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Live Sound Engineer – Job description and more!

Love the adrenaline of watching an electrifying live performance of your favourite band? Ever wondered who is behind the awesome sound coming from those big speakers? Look no further, today I will provide you with the live sound engineer’s job description and also look into the various aspects of live sound!

Live Concert

Photo by UKWiki / CC BY-SA 3.0

Often times, audio engineers will find themselves involved in the production aspect of a live concert or performance. Keep in mind that a “Live” show can mean anything from a three-piece acoustic band playing at a wedding gig, all the way to a hugely successful musical act performing in a stadium-sized arena.

If you are an aspiring sound engineer hoping to score some big live shows in the very near future, look no further. In this article, we’ll be taking a brief glimpse into the different aspects of live sound.

Live Sound Engineer (Job Description)

A live sound engineer is involved in a process called “Live sound mixing”. This basically means that the engineer is constantly blending together multiple sound sources throughout a live event, with the help of a mixing console. These sound sources are mainly coming from instruments or voices from stage and pre-recorded material.

You’ll find that in some cases (usually in bigger shows), additional professional signal processing equipment will be used to further enhance the raw audio signals coming into the mixing console. Ultimately, these signals will be amplified and reproduced by loudspeakers.

Types Of Live Sound Engineering

You might imagine that only one sound engineer is handling all the audio aspects of a live show, well, that is true to some extent. In smaller scale shows (weddings, pub gigs etc.), it is not uncommon to see only one engineer standing behind the mixing console. However, if you let one engineer handle everything in an arena-sized concert, he’ll probably hit his head hard on the console and cause himself to have a concussion by the end of the show!

Live sound engineering is divided into two types:

  • Front of House Mixing (FOH)
  • Foldback Mixing (monitors)

    FOH Engineer

    Photo by Anatoli Axelrod / CC BY 2.0

Front of House Mixing

The engineer that is taking up this role focuses on ensuring the best sound reproduction quality for the audience. You will probably notice that these engineers would normally be positioned in the middle of the audience (for huge stadium-sized shows) or at the very back of the room (for smaller scale concerts). This is the ideal position for an FOH engineer to be in, as hearing the mix from the audience’s point of view is crucial.

If you ever had the chance to be in the FOH engineer’s position (it’s awesome, trust me), you will realize that other equipment such as lighting and video switching consoles, together with their respective operators will also be there. This is because they too, need to be able to observe the performance from the audience perspective.

Foldback Mixing

Stage Monitors

Photo by Mark Mozaz Wallis / CC BY-SA 2.0

While the FOH engineer worries about the audience, the monitor engineer would be trying to keep the performers happy. This is done by mixing the sound that the performers hear on stage via a “stage monitor system” (also known as “foldback system”). Performers will be able to hear their own personalized audio feeds through the “monitors” (speakers placed on the floor near to them) or via “in-ear monitors” (allows for better isolation through using earphones).

Unlike the FOH engineer, the monitor engineer will usually be positioned in the wings, just off stage, to allow better communication with the performers. Monitor engineers could possibly be a safety hazard to themselves too, especially if he has to work with stuck up and picky performers (believe me, it’s annoying as hell!).

Equipment

You will hear the term “signal chain” being used a lot by audio professionals in live shows. A “signal chain” actually refers to a string of audio equipment connected in a sequence. In a live sound situation, this usually includes input transducers like microphones, instrument pickups and DI boxes. Audio signals coming from these devices are then connected to individual channels on the mixing console via a multicore cable (which allows for the carrying of multiple audio signals over long distances).

PA System Flow

Photo by MatthewFromRVA / CC BY-SA 4.0

The engineer will then be able to use a variety of external audio processing equipment at his disposable to get the perfect mix. These external equipment are sometimes referred to as “outboard gears” or “outboard processors”. However, it is good to take note that the practice of using “outboard processors” are quickly dying out nowadays, as more event production companies are turning to digital mixing consoles for convenience.

