Prodigy live engineer Jon Burton talks to some of the world's top sound engineers about the similarities and differences between tour and studio work.
When I'm asked what my profession is, I always describe myself as a 'sound engineer'. If pushed further I qualify this with 'mainly live stuff', as over the years my primary employment has been as a touring engineer. But since I started engineering, my work has led me into broadcast sound, video, and inevitably to the recording studio, so when — over a couple of pints with SOS features editor Sam Inglis — the conversation turned to the differences between live and studio engineering, I felt reasonably qualified to comment.
Still, when it came to writing an article I thought it best to cast around for some opinions from my peers [see biography box opposite] about how they perceived those differences, and ask if they agreed that there was a gradual blurring of the line between studio and live sound.
Cutting to the chase, I asked the guys to sum up how similar they find live and studio work these days, in terms of the technical skills required.
Mathew Kettle (MK): "Anybody who tells you the technical skills are different is wrong. All the same theories and basic principles apply to both disciplines. Of course, there are differences in the application and execution of the work itself, but if you have a strong understanding of sound, and the application of technology used to reproduce and record sound, then you should be able to do either job.
"I find it very easy to move between the two fields, and doing so has strengthened my skills and abilities in both areas. There are lots of people in both worlds that like to sneer at each other and play up the differences, but I think a lot of it is greatly exaggerated. Having said that, many engineers have tried to move from one field to the other and haven't been very successful at it, so it can be a tough switch for some.”
Steve Revitte (SR): "Basic engineering skills apply to both disciplines: mic placement, signal flow and gain structure, for example. In the studio there is less pressure to 'get it right' the first time, as you have the ability to do several takes, edit, or spend a day on a mix. There is a little more creative flexibility in the studio. Live it has to be 'right' the first time, as the entire audience is listening. I think engineers with live experience are generally more aware of frequency and feedback issues, as well as speaker and amp technology.
"The gear is sometimes the same now and, for better or worse, more artists are trying to recreate the record live. Now that both worlds use digital technology, the know‑how applies to both.
"Setting up headphone mixes in the studio and setting up stage monitor and IEM mixes are very similar. I regularly record live shows to Pro Tools from Front-of-House in much the same way as I would in the studio. I also approach tuning a PA in a similar way to how I would mastering.”
Ken 'Pooch' Van Druten (P): "I am mostly hired as an FOH engineer these days, but I started 20 years ago as a recording engineer and producer in Los Angeles. I mixed a bunch of live shows for '80s rock bands and fell in love with the live side of the business. It's come full circle for me now: bands that hired me as their FOH engineer are asking me to mix their broadcast and studio material.
"The two disciplines used to differ widely from one another. Twenty years ago, if you could hear the vocal, that was considered to be good live sound! With all of the advances of technology, we are now able to be more creative at FOH than ever before. It's possible to provide the audience with a record‑quality representation of the live show. In short, the lines have blurred, and the technical side of being an FOH engineer and a recording engineer are now very similar.”
Marc Carolan (MC): "I feel that as PA technology has improved over recent years, there is ever more of a crossover. Live engineering, however, requires a quicker instinct and an understanding of the 'reality' of the physics of mixing in the live domain. You do see many studio engineers with little live experience coming unstuck very quickly when they try to mix live!
"That said, I think the creative part of my studio background has helped me to stay creative in the live side of things. Conversely, my live experience has helped with achieving better 'vibe' in the studio. I'm lucky that most of the artists I work with give me the scope to try and achieve high standards.”
Joe Campbell (JC): "I can remember working on an album one summer in Los Angeles in a studio that had no windows. I couldn't wait for the album to be finished so we could go out and tour. The gigs were really hard work, but I much preferred them to sitting in the studio. The great thing about touring live work is the change of scenery: no two gigs are the same.”
Aside from the technical and practical aspects of working live, the social aspects are important too. The studio is a closed environment, and quite different to a live tour, but you'll still have to get along well with people.
