Recording Arts Grad Bob Cowan On Being One of Metallica’s Main Sound Men

“Metallica is my day job,” says Bob Cowan, and if you ask any fan of the legendary heavy metal band, they would probably agree that’s a pretty awesome gig. Bob, a 1994 Recording Arts grad, has been the Monitor Engineer for Metallica for the past six years. He’s worked hard to earn the respect of one of music’s most popular bands.

“It was very intimidating at first, because it was a crew of guys that had been together for a long time and were very set in their ways,” says Bob. “But at the end of the day, they helped me succeed.”

The view from Bob's office.

The view from Bob’s office.

Bob mixes the in-ear monitors for drummer Lars Ulrich and vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield. (His assistant handles Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo.) The mixes and the cues for each song are different, and the band doesn’t soundcheck, so it’s Bob’s responsibility to make sure everything’s right and ready to go for the show. He has a continuous file that he returns to, which helps him with the most important aspect of his job: being super consistent. According to Bob, an artist needs to trust that his or her monitor engineer is going to be solid-as-a-rock, night after night.

“James and Lars lock up in a lot of ways,” says Bob. “James picking back and forth is a lot similar to the snare drum, so they’ll do that together. Lars will want to hear a lot of that right hand guitar and James wants to hear a lot of snare drum. They’re locking up that way and it makes sense to them.”

Bob landed the Metallica job after several years of touring with other artists (including Megadeth and Bruce Springsteen), and it was a position that he had been interested in for a while. “I knew [the band’s] previous monitor guy and had heard that he was thinking of retiring,” says Bob, who encourages students to be just as forward-thinking and start planning for their future before they’re even finished with school. “I took a gig with Metallica in hopes of getting put into the Monitor Engineer spot. I was out on the road for eight weeks, and then I become their monitor guy.”

He’s on retainer with Metallica, meaning if he’s touring with another artist when Metallica isn’t on the road and they need him for a gig, he’s got to be there. Employing crew members full-time isn’t a move many musicians make much more these days, so having that job security is definitely a plus.

“I have a signed contract that says the band believes in me enough that they’re willing to pay me a salary to keep me, because they don’t want to lose me to more work,” says Bob, who grew up listening to hard rock and went to his first Metallica concert when he was in high school. “They’re a very smart and well-managed band, and I’ve worked my whole career for this.”