What Does a Live Sound Engineer Do?

Recording Connection graduate Jamila Nicolas on the job

Have you ever been to a concert by your favorite band, only to return home disillusioned and disappointed with how bad they sounded? There are three possible causes for the sound to suck during a live concert: 1) The band just isn’t that good. 2) The acoustics at the venue were horrible. 3) The live sound engineer screwed up.

I remember seeing the band Them with front man Van Morrison many years ago. It was a horrible concert and by the time they performed their hit song “Gloria” most of the audience had left. The venue for this debacle was an amphitheater so the acoustics of the place were not the culprit. The live sound engineer was a veteran of numerous concerts and symphonies that took place at the venue so he was not the likely cause. Blame this one on the band—there were half a dozen bands in my high school that could play “Gloria” better than Them and I wished they were on stage that night.

Fast forward many decades to when I saw Bruce Springsteen perform at the Staples Center. The sound was muffled and unintelligible. It’s a given that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band know what they are doing and are very good at it. Seeing as how the concert took place in Los Angeles, I don’t think the audio engineer was to blame. This time the bad sound award goes to the venue. The concert happened to be the first concert ever at Staples Center and the acoustics flat out sucked the sound out of the room. Several years later I attended another concert at Staples and the sound was quite good—they obviously spent some time working on the acoustics.

I’ve also attended several concerts where there was feedback, microphones that stopped working, audio cues that were missed or certain instruments that were drowned out even during solos. These are instances when the blame goes to the live sound engineer.

In between Them and Bruce, I was fortunate enough to witness the band Little Feat in four different venues. The first was front row at a tiny club in Boston, the second was a dance hall in Atlanta, the third was a big theater venue in Boston and the fourth was at an amphitheater in Honolulu. I noticed two things—Little Feat sounded spectacular in all four settings and the live sound guy was the same in every performance.

Simply put, the live sound engineer is the person in charge of making an artist sound great during a live performance. In some cases, when the band travels with all their own gear, including the sound system, this can be relatively straight forward. In other cases, this can be a logistics nightmare, where the live sound engineer is renting sound equipment in every tour stop, especially when their choice of gear isn’t available and they have to substitute out for something they’ve never worked with before.

Aside from logistical considerations of acquiring the sound equipment, setting it up before the performance, running sound checks and then tearing everything down after the show, the biggest challenge the live sound engineer faces is dealing with the acoustics of different venues. Last night the band might have played in a small club, today they might play in a stadium and tomorrow they could be performing in a large concert hall. Each of these venues has a different acoustic dynamic that requires different mixing levels between instruments and different levels of EQ, compression and reverb, as well as other factors to compensate for the difference between venues.

There are two big differences between a live sound engineer and a studio sound engineer. The live engineer is dealing in real-time, one-take only, live situations where if something can go wrong, it’s likely that it will. This means that the live sound engineer needs to be able to think on their feet and be adaptable. Regardless of equipment failure, an outdoor venue caught in a rainstorm, or any of the countless other things that can go wrong, the band depends on the live sound engineer to make them sound great and good live sound engineers can do just that. The second differentiation between a studio engineer and a live sound engineer is that the studio engineer practices their craft in a non-changing, acoustically optimized environment that they are intimately familiar with. On the other hand, the live sound engineer practices their craft in an ever changing, often acoustically challenged environment that they likely have never seen before. They have to be one-part acoustic engineer, one-part physics expert, one-part sound engineer, and one-part magician. They might not need all these skills every night, but even a short concert tour will likely call on all of them at one point or the other.

After reading this, if you still are interested in the challenging job of becoming a live sound engineer here’s two suggestions. 1) Volunteer to work at your local community theatre’s sound department. It will prep you for the energy and quick reactions required for live events. 2) Try to find a live sound company or sound man that you can apprentice with. Chances are you’ll spend most of your time lugging around heavy monitors and amplifiers, but you’ll also be exposed to what’s involved in all aspects of live sound engineering.

If you demonstrate you are dependable and have what it takes, there’s a good chance that the sound company might offer you an entry level position. If you want to become a live sound engineer, and you get such an offer, immediately take them up on it. Virtually every media job is based on paying your dues—starting at the bottom and working your way up the ladder. Few if any get hired to start at the middle or top of the ladder which is why you need to seize the opportunity when it’s presented to you.

 

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