Who Needs A Soundman?
George Martin was considered the 'Fifth Beatle.' Though it's not fair to compare every soundman's relationship with a band to Martin's with the Fab Four, I do think that it's reasonable to say that a good soundman (or woman) can be an invaluable addition to any gigging band. Don't think of them as separate from the band, but as an integral part of the music and gig in general.
Most soundmen wear a variety of different hats, 'engineer' being only one of the many titles. It's not uncommon, on gigs where the artist is not yet able to afford a full entourage, for the soundman to also take on the responsibilities of setting up and operating the lights. There are many situations where the band grows faster than the budget and the 'soundman/lighting director' may then find themselves taking on even more duties, such as the role of tour manager, production manager, driver, loader and guitar tech, to name a few. This 'Fifth Beatle' frees up the band so that they can concentrate on their job of singing, playing and entertaining. Not only is it a less than captivating distraction to watch a guitarist change strings or try to fix a bad cable, but the interruption can destroy the musical mood and ruin an otherwise good set. In the same manner, watching one of the musicians trying to mix the band from stage is rarely satisfying from a performance perspective, or as an audio experience.
In situations where the sound system is provided by the venue, the soundman becomes the liaison between the band and the house and monitor engineers. He/she can make sure that the stage is properly set, and that everything is miked appropriately, while simultaneously overseeing the monitor mixes, to ensure a successful onstage blend. The other point to be made here is that, even though most house engineers are knowledgeable and open to suggestion, some can be impatient and even intimidating, which only makes for a frustrating soundcheck and show if the artist has to deal directly with them. From the artist's vantage point, it's always easier to demand adjustments to the mix from someone inside the band than from a stranger.
One artist with whom I traveled throughout the United States and Europe was very concerned with getting a perfect onstage sound, though many times she and the band were unable to do soundchecks due to fatigue or time constraints. Therefore, at the beginning of each show, before letting me go out and mix front of house, she used to keep me at the monitor position until she and the band were totally satisfied with the onstage mix. The whole band was extremely exacting, but having done a few gigs with them, I knew exactly what each of them required. After a short while they stopped worrying about soundchecks altogether, relying on me to set the stage and prepare the monitors for the show.
Relying upon the in-house engineer can be a tricky situation. As good as many house engineers can be, they aren't mind readers, and therefore might not mix the band the way the band wants to be heard. Each engineer has their own preference as to what sounds good, which effects to use and where each instrument should sit in a mix. For instance, some engineers like to use a lot of compression on vocals, while others prefer none at all. Some like the guitars to sit back in the mix while others like the guitar sound to be dominant. Many engineers like their mixes to have a lot of low end, while some may not use enough.
Having a trusted engineer who knows the material and knows how the band wants to sound instills a sense of confidence in a band, allowing them to perform without worry or concern over missed effect cues, improperly mixed guitars or an unbalanced low end.
As mentioned before, the engineer is usually required to do many different jobs. Sometimes one of the qualifying factors, if he/she is capable, is to actually be part of the band by playing or singing from the booth. Though not the norm or a usual prerequisite, I use this example only to stress the fact that while it may be an extra expense to add another member to the band, having the right soundman is almost a must in today's competitive market. If the soundman only takes on the audio responsibilities and none of the other gigging chores, this alone is invaluable for any artist. Just to know that there is someone there--helping to bring the musical vision to life and convey it to the audience, with a sound that is as close as possible to the original concept--should bring any band or artist peace of mind while performing, and is definitely worth the salary paid. Of course, one last thing to remember when hiring a soundman is that if anything at all should go wrong, the band always has someone to blame.