You don’t have to be a live sound engineer to know how crucial sound quality is during a live show. Even the most gifted musicians can’t perform well when there’s screeching feedback from the microphone. Not to mention if the microphone stops working altogether.
With live sound engineering, you’re probably well aware that your task is to ensure nothing goes wrong… then fix it when something inevitably does go wrong. To do that, you have to be able to do more than just the technical requirements. A good live sound engineer does their job well during the show, while a great one does their job well before, during, and after the show. Read on for 8 tips to become a better live sound engineer!
1. Be Willing to Ask for Help
Though it’s not the main part of their job, sound engineers usually help out with carrying in and setting up equipment. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s easy to over-exert yourself on the job. Injuries like a pulled muscle or thrown-out back impact your physical health, to the point where you’re unable to work. You also risk breaking equipment.
There’s no point in trying to do everything on your own, especially when you’re on a schedule. Know your own limitations, and know who to call when you need a solution. Professionalism isn’t being able to do everything flawlessly on your own, it’s being able to efficiently get the job done at the level of quality you promise.
2. Don’t Get Lost in the Details
Sound Engineers often get lost in the details of the mix. For example, a common technique is to work methodically to give each element — vocals, the kick drum, guitars, etc. — an equal amount of attention. While trying to make each element of the mix sound as good as possible isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is easy to lose the bigger picture.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all mixing standard, so think holistically. Instead of mixing each individual channel, mix based on the specific band or song. Aim to get the big picture across in its entirety instead of in sections.
3. Learn From Your Mistakes
As in any career, there are likely going to be times when you miss the mark — and it might not even be your fault. Even the best sound engineers have experienced screeching feedback during a show. The good news is, every bad show has to end eventually, and your career isn’t going to end with it.
You may feel anxious or lose confidence, but know that the feeling is temporary. Focus on the lesson you learn from that mistake instead. Use this as an opportunity to focus on getting your processes right. Not only will you avoid making the same mistake, you’ll be a better live sound engineer because of it.
4. Get Insight From the Performer(s)
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An integral part of creating a great live mix is knowing what sound you’ll be working with. This is important for the technical side of things so that you know what equipment to use. For example, dynamic microphones are best for a loud stage, while condenser microphones are good in situations like a solo artist playing acoustic on a quiet stage. Be sure you’re prepared to provide the right tools based on the performer’s needs.
Communicating with the performer is also necessary to know what their vision is. Work collaboratively to make sure you both feel confident going into the show. Collaborating with your performer creates a positive work environment for everyone, and sets you apart from other live sound engineers.
5. Label Things
Obviously, if you’re limited on time, the most important thing is to get sound coming out of your system. However, if you do have time, label everything like microphones, cables, and stage boxes. At the very least, do your best to take notes on all the important information.
This will help if you have a dead table: it’s a lot easier to identify a dead microphone cable when it’s labeled. Otherwise, you’ll waste time following each individual microphone cable in order to identify which is dead. Similarly, label the channels on your desk. Don’t just assume you’ll remember which channel is the lead vocal and which is the lead guitar — that’s too big of a gamble.
6. Train Your Ear
If you’re one of the many sound engineers who started as a musician, you’re probably familiar with the notes on certain instruments. If you don’t come from a musician background, it’s important that you at least learn the fundamentals of musical pitches. Why? Because it helps achieve more accurate results when adjusting EQ to gain musicality in your mix (or prevent feedback).
7. Check Your Gear Beforehand
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Making sure everything is working properly is key to a successful show. It’s also crucial to reducing your stress levels and maintaining a professional outlook as a live sound engineer. One of the most stressful things to happen during a show comes from something not working properly. Sometimes things happen, but sometimes it’s a mistake that could have been avoided.
Implement a verification process before the show to make sure every piece of gear and cable is working properly. You can even create a checklist to ensure you’ve checked every element of your setup. This will make your life easier as well as the lives of your client and the people you’re working with.
8. Practice Creative Problem-Solving
As a sound engineer, there is only so much that you can control. Sometimes the venue you’re working at doesn’t have a lot of equipment, or just isn’t very functional. Chances are, you’ve been expected to do a lot with a little at some point in your career.
A key skill that will take you far is being resourceful. This means quick, creative problem-solving. Think of this quality as a muscle you have to flex: the more you practice creative problem-solving, the better you’ll be at it. Even if the show is over, thinking about potential solutions in hindsight can help you solve that problem if it happens again in the future.
To Sum it Up
In order to become a better live sound engineer, you have to prioritize growing your personal skills as much as your technical skills. Take the steps to set yourself, your performer, and the people around you up for success. Making sure the off-stage elements are in-tune with the on-stage elements will result in beautiful harmony!