Study Hall

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The 12 Commandments: Key Practices & Habits For Long-Term Success

The rules of engagement for entry-level audio engineers to produce the best live sound possible on a regular basis.

6. Don’t do anything big or sudden during the show.

Good live sound is like a good movie soundtrack – the better it is, the less you notice it. As long as everything is going to plan, nobody should even be aware of the person at the back lurking in the shadows, but the moment something goes wrong – be it a burst of feedback or an instrument that’s too loud/quiet – all heads quickly turn to the sound engineer.

A live show is an immersive experience so it’s important to avoid anything that might jar people out of the moment such as sudden fader moves or extreme processing. If the mix needs a lot of work, try to get any serious hacking out of the way in sound check so you can approach the live mix with a degree of subtlety and decorum. Even if you miss a cue, don’t just hammer the fader up or bang the channel on; bring it up gently as if that was what you intended all along.

7. Respect the demands of the genre.

Use sounds and effects that suit the style of music. Getting creative with reams of reggae dub-style delays can be a lot of fun but it’s not strictly appropriate when mixing a folk band. Musicians often give subtle clues in their choice of equipment or style of dress, but if you’re not sure, ask – they should have a clear idea of what they want, and they appreciate you asking.

If you’re working in a venue where you’re mixing a wide range of bands, take a bit of time to listen to different genres and educate yourself as to what works with each one. For example, a slap-back delay on the vocal can work great for both rock ‘n’ roll and reggae/ska but not other styles, and while tightly triggered drum gates can produce a fine result with a tub-thumping rock drummer, it’s probably to ditch the gates all together if you’re mixing a jazz band.

8. Ensure the best vocals can be heard.

The vast majority of music performed at live gigs is song-based, therefore it’s important that the vocals are heard so that the lyrics are understood. This can be a big challenge, particularly in smaller, enclosed venues with less-than-ideal PA systems. It’s a common fallacy that the engineer has total control over the mix; levels are often dictated by the need to get the vocals above the ambient sound of the band on stage but also limited by the maximum level that can be achieved before feedback. This leaves a narrow area to operate, and it might not be enough to achieve full intelligibility.

The first thing to do is to work with the band to try to reduce stage levels; it can be hard to get drummers to turn down but maybe they can try playing softer or using bundles? Likewise, guitarists are a reluctant bunch when it comes to turning down, especially when they feel it compromises their tone, so maybe convince them to use a power soak (which enables them to run their amp flat out while attenuating the level going to the speaker).

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9. Pay attention at all times.

Never leave the desk while the mics are open. If something goes wrong and there’s a burst of feedback or some other noise, it can quickly escalate – particularly if there’s no one on the board to deal with it. The results can be catastrophic, causing damage to loudspeakers as well as ears (which are harder to replace).

Live performance is also an evolving thing, so even if a show is sounding great after a couple of songs, it may change. You need to give it full attention to ensure the mix continues to be as good as possible. Paying appropriate attention also includes not using any mobile devices during the performance; nothing is worse for musicians than looking up to engineers who are staring down, faces lit up by screens, their mind a million miles away.

10. Look after the equipment.

This is common sense but worth stating anyway. Take care of the equipment you use and it will continue to serve you for many years. Operate it within (and not too close to) its limits of tolerance, turn it on in the correct order (amplifiers last), and turn if off in the correct order (amplifiers first). Store it carefully (learn to properly coil and secure cables) and always transport it with care in suitable containers. You may not own the equipment, but always treat it like you do.

11. Protect your hearing.

Most engineers get into live sound because they love music, so it’s important to protect and preserve your hearing – not only to ensure a long and productive career but also so that you can carry on enjoying music well into your winter years. Learn about sound pressure levels that can be damaging and be aware of exposure time. Minimize both where possible. Take regular “ear breaks” and strongly consider using ear plugs; various degrees of protection are available but be aware that the attenuation might not be equal at all frequencies.

12. Produce the best sound you can.

This should always be the ultimate goal of every live sound engineer. It’s always a challenge, particularly in situations where the room adds excessive coloration and reverberation or where the system is old, tired and/or just not very good.

Applying all of the advice provided here while building up experience with different rooms and systems will help in attaining the objective of the best sound possible on a regular basis.

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