I just got finished doing live sound for an awards show and dinner and music show.

I must say, I personally like studio work much better. You only need to move and set up your equipment once and it stays like that.

It seemed like 80% of the job was moving equipment and setting up/coiling cables.

When carrying out live sound work, what tasks do you find you need to do, and what items do you feel are absolutely necessary to bring with you for the job and why?


9 Answers 9


I was the FOH engineer for about three years at an all ages club in Southern California in the late 90's. We got everything from local high school bands to touring international bands.

Here are some of the things I learned.

Wear earplugs. You can get musician's earplugs custom fit to your ears with a range of Etymotic diaphragms to attenuate to different levels. They sound much better than the cheapo foam earplugs, and the frequency response is much better.

Create a CD full of songs that you are familiar with and that represent different sound elements (e.g. cymbals that are on the verge of too bright, standup bass that sounds great, etc.). If you're not using pink noise, you'll want to set up the house EQ on the sound system so that it sounds good to you. You also need to ring out the system by having someone on a stage mic talk into it, and then raise the volume slowly until it feeds back. Now notch that frequency down on the house EQ. Repeat this a few times. You have just increased the effective bandwidth of your sound system tremendously. There are also fancy devices that do this for you.

A live mix is really only half of a mix. If you turned the sound system off entirely, the room would not fall silent. Therefore, your job is to fill in the other half of the sound so that the room gets a full, correct mix of the sound system and stage volume from the band. This is why if you ever hear a recording taken straight off the board in a club the vocals sound way too loud.

Stage volume is the enemy. There is an inherent minimum volume that a rock band can play at. That minimum volume is dictated by the drums. Since they are a loud acoustic instrument, they will form the lower bound of how quiet the band can be. I always told the bands to try and match the drummer in terms of volume.

You want to avoid volume wars, e.g. everything louder than everything else. Bands never ask you to lower the volume of anything, they only want to raise the volume of an instrument, usually the one they are playing. Sometimes if a vocalist asked for more of themselves in the monitors, I would simply notch out the high mids on the guitars in their monitors, giving them the perception of more volume, which is what they really wanted after all.

Many mixing engineers are somewhat baffled by monitor mixes. These are very important. During soundcheck, after things were pretty well dialed in, I would always walk up on the stage while the band was playing through a song and stand by each band member in turn, making note of how it sounded. A lot of bands, especially less experienced ones, can't yet articulate exactly what they need in the monitors, but if you can help them hear what they need to hear (generally the band, with an emphasis on themselves) they will play better and love you.

Some bands are just going to be jerks, no matter what you do. Read "How to Win Friends and Influence People". It helps. Live sound is paid, on the job, assertiveness training, whether you like it or not. You can't win 'em all, but if you do well you can win most of the time.

When you do a soundcheck, write down all of the settings. If there are any opening bands or if anyone monkeys with the board, you need to be able to recall your settings in a repeatable fashion.

During soundcheck, you will have more reverb and high end sound in the room, since the crowd isn't there yet. Plan for this and mix a little on the bright side during soundcheck, since people are basically sound absorbers.

Even if you're mixing industrial, punk rock, or death metal, never let the mix sound harsh. Mics like the Shure SM57 and SM58 have a presence peak around 4kHz. If the majority of the mics on the stage are like this, the whole mix is just trying to cut through itself, and it's way too much.

The first song when the band goes up on stage is probably going to be the roughest. Maybe the guitarist changed their settings since the soundcheck (but hopefully not). To a certain extent, anything can happen, so you have to be ready to dial things in quickly. During the first song, the first priority is to make sure that you can roughly hear everything. The next step is to solo each track and make sure the gain settings on the VU meters are consistent with where you set them during soundcheck. You have to play "search and destroy" with noise, and the best way to do this is to go channel by channel and try to EQ out frequencies that are detracting from the mix. For example, if a guitarist has a lower end amp that is WAY too bright and harsh, don't be afraid to apply drastic corrections at the EQ. Remember, you're only doing half a mix, so overdo it a bit in the other direction so it balances with the stage volume. The larger the room, the less drastic you should be with these things.

