Audio producers specializing in live music need competency with a broad range of equipment, from mixing boards and lights to microphones and monitors. Choosing the right tools for each live set is critical to a performing artist having a good show versus a bad one.
Most audio techs will need to develop more than just proficiency with audio machinery and tools. They’ll also need to learn to run lights, set up stages, and suit mics and stands to the instruments performing. Here’s a rundown of equipment audio producers need for live music.
Choosing the right microphone is at the very heart of producing excellent live sound. The industry standby for live performance mics is the Shure SM-58, a microphone well-suited to most voices and instruments. In addition to sturdy construction and excellent sound production, the SM-58 is extremely durable, making it indispensable for tours and travel.
However, other microphones will also see service on the stage, including the SM-57 (which commonly serves as an instrument mic much more often than a singing mic), Sennheiser mics, and AKG mics. Less commonly, audio producers will work with vintage-style dynamic microphones for lounge-style music or jazz singers.
Choosing the right microphone is critical to a good sound in any venue and aspiring live sound engineers should spend as much time as possible studying the interaction of different mics with different types of voices and instruments.
Just like microphones, mic stands must be well suited to the purpose. Standard stands are usually just fine for vocalists alone, but boom stands are important for singers that may play an instrument while seated, such as singer/keyboardists. Boom stands are also important for instruments that may not have built-in microphones, such as classical instruments like violin, cello, percussion, or piano.
Low-profile stands are occasionally needed to mic percussion instruments or drum sets as well, as they sit low to the ground and can be adjusted a fair amount to best amplify a variety of percussion instruments.
A professional audio producer’s bread and butter, working the mixing board is almost always the main task when running a live show. Some mixing boards may be simple for small venues, hosting four to six channels, but for much larger venues or ensembles, the mixing boards may host many more channels and be more complex.
During their training, audio producers should aim to become proficient with several different kinds of mixing boards, especially industry-standard mixing boards like the Yamaha MG20XU Mixing Desk, Soundcraft Signature Analog Mixer, and Alto Live. Audio techs will spend a lot of time at the mixing boards during a live show, adjusting the sound on the fly, and the more time spent practicing with these complex pieces of machinery, the better.
Stage monitors help live performers to be able to listen to their own sound and also help inform the audio technician if any adjustments need to be made. Monitors ultimately help to make the joint work of the performing artist and audio producer easier, as well as assisting the performing artist, in making any needed adjustments to their voicing or instrument.
The challenge of monitors is ensuring that the sound from the monitors doesn’t overload the microphones with too much bounce or background noise, and that it doesn’t intersect too much with the PA system or house speakers. Live sound audio producers should expect to spend a fair amount of time balancing the sound to ensure these incidences are minimized or, preferably, nonexistent.
From the tiny Pignose amps to the extra-large Marshalls, amps are part and parcel to live sound – even with classical music. Choosing the right amplifier for each instrument present is vital to a good balance of sound on stage, and set up is essential so they don’t interfere with the microphones.
A common problem with amplifiers is not only feedback in stage microphones but rapid degradation of cable jacks due to frequent use in live venues. Live sound technicians will often know how to carry out basic repairs on amps and other heavy-use equipment and be able to diagnose problems that require more intricate repairs or replacement of the piece altogether. Because amplifiers can be costly, some live sound venues won’t send their amps for repair and can be very reluctant to replace them; audio technicians in these types of situation should be prepared to troubleshoot the equipment and work around the limitations of aging or damaged amps as best they can.
It is sometimes said that the plague of an audio producer’s life is cables, and there’s certainly a fair amount of truth to the statement. Audio producers will work with dozens of different cables in every session of their work and keeping them organized and functioning is a task in and of itself. On a day to day basis, audio producers will use XLR cables (usually used for microphones), TRS, TS, RCA, and cable connectors of all kinds. In addition to knowing how to identify these cables, knowing the quality of each cable and the transmission type, in addition to its physical type, is key to balancing quality sound, especially in a live sound environment.
One of the major challenges of cables is how often they break in a live sound environment purely due to frequency of use. Live sound engineers must make sure to keep backups of all the cables they use regularly and create a system of organization to make sure cables are put away neatly and in a way that makes sense to the flow of the work they do in each venue. Additional tools like Velcro tapes and cable pockets help a great deal.
A sometimes overlooked duty of the audio producer is running lights for live shows. While lights may not be complicated in smaller venues, larger venues might require complex light shows that must be monitored during performances – although these situations will rarely be captained by a solo audio producer.
Light boards, similar to mixing boards, help make this task much easier. Some light boards are very easy and simple to use, like for small venues or theater shows, while some may be very complex, such as for arena shows. Knowing how to run lights can increase the employability of the audio producer and can come in handy if they wind up running a show solo in anything bigger than a small venue.
Live Mixing DAWs
Just like in a recording setting, digital audio workstations (DAWs) are also found in live sound environments. In some instances, the live sound DAW may actually replace the mixing board, as they help save on space and expense. As music moves towards becoming fully digital in execution and production, more and more companies are producing DAWs fit for both live and recording settings.
Live sound engineers may want to develop proficiency with industry standard live DAWs like Ableton Live. Some DAWs will be already familiar to audio producers that choose to specialize in live sound, making the transition a little bit easier.
The public address system is what gets all your hard work to the crowd. A skilled audio engineer can make even an older PA system do backflips. Audio producers will wind up working with a range of PA systems during their careers, including industry-standard PAs like Fender, Yamaha, Wharfedale, and Alto.
PA systems are usually fairly durable but require some care when handling. Ensuring the right cabling system for best sound, and especially to ensure that the PA system doesn’t interfere with the on-stage microphones or monitors. Most PA systems last for a very long time, and given that they’re expensive to replace, most live sound venues will run a PA system to its very last legs, so audio techs working in smaller or less moneyed venues should prepare for troubleshooting older PA systems.
Last but certainly not least, a good mixing desk is a necessity piece of equipment for the pro live sound engineer. A mixing desk needs plenty of room to not only seat the mixing board, but for any laptops or tablets used to monitor or alter the live sound. Toolkits and potentially some storage for items like backup cables, toolsets for making repairs, and extra microphones can also take up room on the mixing desk so it’s important that it be sized appropriately for its needs.
Most live venues will have their own mixing desk, but it’s also not a bad idea for audio producers to price their own portable mixing desk and bring it along if there isn’t one or if the one there isn’t satisfactory.
The challenges of the live sound engineer are many. Learning to competently use a broad range of equipment, and then successfully putting it to work to produce a great show each and every time is vital. In addition, live sound producers need physical strength to move and organize equipment. Strong communication skills are also imperative to engage effectively with performing artists, other engineers, stage managers, and other staff. And finally, careful attention to detail throughout setup and the duration of the show are necessary to quickly identify and troubleshoot any problems that may arise during a performance.
A skilled and communicative live sound engineer will find themselves in frequent demand across many professions from live music to theater, and those that keep themselves abreast of developing technologies in audio production and equipment will enjoy plenty of work opportunities throughout the duration of their career.
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