Advice for new live engineers

Picture of SL32 on stage during a performance

The Engineer's first day
Project confidence immediately

The music industry is fickle and relentless. You have to build up trust from the first moment you meet people or that doubt will linger next time it comes to choosing who to work for you.

If you're an engineer going out on your first job as the primary, you can live by this checklist and project that confidence that you want the band to have in you.

1. Read the rider and prepare

The band's rider should tell you everything you need to know about their needs for running their show. Forget red M&M's and demands for 12Ltrs of Vodka in the dressing room, you're looking for channel count, instruments and monitoring requirements so that you know that you have enough mics, leads, stands and aux outs to satisfy their needs. Be prepared with a couple of extra stands, a couple of extra leads, a couple of gender benders and a spare wired IEM amp or two - there's always some variation to the tech requirements, especially if a dep is on the gig.

2. Set up the board as much as you can before you leave the house

Pro engineers are owning and working on digital desks. Behringer's X-Desks, Allen and Heath's Qu and SQ desks, Presonus' SL desk - they all have the ability to save 'scenes' and 'profiles'. If it takes you an hour to prepare all of your inputs - naming, setting up EQ and Compression, defining FX… it'll take you an hour at the gig. So do it at home and save everyone time at the gig. You obviously won't be able to set the settings - but you will be able to just get them in place.

3. Set up the Desk and the WiFi first!

The good bands these days are running their own IEM monitor mixes and you save everything a large amount of time by allowing them quick access to the desk so that they can set up their IEMs, warm up parts and tweak their setups through monitors while you're working elsewhere.

4. Set up the monitoring

Before plugging in and mic'ing up instruments, just get the monitor paths in place first. This ties up with step 2 - when you plug in a band member's instrument, they're able to rock straight on and set up/warm up without needing to disturb you while you're working elsewhere. They'll love you for it!

5. Plug in all of the DI based instruments first

Guitar players who work with Kemper / AxeFx / Helix…. Keyboard players…. Bassists…. Even vocalists. These guys are more likely to want to warm up/practice while the set up is going on and their instrument requires running through the board to be able to do that. Guitarists with amps, drummers, string, wood and brass players don't need this so leave the acoustic instruments until last in your setup workflow.

6. Ring out the room

This is a key step - play a piece of music that you know well. You'll need to adjust the master EQ of the desk to compensate for the venue's room and the venue's PA. Reduce the frequencies that are too prominent (usually in the lower mids) and brighten up a little if it's a little 'dull'. If you leave this part out, you'll probably have problems later on.

7. Take charge of the line/gain stage and sound check.

When everything's plugged in and you're ready to line test everyone. Make sure that everyone knows that you're in charge and run the line check systematically.
Musicians won't know who needs to play until you tell them. Make sure you have a talkback mic connected and that the TB is routed to the Monitor channels.
Tell people to play and if musicians are noodling around and being annoying - tell them to stop. Be assertive and take charge. Don't be a dick - just be assertive. It's distracting to line check while everyone's noodling.

This is a key step and you can burn a lot of time in your setup / sound check by having no one directing your line check. Only you'll know what you need, when you're done and when ready to move on so make sure you run it professionally and efficiently.

Again - don't be afraid. The musos will be on stage waiting for an instruction from the Sound guy about what to line check.

After line checking, have everyone play one at a time so that you can properly gain stage, EQ and set up dynamic controllers. Gain staging is essential in all mixing workflows but it's particularly important in a Live setting because it directly affects the live monitoring paths. Your gains should be set for a healthy signal (around -18dB for live) and it shouldn't change again for the entire gig.

NOTE: If you DO change an input gain, be sure to compensate in the monitoring path for everyone who's monitoring that particular signal.

This part will take as long as it takes - EQ'ing the drums will take most time, but be sure to get it right.

8. Sound check

Sound check the band with one of their loudest tracks as well as one of their softest. The band may want to warm with new tracks or tracks that they want to rehearse, which is ideal for you. Let them crack on and you can refine the sound and mix as they play.

This might also be the time to tweak compressors, run some sub grouping and set up your FX.

The last track of the sound check should be the first on the set list. If it sounds great in sound check, it'll sound great when the audience are in.

9. Tidy up

When everyone's gone. Tidy up your cable runs. Ideally, you'll coil your cables during the set up but it's easy for 40 leads to become very untidy. Give everything a little tidy up before the show. It just gives a little more of a professional air to your work. Untidy stages aren't cool!

And then the gig should be ready to run.

A couple of notes to be aware of:

a. Have background music ready, appropriate for the audience and the show.

b. Listen to the musicians and WORK WITH THEM. There's a long history of engineers/musicians being on opposing sides of a battle - and this is likely to be because there are most 'have a go' engineers than real professionals - but you're all part of the band. The band's job is to produce an awesome sound for the audience. The band's job is to play and your job is to make them sound awesome. You're all a part of a professional team. Best to act like it.

c. Listen to what the show producer wants. They might want a particular sound, or particular stop effects, or some songs to sound 'this way' and some songs to sound 'that way'. Make lots of notes and do what they ask. Few engineers understand their role. Some just turn up and mix a gig…. The best 'produce' the gig.

d. Don't be afraid of reverb! Many engineers are and make the gig too dry. Listen to the band's records or listen to the records of the music that the band is playing to hear how it was produced. This is how the audience will know it and this is how the band will want it to sound. Many engineers are scared of reverb. Don't be. And don't use the excuse of 'the room is too lively'. It's a cop out some times. Go in with the expectation that you'll be wetting the vocals. If it becomes too wet because of the venue, fine, pull it back. But more often than not, the Verb will need to be a production sound, not acoustic collateral.

e. Wander around the room during the show and listen at different points. You might have to make a compromise somewhere to give the best average sound across the spread of the audience.

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