MK: "Social skills are the key to both jobs, as everybody has an opinion about the sound. The engineer has to help the clients achieve the sound that they want. Sometimes this requires quite a bit of diplomacy, as the different parties may not always agree. You have to deliver what the band wants while fielding comments from managers, booking agents, promoters and so on. I'm lucky that I'm an engineer with a certain sound aesthetic of my own, so most of my clients come to me looking for that particular sound.”
SR: "Studio work is more one‑on‑one and involves a small group of people: musicians, an engineer, producer and the like. Live work is different, as there are more people involved. Band, audio, lights, catering, management, unions: the list goes on.
"Day to day interactions are very different on tour. For example, one day I may find myself primarily involved with noise restrictions and sound curfews. Nobody walks into a studio and tells you can't make noise before 12pm or that you have to stop for an hour for dark stage (a union break where no one can work on stage). Live work definitely runs on a more 'scheduled' day.”
P: "Twenty percent of what I do is technical artistry. Eighty percent is people skills. Learning to read people and get along with all the different personalities involved in a band and crew is the key to success in both studio and live engineering work.”
MC: "I think the skills required are very similar: get on with people! You see so many people get this wrong, but it's extremely important.”
Despite the similarities with studio work, live engineering has its own unique set of plus points and down sides, so I asked the guys what they enjoy the most about FOH work.
MK: "The excitement and energy of live shows is immense. Everything has to work, on time, every time, no matter what. Nothing beats the excitement of holding your finger over the mute button, as the band walk on stage. You put lots of effort into making sure everything works well and sounds great, but you never really know what's going to happen until they strike the first note. The buzz you get from standing behind a desk, in the middle of a festival field full of people going crazy, is unbeatable.”
SR: "I really enjoy being at FOH mixing great music, especially when the band and audience are totally into it. The rush of festival shows is great as well — often it's no soundcheck, just go!”
JC: "Nothing beats travelling the world making a lot of noise with other peoples' very expensive loudspeaker systems.”
So how about the down sides? What are the worst things about live engineering compared to working in the studio? Both Matthew and Pooch agree that being away from friends and family during what could be a lengthy tour can be the toughest part.
MK: "Just about everything else apart from the show itself is a down side! Permanent sleep deprivation, endless jet‑lag and bad food. Never seeing your friends and family.”
P: "Being away from family for 10 months of the year is tough, but the perfectionist in me won't let me rest!”
MK: "Technically speaking, my major source of frustration with live sound is that you can really never control all of the elements that fundamentally affect live sound, such as venue acoustics, and environmental conditions like wind, rain and humidity. It's not very often that you can choose, specify or configure the sound system yourself too. You continually contend with these things and do the best you can. This is, of course, what also keeps the job interesting and challenging. But frustration kicks in when you are unable to do anything about these things.
"In the studio, the dynamic is very different to the touring dynamic. You are experimenting and helping an artist to realise a creative vision. It's also great to have more time to explore different techniques and equipment to get results that the artists and producers are seeking.”
JC: "Stress! It's not an easy job. A singer once explained to me that being on stage feels like being under a huge magnifying glass. Every emotion is amplified a thousand times, every second feels like a minute and any slight problem or minor mistake can be a disaster. Feelings of frustration and rage, can be directed at the engineer several times during a show. How you react can be the making or breaking of you.”
Given that so many young people see live engineering as a possible career, what advice would our engineers give those just starting out?
MK: "If you are determined to make it as an engineer, get ready to work very long hours and not earn much money for a long time. Focus on the fundamentals of sound and recording and try to differentiate yourself with skills and knowledge.
"I love it, though. Whenever I'm out on the road, I'm always looking forward to getting back into the studio, and vice versa. It keeps the whole thing fresh and exciting. I think I will always keep a balance between live work and studio recording. Touring, as opposed to record sales, is becoming far more important to artists as a source of income, so there will always be a great demand for good live engineers. People will (hopefully) always want to go to concerts!”
