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What does a sound engineer do?

We spoke to Michael Poon, Head of Sound on the hit musical Get Up, Stand up! about how he got started, his favourite parts of the job and tips for getting into the industry.

Get up, Stand Up! are currently offering traineeships in the Sound and Stage Management departments for Arts Emergency Young Talent. If you think your organisation could offer a valuable placement or experience visit our Opportunities page.

How would your friends describe you in 3 words?

Hardworking, Clever, Kind.

How did you get started?

I came from a very musical background, and had enjoyed performing across various disciplines from an early age. At 18 I pursued a "standard" degree at university in London whilst also working in a studio in my spare time - largely to supplement my education as a musician. I had previously worked part time in recording studios whilst studying my International Baccalaureate (an A-level equivalent), so it felt natural for me to do the same whilst at university and afterwards.

I was lucky enough to be able to work in various jobs overseas, most notably in Melbourne and New York, and in each location I managed to get a part time recording studio job.

When I returned to London I unfortunately had no studio contacts but I happened to meet with the Head of Sound at Priscilla Queen of the Desert (a musical posting at the Palace Theatre). At this point in time I had stopped working as a performing musician in any capacity. I asked if I could shadow for a few days just to see what live theatre sound was like and after those 2 days he asked me to work for him as a dep (a freelancer that comes in to cover others when they are off). This dep work then led to working as a dep on other shows, which started my theatre sound career.

What does your job involve?

On the Head of Sound front I have standard managerial duties such as looking after my team, scheduling, timesheets, etc. I will also have to look after maintaining the standards of the show, including updating it as required - this might involve making decisions on different microphones, programming, and more.

Each person in our team has a specific role to play per performance. These are: Mixing, Rack and Stage. Whilst typically mixing would be my primary duty, in reality all 3 of us will rotate which roles we do.

I also believe that it's everyone's job to help teach each member of staff to improve on their abilities, both from a personal standpoint as well as professionally, to enable them to eventually get promoted within the industry. So typically I'll have a few informal sessions a month with my team where I'll run through programming the desk, using some of our software, or looking at the troubleshooting side of our equipment.

Any tips for someone who wants to pursue a career in your field?

Be interested. Have a passion for learning, just in general. There are so many aspects to the job, so an interest in just learning and wanting to be better is so important. Show people that you value their time and when you get that opportunity absolutely take it. Politeness and good timekeeping is a must.

Listen to varied music!

What's been your favourite part of working on Get Up, Stand Up! so far?

For me the hardest, but most satisfying, part of any production is the initial setup and tech. Weeks of hard work and troubleshooting and fixing to get to the first preview. It takes so much of a person, and you really feel like you're putting your all into it, so finally seeing that first preview of incredibly satisfying.

I've also loved teaching my team the mix. That feeling you get when someone you've been teaching for weeks/months finally cracks it!

For a very specific answer though... We got to travel to Manchester as a company to perform in an arena, that was pretty special.

What might people find surprising about your job?

I think 3 things:

1. How creative it is. Although viewed as a technical discipline, there is a very distinct difference between an operator that is highly creative and one that isn't. So much of it is done by "feel". Just like how a musician or cast member has to just "play the notes" or "say the lines", a sound operator has huge creative freedom in how these are perceived or delivered. Only my "notes" are 30-odd radio mics, SFX and an orchestra!

2. Quite how difficult it is. This follows from the previous answer. It's very much viewed as "putting the mics up", but it's so much more than that. There are hundreds of thousands of decisions to be made per performance, entirely by memory and judgement, quite often multiple at the same time and each one in a split-second.

3. How much knowledge you have to have outside of the realm of sound. We specialise in things ranging from comms and CCTV, to various types of tape for different skin types!

What do you think someone could get out of a work placement in your department?

You get out what you put in! I believe in student-led learning, so whatever the person is interested in learning we'll do that. I suppose at the base level someone could get a further understanding of backstage theatre in general, and hopefully broadening their relevant skillset.