Questions for Live Sound Guys/Gals

Carrying on from this thread:

I’m directing these questions primarily to @AJ113 , but any other live-sound dudes can feel free to chime in:

  1. How would you compare the digital and pre-digital eras in live sound? Just your overall experiences, the pros/cons of each etc.

  2. Do you usually mix monitors as well as FOH? If so, how do you manage it? Is a digital setup an advantage or a disadvantage in this situation?

  3. How do you manage stage volume? Do you work with what the band is producing, or do you get involved in helping them manage their levels onstage (ie asking them to turn down)?

  4. How do you deal with dB limitations?

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I’m going to follow this thread. I’m also going to reply later.

Onboard DSP or networked DSP is your best friend. Saves enormous space in the trailer, lower maintenance, less cabling, completely recallable. People have been using digitally controlled crossovers for years, but now having digital EQ on each of the monitor sends and built in RMC calibration tools has taken this up a whole different level. Before we used to tie racks of 30 outboard processors into the console with a snake. These days, if its not onboard, stuff like the Waves, Avid or Prism networked DSP servers connects with a pair of cat 5 cables to get the verbs, delays, compressors, gates etc. Also, the increasing use of in-ear monitors - the need for large channel counts and monitor matrixes has eliminated the need for a monitor engineer and a side stage monitoring rig. This was a good thing imo.

Ok. Disadvantages:

  1. Latency: The arch nemesis of digital FOH mixing formats is latency. And millions of dollars has gone into improving the technology needed to get this under control.

  2. Security: Wi-Fi controllers and large scale server/switcher/router networks make a company, school, or broadcast networks vulnerable to computer hacking through their front of house audio rigs. The problems is in order to implement the security measures necessary to keep intruders away from sensitive information, live audio system designers have started putting tools in place that require a higher level of IT networking expertise than most audio engineers are willing to learn.

  3. Dependencies: large digital FOH systems require firmware, driver, and computer systems to agree with each other. In the analog world its audio in and audio out. You’d never have to debug anything, it it didn’t work, it means you have something hooked up wrong or something is broken. Tech malfunctions in the digital mixing world can crash an entire system vs simply requiring you to unplug the lead vocal mic and plug it into a different channel.

I don’t run FOH, but I contract to a ton of churches, theaters, and universities, and I still do short runs with touring groups, and I have a pretty good working knowledge of how everything is connected.

The aviom/powerplay/ME-1 and mobile player controlled monitor rigs are a very popular thing now. The FOH engineer builds a 16 channel stem mix that is accessible to all musicians on the stage and each musician dials in their own mix. The changes they make only effect them. So it gets routed at the beginning of the show and as long as everything is correctly labeled, it gets saved and every musician is free to tinker with it as needed. Furthermore, these systems run on cat5. One cat5 switcher sits on the stage and feeds all the boxes with their own IP addresses, and each musicians monitor box finds the console as soon as the switch is on the network.

A ton of the groups I’m working with these days are using iso cabs for their guitar amps, and when the backstage of the theaters and churches are large enough, we can simply shoot the amps away from the stage. As long as the guitar players have ