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sound basics

Directors' Toolbox

Mixing Live Sound

June 29, 2010

Mixing Live SoundHere are a few handy tips and some basic information on what goes into setting up and mixing live sound:

  1. A “mix” is created by combining the separate audio signals from individual voices or instruments into one.
  2. Usually two mixes, sometimes more, are created for any given performance – one for the performer(s) and front rows and one for the rest of the audience.  What you hear may differ from what they hear.
  3. In larger venues with multiple speakers, the sound must be mixed and synchronized in such a way that prevents the performer’s monitors from overpowering the overall sound and vice-versa.  Ever notice that the sound booth at a concert hall is often located in the middle of the floor of the venue?  That’s because they’re in charge of what the audience hears.  A second engineer will often take care of what the performers hear.
  4. Sound levels during the performance will likely need adjustment throughout the performance.  Communicate with your engineer on any ideas or concerns you may have regarding sound levels.  Perhaps you have far more trumpeters than flautists and want to make sure the flutes aren’t drowned out.  Or, maybe you have a diva in your midst who attempts to turn her favorite song into a personal showcase by drowning out the rest of the group.  Most of the time there are adjustments that can be made by simply moving equipment or adjusting levels.

Keep in mind that some venues are going to be much easier to work with sonically than others.  Mixing is only one aspect of what goes into achieving quality sound.  Microphone choices and placement also play a huge role in what you, the performers and audience hear.

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Directors' Toolbox

The Job of a Sound Engineer

June 1, 2010
The Basics of Live Sound

The Basics of Live Sound

Chapter 1 of The Basics of Live Sound by Jerry Slone defines a sound engineer as “A person who brings together separate sounds to create one sound.”  Simple enough, right?  The reality is that a sound engineer can be responsible for a wide range of things, from setting up and running equipment, to mixing and mastering multi-track recordings. They’ve also been known to break out the occasional soldering iron to save the day when a renegade wire attempts to disrupt a performance.  The talents of a sound engineer are not limited simply to recording a band in the studio or monitoring a live concert.  There are many areas where we encounter their work on a daily basis, including  TV and radio commercials, video game audio design, movie audio post-production, or even PA systems for public speaking.

Here is a short list of the various types of engineers with an overview of their duties:

Recording Engineer – Records sound either in a studio or live setting.

Mixing Engineer – Combines the audio from a multi-track recording into a single mix by adjusting volume and adding effects.

Mastering Engineer – Creates the final mix of a recording in preparation for mass production, using equalization and compression techniques.

Live Sound Engineer – Works with the various aspects of a “Sound Reinforcement” system, including planning and setting up equipment, mixing and monitoring sound, and adding effects.

Moving forward, my blog series will primarily focus on the aspects of live sound, as this is what most of you are, or will be, dealing with as musicians and music directors.  Remember, your sound engineer is your friend and having a better understanding of their world will help you achieve the sound that you want through the art of communication.

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The Challenges of Live Sound

April 12, 2010

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.