Audio engineers mix sound to perfection before it reaches an audience’s ears. Here’s everything you need to know about the basics of live sound mixing, including areas you can specialize in, equipment, and tips for beginners.
The term refers to the blending of vocals, instrumentals, and prerecorded material in real time. Audio engineers mix these sounds using a console or software program. They might use this equipment to:
- Add effects like reverb, distortion, and novelty SFX
- Balance volume and customize individual sounds
- Equalize bass and treble
- Amplify certain sounds
- Adjust the frequency, resonance, and amplitude of various sources
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- Broadcast: Mixers blend sound for live radio and TV shows, often working from a production truck outside of the studio.
- Front-of-house: These types of sound operators mix audio from and for the audience. They usually set up at front-of-house so that they can hear and see the performance in order to optimize the venue’s acoustics. FOH engineers work on concerts, theatrical performances such as musicals, and other types of live shows.
- Foldback: Foldback engineers mix sound at the FOH or next to the stage and aim it at performers. Without foldback mixing, the sound heard by performers onstage would be warped and distorted, causing them to sing out of tune and time with the band.
Depending on its size and scope, a show may employ multiple types of live sound mixers. For example, Taylor Swift’s Reputation stadium tour included FOH engineer David Payne, monitor engineers Jordan Kolenc (for the artist) and Scott Wasilk (for the band), as well as nine other audio crew members.
- Input transducers: These include mics; direct input (DI) boxes, which connect instruments to mixing boards without creating unwanted sound; and pickups, which convert mechanical vibrations from instruments into electrical signals that capture audio coming from performers.
- Mixing consoles: The mixing console, desk, or board allows engineers to adjust and blend audio from multiple sources. Industry-standard equipment includes the Yamaha MG20XU Mixing Desk and the Alto Live.
- Mixing board equipment: Laptops and tablets are often used to blend sounds on the board.
- Monitors: Foldback or stage monitors provide performers with mixed audio, allowing them to hear what they sound like to the audience.
- Amplifiers and speakers: Speakers create the audio that the audience hears, and amplifiers increase the power of the sound.
- Cables: Mixer cables are used to connect various pieces of equipment.
- Digital audio workstations: DAPs like the Ableton Live may sometimes replace mixing boards.
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- Set up your equipment. Ensure that everything is plugged in, connected, and ready to go.
- Do a sound check. All audio sources should be functioning in order to create high-quality audio.
- Refine the signal levels. Set the gain (the volume input for each channel on the mixing monitor). This gives you optimal control over every audio source. You’ll usually want to prominently feature lead vocals and instrumentals.
- Adjust the amplitude. Use equalization (EQ) to tonally balance the instrumentals and vocals. You may want to use a high-pass filter (HPF) to reduce low-end frequency rumble.
- Process the dynamics. Apply compression, limiting, and gating techniques to create crisp, clear audio without too much background noise.
- Add effects. Use reverb, distortion, and the like as needed to enhance the sound. (This can be the most enjoyable part of mixing, but be sure not to go overboard and mar the actual performance.)
- Monitor the audio quality. Keep a close ear on the performers’ sound mix to ensure that they can hear themselves clearly.
- Adjust the sound as needed. Make tweaks depending on the venue, audience, and soundscape you’re creating.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re sitting behind a console with dozens of sliders. Running audio for shows requires a specific set of skills that can’t be learned overnight. Sound designers spend years perfecting their craft. If you’re a newcomer, here are some tips for teching your next live show.
- Know the script. If you’re running sound for a theatrical performance, especially if it’s a musical, you’ll need to know the lines of the show, not merely the cues for each scene or song; you should be able to speak along with the performance. This will help you account for missed cues and solve problems (adjusting a level, communicating with a stagehand)—while still knowing your place. Annotate your script; don’t be afraid to fill it with notes.
- Stay alert. No matter how prepared you are going into a show, you’ll still have to be ready to make changes on the fly. Mixing live theatrical performances usually requires updating settings for each scene and song. No two performances are alike—microphones slide around, monitors get kicked. Be ready to boost someone’s levels or reduce volume for a microphone that’s giving undesirable feedback.
- Use the tools at your disposal. If your system has preset effects like fades and filters, use them. But you’ll need to watch the sound levels like a hawk, adjusting constantly to match the performers.
- Communicate. Don’t be afraid to delegate tasks. You should be able to reach stagehands immediately, preferably through a headset or walky-talky. Those people are there to help.
- Remember that you can’t control everything. In a live scenario, it’s impossible to eliminate every problem. Instead, aim to minimize mistakes—and most importantly, don’t let any gaffs interrupt the flow of the performance.