, it takes on another meaning. Some people take it as demeaning, like, ‘running off to join the circus’…like you’re just a bunch of dirty drunks doing whatever you want, and maybe you put some speakers together and now there’s a show. (laughs)
But [live production] has evolved into this highly technical environment where if you don’t know all about electronics and rigging and all these other aspects that it takes to put on a live production, you get left behind. There’s so much emerging technology that happens very quickly and changes very quickly. We have to keep up with it. We have to read the publications, talk with other engineers, and visit manufacturers to figure out how to work these things.
On what makes you good at this job
“It’s all about attitude. No one is going to hire someone that is an entitled prick. If you’re not a good hang, then why would anybody want to be with you 24/7 for a year? That’s half the battle. Once you get to a certain level, there are a lot of people who can do your job technically. But there’s a certain personality that can keep focus, keep your cool when things go wrong, and stay objective. That’s what separates the great engineers from the good engineers, and great production managers from good production managers. If you can’t get along with people, you’re not going to get hired.
It’s about fit. When we’re asked for recommendations for people for other gigs, it’s all about fit. [On tour,] you become really close. You become a gang. You’re this gang of dudes and girls that has a deadline every single day. You have to trust in each other. If you’re not trust-able, can’t work in parallel, don’t have the synchronicity, and you don’t gel, it won’t work.
It’s a small industry, so it’s really easy to get a bad name. If you quit a tour, everyone knows you quit a tour. But if you save the day, and something crazy happens, everyone knows that too.
For someone interested in the music industry, advice on breaking in?
“If don’t know what type of thing you want to do—concerts, theater, corporate, Broadway, TV—try to narrow it down. Because it can be difficult to bounce from one to another.
Breaking in is the hardest part. You have to be in the right place at the right time, but that doesn’t just happen. It’s not just luck. That opportunity is only presented to those who are prepared. Do the legwork, research, prepare yourself, know the history of what’s happening. If you don’t know who Quincy Jones is, you’ll never get into the recording industry. Learn what every job entails. Try to meet people, and ask them if you can do informational interviews.
Internships–while some may suck, they work for a lot of people. There are a lot of studios where you can learn a lot of stuff and meet a lot of people. You never know who you’ll run into at a studio, and that person might take you under their wing and you never know what’s going to happen. If you work your way up from intern to second engineer, and you’re in the studio with all those people, and you work hard and have a good attitude, people will see that.
The journey will zig and zag, and you may not feel like you’re going where you want to be. You really have to push yourself. Get yourself out of your comfort level, your little bubble. A lot of times good things will happen when you’re forced to [be uncomfortable].
The beauty of this business is there’s not just one cut and dry way to get into the business.
On hugging it out with Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Atoms for Peace)
“One time Flea… two songs in, he comes over and gets in my face spitting and he’s like ‘AAAHGHGHHHG I CAN’T HEAR A THING.’ He couldn’t hear one side, and I was like, ‘Everything looks good here.’ He runs back out, keeps playing, takes his [earpiece] out. I’m like, ‘oh no, I’m gonna get fired,’ This is our first gig [of the tour;] we’re in Germany. So I run out, and I look at his belt pack–and it’s in a dress, mind you–so I’m trying to figure out what he’s wearing under his dress that is holding this thing. I open it up, and hit the little pack, and the [plug gets fully pressed into the jack], and I tell him to put his ears back in.
After the show, we get a call on the radio: ‘Marcel and Chris…Flea wants to see you right now in the dressing room.’ I thought, ‘this isn’t good.’ We go across this little catwalk, get to the dressing room. We were so scared. I had kind of saved the day, but still thought we were going to get fired. There are artists out there that are known to fire people, like that, in the middle of the tour when anything goes wrong. But he goes, ‘Hey guys I just want to say I’m sorry, I freaked out and I’m totally sorry. It’s totally uncalled for…bring it in guys.’ And we just hugged it out.
Favorite artists he’s worked with
“I loved working with BB King, because he’s a legend. I didn’t actually know how much influence he had until I was out there working with him. Once you learn his story, and how he was as a man…I mean, his first guitar was a bucket and a stick and a piece of like fishing wire or something. That was his first guitar, and he became one of the most influential guitar players of all time.
I also love Lorde, for different reasons. While BB had this long history of influence and had already peaked in his career (but was still a badass)… Lorde, at 17, was touring the world. She writes a #1 hit at 14 or 15, releases it on Soundcloud and just skyrockets, like a meteor. Being on that rocket was a good ride.
[In 2013-2014], Pure Heroine had just been released, and “Royals” went smash, and we were on the road when all that was happening. So I saw an artist’s life change, literally, in the front of my eyes. Seeing her change—her dress, her stage presence, and how her voice was evolving, how she addressed the audience—was amazing.
“We got a call in 2014. . .they wanted Lorde to perform with the surviving members of Nirvana in New York for [their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction], the day after she had a show in Mexico.
We get done with the last song, I put my in-ears in my pocket, we rush out the back door to a police escort. We go barreling through Mexico City to this private airport, and go straight to New York. I check in, take a shower, then we’re doing the soundcheck at Barclay’s Center. And then that night, I got to see the artist I’m working with playing with Nirvana!?
That was really cool, because to tell you the truth, she didn’t have to take me. Nirvana’s sound guys were doing it all. But since I was there, I got to go up and give the sound guy input on what type of mix she likes. I was humbled by that. He had enough respect for her, to step in and ask me what mix she wanted. So that was cool.
Marcel is ready to go back on tour with Lorde this month, kicking off with a performance on Saturday Night Live on March 11th (hosted by Scarlett Johannson).
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