What is The Difference Between a Consultant, a Contractor and a Tech?

The best way to define what a consultant is is to begin with defining what it is NOT.

Over the years, I have functioned in all three positions – consultant, contractor and tech – so, from experience, I am able to describe the differences for you.  (Currently, by the way, I am a consultant.) First, let’s look at what a theater technician does …

Theater technician


A theater tech is skilled in operating a particular aspect of a production. The areas of specialization include: sound engineer, sound designer, lighting tech, lighting designer, scene designer, software programmer, etc.

Typically, as a theater technician, you are in control of your environment.  That means that you take care of emergencies yourself. You can plan the show the way you or your theatrical director want it to be and you get blamed for anything that goes wrong. You are usually using equipment that you have asked for or, in some instances, what the venue supplies. In the latter case, the theater tech assesses and determines whether that existing setup is adequate to do the job.

If the system is a permanently installed system, as the theater technician you will customize it for yourself. You are responsible for labeling, groupings, storage, and locations for gear. You determine stock levels for spare cables, parts, and accessories. It all falls on you.


A contractor is someone who either designs and builds their own work or they submit a bid to complete work that has been designed by others.


When you are a contractor, you are limited to the product lines that your firm is authorized to purchase.  In some cases, there are manufacturers that give you special deals, such as extra discounts, or where they give you incentives such as “free stuff for buying other stuff.” There are also minimum purchases you are expected to make each year from each manufacturer to keep your franchise. Being eligible to receive perks can influence what the contractor offers on a project.

On “design-and-build” work, the contractor has to decide how much time to spend on the “design” aspect. Will they spend time building CAD models, testing products they have not used, arranging demos, learning software and so forth?  The best contractors are thorough, and they charge for it in their price.  Some, on the other hand, let the manufacturers do the design work for them. Hmmm, I wonder what products that manufacturer will use ……?

Most contractors have product lines that will fill many needs, but they may not have the best solution for a specific project or task. On each job, they must decide whether to shoehorn in what they have on hand (or need to use to meet quota) or get what they need from a secondary source.

Many contracting firms have personnel who are installers, not technicians. They are good at running wires. They are good at hanging things. They are good at connecting things, but they are not skilled theater technicians. They are not the people you want doing final setup or training on systems, which takes specialized know-how.

The better contractors have system finishers and trainers on staff but, first and foremost, know that contractors are about getting work done.

It is hard for them to justify freeing their people up to learn new skills or learn a specific console or device, etc. The best contractors realize that, to assure excellent results, training is a must. Many contracting firms do not take the time to do it.


Consulting is a hard concept for some people to understand.

The end user says to himself: “I want new gear, right ?  I saw this list on the internet. I just need to buy the stuff. Why should I pay someone for help when they don’t sell anything?” 

The architect or engineer may say – “Why should I pay a consultant when a vendor* will write me a free spec and one of our drafters can do rough drawings? Free is good, right?”

*The vendor (who is not being paid) creates a bill of materials, possibly a sketch, and hands it over to the engineering firm. They do not spend much time on it because it is FREE. The engineering firm does not necessarily understand what they are looking at and cannot tell if they are the correct selections for this specific job. With no real way to evaluate them, they still go ahead and transfer it to drawings. Oddly enough, the engineers get paid for the work even though they did not do it.  FYI same thing happened with lighting, kitchen equipment and other aspects of projects …….

When I worked in contracting, we provided free specs for engineering firms but when the project bid,  (we were not always low-bid) we lost about 75% of the jobs that we specified.  When other contractors won the work that we designed, we were never asked by the architect or engineer about the qualifications of the low bidder, or substitutes they offered. They typically just accepted substitutes. At that time we stopped doing vendor specs which, from a business point of view, made no sense as it was unpaid work. To this day I do not understand why some contractors continue this practice.

In public bids, whoever wins the bid gets the job based on price alone. If there is any other arrangement between the vendor and the design firm to get a vendor the job, it is known as “collusion” which is illegal in most states.

There are a couple of problems we have found with vendor-based specifications. In most states, if the vendor who wrote the specs also bids the job they cannot have been paid for their input. Knowing that, the vendor’s input is minimal.

When the job goes to bid and someone other than the vendor is the low bidder, the engineering firm that had the vendor’s work on their drawings must determine whether to accept substitutes. The vendor, having lost the job, now has extraordinarily little interest in spending time reviewing substitutes.  They will usually just say, “oh no, that’s not equal”. Or they may just say nothing at all. It is a flawed process.

And who decides if the final install is done properly? The unpaid vendor reviewing the work of the people to whom he lost the job? Certainly, that will go well.


Most consultants have knowledge that goes way beyond the list on the internet.

Things like:

  • How it all works as a system
  • Whose equipment is reliable
  • Which manufacturers have good tech support and backup  
  • And the integration required to get the tech into an actual facility

The consultant takes a wish list from an owner and turns it into design criteria. They plan a budget early on to see if the budget assigned supports the vision.  If it does not, the consultant helps to adjust the vision, balancing the needs and wants to the money available. If you don’t follow this process and find out after bid that the money wasn’t there, the bid will get tossed.

During the bid phase, contractors may make site visits and questions arise. The consultant is involved in the entire project and can resolve issues that come up during bid and during construction.

And if the  consultants do not know something, they are paid to find out. Research is part of the work.


The consultant should be multi-discipline and therefore  able to take on all of the conflicting requirements for each system and come up with resolutions during design. Many things like to occupy the same spaces : Lights, Speakers, Stage Rigging, HVAC, AV, Screens, etc…… The consultant ensures that placement of specific items is coordinated to accommodate the technical systems and their requirements. 

Consultants also provide electrical, thermal, EMF, structural loading, and other information to the other designers on the team. The consultant must flesh out the systems and coordinate with all other design team members – architect, engineers, etc. The consultant makes assessments about ergonomic issues, operational issues, and discusses the owner’s specific requirements in light of their experience.

Professional consultants must take all that knowledge and put it in a form that can be bid by a contractor.

In public bids, the contractors that bid may or may not have all the skill sets required to fully implement the designed work. In these cases, it is important that consultants create specs and drawings that spell out the work in a way that requires the bidder to procure outside people with those qualifications.

This necessitates that the consultant set the parameters for what is to be used, where it goes, how it is to be installed, how it is to be set up, how it will be programmed, and how the owner will be trained on the equipment. The consultant also must review any substitutes a contractor may offer up, to determine if the change will compromise the design.

It’s kind of like teaching someone how to play an instrument by remote control. To do that, you have to know how to play the instrument in the first place. Some consultants allow manufacturers to do the design work for them. In other words, they are allowing salespeople to determine outcome, which seldom leads to a win for the owner.  

The best consultants take the time to research and even try out all of the technology they are going to use for their design. They do not leave the decisions to others who may have bottom-line as the defining factor.

Consultants take responsibility for the entire design and outcome. They are worth the investment if you get a good one.


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