Sometimes you just can't win. I remember many punk rock shows I mixed where one band would sound awful no matter what I did. Then the next band would get up on stage with an almost identical configuration of players and instruments, and sound great with almost no effort. Frankly, if the band sucks, you can only do damage control. If both guitars and the bass are all competing with each other in the same octave, their amps are all cranked up way too high, the drummer is light on the kick and snare but heavy on the cymbals, and the singer alternates between whispering and screaming, there's only so much you can do. Compressors on the vocals can at least force things into the right volume range if you're doing total damage control.

On average, metal bands are more egotistical and hard to deal with than punk and ska bands. Goth and emo bands were usually highly reasonable. There are always exceptions though.

You have to "own" the stage, and make the bands respect you. At least with the type of music I was mixing, the bands would sometimes damage the equipment. They have to know that this is not OK, and they will have to pay for it. I don't suppose this applies to anyone mixing church services.

If you don't know already, learn how to wrap cables properly. Overhand, underhand.

Don't let your amps go into thermal protect mode. If you drive them too hard, you will blow speaker drivers, or the amps will shut down for a few minutes, or both. If it's summer and the place is packed and the amps are on the edge, sticking a fan near the amp rack can get more mileage out of them. I never blew a speaker driver, but many of the engineers that came before me blew out several. They had a whole row of blown out 2" compression tweeter drivers up in the sound booth, with Sharpie writing detailing how they died and who was responsible.

Live sound was both great and terrible. When it was fun, it was really fun. When it was work, it was really work.

  • @Nathan speaks naught but truth.
    – g.a.harry
    Mar 23, 2011 at 6:12
  • I concur. As a FOH engineer in a small venue you are merely reinforcing what is on stage. Mute the System and listen to the stage and help the musicians find the pocket coming off the stage. Don't be afraid to ask musicians to turn up or down. Usually that problem exist with less experienced musicians. I ask privately at first and then if they still don't, kindly explain in earshot of the band members that they are single handedly ruining the mix :P This generally helps even out the more me syndrome. Mar 24, 2011 at 20:50

I've been working in the Live Sound Industry here in New Orleans since 2005. Primarily now I Mix Monitors and FOH and on really high profile shows I am a systems tech. Ive done Jazzfest, Voodoo Fest, Essence Fest for the past 5 years and pretty much most of everything in between here. I also mix at the clubs here and there but have been getting away from club work due to low pay to BS ratio.

Things I never leave home without when working a concert.

  1. Earplugs
  2. Leatherman
  3. My Headphones
  4. Multimeter
  5. Q box- whirlwind makes this, I use it pretty much every gig
  6. Sharpie
  7. Sweater or jacket.

With those things and my ears I can pretty much troubleshoot and repair most problems that arise on shows. For extended festivals where I am systems tech, I bring some more tools and things that just make my job easier but not necessary.

I am really trying to move away from the live sound production and move into post production, but in New Orleans, Films don't finish here so its hard to get work in a real studio. Everything I do in post is mainly Student/Low budget films/documentaries/commercials at my own home studio. I am trying to work my way up to a larger facility where I can be a part of a team. If anyone needs an intern Im willing to relocate to learn :P

I fell into the live sound industry while in film school which unfortunately has made it increasingly more difficult to graduate and go to school while I work.

I do love live sound. There is something about it that is on par with "religious" experiences. The unity of a crowd and the energy that happens is amazing. Unfortunately I love my ears more, and I am quickly realizing how detrimental concert work is to my ears.

Doing live sound also means there is not another take, so it has taught me how to adapt quickly and come up with unique solutions to problems that the audience does not even know exist. They are not always the prettiest looking, but they are solutions. You learn to make it work with what is available to you, you always talk about wanting or having better gear, but in the end you make it happen, the show must go on.

I have also learned to trust my instincts and my ears. I second guess myself a lot in the studio situation, Live does not grant me that luxury. Mixing a festival is a rough situation especially when you have some 40-48 inputs and no sound check. You learn to prioritize and dial in your essentials first, then you can come back in and sweeten it all up and then finally get a true mix going in which you accent and support what the musicians are doing. The last part does not always happen because frankly you don't know the material well enough and you end up chasing everything in the mix.

