Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Most Important Live Sound Principle

As audio engineers, most of us have a long history of passionate enjoyment and pursuit of great sounds; a fat singing lead guitar tone, or a nice chewy Rhodes, maybe a beautiful transparent sheen on cymbals.  It's easy for us to get focused on specific tonal treatments, or tasty effect applications, and of course there's nothing wrong with that. However, in live sound, during a performance, every second counts, and there are no retakes for you as the house engineer. 

Think about the audience. Most of them will never consciously appreciate the tonal subtleties that we as audio engineers often salivate over. As long as the overall tonal balance is even in the ballpark, 98% of the audience won't even think about it. However, even the most casual listener can easily recognize a volume balance that is off, especially when it comes to lead vocals. In other words, 2% of perceived tonal improvement is not worth a perceived 20% degradation of the overall mix.

What does this mean for us? Never lose sight of the overall mix volume balance between elements, especially the lead vocals. How do we make sure of that? What's necessary is the ability to shift focus CONSTANTLY! Never take more than a few seconds to work on a subtle sound element that you would like to improve; once you've burned those seconds, immediately return to reconfirming overall balance and blend. Force yourself to keep shifting; confirm the mix, check that crackle you thought you heard on the guitar, confirm the mix, pull the backing vocals a tad, check the mix, whoops! time to push the solo after the bridge, check the mix, wow that floor tom sounds papery-check if the drummer knocked the mic out of position, check the mix; you get the picture. If you keep this pattern, your live mixes will come across MUCH better than if you lose focus on the overall in order to spend 30 continuous seconds tweaking the drum verb.  



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