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Learning Live Lessons

Published September 2009
By Paul White

I'm writing this leader column while still recovering from helping to organise the live sound for Malvern's West Fest all‑day charity festival. It was hardly Woodstock, but it still demanded full‑on attention for a whole day, and while de‑rigging in the pouring rain isn't the best of fun, the live mixing experience is one I'd recommend to anyone thinking of working in the studio.

First off, you learn to be very pragmatic, especially lower down the food chain where the equipment and venues may be less than ideal. You can't go sticking acoustic screens in front of the singer or hanging a duvet behind them, and if you think the sound of your studio computer fan is a problem, how do you think it feels to try to balance a vocal with 130dB of thrashing drum kit just a metre or two behind the vocal mic?

It gets worse: musicians move your mics when you're not looking; guitar players bring mole wrenches to get an extra turn out of the volume control on their amps after you've carefully set the mixer gain; coloured stage lighting thwarts your attempts to identify mics and DI boxes using colour‑coded cables or labels; and you're often trying to set up mics for the next act while the previous one is still vacating the stage and knocking your mic stands over. Sound check? Luxury — we used to dream of sound checks! That's what a four‑bar song intro is for. And don't get me started on musicians whinging about monitor mixes — I'm getting myself a T‑shirt printed that says 'Foldback is for Cissies!'

If you do manage to survive the day, you're then faced with the prospect of winding up all your cables via a sodden towel as the rain has blown across the stage, soaked all your cables and started to fill up the tweeters in the monitors so that the vocal foldback ends up sounding more like gargling! After that, you have to lift the bass bins from under the stage while kneeling in mud and then get them back to the van, which has now sunk so far into the mire that you know you'll need to be towed out.

So what does this teach you in the context of studio recording? While the operation of the mixer is somewhat similar, the honest answer has probably got to be, 'not quite as much as you might think!' Admittedly, it does teach you to get a balance very quickly and it helps you develop an intuitive feel for EQ, but for me what it really demonstrates, other than the need for certain survival skills, is the fact that working in the studio is a comparative luxury. You don't have to carry in all the studio gear and install it before each session, you don't have to chuck it into the back of a van afterwards, and unless there's something very wrong somewhere, you don't get rained on when you're trying to record or mix. It's also very rare that acoustic feedback is public enemy number one in the studio.

So the really beneficial thing about doing a spot of live sound is that it makes you truly appreciate life back in the studio, where you have fixed equipment set up in a controlled environment and real fresh coffee on tap. Now then, where did I put those chocolate Hob Nobs?

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published September 2009