Working on a cruise ship is one way to get a lot of live sound and mixing experience but the job comes with many challenges!
Below, Victoria talks about her experience in working for one of the major cruise lines.
Tell me about your job doing audio for cruise ships. What was your official title? What were your duties?
I worked as a Lounge Technician. I was in charge of all the smaller entertainment spaces such as the Piano bar, Karaoke bar, Pool Deck, and any pop-up events. The number of venues varied by the size of the ship. I was responsible for the audio and lighting for all the shows that happened every night. Some of the larger ships have two Lounge Technicians, but most of them just have one in charge of it all.
What are the other audio positions on a cruise ship and what do those jobs include?
The only other audio position on the ship is a sound technician. They are assigned a space such as the main theater, the ice skating rink, or aqua theater. They usually have 2 to 3 shows that they run every week in rep. All the shows are run by time code so their main job is to be there in case something goes wrong or to turn on the MC’s Mic for the start and end of the show.
Did you have to commit to a contract and for how long?
The base contract offered was for 6 months and I had to fully commit. If you leave early without a valid emergency you are required to pay your own way home. It is very common for a contract to be extended because they can’t find anyone to replace you. My contracts ended up being over 8 months each time. I had to leave for a wedding I was in which meant the ship didn’t have a Lounge Tech for over 2 months. The sound Technicians and Light Technicians are expected to cover when there is no Lounge Tech on board.
What terms (if any) of the contract are negotiable?
Not much is negotiable when you first start off. You are told what ship you are going to, could be anywhere in the world. Then you are assigned a venue based on need. Once you are on ships for a while you get to know people that can help you get better contracts on nicer ships, like a production manager. The scheduler will send you your next offer near the end of your contract and you can accept or decline. If they are desperate enough they will work with you because there is such a high turnover rate and low staff. It is extremely common that while you are away they will change that contract and try to bring you back sooner because of low staffing and emergency covers. It all really depends on who you know and how long you have been with the company.
Can you describe a typical work-day?
My day would start with me grabbing the daily ship schedule and making my own schedule. Once I had that all figured out, I would start to make the rounds to make sure nothing has happened over night. Fairly regularly rowdy passengers would mess with our equipment, which left major problems to be solved. (I’ve had to watch security camera footage to find where someone dragged speakers to).
The day usually started with a piano setup somewhere on the ship. The stage staff would assist in bringing the carts of equipment to the various locations. Once there you are to set it up and patch it into the system and wait to sound check your performer.
Trivia and games would be happening in all the lounges so you need to check on the cruise staff and make sure everything is working.
Then there would be a pool band ready to go before lunch. In the afternoon were more games and small pop up performances all over the ship that you have to setup or check on.
At some point maintenance was required for all the speaker and lights including cleaning the sticky alcohol out of the monitor speakers on the various stages from the night before. Some days I was assigned to run a spotlight for a show if needed.
Then the night began when all the bands would start up at once. You’re a team of one so you must have all the bands ready to go, equipment setup, cables ran, and scenes recalled on time. I spent the rest of the night answering calls from bands or cruise staff to come fix problems in the various venues. On one ship I had 9 venues I was in charge of on my own, so there was a lot of bouncing around. As the night got later it would be time to setup the night club spaces and get the DJs up and going.
Around 2am you would return with a stage staff to break down their setup. There are very harsh rules about answering your deck phone. If you don’t answer you will receive a write up, three and you’re fired. I slept with my phone in case security called about noise complaints and I had to go lower music in some area on the ship. You never get a day off and it’s a long day so you find your own breaks throughout.
What are the perks of the job?
I always thought the greatest perk would be the travel and seeing new places. Sadly that’s not the case with the crazy one man show. I did make some amazing friends from other countries very quickly. It has to be quick because your team changes every week with transfers and contract dates. I learned more about other countries from the people I met than getting off the ship to explore. Americans are the minority so you will always work with someone from another countries. That also comes with its own challenges that you learn to handle and I felt like really made me grow as a person. I still have so many great friends I keep in contact with. Most have left ships like I have.
What’s the worst part of the job?
The worst part I would say is the schedule. You are expected to work whenever is necessary even if you go way over forty hours. You could have been working until 5am with some big night club event and still be up for mandatory evacuation drill at 9am. There were also routine inspections of your cabin every other week. You had to be out of bed or you failed, 3 fails and you’re fired. The bed had to be made and no dirt on the floor or trash in the trash can. Some inspectors were worse than others. I always compared this part of ship life to military life, but you got used to it.
Do you need to speak any other languages besides English?