Live sound is like driving a monster truck, you hit some bumps along the way but keep going forward. Studio work is like driving a really nice Cadillac, you take your time and make sure it is perfect.


I am the lead tech at a 2000 seat church. Most of the equipment is set up permanently, biggest challenge is adjusting to a live performance. It's like writing automation in real time. Knowing the material as well as the musicians themselves is key.

  • Not enough live-sound guys do this. They don't ride the levels for the dynamics of the songs, and instead just set it and forget it. Bars are the worst... worse than all-ages venues, even. I don't know about your church, but most churches I've been part of have had very fluid sets, where the worship leader will decide to redo choruses or comp a single line over and over, or will get too worked up emotionally and just jam out a full verse -- a good sound guy can make these moments even more powerful. Mar 22, 2011 at 13:27

I did live sound for two years. It was something I just kinda fell into when I was coming out of audio school. Definitely not part of the plan... but looking back on it I realize that it taught me more about what we do than pretty much anything else I've done. If nothing else, you learn how to hear through noise; you'd be amazed how much noise 200 people can make. Toss a couple of guitars and a drumkit into the mix and it gets scary.

Most clubs and bars are not properly set up to have 100 dB or more of sound pumped into them. Bare walls and floors, parallel surfaces, signal chains with no power amp protection. One place I worked at (Sneaky Dee's, for anyone who knows the Toronto club scene) had a 20 foot wall of windows running all the way from stage right to the mix position, knee height to the ceiling. No curtains, nothing. You shoulda heard a drumkit in there, mental. The high-end would scrape your face off. Unless the place was packed to the rafters it sounded like complete garbage.

But, there was something about it. On the right night, great band, full crowd... something would happen. The closing band would come on, the crowd would scream, the floors would shake, the air would move, the faders would float to where they needed to be, and all I could do was stare. It didn't often happen, but it was this weird moment of frenetic stillness. Everything that was bothering you, all the shit, would just drift away. One perfect hour in a life of late nights, afternoon mornings, 6 am breakfasts, coffee, cigarettes, and booze. One single hour of exultant human energy, reveling in the pain of being alive.

That's the one thing I miss. Not that it doesn't happen doing what I do now, but it's a different kind of thing. Now it's so much more controlled. The anticipation of the unexpected isn't there. I don't know, it's hard to explain.

All that to say, if you get the opportunity to do it, do it. Your first couple of gigs will be a shitstorm of mistakes and stress, all you will notice is how bad the room is, the limitations of the gear, and how little you're getting paid. But, once you find your flow, once you know where you stand, it's a joy. Every night comes together and you can just stand back and watch people at play.

  • That magic moment isn't just at Sneaky Dee's (which I've never been to, having never been to Toronto, but I've heard of from Canadian friends)... I played in a reggae band forever, and we were put on as the final act to a punk show. It was electric, and I swear I've never sounded as good before or since. Mar 22, 2011 at 16:10

I spent 5 years working as a freelance live sound tech, but I was mainly in the corporate world (conferences and presentations). It was a great learning experience from a sound tech point of view, as well as dealing with high-pressure, client-facing situations. I also learnt a lot about economics and how the financial system works! As for live gigs (clubs and concerts), I've always stayed away due to the fear of going deaf or getting tinnitus!


I did live sound regularly for years, but now only do a handful of gigs. I do love the challenge of working out something on the fly, but I also dislike the tempers that come with some of the talent. The biggest issue for me when I was doing it apart from always been asked to pump the volume (I believe in matching the level to the room/area), was the very late nights.

Now I only do a few gigs a year as a technical director for Supanova Pop Culture Expos www.supanova.com.au (think comic-con for Australia) and these are more the set and forget panel style, with the occasional curveball. So nothing too stressing or challenging.

The biggest thing I do now is mix my podcast live to a internet audience 2-4 a week (www.coolshite.net). This involves mic mixing, skype hook ups, video mixing, sound fx, music and anything else just to make it hard for myself. While not a concert, it can operate like a hybrid of live audio and studio audio. Fun!


