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 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.