This month I thought I would talk about the unsung hero/villain at a gig, the Sound Engineer. I am not talking about the guy/girl, who is part of a team covering a gig in a concert venue, but the person who is doing the live sound in the small venues or the local pubs that have bands on– the crappy venues, the grassroots of music. The reason why I thought it would make a good topic is because that person is never ever talked about or given credit in the 1000’s of gigs that happen every weekend. However it’s not as simple as that as there are many sides to this job, so as I spent many years doing this very job I thought I would share my experiences–or certainly give a flavour of what it’s about.
The sound engineer tends to be at the venue hours before the gig and usually hours after, so in essence it’s a very long, not very well paid experience. Not only does the engineer have to put up with usually pretty poor PA equipment, broken sticky leads and microphones that tend to go missing or get damaged by ‘I want to show how cool I am’ singers slamming them down as they leave the stage, but also experts who are usually family or friends telling them, while they are working, to increase the level of Jimmy’s guitar or vocals, or how to actually do the job. Even though they probably work in Tesco stacking shelves.
Below is a checklist of what is expected from the engineer.
Depending on the venue and the number of mics available you aim to mic up what is appropriate to enable you to create that mix that shows the band /artist at the optimum sound, but before that we have the PA itself.
Tuning the PA
The first thing 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. The aim is to EQ the PA so that the track sounds like you’re used to. 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.
Fold back monitors
These 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 a singer tells you to “just put a bit of everything in it”.
But besides the equipment we have the either delightful experience or the nightmare of working with the band themselves. I found the more experienced a band are, the better people they were to work with, to the level where I became genuine friends with so many bands after a gig. There are so many stories I could tell about the true dickheads who are in bands, real arseholes who think the sun shines on them and being able to play three chords makes them into some special human being that the world should bow down to— but I won’t mention names other than to list what makes an engineer unhappy—and would perhaps make this professional person make the band sound like the tossers they are.
1) Showing up late
2) Not having your own instrument cable
3) Not knowing what your pedals and knobs do
4) Loud band, quiet singer
5) Asking the audience, “Does everything sound OK out there?” There is nothing I hate more than this remark because usually someone points out something completely out of my control, like the vocals not being loud enough– when the singer is choosing to sing 3 feet away from the mic.
6) Telling the engineer how to run his desk
7) Lead guitar players who crave the limelight by over cranking their amp
8) Drummers tapping and tuning for 30 minutes while you’re trying to get things done
9) Calling the engineer “Yo, sound guy”, or something similar
I now have to confess that all engineers are not angels, some are there and so sick of the above list that they just go through the motions and take their money and go home. There are others who just do not have the ear or capability to produce a decent mix– I was once at a big outdoor gig in Manchester and taking a feed from the engineer’s desk so the performance could be played out on a radio show I host. The guy I was hoping to capture was George Borowski, known locally as ‘Guitar George’. The sound engineer at the gig (over 5000 person outdoor venue) was a drum and bass recording engineer, who for some reason decided guitars should not be anywhere in his mix! Yep, it was awful to everyone except the engineer.
So all I am saying is, if you’re at a gig this month in a venue as described above and you have a good night, besides saying hello to the band and telling them how good you thought they were, have a thought for that person at the back of the room or perhaps even buy them a beer and ask him/her their name; it does make a hell of a difference—Till next month
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