Engineers and Musicians, Mixing Music, And Mixing with Assholes
In this article, guest writer Sam Carlen delves into the world of “The Sound Guys”, The unsung heroes of live music. – Andrew
Article by Sam Carlen
Once you enter the world of live sound reinforcement, you are now consequently known as “The Sound Guy.” That one guy all vocalists will blame for not being able to hear themselves, when they are actually singing at a whisper into the microphone fronting a rock band. Or that guy the guitarist blames for making his tone sound like shit, when in fact he is playing in a hardcore metal band with a Chinese Strat going through a Metal Zone pedal into a 25w practice amp. Maybe if the sound your looking for is “unprofessional” or “ass” that is perfectly fine. But majority of the time, it is the musician and their equipment dictating the sound and live sound engineers just reinforce it.
Now who am I to give you advice? A college freshman? Yes. A musician of 11 years? Yes. But also a well versed live sound engineer of the last 6 years? You bet your drumsticks. I first got into recording because it was cheap, the equipment was small, and I could record myself anytime I wanted. With live sound, you need large and expensive equipment plus bands, a place to host the event, and a crowd of people who want to see the act perform.
My first live sound experience was my freshman year of high school, interesting to say the least. A friend’s band of mine had gotten themselves involved with one of those mediocre high school Battle of the Bands. Their band was sloppily thrown together last minute in hopes of playing for a small audience and “looking cool.” But we’ve all done that at some point or another, right? I had been asked to run all things sound related because they knew I had my own decently sized mixing console I used for my home studio. The bands consisted of my friend’s makeshift act, a classic/hard rock cover band (of whom come into my life years later), 2 hardcore metal acts who had already toured the East Coast and half of the members were out of high school, a local pop-punk band, and a band who covered a few indie songs. I’ll save you the suspense and tell you that one of the hardcore bands won due to popularity.
During those fews hours I had learned more about live sound than I have anywhere else.
The PA speakers, snake, and cables were rented from a local music shop who must not have realized the enormity of the show. This show was being held in a high school gymnasium because the organizer of the show wanted it to be “more intimate” and therefore couldn’t be in the somewhat acoustically treated auditorium. They had the bands starting loading in gear and setup in front of the longest wall so the bleachers could be used for parents to sit at. (This gym was MASSIVE keep in mind.) Those bleachers were about 75 feet away from the “stage” that was outlined by a few cables and a carpet for the drumkit. The only other guy who somewhat knew how to run the board and had to help me soundcheck was a senior student in charge of the A/V club at the school. The speakers they rented were a few 500w Yamaha powered tops with NO speaker stands. Each speaker was propped up onto some milk crates and we had 1 monitor in the front. The organizer also ordered that soundboard be BEHIND the stage so it wouldn’t be cluttered out in front and “look bad.” (I will now refuse to do sound from the side of the stage, let alone from the back, but hey, what did I know at the time?) We had 3 vocal mics, 2 mics on the guitars and one on the kick drum. (Excessive? Maybe. But again, it was the first time I’ve ever did this kind of gig.) And in what was mainly out of common sense, I would also occasionally walk in front of the stage to check how levels were but I just leave the faders alone.
This show was also my first experience ever hearing hardcore music with screaming vocals. My thoughts at the time were, “I just don’t understand.” To some extent, I still don’t. But there is lots of people playing it so that means lots of money, so that’s many of the shows I work for currently.
After that show was over, I got $50 out of the deal and a “good job!” from the person in charge. I thought I was the bomb. But now I look back and think about how much I would have changed. It taught me a lot.
Moving on through my live sound experiences, I started acquiring equipment. I had over 4000w at front of house and 4 floor monitors. Plus a couple EQ’s, crossovers, a Sonic Maximizer and various other things. I stored it in my basement and played around with it constantly and put on my own private concerts. I learned how to piece together a medium sized PA system just through research online. At this point in my life I did not drive and I didn’t know bands outside of my school. And the ones that were in my school, well actually, there weren’t any. So I thought, “I have all this gear, what the fuck do I do with it?” That’s when I realized, until I made the connections to put on my own shows and had transportation to get the gear there, I would need to stick to recording. So I sold all of it to a guy that was working for Vans Warped Tour and said he would use it as a monitoring system on the smaller stages, he came in a truck and picked it up and gave me $1200 in cash, pretty badass to know my gear is touring around with decently sized acts. I was still doing recording and had started to record for other people than myself, but whenever live sound opportunities arose, I took them immediately. As the time went on I did lots of recording, learning the sides of engineering and producing in the studio. This carries over unbelievably to live sound.
