"The thing about being a sound guy is you have to be physical, you have to be pretty smart, and you really have to be with it," says veteran sound man Andrew Higdon, of Mt. Pleasant based company Hope Sound.
The tall guy with the sly grin knows what he's talking about. Whether it's at a small get-together, a rock club, or an event with thousands in attendance, any live musical performance requires time, effort, and expertise from audio engineers like Higdon.
For many of Charleston's busiest engineers, there's more to the job than setting up a few microphones, running a few cables to a mixing board, and walking away until the end of the night. It's a tough but rewarding vocation that requires unique technical knowledge, stamina, people skills, and muscle.
"You have to be keen to other people's attitudes," Higdon says. "You have to know how to read people. A musician's attitude can affect how you do things. If someone's being rude or difficult, I don't take it out on them; I show them how well I can do the job. There's so much to take into account, some people don't realize."
Higdon initially got into this line of work by helping load gear at Fox Music House. He helped friends in local bands set up, and eventually gained enough experience to land a full-time spot at the Music Farm, working for years for original owners Kevin Wadley and Carter McMillan. He understands the physical and mental hazards.
"Being around heavy gear, the volume of the events, and people not knowing what they're doing and plugging something in the wrong way — these are some of the challenges," Higdon says. "Feedback and high volume ... man. I'll often tell people, 'Hey, you're damaging my meal tickets here. Take it easy!' I've been zapped a few times, but I try to be extremely careful before the gig even starts to make sure that all the electrical power is properly grounded and assembled. That's a checklist before every gig."
After his time at the Music Farm in the early '90s, Higdon signed on to tour with Edwin McCain before working with the short-lived North Charleston venue The Bandwagon. Many local musicians remember him for running sound at the popular late-'90s downtown rock club The Warehouse. After a brief stint with PDA, he pooled gear and resources and formed his own company in 2002.
"It was total grassroots — no capital investment, no partner, no sugardaddy, none of that kind of stuff," Higdon remembers. "All I had was my reputation to go on. I saw a big niche to be filled, so I quit and went indie."
Originally, the company was called Four-Legged Productions. Higdon renamed it Hope Sound two years ago in memory of his late daughter Hope, who passed away in infancy. Higdon is the only full-time employee, although he relies on his wife and a handful of freelance engineers and roadies for larger gigs.
"Since then, I've tried to work hard, put the money back into the gear, try to keep things state-of-the art, and fill the niche," he says.
In addition to the parties, club shows, and smaller outdoor events that keep him busy each season, he handles some of the bigger oyster roasts, the Taste of Charleston event, and Charleston Symphony Orchestra concerts as well.
"I do the Charleston Symphony Orchestra nowadays, and some of those concerts made me feel really good," he says. "Their pop concert at Boone Hall last May was one of my best gigs. People who normally comment that they can't hear this violin or that viola were coming up to me — even during intermission — to shake my hand and tell me it was the best they'd ever heard. Those moments are good." —T. Ballard Lesemann