Live sound is both incredibly exciting but also terrifying. You have the opportunity to make a gig sound wonderful, but you only get one shot.
If things go really well, you will be a sound genius, but if not, you could have a group of very angry musicians on your hands.
And as every venue is different with its own room acoustics, it’s hard to always get it right.
As a general rule, being easy to work with, a trained listener, knowing your audio gear and being able to put yourself in the shoes of your musical artists will take you a long way in the world of live sound.
We all remember our first live sound gig, and for the vast majority of us, our live sound engineering is a mixed bag of ups and downs.
In this article, we will discuss some valuable tips to help you improve your live sound engineering.
1. Know Your Audio Gear
For any live sound engineer, it is essential that you know your gear. You need to know how to work that specific mixer, understand how effects and compression work, and what microphone type is best to use for each situation.
When you look around at all the audio gear in the live mixing booth, you should know what it is, what it is supposed to do and how it works.
Don’t forget, you can download a manual for nearly all the audio gear out there, so if you are unsure of a particular mixer operation or how a piece of gear works, then find the manual and work out how to use it.
2. Learn To Critically Listen
It is possible to get very skilled at critical listening. Critical listening (also known as active listening) is listening for the subtle audible features of sound and music.
For example, listening just to the bass and being able to identify when something is too “bassy”, or listening to the high frequencies and being able to identify when unwanted harsh sounds are present is an important skill as a live sound engineer.
With practice, it is possible to train your ears and get better at hearing the more subtle audio effects of sound.
3. Listen To Reference Tracks
When setting up a PA system and live sound stage, it can help to listen to music that you know well through the system.
By listening to music that you know well, you can ensure that everything is sounding like it is supposed to.
4. Work With The Room Acoustics
Every venue is different. Some venues will have great acoustics and sound lovely, while other rooms and venues will have lots of room modes and will not be a good place to listen to music.
It is pointless to fight poor room acoustics. It is more important to learn how to work with any room and any room’s acoustics.
Listen carefully to your reference music tracks in the room and listen out for any problems. It might not always be possible to get a great mix if the room is against you, so aim for a happy compromise and with experience, you will learn to work well with any room acoustics.
5. Control The Vocals
If you are doing live sound for a band with lead vocals, that is what everyone will listen for. Everything else must sit around the lead vocals or lead instruments.
Always ensure the audience can hear the lead vocals. Use a frequency analyser to level the room until you are happy. You can follow standard room equalisation protocols to help with this.
6. Monitor With Meters
Audio meters are amazing tools to help you understand what is happening.
Although it is great to rely on your ears, they can get fatigued and, in the pressure of a live sound engineering environment, audio meters are your friend.
Personally, I have found audio meters to be really great for building my self-confidence as a sound engineer. It is like having a calibrated and reliable pair of second ears always on hand.
7. Know Your Microphone
It is so important to know what type of microphone you are working with.
Some experienced live sound engineers have their own personal collection of microphones, which they bring to a gig in the event they need a certain sound.
Knowing what type of microphone you are using and how to get the best from it is essential to getting a good live sound.
8. Monitor Placement
Monitors are speakers that are placed on stage facing the musicians. On-stage monitors enable musicians to hear what they are actually playing.
It is really important to have good placement of on-stage monitors as it will ensure a good performance from your musicians and less interference with audio leakage from your main PA speakers.
9. Understand Studio Mixing
When I started out in sound engineering, live sound engineers and studio mix engineers were considered two very different types of people with completely different skill sets.
Today, it is important for live sound engineers to know how to studio mix. So many artists are now wanting to record their gigs and knowing how to record and mix live audio well will propel your career.
By understanding studio mixing, you will expand your skills into a new area and advance your live sound mixing, too.
10. Listen To What The Artist Hears
It is so important to know what your musicians are hearing in order to have a smooth live gig.
How often have you seen musicians on stage screaming at the live sound engineer to “turn them up”?
If the stage monitors are not positioned correctly or at a poor level, the musicians cannot hear themselves or will give a poor performance, which will ultimately be blamed on the sound people.
By listening to what the artist hears, you can appreciate what they are hearing and how to modify the mix to give them what they want, without destroying the sound for the rest of the audience.
11. Ensure The Talent Is Comfortable
At the end of the day, it is the musical talent that pays the wages of live sound technicians.
If you can do everything in your power to make your talent as comfortable as possible, they will grow to depend on and trust you.
When it comes to live sound, a happy artist equals a happy live sound engineer, so ensure they have water, space, a good monitor level and anything else they might need to be comfortable and perform at their best.
If they are comfortable on stage, that will come across in the live sound and will make your job a lot easier.
Working with live sound is an exhilarating experience. It takes an amazing amount of skill to be confident in your sound, and know how to get the sound levels right for everybody, from your artists to your audience.
Practice is the best way to get good at working with live sound and the more live sound experience you have, the better you will become at understanding the venue acoustics and how to get the best from your musical artist.
At the end of the day, live sound is a high-pressure environment. Although you get front-row seats to the best gigs, you have to perform too, and being able to produce high-quality live sound is both a learned skill and an art form.