Study Hall

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Sonic Synergy: Two Views Of The System Engineer – FOH Mixer Relationship

Whether on tour for months together or collaborating for a single day, mutual respect and a collective desire for superb audio should be at the heart of the partnership.
Mix Engineer System Tech
The author (right) working with system engineer Carter Hassebroek for Peter Frampton on tour.

Once I have the specs in front of me, I insert them in an “audio advance” excel spreadsheet which helps to keep the cities and shows straight if there are a bunch coming up. If I encounter any redflags regarding loudspeaker system size, power or coverage, I choose this time to ask about options, and if there are none, alert my production manager that the venue’s installed system is not quite living up to what was requested in the band’s advance rider. About 90 percent of the time, everything looks to be in order, and our bus and truck arrive at the venue expecting to have a great show day.

The final question on my audio advance sheet is, “Who will be designated as the FOH system tech for our show, and can we include that person in our email chain?” It’s nice to have a name when you walk in at 8 am and start the day with a new group of faces, and it’s even nicer when you’ve had some communication with them before you start dumping the truck.

My first questions once inside the building are usually, “Where exactly does FOH go? Where do we run our snake? Where can we tie in AC power?” Even though we’ve covered these in the advance, it’s not uncommon that the info received from a production or promoter rep is not completely accurate, so it’s best to confirm before you start tipping consoles and running feeder.

Another request on my audio advance sheet is that the sound system be completely installed, fired up and fully tested before I’m ready to send signal to it from my console. This is not always the case and can be a challenge on shows when the call time for the local crew and our band’s crew is the same.

Two Views, One Goal

In theater venues with a distributed system, I love it when the house audio tech points out with confidence that all of the zones of fill speakers have been tested, sound nice, and are time-aligned to each other and to the usual location of the main speakers. This is one way house techs can endear themselves to visiting FOH mixers, and in the spirit of reciprocity, the gracious response from a visiting engineer is to give the house person the courtesy and respect of assuming their system just might be dialed in, optimized and sounding great.

System engineer John Mills looking over the system (in Smaart) for Kenny Chesney on tour a few years ago.

Sometimes a quick listen (and a Smaart measurement or two) can tell you how your day is going to be, and it can save you a lot of ill will if you do this before asking the house person to “zero everything.” I’ve certainly had days where the house system was very poorly tuned and aligned, or over-EQ’d from years of tweaking, and I’ll kindly request a reset, but it’s good mojo to give it a listen first before stomping all over the good work they may have done there.

Once the PA has been tested, and I’ve been directed to the laptop or speaker processor supplied for making any needed adjustments, I’m usually good to go. I’ll usually ask for the cell phone number of the house tech at this point and suggest that they’re free to refill their coffee or wander away while I thoroughly measure the system – “I’ll call if I have any follow up questions, or just check back in with me in an hour or so.”

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During the sound check and primarily for the show, I ask that they hang around for a couple of songs, then kindly wander around and check out the fill loudspeaker zones and balcony for tonality and level continuity. I’m happy to make any and all adjustments to the PA tuning or level, so I’ll ask the house tech to simply stay available in case I have an issue, but not necessarily right next to me. It can get crowded out there.

Most house audio folks are just as proud of the sound and performance of their PA systems as visiting engineers are of their mixes, so most days end with high-fives and “it was great working with you.” You may not ever see them again, but it’s wonderful to spend a day working with local people who take pride in their work, their system, and making you feel at home.
We all entered this amazing world of live audio because we love music as much as we love making it sound the best it can be for the artist’s fans.

Whether on tour for months together or collaborating for a single day in a local venue, the relationship between the system engineer and the FOH mixer is a special one. Mutual respect and a collective desire for superb audio is at the heart of the partnership, and together a little “sonic synergy” can be the reward.

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