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Powerful Lessons From A Live Sound Engineer

A studio guy studies the mixing techniques of a veteran front of house engineer.

I attended a Sandra McCracken concert here in Nashville a while back. (She’s one of my faves. Check out her music. You’ll thank me later.)

The venue was fairly small and crowded, but I managed to get a spot right next to the sound engineer.

Really good sound engineers are always actively mixing. They don’t “set it and forget it,” then sit down to play games on their phone.

This person was a pro. He had silver hair down to his shoulders. I’m fairly certain there was an earring or two, maybe a few tattoos.

He was probably in his fifties, and I got the sneaky suspicion he’d mixed many shows in his career.

Sadly, whenever I come across a music industry veteran, I expect him to be a cynical, crusty, angry old curmudgeon. But this guy was something completely different.

The Engaged Sound Guy

I didn’t actually have a conversation with him. Heck, I don’t even know his name. But just watching him work told me a lot about him.

First of all, he cared about the music.

This guy was “on” all night. He rode faders the entire show (more on this in a minute). He was constantly watching the musicians and bobbing his head to the music. He was engaged.

Who would you rather have mixing your show? This guy or some stoner in a black t-shirt who can’t be bothered to even look at you, much less act like he’s enjoying himself.

At the end of the show, Sandra made a point to say what a joy this sound guy was to work with. If you’ve worked with a lot of sound guys, you know that “joy” isn’t a word that gets associated with them very often. Many tend to fall into the disgruntled crowd.

But there diamonds among the rough, and this guy was one of them.

“Okay, Joe, so what? The guy bobbed his head and moved the faders. Big deal.”

It is a big deal. And it relates closely to the work we do in our home studios.

See, the reason this sound engineer was so impressive is because he was a member of the band. His instrument was the sound system. The mixer, the effects rack, etc. He played his instrument as hard as anyone on stage. He was arguably the most important member of the band.

He knows that music is a living thing, and living things MOVE. So he was constantly fading things in and out.

Work That ‘Verb

One of my favorite parts was when he would work the reverb. He had some sort of outboard reverb unit he was feeding with vocals (and maybe other instruments, too). The output of the reverb wasn’t coming into an effects return, where you control the volume with a little knob. Instead, it came back through a pair of channels on the board. That’s right, he took up two channels of precious real estate on his mixer to have reverb on a set of faders.

Why? Because he WORKED that reverb. Most sound guys will engage/mute effects like reverb and delay between songs. That’s pretty typical. You don’t want to hear them when the singer is introducing a song, etc.

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But this guy would keep one hand on those two faders most of the time. He would fade the reverb in and out during each song at just the right moments. When the song got quiet and intimate, he would bring the faders up. When the lead vocalist finished singing a line, he would fade in the reverb to fill the space between phrases. When there were five or six singers on stage singing at once, he cranked up the reverb with them, creating this huge wall of sound.

It was never too much. Never over-the-top. But it was also never static. He played that reverb like an instrument, and it had a HUGE impact on the entire show, whether people realized it or not.

Closer to Home

Remembering back to that show, I feel a little guilty about how I tend to treat my mixes in my home studio. I tend towards creating fairly static mixes. There aren’t a lot of moving parts.

Then I imagine this live sound guy mixing one of my songs. He would work those faders and bring effects in and out to create something bigger than what I could get with a static mix.

Perhaps you’re like me, and you like to keep your automation moves to a minimum. I get that. Too much automation can be a bad thing. But next time you mix a song, think of yourself as one of the members of the band. How can you add your musical touch to the song in such a way that doesn’t distract from the song or the musicians but enhances them both?

It’s a question worth thinking about.

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