Great Sound is Just an Opinion

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Great Sound is Just an Opinion

By Dave Rat

If you are an engineer that always gets perfectly tuned sound systems, wonderful sounding rooms and consistently achieving near flawless mixes, then you are either living in a dream world or working in a recording studio. For the rest of us live engineers, living in reality, this article is about mixing the big rock show.

You know the deal, one shot, do it right, no second chance, no rewind, irreversible time pressures and crappy acoustic environments. Furthermore, sound checks, when you get them, have limited relevance because when the doors open, all those people show up and mess with the acoustics. Oh that’s right, they will make it sound better. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining here. I would not trade the goose-bump thrill of thousands of fans screaming or the perfect silence of an inspiring moment for being cooped up in a control room listening to the same tune for weeks on end. So what if the studio is air-conditioned, the console has more knobs on it and you get to pick out food to be hand delivered from a notebook of excellent local restaurants.

Over the past 25 years, I have worn many hats throughout the live sound industry including: PA tech, sound company owner, system designer and band engineer. I have witnessed fat-wallet engineers fumble shows and struggling newbies with amazing mixes. Manipulating the sound for a live show can be such an unwieldy, intangible and perception-based endeavor that getting a consistent solid grasp is one of the most difficult challenges we, as live engineers face..

In a previous article, “When Hearing Starts to Drift,” I touched upon locking onto solid reference points. Now I will hopefully provide some insight towards tilting the odds in your favor and helping you achieve the ultimate goal of the guiding the audience into an amazing and unforgettable experience.

Mixing Sound is not Rocket Science

In fact it is probably closer to voodoo. One of the key aspects to keep in mind about mixing live audio is that unlike the recording environment, live shows by nature are a fleeting experience. A studio engineer creates a masterpiece that will hopefully live forever in permanent hard copy existence. The very nature of a live concert dictates that every show will be unique and that none will be perfect. A live engineer is in the business of creating a memory. Impact, excitement and anticipation form the landscape of the journey you are guiding the audience through.

Perception is everything

OK, how about the somewhat unprofessional statement “It does not matter whether the show sounds great or not, it is how you make the audience feel.”

When someone walks out of a show saying, “That was the most amazing show I have ever heard” is that an accurate statement? If you could blindfold and subject them to a series of live shows from their past for A/B comparison, would they have the same opinion? Are they referring to fidelity, tonal balance and mix perfection? Or was it possibly the impact, anticipation and excitement that affected them in an emotional way. We as “Soundies” can’t force the audience to have fun. We can, however, make sure the audience hears the most important aspects of the music while doing our best to mask and acoustically downplay any issues that arise.

Keeping your priorities straight

Imagine being focused and power-mixing a show with the utmost finesse. Articulating a series of precision and complex cues when that irritating knucklehead from the audience leans over the console and says “Hey man, can’t hear the keyboard.” I don’t know about you, but my first thought is to strangle the annoying punter and have him/her ejected by security.

This obnoxious person obviously knows nothing about the intricacies of mixing or he/she would be behind the console, right? Well, maybe not, it is all too common that engineers become so wrapped up in displaying the depth of their skills that they forget what is most fundamental and important.

Have you ever heard an engineer fumbling with effects while the mix sounds tragic? Don’t kid yourself, 95% or more of the audience has no idea and really do not care whether you used a macro-pristine-ultra-chamber or a $20,000 tube comps on each of the 12 vocals. What they do care about is:

a) Can they hear the vocals?

b) Can they also hear the vocals?

c) Can they hear everything else?

d) Does it capture their attention and take them away to bliss, happiness, rage or whatever direction that particular music is supposed to take them so they can stop worrying about whether they hear the vocals?

It’s all my fault

No matter what goes wrong sound-wise during a live performance, if you notice it from the audience perspective, then the problem belongs to the FOH engineer. There are no excuses.

What am I going to do, make flyers blaming the stage techs and hand them out to each person in the crowd? Here the important point is “NOTICE.” Example: The show starts and all seems good and then I realize that there is no guitar mic PA left, I can turn it on and “fix” it, and instantly let 10,000 kids know about the screw up or slowly pan the guitar mic to center then left and back to center. Then on the next song if I dial it all up correctly, odds are that the problem has actually become a cool guitar effect. It is not about hiding mistakes; it is about giving the audience the best show possible.

Don’t trip over your ego

“That snare sound is my sonic signature!” I hate that. That has got to be one of the most irritating things I have ever heard and yes someone did tell me that once.

If the audience is sitting there focusing on the way you mix, you are fighting an uphill battle. I realize that there are many situations where the sound engineer is an integral part of creative process of the show. In the situations where you are a welcomed performer as well as responsible for presenting the audience with the audio, the point still remains, don’t muck with the frill till you have the basics dialed in. The main point here is that drawing attention to your mix rather than the performers on stage is often good for the ego and bad for the career.

Identify the Essentials.

Face it, shit happens. Sooner or later something is going to stop working during a show. Knowing the absolute essential components of the sound mix is an important starting point to a necessary solution. Essentials, are the channels that without them, there is no reason for the band to continue playing. Generally, for a four-piece rock band in a large venue they are: kick, bass, guitar and lead vocal, that is 4 inputs! Everything else is pretty much just fluff and spares. I know this is a bit extreme but hopefully it clarifies the point.

