by Graeme Steel.
Mixing live event sound has many challenges! The engineer has to deal with various factors: room acoustics, PA quality, time constraints, the artists… The thing to remember is there isn’t any kind of set formula when it comes to live sound – every engineer has their own strategies that work best for them (such as which live mixing console to spec, best microphone to use, configuration of the PA speakers etc.). Find out what works best for you – bearing in mind this will mean some trial and error in the early days.
One of the most important attributes a live sound engineer needs is good people skills. I estimate that at least 50-60% of my job is dealing with people in the right way – whether it’s the artists, their management, promoters or other engineers. Performing live can be a stressful experience, so it’s important that the engineer isn’t another source of panic and this can be especially hard when everyone’s working under a lot of pressure…
Tuning the PA
The first things to do, before sound-check, is to ‘tune’ the PA. This is necessary as different types of speakers and acoustic spaces have differing characteristics, often colouring the sound adversely. I tune the PA by using a piece of reference music and a 31 band graphic EQ. Engineers use a range of tracks for this; from pop to rock and hip-hop to opera. What matters is that you know it well and know – in detail – how it should sound, including how every individual instrument within the track should sound. The aim is to EQ the PA so that the track sounds like you’re used to. The more you work as an engineer, the quicker you will be able to identify what frequencies need attention, for example: if the vocals have picked up some sibilance, try cutting between 6-8K on the graphic EQ; if the electric guitar sounds quite harsh or screechy, try cutting between 2.5K and 4K. Making very subtle cuts on the graphic can make a massive difference to the sound of your show. It’s normally the case that the older or cheaper brands of PA speaker need a lot more EQ than newer speaker systems.
A big challenge in live sound is controlling feedback. Feedback is caused by a signal being amplified and re-entering its source microphone (aka ‘chasing its tail’) from a speaker. Essentially, it’s a high level of gain at a particular frequency within the system and it’s common to panic and pull the faders or monitor sends down when feedback occurs. If you identify the frequency where the PA or monitor is feeding back, then you’ll be able to use EQ to cut that exact frequency without losing any level. You’ll quickly identify the usual suspects! Using a high pass filter on input channels is a handy tool to cut out any unwanted bass frequencies. If the high pass filter is sweep-able; try taking the filter right up until you can hear it having a detrimental sound on the source, then roll it back slightly – a great way of controlling rumble and low-end feedback.
When using EQ live, it’s preferable to make cuts rather than boosting the frequencies you feel are lacking. Be aware that boosting EQ often results in feedback, as you’ve increased the gain of that frequency and you’re also adding level and consequently reducing the headroom on the system.
Foldback monitors are used so that the musicians can hear exactly what they need to enable them to perform. Each artist’s monitor mix should contain exactly what they need to hear. For example: putting guitars and keyboards into a vocalist’s monitor will obstruct the vocal level in that speaker. Try to explain this to them when they tell you to “just put a bit of everything in it”.
Analogue vs Digital
The introduction of digital mixing consoles in live sound is currently one of the most controversial topics. Many engineers argue that the digital sound is too ‘clean’ and ‘brittle’ compared to the ‘warmer’ sound of analogue consoles. Having mastered one analogue console you will find others to be laid out in a similar fashion. Digital consoles differ greatly between manufacturers, introducing a whole new learning curve for engineers. In this case, my advice is to learn as many as possible. On my last UK tour I was only behind an analogue console twice! Digital consoles are becoming popular for many reasons: they’re sounding a lot better than they used to and they massively reduce trucking costs as all processing normally done by racks of outboard gear is taken care of within the desk. There’s the added ability of having total recall on the console, which means after a sound check you can save the “scene” on the desk or USB stick for instant recall later.
When it comes to live sound, the final thing to remember is this: when everything comes together on the night; it’s an amazing experience to be behind a sound desk, providing the best sound possible for both the band and the audience.
Who is Graeme Steel?
Graeme Steel has been a freelance sound engineer for 6 years, predominately working in live event sound. This has led to travelling across the UK and Europe and reaching as far as Africa on several occasions. He has worked with a diverse selection of artists including Kanye West, Nas, Nelly, Busta Rhymes and Ocean Colour Scene; right through to large orchestras such as The True North Orchestra and La Banda Europa. He also works with some upcoming local acts such as Young Fathers, Aaron Wright, Stanley Odd and Tinderbox Orchestra. And he’s a part-time Masters Lecturer at Napier University. Hardcore.