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Live Sound 101: Preparing for the Show

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Being a Front Of House engineer is a fun and rewarding job, but it can throw you a lot of curve balls and, as we all know, you're only as good as your last show.

How do you lessen the chances of making a huge mess of the show that could be the one that leads to a tour or even a regular stint with a big artist? Read on, and I'll do my best to point you in the right direction.

There's several facts you would do well to establish well before the gig. Firstly, you need to know what the act consists of. How many musicians, what instruments they play and as many other details as you can get. If you can get a channel list from the management or label or even the MD then you're off to a good start.

Secondly, you need to find out what the technical specs of the PA system are. The promoter of the venue should be able to tell you all you need to know. It's helpful to know what desk you'll have, what the system is and how much of it there is and also what outboard and mics you'll have access to.

Start with the system. These days large concerts will normally have a line array but more down market venues may have an old beat-up point source system. It's really not a problem either way as long as it's been set up properly.

The number of subs needs to match the size of the system perfectly or you'll struggle with the low end. I've done so many gigs where there have been less than half the subs needed and you end up with a very tricky mix. The system tech should be right on top of this and ideally the rig should be ready to rock as soon as you arrive. It doesn't happen every time. So, get to the venue as early as you can and check it out.

Play some CDs you know really well and walk around the venue. It's very common for there to be hot spots where the bass level will be double where it is elsewhere and visa versa. Make a mental note and balance you mix accordingly, or even better, if you have access to an EQ over the stereo bus or some kind of control over the system controller, re-EQ the system so that it reacts how you expect it to over the majority of the venue.

If you just can't get your CD tracks to sound right no matter what you do, use a phase checker to check the phase of the drivers in the speakers. It's not unheard of for cables to get wired up wrong and a whole box to be out of phase, so check that too.

Once you're happy with the sound of the PA system, it's time to get organised with your mics. Speak to the stage guys who will be miking up your band and let them know what mics you want and where you want them.

I personally think that the bass drum mic sounds better when it's just peeping inside the sound hole on the outer skin of the kick drum, but lots of guys will stick it about an inch from the inner skin, so hang around the stage and don't worry about offending the stage guys. They'll be used to engineers moving mics around.

About this time it's also a good idea to check with the monitor engineer about where he's going to put his wedges. This will have a direct effect on the sound coming down the mics so see how flexible he (and the artists) are to you maybe nudging the wedges about a bit. I love it when monitor guys use sidefills purely for lead vocals, cos when they shove a whole mix through them it can be pretty tricky to deal with if you've got lots of vocal mics on stage.

Anyway, this game is all about compromise, so when you're happy the mics are in the right place and not going to fall over during the show, it's time to move to desk. It's a good idea to let the monitor guy know that you're going to the FOH position and if you've got guitar and drum techs waiting to help you get a head start on the sound check, let them know roughly how long before you'll be ready.

When you get to front of house, there'll probably be a “babysitter” there. That's what we call the guys who look after front of house. They probably set the whole system up for you and are often in charge of the various other techs floating about.

Be nice to them. They will help you get the best from the system and will be on hand if you have any problems so you need them on your side. Introduce yourself, tell them which act you work for (if there's more than one act on the bill) and then have a look at what you've got to work with.

If it's a analogue desk, check whether you get your own channels of if you'll have to share with another act. If you do have to share, make plans now for how you're going to ‘recall' the mix. Most people use mark-up sheets and make notes. It's tedious and really slow. I use a digital camera. Once I've finished soundchecking I take photos of the desk in sections, usually 8 channels at a time. I take pics of the outboard too.

When it comes to change-over time, I just call up the pics on my macbook and I can easily and quickly put all the settings back as I need them.

Back to setting up. Tell the babysitter which channels you want compression and gates on, and where you want your FX returns to come up on the desk. They may have already done all this, but I like to have my FX returns right next to my vocal channels as I do a lot of riding of the FX levels, so feel free to ask for them to be moved.

Now is a good time to get a head start on the mix. Start putting the pans in the right places, setting up some high pass filters and (making sure the system is muted) selecting the phantom power for the required channels. I tend to make some rough EQ ‘guesses' at this point too, but only the obvious stuff.

The next stage is the soundcheck. Start with the kick drum and move from left to right on the desk. If you've got plenty of time, work on each channel until you are completely happy with it. If you've got the artist on stage at this point, you don't want to keep them hanging around. It might be worth suggesting they go and chill out somewhere and only call them once you've got the band all sorted.

It's also a really good idea to get the vocal mic before the band arrives and get your compression and effects levels sorted so that you only have to work on EQ and level once the artist is on stage. It's your job as the Front Of House engineer to run the soundcheck.

Use the talk-to-stage mic to call out what you want to hear. Remember that the monitor guy needs time to work on his multiple mixes too, so always check that's done with each channel before you move on to the next. I tend to skip quite quickly over electric guitars and keyboards during the initial stages of the soundcheck as I find these can only really be EQ'ed properly within the context of the mix.

Once you've heard everything and are happy to move on, get the band to play a number. I like to pull all the faders down to zero and slowly bring them up one at a time. Get the mix so that it sounds right to you, then come out from behind the desk and go for a walk around the venue.

You'll probably find that the sound is different once you're out of the front of house structure. They tend to act as bass traps. Stand halfway between front of house and the stage and re-align your ears for that balance. In other words remember what the overall bass level is like, listen to the top end, listen to everything and remember how it compares to what you hear behind the desk. Now go back to your desk position and make the appropriate changes.

Move back and forth until you are happy that the mix is spot on. If the band are happy to keep playing for you (and you have the time) run a few more numbers and get used to hearing the mix from the mix position.

It may well be that you have to get used to hearing what sounds like very excessive sub-bass levels in front of house, but you just have to get used to it.

Once you're happy that you've heard all you need to do the show, tell the band down the mic that you're happy and check that the monitor engineer is happy too.

It's time to either press ‘store' on a digital desk, or start taking your recall photos. With a bit of luck, your mix will come back as planned right before the show and you'll have some fun mixing, with the crowd loving every minute of it.

One last bit of advice—try to get to front of house about 15 minutes before the act before you ends. It gives your ears time to adjust to the sound where the desk is and also gives you a feel for what level to start at. It's not advisable to push the faders all the way up on the first song. You need somewhere to go for the last few numbers in order to end on a real high.

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