A great deal of intense preparation goes into a good live show. The musicians rehearse and soundcheck, the audio tech sets the equipment, monitors the redline sweeps, adjusts the levels. The crowd chatters, and then explodes into applause and cheering as the headliner comes on, knowing they’re in for a fantastic show.
The difference between a great show and a bad one can often boil down to the live sound engineer. For example, a live sound engineer can make or break a bar, club show, or arena festival. Because of this, as the live music scene expands around the world, the skills of live sound engineers are more essential than ever.
What Skills Does a Live Sound Engineer Need?
Before a live sound engineer trains for a career or applies their technical skills, they’ve learned, developing the right mindset is key. Live sound engineering requires strict attention to detail, critical thinking skills, active listening, and excellent communication skills. Live sound engineering is a highly cognitive job, so engineers in this field have to be on at all times.
Thinking On Your Toes
If something goes wrong, and in the live music business that’s more the norm than the exception, the live sound engineer must identify the problem quickly and apply both cognitive and manual skills to fix the problem or implement workarounds. Problem-solving is a key trait in this role, as are solid communication skills. Live sound engineers must communicate with a wide range of different professionals in the course of their work, including other engineers, audio technicians, performing artists, stage managers, and many others in the music and audio industry.
Critical Thinking and Listening Skills
Active listening and critical thinking go hand in hand. Live sound engineers must be deeply familiar with a variety of environments, the equipment they use, the way the sounds of voices and instruments interface with a variety of equipment and assess the quality of sound throughout the entirety of a show. For professionals working in large-scale performance environments, like music halls and arenas, the challenges presented are tremendous and require teams of highly skilled live sound engineers to successfully run.
Live sound engineering can be a very stressful and high-intensity job and subsequently, anyone working in live sound needs a lot of patience, the ability to work quickly under pressure, and a cool head, especially in moments of conflicts.
Last but not least, live sound engineers need excellent hand-eye coordination and a steady hand to operate their equipment. Sound adjustment, especially on the fly, often involves making incremental adjustments, sometimes on very delicate pieces of equipment, to make the perfect balance of sound.
The Live Show Equipment
A well-trained live sound engineer needs familiarity with a large array of equipment. This is because live sound engineers will find everything from mixing boards and effects pedals to battery testers and microphones. As a result, they must know how to set up, cable and network, and troubleshoot most, if not all, of them.
Most importantly, the mixing board is the most critical tool of the sound engineer’s trade. Although in-house mixing boards may range from 4-20 channels, most boards can be managed by one engineer. In contrast, some mixing boards may require several live sound engineers. Mixing boards that require more than one engineer to captain require high levels of cooperation and collaboration to produce the most effective sound for the live show, though this usually this is only the case for large arena or festival shows.
Microphones and Cables
Learning different microphones and cables is also a key part of the job. While most live shows will use standard studio microphones with regular or boom stands, some live shows may use different types of microphones. Live studio engineers should learn as many types of microphones as they can. Additionally, they should know which ones to use in a variety of live music settings.
Other Accessories for Live Sound Engineers
A broad array of accessories is also necessary to the job, including battery testers for wireless mics, in-ear monitors and clip-on microphones, mixing headphones, drum set keys, DI boxes, XLR, TS, and TRS cables, jack converters, and flash drives.
In addition to being familiar with the auditory functions of all the equipment, toolsets for carrying out physical repairs to them are also necessary, from screwdrivers to tighten up casings to soldering irons for repairing circuitry.
What Do Live Sound Engineers Do?
Live sound engineers are often responsible for ensuring an appealing visual display on stage, which includes lighting the performers appropriately as well as ensuring house lighting does not interfere too much with the desired effects on stage, nor with the vision of the performing artists. They may also be responsible for designing, coordinating, and running light shows for larger performances, assisted by theater techs. Live sound engineers will learn light boards, signal monitoring, and pre-show and in-show adjustments to the lighting.
Finally, live sound engineers will learn video equipment for show recording. This involves learning to operate and monitor video and still shot cameras as well as syncing audio with video during post-show production. As a result, a live sound engineer with video capability may find work more easily than one that doesn’t.