Be prepared

A well-planned input list allows any input from stage to go bad without adversely affecting the show. Using two mics on the kick, a bass DI and mic, dual micing the guitars and of course a spare vocal mic is a good start. The L and R of a stereo keyboard offers redundancy and a cool stereo sound when both inputs work. If the snare top goes down, you can use the bottom snare and maybe bypass a tom gate. Who cares if you go mono on the guitar, loose the bass mic or anything else for that matter, it’s not that big of an issue if you are prepared.

What is important is that when something goes wrong, you go nuts, yell at everyone and make sure as many people as possible know something is not working. Well, either that or calmly stay focused, compensate and continue mixing the show. If you have someone that seems level headed enough to fix the dead channel, then send him/her out on the mission but only if you think it can be accomplished without drawing attention or making things worse (Read: running = bad and calm/confident = good). This is distilled from some important observations:

a) No matter how much I yell at the sound crew, it never makes it sound better.

b) If I act like there is a huge problem, people will know I have a huge problem.

We all know Premature is Bad

The anticipation is building, the audience is excited and there is nothing they would rather hear than 5 minutes of stage techs hitting drums and doing half-baked guitar solos. More importantly, line checking all the inputs over the system is the great ruin it for them and make sure that everyone knows exactly what to expect before the show starts. Not unlike a good book or movie, when mixing a rock show, anticipation and surprise are key, don’t give away the punch line. It also may be a good idea to try not to play music that sounds better than you can mix right before your band comes on. For the next 90 minutes or so you will be immersing the audience in a sonic adventure, the more surprises and interesting you can make it, the better.

It’s ok if everything sucks

It is a festival gig and the shed sounds terrible (damn those tin roofs), the system is nowhere near what you wanted, the promoter oversold the venue and half the people can’t hear the PA, band management is on the mix riser and you are up, what now? Panic, complain, blame everyone and lay on a big pile of excuses before throwing your arms up looking for sympathy? OK, well more sarcasm and actually, that may not be the best plan. Set your goals and most importantly, never panic. A dear friend once said to me, “Never face 20,000 people without a smoke and beer in your hand.” Though smoking is hopefully a thing of my past and I am in no way suggesting drinking will help your mix, my interpretation of this has served me well over the years.

No matter how bad it seems; freaking out will make it worse. Step back, sum up the situation, relax and calmly solve the issues. Setting realistic goals will definitely help. In this situation, forget about creating the best sound anyone has ever heard, if there was a time to make different PA system decision, it has passed. As a mental note don’t approve 16 boxes from Whimpy Systems Inc. for 12,000 people. Don’t make the same mistake next time but for now, right now, while you are at the show, your main focus should be, “What can I do to create the best sounding show possible with the tools available?”

Dog eat dog?

I respect and admire other sound engineers. But when mixing, my job as I see it is, consists of making the band that I work for, stand out above the rest, to the best of my ability. In order to achieve this, it is a good idea to do some research and listen to the mixes of the other engineers leading up to your band.

At a festival, if a band before me has a powerful driving mix that taps the systems low end at the sacrifice of distinction, I may lean toward clarity. What are my band’s highlights and how can I use them to stand out? Rather than turn the soft songs up, maybe turn them down to give even more room to come up for the louder ones. When faced with following a band that is stabbing high-end relentlessly into the audience, instead of trying to out-stab, maybe try some soothing low-end power, which will help the audience realize how uncomfortable the last mix was.

Don’t show up with your pants down

In some situations naked may be a good idea and I have nothing against mixing in the buff, but here I am referring to first impressions.

Just about any engineer can use the first song or two to dial in a mix but by then you have already made a lasting impression. The truly great engineers can come on with a strong and balanced mix right from the first note. This is one of the hardest things to master, especially when using different local production each day.

Figuring out a way to come on strong and accurate without letting the audience hear your sounds during set change is a challenge that even the best engineers are challenged to overcome.

You are all alone

For me, one of the more difficult concepts of mixing FOH is the fact that the people who know what it should sound like best, are on stage and can’t hear the mix. Doing monitors was challenging but at least there was a possibility of a definitive “good” or “bad”. The FOH engineer is left with management, friends of the band and the emotional expressions of the audience to be the blurry judge of success or failure. The upside is that you can get away with some major screw-ups while the downside is that the most amazing mix is met with being asked, “How was it?” by the band.

My approach to dealing with this quandary is to divide the potential “sound of the show” into three possibilities:

1) The way I think it should sound, based on input from the artist(s) and experience.

2) The sound that the that the audience tends to respond positively to.

3) The sonic signature and sonic markers of the album.

I feel it is extremely important to understand and be able create, merge and transition between these three possibilities at will. As a “sonic politician,” your success and approval rating over time, hinges on how well versed you are at bringing these three sound potentials into a consistent sonic presentation.

Never forget the bigger picture

Learning to operate the equipment gets your foot in the door and helps you solve and avoid technical issues. Mastering the dynamics of mixing a show increases the emotional connection between the audience and the artist. Refining your attitude and perfecting the ability to stay calm in the most stressful situations always helps.

All of this is just the foundation. The true culmination of all your efforts is achieving the state where the performers walk on stage knowing “If you are mixing, the sound will be awesome!” Plus, barring any unforeseen mishaps during the show, you should at least get the gig tomorrow.

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