Universal Truths of Sound Engineering

Besides being a client service representative, and occasional barista, I’m also an amateur sound engineer. I mix live sound – for concerts and stuff. When done well it can be very rewarding. I’ve had the opportunity to do sound for churches, weddings, concerts, and comedians.

The vast majority of the events I do involve medium-sized bands (drums, two guitars, bass, keys) and a few vocals; but every once in a while I get to do a truly impressive event. One such event happened very recently. The band consisted of all of the above mentioned pieces PLUS a second set of drums and a full choir.

Universal truth: drums are loud.

I don’t want to bore you with all of the complex logistics of staging an event like this… but let me just say that massive stage volume plus choir equals near mental breakdown.

Second universal truth: choir mics (even the most expensive) pick up every noise on the stage except the choir.

No two microphones are created equal. Choosing the right mic for the situation is critical; and correct placement of that mic is equally as important. The best type of mic to use on a choir (at a live event) is a unidirectional super-cardioid condenser mic with a flat frequency response. Put simply, this style microphone is ideal for reproducing voices directly in front of the mic while rejecting sounds from other directions. There’s actually quite a bit of science and spatial reasoning involved. Regardless, once you overload the mics with what’s happening on the stage it’s near impossible to amplify anything but the din.

Third universal truth: the majority of vocalists believe that running sound is as simple as pushing the correct slider up when necessary. And if there’s feedback that means the sound guy just pushed it too far. It’s that simple!

Some choir members can become clearly impatient when they can’t hear themselves in the house speakers. Some decide it is their duty to pull me aside and inform me of the choir’s vital importance. Others simply ask if I am able to hear feedback and, if so, wonder aloud if I have the skills necessary for getting rid of it. My favorite is the individual who, after getting my attention, snaps his fingers in the general vicinity of a mic and puts his hand to his ear; as if to tell me “if I can’t hear that in the house you’re not doing your job”. Fact is, obtaining the most gain before feedback isn’t nearly as difficult as stifling the urge to say things I would likely regret. So, I tend to ignore them – pretending I just can’t hear them (which really must worry the poor sod; who must be thinking, “how can this deaf guy be trusted to twist the right knobs?!”)

Fourth universal truth: while there are notable exceptions, the vast majority of instrumentalists subscribe to the following theory:

Those that can, play instruments.

Those that can’t, sing.

Those that can do neither, run sound.

That’s right – soundmen are all a bunch of talentless hacks. They like music; they just lack the essential skills for making music. Thus, soundmen are relegated to simply amplifying that which they are unable to create.

Bologna

I’ve found that some musicians have the ability to take attitude to new and daring heights. This seems to be because they are usually very knowledgeable about a vast array of equipment. They’re also artists – which means they usually have strong opinions about exactly how they should sound and what they’ll need. Vast knowledge plus strong opinions usually equals egotism. Patience (and sometimes perseverance) are necessary in order to work successfully with this type of musician – sometimes under stressful circumstances. Keeping my cool while someone explains the most basic of priciples to me is something I really struggle with. It’s not that I explode with anger (I don’t); I just stew about the humiliating event for hours.

Fifth universal truth: sound techs can be extremely biased, too.

Most believe they are doing the band a great service by making them sound good. Fact is, the band can’t hear what the house mix sounds like because they’re up on stage behind the speakers. So, sometimes sound techs cop a righteous attitude. As an example, one of my friends – and someone I would consider a mixing mentor – once told me (after getting a new full-time sound engineering job), “they’re going to pay me a ridiculous amount of money…. because I’m good”.

It should be noted, I didn’t add the pregnant pause for effect – he did.

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