SR: "Have a love for being behind the scenes. Listen to a thousand records.”
P: "This is a hard road. There are about 20 people that work in the upper echelon of live-sound FOH engineering. We all know each other and go after the same gigs. It is really hard to break into that. I don't see many new faces. I graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1991, and out of my graduating class of Music Production and Engineering (300 people) there are only maybe five of us still working in the industry. Those are not very good odds.
"But if you want this thing so bad that you are willing to work in a warehouse right out of college, soldering cables and making only enough money to eat ramen noodles, then just maybe this industry is for you. I hate to sound grim, but that is the reality. There just isn't the job market other fields have. It is a lot like winning the lottery.”
MC: "Get stuck in. Work on a local crew, hassle a PA company or studio. You'll have to be prepared to work very long hard hours for little return in the beginning, but it will pay off. The more you do, the more people you meet and the more work you'll get.”
JC: "Watch Spinal Tap, and never have more luggage than you can carry for a mile! If I had to start again I would probably do something simpler, like rocket science, or less taxing on the body, like cage fighting.”
Though the worlds of live and studio sound engineering have their differences, advances in technology are bringing them closer and closer together. Making a transition between the two isn't seamless, but since each discipline informs the other, practice will help you become a better engineer all round. Competition is tough, but dedication and good social skills will win you work and the respect of your peers. If you spend most of your time stuck in the studio, why not try engineering a live show or tour? You may find you never go back...
All of the engineers featured here (including the author) have varied and successful careers in sound engineering, including live and studio work over many decades and genres.
Jon Burton (UK)
Jon has been out on tour with The Prodigy for around three years. In this time he has also been trying to finish building his studio in a former Sheffield laundry. Having only recently returned to the studio, his last similar role involved maintaining a 24‑track, 2-inch tape machine!
Joe Campbell (UK)
Jon has worked on countless tours with artists such as Chris Rea, Placebo and currently Adele. Studio life was not for him, and he has been a touring engineer now for many years.
Marc Carolan (Ireland)
Marc spends some time in his SSL‑equipped studio, where he has worked with The Thrills, Mary Coughlan and Muse, and some touring with Muse and Snow Patrol. A self-confessed gear nut, his collection of outboard for Muse has to be seen to be believed...
Mathew Kettle (Canada)
Currently trudging the festival circuit with Sheffield's finest, The Arctic Monkeys. He has previously been involved with a selection of artists in the studio, including Corinne Bailey Rae and The Raconteurs, and has covered both live and studio roles with Mark Ronson and the White Stripes. He even has a Grammy to prove it!
Steve Revitte (USA)
Steve has just finished a successful and respectably long world tour with LCD Soundsystem, culminating in their official retirement at New York's Madison Square Gardens. He has toured with such diverse acts as Dinosaur Jr and Hot Chip, while in the studio he has worked with an equally eclectic bunch of acts, ranging from the Beastie Boys to Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri.
Ken 'Pooch' Van Druten (USA)
Currently doing live sound for Linkin Park, he has worked for Jane's Addiction, System Of A Down and Guns & Roses. He has also worked in the studio with Linkin Park, Kiss, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow.
The UK's Ian Laughton has put in many years as touring sound engineer for acts such as Supergrass and The Verve. Most recently, he's been out on tour with Florence And The Machine, and his inability to turn down work has seen him with a host of up-and-coming acts, as well as established artists. He has also found time to step into the studio with Supergrass, The Verve and Ash. We asked him a few quick questions about being a live engineer:
How did you end up engineering tours?
"I would have probably stuck to studio engineering a bit longer, but I was young and wanted to see the world.”
What's the best thing about live engineering?
"Creative freedom. Most of the time!”
And how about the down side?
"Sometimes, it's the lack of creative freedom.”
What's the best single piece of advice you have for our readers?
"You can't beat hands-on experience!”