The great thing about teaching is that it helps one organize their thoughts into cohesive ideas. The other day, while I was imparting my vast storehouse of knowledge to some up and coming engineers, I mentioned that there are a few different approaches to creating a live mix and for the most part, barring any real technical faux pas, if a method is found that works then it’s right. Some flagrant live mix offenses would be considered as reoccurring feedback, distorted sound, harsh vocals or buried vocals. If an overall mix is too loud or soft for a given venue then it too can be considered wrong. Nothing will drive an audience from a room quicker than a bad audio mix regardless of the band’s skill or quality. The responsibility of the soundperson is to insure that, not only is the band kept happy on stage, but the patrons and venue are satisfied as well.
There is no definitive great mix and judging the quality of a mix depends upon the engineer’s grasp of the situation and the event as well as proper gain structure. An improper booking of a band, such as a wedding band at Oz Fest, or vice-versa, is only a recipe for disaster and is a situation that will not lend itself to a great mix. The challenge of live engineering is just that... it’s live. Each event is a one shot deal that demands exactitude in situations that are usually less than perfect, thus presenting the engineer with emotional obstacles as well as technical impediments to overcome.
I wrote down a few thoughts to impart to my pupils and while they may be too rudimentary for most of the seasoned road dogs they may come in handy if one ever wants to train an up and coming engineer.
Be prepared and advance the show. This covers just about everything else on the list, but since there are so many little things that can possibly go wrong it’s a good idea to over-compensate and not take anything for granted. Make sure to speak to the bandleader or organizer of the event in regard to the nature of the gig, the time of load in and set up, show and strike. If at all possible have the event organizer email or fax you all the pertinent information concerning the event along with contact numbers (cell phone numbers if possible) for the organizer, club owner, band leader, maintenance crew or anyone else that might be crucial to the success of the show. Having all the information in writing from someone “in charge” will help avoid any she said, he said disputes that may arise.
Get a stage plot and input list from the band. This is best done ahead of time and is helpful in assessing the size of the sound system and monitor system that is needed for a particular event. In case the band or venue might have a special request for either equipment or set up this will give you time to negotiate with the people in charge to the satisfaction of all parties involved.
Get detailed directions to the venue. If no one can get you satisfactory directions there is always GoogleMaps or an easily downloaded GPS for your phone.
Arrive on time. Even a little early if at all possible since you will have to unload, get the gear inside, set up and be ready for sound check. When advancing a show for scheduling it’s a good idea to work backwards. Find out what time the show begins and ends as well as the time the venue will open doors. Once the doors are open the set up and sound check should be finished and the soundperson should be on break. Therefore, if doors are at 7:00PM aim to be on break by 6:00PM. Working backward from that time should give you a good indication as to when load in and sound check should commence.
Take care of your vehicle. Keep your van or truck in good condition and have all your papers up to date. Engine problems and legal problems have made for more than one horrible gig.
Go on a walk-through of the venue. This is not always possible or needed, but it does help in understanding any difficulties associated with the physical layout of the venue. At the least, if a site survey is not possible, try to find out from the venue’s manager what is involved when loading in and out of their room? Are there stairs, a loading dock, an elevator, ramps or any odd parking requirements? Find out if your vehicle will fit in their designated loading area. If there is an elevator make sure that it’s big enough for your gear and that it will be running at load out time as well as the load in time. Be very specific when inquiring about stairs as three to six stairs may not seem like a lot to a venue manager since he won’t be the one carrying the gear up and down.
Answer to one person. The person who has hired you and pays you is the person for whom you are responsible. Take your directions from your employer and if someone is in disagreement with anything that is happening, direct that person to your employer.
Power requirements. Make a point of knowing how much power your equipment and the band equipment is going to draw. Find out what the venue offers for power and how easy it is to access. Three to four 20A circuits will usually suffice for smaller gigs, but try to find out if those circuits are designated for the band and sound or if they are being shared with a coffee maker or dimmer for the house lights. Any shared circuits can potentially add a ground hum to the audio system so bring an excess of extension cable in case you have to go seeking power from another source inside the venue.
Neat and clean cable runs. When setting up and running cables try to keep everything neat and clean and label as much as possible. This will come in handy when you are rooting around in the dark trying to troubleshoot a problem while the band is playing.
Bring the right gear. Two speakers on stands will not adequately fill a large concert hall. One monitor mix and two wedges will, in most cases, be insufficient for an eight-piece horn band with five vocalists. On the other hand the large rig with two forty channel Midas boards will be overkill and impractical for the local bar gig.
Prep your gear. Make sure all your equipment is working and is in order before you get to the gig.
Have tools. Mag lights and a leatherman are standard soundperson tools, although a well-stocked toolbox is often nice to have.
It’s work not a party. Getting buzzed while mixing might sound like a fun time until something goes wrong and you have to fix it on the fly. Stay sober and straight and that way if something should go wrong it can’t be blamed on the fact that you were too high to fix it.
Know your equipment. Know what your gear is capable of delivering in terms of volume and clarity, electrical draw and coverage of the room. If a band needs 4 mixes of monitors run from the house make sure the board has at least six auxiliary sends so that you can run your mains as well.
Be sure of yourself. Don’t change your mix for everyone that approaches you with a suggestion. Ultimately you will accept the credit and/or blame for the sound of the show so use your own judgment since that’s why you’ve been hired.
Understand gain structure. Know how to set your amplifiers, board and effects to get the most from your system in terms of volume and clarity.
Know your microphones. Shure SM 58’s and SM57’s may be the industry staples, but there are many other microphones as well with which one should be familiar. Try to understand their properties and applications as well as microphone placement.
Have a workbox. Not to be mistaken for your toolbox. The workbox should contain adapters of all types, some line transformers, cables of all types, DI’s (passive and active) and maybe even a guitar tuner, some strings and drum sticks. Even though some of these things may not be your responsibility remember that you are the go to guy when things get rough.
Get paid. Know who it is that will be paying you and make arrangements to see that person sometime during the night. Hopefully you will see that person sooner than later since-coming from those of us who have learned-getting paid in advance always makes a gig sound better.