Sound Check – What is that all about?

Every live sound engineer must conduct a sacred ritual before every show, and that ritual is called “sound checking”. Unless you want to experience awkward stares from the audience due to an awesome air-guitar performance happening on stage (equipment malfunction! GET IT?), you would definitely want to sound check!

Sound CheckDoing a sound check ensures that every equipment is functioning properly and allows for the sound in the venue to be fine-tuned before the actual show. With the advent of digital consoles, most production companies or organizations are turning away from their analog counterparts. Settings of previous shows can now be saved and recalled with digital consoles and bands can start playing with minimal to no sound check at all!

Sound check normally happens around two to three hours before a show (for smaller- scale venues and performances) but at times can take up to days, or even weeks (for larger scale events) before the actual live performance. This allows every party involved in the technical aspect of the production to fine-tune or troubleshoot any possible problems with their equipment (such as lighting, sound and video).

That’s it for now! Hope this gives you people a basic idea on what goes on in the working world of a live sound engineer. There are many things that can be discussed about the technical aspects of live sound, but I’ll leave that for another article. Thanks for reading and feel free to leave comments or questions!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

8 Comments

  1. Hi Farhan,
    I found this really interesting – I hadn’t realized before how much goes into a live event, and also for the larger scale ones that there are different types of sound engineers working. It sounds like you’ve had some interesting experiences. I liked your mention of “picky” performers. This would make a really good summary for career advisers at high school, to share with pupils who might be interested in pursuing such a field. What sort of subjects should a sound engineer focus on?
    Mara

    • Greetings Mara, thanks for dropping by. With regards to your question, the subjects may vary, depending on the type of audio engineering discipline that the student chooses to study in. Please do read my article Careers in Audio Engineering to have a brief insight of what interested students can expect. Thanks again for you kind comments!

  2. Ok first off let me say I am so glad I found your site. I am over the media team for our church and the sound needs some work. We have been talking about a training class. This info you have provided about what to do and the types of equipment will help these everyone out tremendously. I will definitely be using this and future articles you write for our training meetings. Thank you…this is a time saver for me for sure!

    • Hey Michael, it’s great that this article was helpful to you in some way. I’ll definitely be writing more articles soon. I wish your media team all the best!

  3. Lol, awesome air guitar. So if the foldback mixing engineer has a picky performer to contend with, what can he even do at the point of a live performance?I can imagine that by that point not much, hence why sound checking is so necessary. The foldback mixing engineer allows the performers to hear what the audience is hearing? Am I understanding this right? Are deejays audio engineers?

    I’ve been researching on this, because a coworker of mine has a son that deejays on the side. His son is probably 14 years old, but he is making some serious money from it. He’s bought furniture for his bedroom and his own mixing console. So I’m curious where this career path can lead to.

    Thanks!

    • Hello JeAnn, with regards to monitor mixing, the performers will NOT be able to hear what the audience is hearing. The only thing that the monitor engineer is concerned about is making sure that the performers will be able to hear any instruments (that they want to hear) on stage clearly, and this is a totally separate mix unique to ONLY the performers.

      I have known many DJ’s that either had formal training in audio or they learn from experience. These DJ’s definitely CAN be audio engineers. However not all DJ’s are audio engineers. It really depends on what they choose to focus on in their respective careers.

      What can a foldback engineer do at that point of a live performance? Well, in some extreme cases, if he is not too fond of the performers, he could just very well turn off the console and walk away =)

      Anyways, thanks for reading!

  4. Wow, a lot of information is on there, and I am glad I read it. I love sound and good audio and as my friend is a musician I want to learn more about what sound can do to a person and what makes a good sound and how do you get in across. Your website is very well structured and this post has really opened my eyes on what a sound engineer does. Thank you so much.

    • Howdy Nancy, thanks for your kind comments. I am glad you found it useful, do come back for more updates or if you have any other questions!

      Cheers!

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