The Role of the Mix Engineer
In days gone by the ‘sound guy’ was always a friend of the band who happened to own a van, but things are a little more sophisticated today, and audiences have come to expect a certain level of sound quality and professionalism, even just from a band at their local pub. Ideally, every band would have their own mix engineer, who is familiar with the material and every band member’s monitoring preferences. However, the combination of a decent technical background and a degree of musical empathy, never mind the level of commitment required, is not that easy to come by.
Many bands—possibly even most bands on the small gig circuit—will end up having their performance mixed by someone who has never heard their material before, and certainly as a PA provider, I’m often asked to work with bands I’ve never met before the night of the gig. When working with an unfamiliar band, I find it helps to check out any on-line songs and videos they may have, as that will give some idea of how they want to sound and setup on stage. It’s always a good idea to get in contact before the gig, too, to ask if they have any ‘special requirements’, so you won’t be surprised by anything on the night. At the very least you need to know how many instrument and vocal mics they need, as well as the number of DI boxes.
For larger gigs, bands with management will often supply a ‘system specification’, detailing their requirements. In my experience, however, these all too often specify a front-of-house rig that would be overkill for the venue, and an impractical number of separate monitor mixes.
There’s nothing worse than being on the wrong end of a badly operated PA system, as I’ve discovered more than once when playing with my own band. On one occasion I asked if a monitor could be turned down as it was deafening me, only to be told by a member of the audience that the sound desk was unmanned and the ‘engineer’ had gone to the bar! You wouldn’t expect the guitar player to walk off stage and go to the bar half way through a set, so why should a mix engineer think that was OK?
If you engineer live sound for a band on a regular basis, I believe you should be just as committed to the performance as the musicians, and that means 100% concentration from the start of the sound check to the time when the PA is powered down at the end of the gig. You should know the material almost as well as they do: who sings which songs, who takes solos and when, and which effects are required and when. If you need a cheat-sheet to help you remember, that’s fine—just make sure you don’t lose it.
If you find yourself mixing for an unfamiliar band, the analogy for your role would be far more like a musician at a jam session, where you’d have your ears and eyes wide open, trying to respond both to what is happening and to anticipate what is likely to happen next, being ready to ride the faders to make sure solos and lead lines come across properly, and so on.
Excerpt from The SOS Guide to Live Sound: Optimising Your Band’s Live-Performance Audio by Paul White © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.