Live Show Software
During the course of their training, live sound engineers will learn a number of pieces of software to carry out their duties effectively. These include both programs for monitoring and adjusting live sound on the fly as well as recording and mastering programs for post-show recording releases.
Avid’s ProTools has long been regarded as an industry standard for recording software. This robust program incorporates recording capability, MIDI sequencing and mixing, presets, plugins, musical notation capability, and several other features necessary for recording and mastering.
During live shows, a live sound engineer may need to monitor the function of a recording program. This is, of course, in addition to the live sound software being used. Because of the versatility, it is commonplace for live shows to be recorded for additional merchandising options. As a result, this often results in live albums and DVD productions.
Mixing Software for Live Sound Engineers
Live mixing software has some overlap with recording software. For example, Ableton Live has an excellent reputation for live sound mixing across a great number of different environments. Cubase and Reaper are also excellent programs for live performance, along with Reason and FL Studio. Each program has a different interface and capabilities, and individual live sound engineers may experiment with a large variety of software before they adapt a few pieces as their specializations. Learning a few different programs is a good idea, as some live sound venues use specific programs. Additionally, venues may require all on-site live sound engineers to use their programs of choice.
Live Show Musicianship
The principal focus of live sound engineers is working with performing artists, so it’s no surprise that many live sound engineers study music. From classical to dubstep, developing solid musicianship can help inform the daily work of the live sound engineer to great effect.
Live sound engineers may also choose to specialize in different instrument groupings or genres. These specializations help live sound engineers to bring out the best in each instrument and voice to achieve the best sound possible.
Live sound engineers can find work in a broad variety of work environments, not just music halls. Live sound engineers may secure work in traditional theaters as well as live music venues, mixing and recording theatrical performances as well as coordinating stage lighting. They may also work in churches and sports arenas. Live sound engineers are even found in universities, ensuring quality sound for lectures in large halls and auditoriums and ensuring quality recording for lectures saved for reference by students, staff, or faculty.
Live Sound Engineers and Broadcasting
Broadcasting centers for television, as well as radio stations, employ sound engineers. In these roles, sound engineers will not only run and monitor sound, but apply sound effects on the fly depending on the format of the broadcast, such as comical sounds, bleeps, and commercial recordings. They may also be responsible for recording and organizing broadcasts post-show and keeping backup copies in multiple formats of the broadcasts for sale, distribution, or reference.
Live Sound Engineer Consultants
Engineers are often found consulting with producers and directors for various media formats to predetermine the desired sound and discuss different methods and equipment sets for implementing the desired sound style.
In short, no matter how obscure the venue, anywhere speaking or performance intersect with recording technologies is where a live sound engineer can be found.
Reaping the Benefits
Every day in the life of a live sound engineer is different. One day, they might be mixing sound and recording for a metal band, the next day an opera. Every workday demands that the skills of the sound engineer are applied in new and different ways and combinations, and subsequently is a career well-suited to those who enjoy a lot of variety in their day to day work.
In the next several years, the field is expected to grow faster than usual, meaning higher demand for the skills of live sound engineers. Trained sound engineers, especially those that have experience, will have an expanded pool of jobs to choose from and, in addition, will have increased negotiation capability.
The role of the live sound engineer is an exciting, varied, and dynamic one. Regardless of industry or employer, each live sound engineer will be presented with a wide array of different opportunities, challenges, and methods of applying their hard-earned skills. From music lovers to theater enthusiasts, the work of the live sound engineer can provide not only a truly fulfilling and rewarding professional path but a solid and stable career, from entry-level to veteran.
Want to Learn More?
The Associate in Applied Science in Live Sound and Show Production is an occupational degree program designed to present sound and lighting performance enhancement through the blending of technology and aesthetic application. The live sound and show production degree program presents the fundamentals of acoustics, signal flow, color and light, basic electronics, audio, lighting and video reproduction devices. Live Sound and Show Production degree program students are trained to be audiovisual engineers and designers who are proficient in the creation, operation and planning of modern-day musical, theatrical, event and corporate productions.
Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.