Can we compromise?Aug 22, 2022
Compromise is a big part of working in live sound, and it’s something a sound engineer is faced with every day.
The promoter wants you to move the PA to a location that isn’t ideal because it’s interfering with the sight lines. But, the location he is proposing will compromise the sound of the show so you both have to find a middle ground to agree on.
You’re mixing at a local venue and the band shows up with 37 inputs however, you only have 32 channels in the snake, time to decide what inputs are non-essential and can be cut.
The proper place for the FOH mix position would be in the middle of the theater where you have clear sight lines to the stage and can hear the PA, but they have sold all the seats and you have to mix from the back of the house under the balcony. This is never a good compromise. When you can’t hear the PA you can’t mix the show properly. You can fight for a better spot but if the show is sold out, you won’t win.
In that case, make sure to walk the room or have your system tech walk the room during the show so you know what it sounds like out from under the balcony and not just where you are mixing. If the soundboard you are mixing on allows for it, you can connect an iPad so that you can walk the room making changes as needed. Often the high frequencies get lost under the balcony and if you aren’t aware of how it sounds closer to the stage you can end up over-compensating by adding an excessive and painful amount of high end to the mix.
When I was mixing FOH for Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers tour years ago, I was not a fan of her vocal mic. We were in production rehearsals for the tour and she was using the same vocal mic for years but I didn’t think it worked very well for her voice and was sure there was something that would work better.
We tried at least a half dozen different microphones during rehearsals and when I settled on what I liked best, it didn’t work for her. She gave it a good audition, using it for a day of rehearsals but she couldn’t get what she needed from it in her ear monitors. The mic she had been using for years had some specific tonal characteristics that she had grown used to. The mic that I liked was also considerably heavier and had a different feel in her hand.
I could see she was struggling a bit with it and that it was going to take some time for her to get comfortable with it so I made the executive decision to continue with her original microphone.
She was immediately relieved. This was her first solo tour and a much different show than she was used to. She had a lot of other things she had to worry about like choreography, costume changes, and running around the stage in 9” high platform shoes. The ONLY thing she was comfortable with was her singing and how her vocal sounded in the monitors.
Because she was very comfortable with the microphone she had been using for years, she didn’t have to put any thought or effort into her vocal performance, it just came naturally and I could hear the difference immediately when we stopped using the microphone that I liked and switched back to her old one.
I realized that her comfort is more important than my not liking the microphone because that comfort would ultimately result in a better vocal performance. I could make it work, I added a few pieces of outboard gear to get the sound I wanted from it. I knew that if she wasn’t comfortable with her mic she wasn’t going to be able to give me her best performance which would make my job harder no matter how good that microphone sounded. So I compromised on what I wanted for the good of the show and we all won.
An instance where I refused to compromise was when touring with a band that was using local production. We were touring all over the world and playing in venues ranging from tiny clubs to arenas. I knew what I needed to give the band the quality of mix they were expecting every night and that required a professional-level touring console. Some of the smaller clubs wanted to insist on us using their in-house, low-budget/quality console which was better suited for a band on its first tour than the act I was mixing. I refused to compromise knowing that the in-house desk would never be able to do the job I needed it to do. Needless to say, it always required numerous calls and emails between the promoter, management, and agent haggling over who was going to pay for the upgrade and me having to stand my ground but I knew in the end that I had to answer to the band and I knew what they were expecting of me and what I needed to give them the high-quality mix they demanded.
The job of a sound engineer is full of compromise, some are small and some are big. When faced with a compromise, it’s important to keep in mind the big picture, will the compromise help or hurt the show? What are the expectations of the artist? What does the artist need to feel comfortable? What battles can you win and what battles are just going to be time wasted fighting for something you won't get?
If an artist has a long held endorsement with a company that has given them great support (or tons of free gear), they are unlikely to burn that relationship to make the switch to your preferred company, brand, supplier, etc.
If the quality of the show can be improved by fighting for a better mix position or upgrade in equipment and the band is willing to pay for the upgrade or sacrifice the seats then it's a battle worth fighting.
But as in everything, you've got to pick your battles. Choose carefully.
By: Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato