The Sound Engineer is the Conduit

Mar 28, 2024

The role of a concert sound engineer combines both technical and creative skills. When mixing sound for a band we are blending two domains - music and audio.

Music is the art form, audio is the collection of tools that we use to reproduce or amplify the art/music for an audience to enjoy.  Audio used to be an electrical signal passing through a variety of circuits and electronic components and still is in some cases but more often now it has been reduced to a bunch of 1s and 0s in the digital realm. Where Music contains emotion, a message, a rhythm, Audio contains information whether that’s through an analog signal or a digital string of 1s and 0s. It’s the audio engineer's job to take that information and translate it back to the art form of music retaining the original emotion or message, the human context of whatever was conveyed in the music.    

To do that, you need to be familiar with the content. When you are hired to mix a band, start listening to their music. Get to know it inside and out, from the tones of the individual instruments to their placement in the mix. Learn the solos, listen to the nuances, the vocal harmonies, the types of effects used, etc. Get a feel for the energy and emotion being conveyed. This is something I go into in depth in my course LISTEN!

I’ve always thought of the FOH engineer as the conduit between the band and the audience. As FOH engineer, your job is to convey the artist's music and message to the audience as accurately as possible. In doing so, it is easy to get lost in the technology. Spending the entire show with your head in the console, adjusting plug-ins, and constantly tweaking can leave you and the audience feeling removed from what is happening on stage.

Look up!

When the show starts, get your mix together as quickly as possible and then look up. Pay attention to the stage. Is someone soloing? Bring up their fader. Is there a particular part or instrument being featured? Are the guitar player and fiddle player trading licks? Make sure you can hear them. Keep an eye on the singer, is he/she in front of the PA? Do they switch microphones, suddenly singing on the guitar player's mic?  

When I worked for Elvis Costello, he had various vocal microphones around the stage and would spontaneously decide to move from his main vocal mic to any of the other ones without warning. It wasn’t practical to leave all of the other microphones open throughout the show so I had to keep my eyes on him to ensure I always had the mic he was using unmuted.

With your head buried in the desk, you can easily miss things like instrument changes, changing vocal mics, and featured parts.

This is especially important when you are working with a band you aren’t familiar with. You might be the house engineer for a venue and charged to mix whoever shows up without an engineer. Or you may have just started with a new act. Even when you’ve been with an artist for some time, it’s necessary to remind yourself to pay attention to the stage. It can be easy to zone out when you’ve mixed the same set for the 50th time but you still need to be engaged to create a dynamic and interesting mix.

The real joy in mixing live music comes from letting your creativity flow. When your hands are on the faders or you are manually executing cues, special effects, or other details you feel part of the music. Of course snapshots or scenes can be incredibly useful when you have a show that involves a lot of things that need to be addressed at the same time, but don’t let the console remove the human element from mixing. The desk can’t hear or see what is happening. I’ve yet to find a compressor that can react faster and smoother than my hand on the singer's vocal fader. The desk cannot convey the energy of a live show. Pushing the reverb tail on the vocal at the right moment in the big ballad to carry the singer's beautiful voice through the hall can bring chills. When the horn section is going to town, nudging each one at the appropriate time so they are featured needs a human touch. Hands-on faders mixing is how sound engineers feel connected with the performance. It’s much more satisfying than programming every last detail and just pressing next scene while you stare at the console screen all night.

So the next time you are mixing don’t forget to look up from the desk. The more engaged you are with what’s happening on stage, the more dynamic and creative your mix will be which makes for a more enjoyable experience for all.




By: Michelle Sabolchick