I started sound with a non-profit that did youth work. We had a weekly event that took place in a borrowed space and we had to haul in, setup, tear down and remove all of our equipment every week. It was old, beat-up, substandard equipment and was a royal pain to work with, but it is also a pivotal part of what has made me as good of a sound guy as I am today.

Live sound and studio sound are fundamentally different. It is a bit like producing a live TV show vs producing a movie, or photography vs videography. In studio recording, your focus is about taking as much time as it takes to get everything perfect. In live mixing, the focus is on keeping things as good as you can, on the fly, with whatever you have, by the seat of your pants.

Doing live sound with crappy gear forced me to learn how the gear works really well, how to deal with issues on the fly and how to overcome the limitations of gear. Later on, as I grew in experience and moved up to better gear and more permanent installations, that experience stuck with me and helped me make better use of the tools at my disposal.

There is also a lot of variation within live sound. Theater setups have pre-configured systems and mic setups that don't change significantly from one showing to the next. You can spend more time focusing on accounting for changes in people's voices from one day to the next and less time worried about general setup and the room (though you still have to pay attention to differences based on how the room is filled).

Nightclub/Concert setups are a little bit more of a pain because the content and style can change a lot more, so you have to worry about mixing choices and figuring out how to control stage noise and developing a proper mix that fits the room and the band's style.

Music festivals and conferences are the most by the seat of your pants since they often involve designing a rig to use for the show, bringing it in, setting it up, configuring it, running it, tearing it down and moving it out, all in the course of a few short days with near constant utilization after setup is completed.

Personally, I've done every one of these at one point or another. I actually really like conference/festival work for the fast pace and high intensity, but wouldn't want to do it all the time (I work a few conferences a year.)

My most common work these days is actually sound at my church. We are kind of a cross between theater and nightclub. We have multiple bands, but we are able to use presets to keep track of a rough mix between weeks that they are on. I really enjoy that since it lets me use a higher level of refinement in the sound, but it sometimes can get routine.

I also spent some time in college doing the concert scene at one place with a permanent system and one with a semi-permanent. Both were enjoyable enough, but weren't quite as good as either extreme in my opinion, though I could stand doing that kind of work regularly if it paid the bills, where as conference/festival work would be too much to do full time I think.

The piece of gear I most keep with me is my in-ears. They can work well enough as ear-plugs and double as being able to plug in to the board for checking monitor mixes or identifying a hard to separate out channel. I use a set of Shure SE-535s and literally carry them with me all the time, whether I'm mixing or not.

The second most valuable piece of gear, at least with digital boards, is my tablet so that I can run remote control and move around the room while working on the mix or troubleshooting a problem.

For non-permanent setups where there is likely to be gear problems, my multimeter, soldering iron and tools, as well as a healthy set of adapters for troubleshooting problems is critical unless I know someone else is bringing them.


Every week at church, we load in our gear into a movie theater, set up everything, play, and tear it down when we're done. I've sat in on sound more than a few times, but I'm generally on guitar or bass.

  • Sounds like fun. How big is your band? What kind of PA monitors do you use or do you just use the theater's sound system and your amps?
    – Utopia
    Mar 22, 2011 at 3:54
  • We have an Allen & Heath board, a pair Crown amps for our mains and subs and a QSC amp for our monitors. We leave our mains and subs set up behind the screen -- they've been there for about 4 years, now -- so I don't remember what they are. We use incredibly basic wedges for monitors. Our mic set up is mostly SM57s but we have an Audix kit for the drums with a Shure Beta 52A for the kick. Mar 22, 2011 at 4:20
  • In addition to our theater service, we have our own building (with one of the worst rooms to mix in EVER)... I don't remember what's set up there beyond a really basic Yamaha mixer. The theater setup sounds light years better. Mar 22, 2011 at 4:22

I normally do post sound and sometimes I record production sound. It's actually almost been 2 years since the last time I was on the set, but this fall I may record another feature film. It is healthy to be out on location, talking to people who aren't all sound people. Getting some fresh air and perhaps a bit of sun for the studio tan.

On the other hand, I NEVER do live sound. I tried it once, and I sucked! I just make too many errors, when it's live. I like to capture sound, to design sound, to edit sound and to take some time mixing it all together. But I don't like to do it all at the same time.

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