“You need to be intimately aware of what is stage sound and what is coming from the PA you’re controlling. I think all sound engineers like to have total control of the sound.
“There’s sort of a natural desire to do the best job possible but you have to be aware of what sound you’re actually controlling with the knobs under your fingers, what sound is coming off the stage, or just inherently in the venue. A good exercise is to mute the main PA and just listen to the sound of the band on the stage from the audience. It’s also very important to go and listen to the sound onstage as well. This gives you a better awareness of what you’re trying to achieve, as well as what you can and can’t achieve. Sometimes it’s good to know if you’re sitting out in the audience, if all the drums are balanced from that perspective without you turning the PA on, or if the snare drum or guitar is too loud.
“You have to have a constant awareness of these things when you’re mixing. It’s good to work with the musicians onstage, and the monitor engineer if there is one to control the stage levels, but don’t be so self-centered that you’re only doing it so you have absolute control. It’s important to help them do the control levels not only to protect their hearing onstage but to get a good mix in the house. It’s also important not to be so autocratic and announce their onstage levels that they actually try to make it sound better by turning it down so much that they can’t actually perform well.
“It’s important to not be so harsh that you actually change the stage sound to such a degree that musicians who have been playing for years, and have their act together, start playing worse. I think a lot of people go that far because they’re trying to be in control over the sound in front, and they don’t pay attention to what the musicians need onstage to play the best music possible. The key is knowing what is stage sound and what is not. It’s better to sound good at a lower volume and only have partial control and supplement the stage sound, than it is to get complete control by turning it up two or three times as loud so that you have control over everything. That’s not always a better solution. In fact often it’s worse. You can find a way by listening to the sound onstage without the PA on. You may decide that something sounds pretty good that way. Some things don’t necessarily need a lot of help from the PA. Don’t just assume that everything has to be completely under your control at all times.”
Gary Stokes is a live sound engineer from Toronto, ON who has recently done sound for Sarah McLachlan on her Lilith Fair tour.