A day in the life of a concert sound engineer, mixing is only 5% of the job

Nov 17, 2022

Being a live sound engineer can be an incredibly fun way to make a living and an exciting career if you end up traveling the world as a touring sound engineer. While it can be very fulfilling creatively, it can also be an extremely challenging job.

Whether you are a student, working at a sound company, or a music venue and eager to for your shot at mixing the show, it helps to understand that mixing is just one small part of being a live sound engineer.

It can be frustrating when you are in school for audio engineering or concert production spending weeks learning about things like power, cables, electronics, various system components, and audio theory when you just want to get your hands on the board and start mixing.

If you work at a sound company, or venue and spend most of your time wiring up racks, soldering cables, putting together rental systems, and doing repairs all of this is important stuff to know. You are building your troubleshooting skills by learning how the systems go together. You're also learning about signal flow, how to properly wire and set up a system, and hopefully some people skills.

This is all part of mixing. If you don't know how all of the components in a sound system work together, how to get the best results from your system, and how to troubleshoot and fix problems when they occur, you'll never be able to create your best mix. 

Many aspiring live sound engineers envision just walking in with the band for soundcheck to everything already set up and waiting for them. This is not the case.

A typical day on tour with a band starts with load in.

During load in, you and the crew will be moving the gear from the band's van, bus, trailer, or truck to the venue and setting it up. The gear can include any combination of backline (band instruments), audio, lighting, video, production cases, wardrobe, etc. 

Live sound is a very physical job which includes loading in and setting up the equipment, stacking or flying PA, lifting consoles, setting monitors, mic'ing and wiring the stage, running snakes and heavy AC cables over long distances, etc. Live sound engineers don’t just walk in to everything already set up and waiting for them, they do every part of the job. How physically intense that is, depends on the level of the tour but it’s physical at every level. Very few sound engineers travel with the band and just show up to mix the show without having to do any of the setup or tear down. The few engineers who do, have 20-30 years of experience under their belt and have paid their dues long ago.

 

 

Small tours with a band in a van usually carry only backline and possibly a few essential audio pieces like a microphone kit. Very often the sound engineer on a van or small tour will be one of a two-person crew and you'll be expected to help with load in, load out, and the setting up and packing up of the gear including the backline.

The bigger the tour, the more gear, and the more crew. Once you reach a certain level you'll have the assistance of stagehands but don't expect much help when you are playing bar gigs. 

Immediately following load in you'll begin setting up the gear. Again on very small tours, the sound engineer often helps set up the backline. You don't have to be a guitar or drum tech but you should know how to set them up and properly wire a guitar rig. Don't worry, you'll learn fast!

If you are carrying any audio equipment- PA system, audio consoles, monitors, IEMs, RF, a stage package (mics/stands/cables), etc. you and the audio crew will proceed to setting it up. If you are relying on local production you'll need to interface your equipment with it. For example, you've got your own consoles but are using the in-house PA system. 

Once the audio system is up and operational you'll want to listen to it and do a component check to make sure everything is working as expected, with no phasing problems, bad amp channels, etc. Then you'll tune the PA, EQ'ing it for the room and your needs. 

When you're playing smaller-scale venues, much of your time will be troubleshooting badly maintained audio gear. You'll find everything from wiring problems, to bad channels in the snake, blown components, and more. Sadly, this can even happen on the large scale. If you've got a system that isn't functioning properly you need to know enough to troubleshoot it and fix the issues so you can get through the show.

The next step is mic'ing and wiring the stage, setting up all the microphones, patching them to the snake or console, running stage power for the backline, setting up monitor mixes, and RF if you are using it.

Once the stage is mic'd and wired, you'll do a line check with the backline tech(s), followed by soundcheck with the band. Line check before the band shows up is preferred but not always an option.

Now it's time to mix the show.

Immediately after the show ends, you'll pack up your gear and load out, then grab a quick shower, get in the van or bus, and head to the next city where you'll do it all over again.

A typical show day on tour can be anywhere from 9 hours to 16 hours long. With most shows being 2 hours or less, the time spent mixing while incredibly satisfying is a very small part of your day.

 

But the whole craft of mixing actually starts long before you get to the console.

Before you get on tour there is a lot of planning and preparation that must be done for your shows to run smoothly. For an in-depth look watch this video.

You'll need to thoroughly learn the band's music so you can recreate the mix live. 

You'll need to create a stage plot, input list, and technical spec/audio rider. 

If the band is going to carry any audio production on the tour you’ll need to get a list of what they need, which can include microphones, IEMs, consoles, etc., and make preparations through the tour manager, production manager, or sound company providing it.

You'll need to develop good communication with the band and earn their trust. You need to understand their vision of what they want their mix to sound like and be able to communicate effectively and tactfully with not only the band, but their manager, friends, family, and super fans who will have plenty to say about your mixing skills or lack there of. 

Getting back to the technical stuff

You should-

-Be able to choose the right mic and know where to put it to capture the preferred sound of the instrument.  

-Know how to get the best sounds from the stage.

-How to set gain structure properly through the entire sound system.

-How to be able to mix on any console and any PA in whatever environment you encounter. 

The thing is, standing at the console pushing faders is the smallest part of what we do. If you don’t get the other stuff right, it will make mixing a lot harder than it should be.

Be patient and remember that everything you are learning in school or on the job is part of mixing, it might not be the fun part, but it's an important part.

When you can walk into a bar gig and troubleshoot a PA that isn’t working correctly, set up the stage, mic and wire the backline, and be able to create a good sounding mix on whatever gear you’ve got to work with that day, you'll be ready for mixing gigs. Until then, your best bet for going on tour as a band's sound engineer is to find a band that’s just getting started who you can grow with. They will more likely have the patience to let you learn and grow with them.

One final word about mixing, it does take a certain level of skill and good ears to be a successful engineer.  Not everyone is cut out for mixing but hey, no harm in giving it a try!