I only speak English. You are told to never try to speak any other language if you are not registered for it. Even simple phrases that most people know in Spanish, you still have to answer in English. I had several friends that spoke other languages and were registered so they would help with translating when needed. All name tags have little flags on them indicating what language they can speak. Everyone on board is required to know English and they are only interviewed in English. I got a lot of attention from passengers because I was American like most of them and they would ask me hundreds of questions saying they couldn’t understand anyone else because of the accents and various levels of English.
Are you responsible for video and lighting as well?
As a Lounge Tech I was in charge of lighting. It was usually pre-programmed with settings and easy to manage. There is a full broadcasting team on board that handles all the video. If anything goes wrong, you call up one of them and they will either come and help or adjust from the main control room. Because everything is run through all the various soundboards hidden on the ships it is the responsibility of the Lounge or Sound Tech to get the audio for the video feeds.
What skills and experience should you have before applying for this job?
From what I heard just before I left, they are now requiring a degree in entertainment. It is very common for younger people to be hired as Stage Staff and not a technician. Those positions are usually worked up to. This is not a bad thing! I think everyone I worked with agreed they were so happy they started as a Stage Staff to learn the ropes. The day you get on the ship you have a show that night and you better be ready to embrace ship living and the work load that minute. Luckily they are more understanding when it comes to Stage Staff and they will help you adjust to the craziness of it all. So just come ready to learn and be ready to do a lot of problem solving your first few days.
Does the job offer much time to gain mixing experience?
No not at all really. Most of the shows when I would arrive already had scenes built from the previous tech. You would just recall it and race off to your next band setup. Almost all the consoles are inside panels in the walls behind the band, so you couldn’t even access them while the band was there. This would be very frustrating if there was a problem and you need to change anything. If a new band came on you would have 2 hours to install them before their first set that evening. Normally it would be very similar to the previous scene with a few tweaks. Sometimes there were a few events that you worked but usually just a mic and some music.
The Sound Technician position was very similar. For the main shows time codes would be sent from the lighting console to you and the Production Manager. Once time code was played it would play all the cues and recall the scenes, so there was very little mixing needed. Sometimes there were small adjustments made during a song but it was mostly monitoring the console in case anything went wrong. If someone was sick you would need to load up their sick track into time code. Most of the mixing happened when there was a special act on board or the orchestra would do a performance. Most of the acts have been on the ship before so there is usually a scene already made ready to go, you get very little rehearsal time.
I feel like mixing wasn’t a big skill I gained at all during my time on the ship. I feel like the best skill I learned was problem solving. You have bands coming in the day of their show and you can’t just go out and buy something if you need it. You have to be creative and be ready to handle whatever request or equipment they bring. A lot of them also don’t speak much English so you have to learn to roll with it and just get it all done and ready for that night. If something breaks there are no backups and you have to send it off the ship to a company to repair, which can take months. If you can make the repair yourself it is always better, but again no way to get parts or special tools in the middle of the ocean.
What should you be aware of when thinking about working as an audio tech on a cruise ship?
The biggest struggle I had to learn to deal with was being a woman working with people from different cultures. I’m American so I’m used to having my rights and sometimes took them for granted. Men from Eastern European countries did not take well to a young American female telling them how to setup a band. I was often met with hostilities and backlash with no one to back me up. Most of the time your superiors were also from these countries and didn’t see the problem with it. Sadly I had to become “one of the guys” to make it through some of the setups and have to laugh off gender specific comments. Also, even other crew members would try and touch you or harass you not seeing the harm in it. They didn’t know any better because in their country they were told it was ok to treat women that way. Of course sexual harassment was not tolerated and was handled very severely. I never feared for my safety but I did have to get used to being treated like an object sometimes. Luckily there were some decent men on the ship that saw these issues and would be understanding, and willing to have your back.
What are some of the things you gained from this experience?
I gained the abilities to work on my own and handle problems on my own. It’s a one person job and no one is telling you what to do. You are expected to just know and get it all done. The only time you hear from a Production Manager is when you make a big mistake and it’s been reported to them. Luckily I did make a few great sound and light tech friends along the way that would help me with larger issues.
I was hired as a Stage Staff for my first contract and quickly got promoted to a Lounge Tech during that contract. The week after I was promoted I was sent to a ship that was still on land and not in water. There were supposed to be 3 other techs with me for the setup and launch of the ship. No one was ever sent and I almost had an anxiety attack when I was shown all the boxes I had to unpack and setup in all 9 lounges. Luckily a friend who was a sound tech from a previous ship was there and willing to help when he could, between his own setups. I don’t think anything in my life will ever compare to what I learned getting that ship ready to launch. I learned so much sound-wise but I also learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of doing.