With the introduction of digital consoles, better microphone options, PA systems with higher fidelity and more pre-production time, the gap between the worlds of studio and live sound has been steadily diminishing.
Most of the live engineers that I know are also either accomplished studio engineers or at least have project studios that allow them to prepare for live shows, including dialing in plugins and/or processing for later use.
Although it’s not my express intent here to compare the two worlds, I’d like to point out that the live mixing process has shifted in recent years to include one vital aspect that was always a priority for studio work – capturing quality sound right at the source.
The traditional methodology of live audio, still very much present at smaller shows and when working with unknown artists, is to set up the stage and then through mic placement and processing, deliver the best result possible given the situation.
I still work this way all of the time when mixing several bands and at festivals. Limitations on time and resources prevent going into great detail with the band about the gear, stage setup, and positioning – as a mix engineer, the task is simply to embellish what you’re given.
But for situations where you’re asked to create a sound design during pre-production stages for a band you work with regularly, that approach might not be the only option. If you can influence sound sources in ways that sit better in a mix, and also support the entire sonic image without touching the processing part of the console, it can be a great way to go in minimizing work that needs to be down the line.
Here are some tips to help accomplish just that…
Communication Is Key
The sound heard through the PA system and the sound that the artist hears on stage are quite often two very different beasts. Especially if a source is being picked up by a microphone, the difference can be quite dramatic. So before jumping on stage and immediately ordering people to change their settings, make sure to listen to the source then talk to the artist about the difference between what they’re hearing and what you’re hearing.
Also make sure to inquire about what they think about their sound. If they absolutely love it and aren’t willing to change, it might be useful to record a short multitrack session and play it back through the house system, inviting the artist to hear it from your position and explain what you like and don’t like.
Always state your goal clearly. Saying “we have to change this sound because it’s not good enough” might not be as productive as “in this particular section of the song this sound competes with another sound, making things a bit muddy. Could we maybe try lowering the low-mids to see if we can support it better?”
Making sure artists understand that the sound of the entire act, including their own, can improve with a suggested change usually goes a long way, and it also demonstrates that you really care about how the band sounds.
However, if an artist insists on not changing a “signature” sound, then I advise not pushing the matter. Sometimes artists need more time for you to earn their trust and pressing the issue when they’re not ready can be counter productive.