The Challenges of Live Sound

How many times have you attended the concert of a performer that you love and thought to yourself, “Wow, I really wish that I could hear the vocalist better” or “Does that guitar really need to be so front and center?”  Being one who frequents both amateur and professional performances, I can honestly say that this seems to be a growing trend that spans even beyond the rock genre.  For fear of sounding too much like a critic, I want to express that I absolutely recognize how challenging working with sound is, especially in a live setting.  There is so much more that goes into it than most people realize and one engineer is going to face different challenges and have a different approach than the next.   Just as we as music listeners have preferences in what types of music we like to hear, engineers often times have their own idea of what a band or artist should sound like.  But I think that all can agree that the goal is to make it sound good.

The finest display of live sound artistry that I have experienced was at a small venue in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  The artist performing was Loreena McKennitt, along with her nine-piece band of incredibly versatile and talented musicians.  Between all ten of them, nineteen different instruments, not counting vocals, were utilized to paint the intricate melodic pictures that Loreena’s songs are famous for.  If you know anything of Ms. Mckennitt’s work, you are aware that she has a fondness for culturally diverse and rather rare instruments.  How often is it that you experience the unique sounds of a Hurdy Gurdy, Celtic Bouzouki, or a Constantinople Lyra, all in the same performance?  Combine these with your more standard piano, guitar, percussion line-up and you have a bit of a challenge for any live sound engineer.  However, the two men standing in the small sound booth near the back of the auditorium were able to pull off a near-perfect sonic blend that beautifully represented each and every one of those instruments, regardless of its size or inherent amplitude.  To top it off, not a single lyric sung was lost in the vast array of sounds — that impressed me the most.  In fact, I loved it so much that, rather than rushing out the door at the end of the show to see if Loreena and company were going to come out to sign autographs, I walked over to the sound booth to express my enthusiasm to the two men standing there, packing up their equipment.  My compliments were received with shy smiles and mumbled “thank you’s,” so I didn’t linger too long so as not to make them uncomfortable.  I can only hope that my words were encouraging and that they are still out there practicing their craft for the benefit of performers and audiences alike.

In the coming months I will be offering some basic tips and advice on how to achieve quality sound for your choir, band, or orchestra.  Topics such as sound basics, choosing the right microphone, microphone technique and sound levels will be covered.  If there is anything sound-related in particular that you would like information on, please let me know and I will do my best to accommodate.  While my advice will not be the end-all, be-all of sound methodology, I am happy to at least try to point anyone who has questions in the right direction.

  4 comments for “The Challenges of Live Sound

  1. April 13, 2010 at 1:52 am

    Thanks for sharing this. As a choir director, I find that I am often surrounded by very capable sound engineers, but it can be a challenge trying to articulate exactly what I’m looking for. In addition, the sound that I hear may be great. But how does it sound to everyone else? I’m looking forward to your upcoming tips.

  2. Jenny Chu
    April 16, 2010 at 1:41 am

    I’m really looking forward to more. My a cappella group does not currently employ a regular sound crew nor do we have our own equipment. Result? We are at the mercy of the “experts” belonging to whatever venue employs us (hotel, shopping mall, etc) – and we might as well be using a toy set! It invariably sounds horrendous. So we are trying to figure out whether we need to get one of ourselves trained up professionally, or else bite the bullet and pay for our own expert.

  3. April 19, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    You make a very good point, James. Communication between sound engineers and the artist or conductor can be incredibly challenging. My instructor at the Recording Institute of Detroit once told me a story of a band he was recording in the studio and how the guitarist asked him if he could make his track sound “greener.” Fortunately, after adding some effects and adjusting the volume a bit, the guitarist seemed satisfied that his “green” sound had been achieved. While I’m certain that you do a far better job of articulating what it is you are asking of your engineers, there is still the potential for miscommunication and even some frustration to occur. I hope my future posts will be of benefit to you and your situation.

  4. April 19, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    One thing that you might consider, Jenny, is checking to see if there are any colleges or trade schools in your area that offer sound engineering courses. There are many promising students out there who would likely be willing to volunteer to assist you so that they can get some experience under their belt. While they may not know all of the “tricks of the trade” so to speak, at least they would be able to work with you and your group consistently enough to learn how to achieve the best sound for you.

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