Remember that classic and hard rock cover band I mentioned earlier? Their drummer, whom I had befriended at the show, asked me to record an original single for them. I came over to their practice space with an interface, my laptop, and some microphones… We knocked it out in a day. And compared to what I do now it was lunchmeat, but compared to what they had already put out, it sounded professional. They were so satisfied, they asked me to do their live sound as well. I agreed and then for about 3 consecutive years, I toured around bars, parties, car shows, and all the places you’d find a party rock band play. I learned with them over the time through at least 150 shows. We sounded damn good. I was surprised with myself some days at how good and professional they sounded. All of their instruments were top notch, DW drums and Sabian cymbals, Marshall and Hartke amps, and Gibson and Fender guitars. The PA we ran was decent, a Soundcraft 24 channel console, 4 15” 500w high pacts, 2 800w subs, and 4 12” monitors. I knew their sound and I knew the little problems their instruments had so I could tweak it every night ever so slightly to perfect the sound and make it rock.
With this committed relationship, I went out and did lots of side jobs as well. I had done the sound for multiple graduation ceremonies at high schools, one of them with almost 2500 attendees online and in person which was extremely nerve-racking but I was lucky to have the opportunity to work on that. I did bar and party shows for various other bands. I’ve worked on many festivals, benefit shows, Battle of the Bands, Talent Shows, and other various music events. I also did many jobs involving theatre. I played guitar for lots of musicals but when I wasn’t doing playing, I was controlling the levels of the headset mics of actors, taming the pit band for rock operas, and playing sample sounds to make the scene seem more realistic and larger than life.
Now as for some aspects that the job entails. I’m not gonna tell you about the technical things such as what floor monitor gives the most gain before feedback or how to time align subwoofers to a line array system. You can find all of that somewhere else from someone who knows more about it then me.
But I will tell you from my experiences, some of the most important things have to do with the relationship between you and the act you are working for. Yes, you are working FOR them. The audience is not there to see you. Sorry. (But not really.) But as I said, sometimes you will get musicians who are just plain assholes who think they know best about how the sound will be in the front of house mix. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played out hundreds of times and sometimes sound guys and be just as arrogant or clueless. As a live sound engineer who does KNOW what they are doing, the best advice I can give is to ignore them. And I know you want your mix to sound as amazing as possible.
But you may have audience members or even show promotors coming up to you saying: “I can’t hear the vocal over the lead guitar!” And then I will tell them: “Well, the lead guitarist didn’t want me to mic their cab and he turned up that 100w half stack to 10! So you go talk to them.”
Or if the vocal mic keeps feeding back terribly at 1.5kHz, it may be that the singer thought it would be a good idea to bring their own $25 microphone they found on Craigslist because they heard that using their own mic sounds better. Just turn their monitors off and they’ll have to live with it.
One show I did was a festival located at a facility near me. It was a decently sized room with lower ceilings and about 450-500 showed up. I had ran a decent sized system and was cranking out the volume and pumping up the bass. (Kick and bass guitar.) It was all hardcore bands, where the money is at, and this one band just gave me problems. The one guitar player decided that he didn’t want me to mic either of the guitars or bass cab. He acted like a absolute douchebag so I found the organizer of the show and they cut their set early and kicked them out. Right after they played about 4 songs without vocals or drums in through the FOH that is.
Now that was a case of just plain douche-baggery, but in any case where this happens, which is mostly in newer bands and musicians (However, I’ve seen bands that have been together for 15+ years still do these things), you let the performers take the shit. You may get some critics who said you did a bad job but when the bands that take themselves professionally and treat others as such, you will get the best sounding mixes. As I said, you are here you reinforce the sound, not make it infinitely better. The most amazing sounding shows I’ve done have been bands that cooperate WITH me and not try to fix everything I setup. I understand certain performers have their preferences for stage setup and volume, but it’s a team effort to put on good event.
When it comes to things like monitor mixes, the performer knows best on what they want. But if the entire night they are looking to you or the monitor engineer saying, “turn up the vocals” until they are so loud in the monitors it sounds like a screaming, muddy mess of sound, you are just going to have to give a big smile, gesture a thumbs up and say “Uh-huh” as you touch absolutely nothing. The placebo effects makes great things happen on stage.
But there you are, a quick summary on myself and a little advice that no matter what your technical knowledge is, you can apply it to the job. Though this doesn’t mean if you are a performer, assume that the engineer is doing these things and to be an asshole to him.
By Sam Carlen