Studio Recording

Supported By
The author plying his trade in the studio.

Keeping It Real: Applying Lessons From Live Sound In The Recording Studio

A veteran studio professional offers five of the most valuable lessons he learned as a former live sound engineer who worked gigs in the underground and independent music festival scenes, and more.

I began my professional audio career in live sound in Johannesburg, South Africa, working gigs in the underground and independent music festival scenes along with emerging bands in clubs and informal festival stages in a city where formal music venues were few and far between.

At the time, I viewed these gigs as a means to pay the bills, but in retrospect, I’ve found that my experiences have had a profound effect on my journey as a recording engineer. In building a career where I work with top artists in iconic studios such as Abbey Road, Real World and Henson Recording Studios, I credit my time in the live scene with giving me an edge.

Here are five of the most valuable lessons learned as a former live sound engineer in the recording studio.

Lesson 1: Making limitations work for you. As a live engineer, especially in the underground scene, conditions are never perfect. Spaces present challenges. They might be too small, too large, too roomy, and so on. You might find yourself engineering an electronic dance music (EDM) show with a pair of 10-inch loudspeakers, or a six-piece rock band with an eight-channel mixer and four microphones.

I learned to work within the limitations presented to me to get the job done to the best of my ability, because the show must go on. In the recording studio, the stakes are a little lower. There’s always another take, and nobody’s watching.

I’ve encountered many engineers who take advantage of these lower stakes and spend hours and hours nitpicking over equipment choices, room layouts, mic placement, you name it! And as a result, I’ve seen many frustrated artists and band members whose creativity has been stifled by the nitpicky engineer.

I’ve also seen projects go way over budget due the time it takes to achieve the sonic “perfection” many engineers try to aim for. I’ve found it far more effective to prioritize the performance and not let the technology get in the way. This often means dealing with less than ideal recording conditions, but having the experience to make it work for you.

I focus on capturing the essence of the music and finding the performance – I’m convinced that the engineer should never get in the way of that. Just get on with it and work within the limits of the moment.
Keep it simple, keep it flowing and keep it real.

Lesson 2: Navigating people and pressure. Nothing beats the pressure of arriving at a venue to face technical issues while an impatient crowd hangs out at the door, demanding their return. Technical know-how is a given, but it’s the ability to calmly manage volatile people and diffuse crises that sets you apart.

It’s about figuring out what to prioritize and getting it done methodically and calmly, all while appearing unshaken and in control. This principle applies equally in a recording studio, where although the stresses may not be as overt, they’re still very much there.

In the world of A-list recording studios, dealing with global superstars with large expectations and even larger personalities can be challenging. Staying calm, being professional and prioritizing effectively to get yourself out of sticky situations is a valuable lesson to transfer from live sound.

Stay calm and be in control – or at least make it look like you are!

Lesson 3: Dealing with gremlins. When things go wrong, it’s all on you! In the live space, the show will go on no matter what, and it’s up to you to make sure that nothing’ stands in its way. I often say that more than half of the gig is the ability to troubleshoot quickly and effectively.

As a live sound engineer, I developed a systemized approach to troubleshooting issues in the heat of the moment. I take things one step at a time so that it’s easy to rule out exactly which aspect of my audio chain has the issue. Through experience, I know what the usual culprits are and I start there, and then move down the chain, saving the most time consuming changes for last in order to be as efficient as possible.

Audio and all of the issues we encounter with it are largely the same, whether on the stage or in the studio. Moving into the recording field with an already honed approach to troubleshooting has been one of my strongest assets from the get-go, and put me well ahead of the crowd.

Develop a troubleshooting strategy that works – it will set you apart on stage and in the studio.

Lesson 4: Signal flow mastery. From what I’ve encountered, most studio engineers these days start out their careers as bedroom producers, and then study a production course of some kind, get a job at a recording studio and work their way up the ranks. For these budding recording engineers, the world of large-format analog recording consoles can be very daunting.

But my time as a live engineer helps me feel that signal flow isn’t scary. Working with live analog and digital consoles ingrained the fundamentals of audio principles in me. While the complexity of a large-format in-line SSL or Neve console may be higher in some ways, the principles remain the same.

Live engineers also tend to have a very practical understanding of many audio concepts that novice recording engineers struggle with, especially those bedroom producers who come up working only “in-the-box.”

As a specific example, live engineers have a firm grasp over the concept of auxiliary sends, thanks to their experience creating monitor mixes. Those without this experience tend to grapple with the concept as it can feel quite abstract to them, having never turned up an auxiliary send knob on a console and physically heard that audio pumping out of a loudspeaker. This is only one of many examples that put live engineers ahead in recording studios.

Without practical experience, understanding the underlying concept can be challenging.

Lesson 5. Arranging the room. It may seem like a simple task, but it’s surprising how often recording engineers overlook key spatial considerations, like a vocal mic behind a pillar or the drummer positioned facing away from the bass player.

In live audio, engineers are acutely aware of the importance of stage layout. It’s kind of baked into the nature of performing on a stage. It’s obvious that every band member must be visible to the audience and to each other.

As an engineer schooled the live space, there’s simply no other way to do it. However, even in top-tier recording sessions with seasoned engineers, I’ve observed these fundamental considerations being ignored, because they’ve never had to be front of mind. This oversight can lead to awkward interactions between musicians and a stifled workflow.

The comfort of the musicians comes first, always.

Study Hall Top Stories

Supported By

TELEFUNKEN Elektroakustik’s mission is to design and build iconic microphones and modern professional audio equipment that provides classic sound for recording, broadcast, studio, and stage . Our vision is to be a global leader in emitting good vibes through manufacturing and design, all while capturing the spark of the TELEFUNKEN legacy and transmitting it with uncompromising quality.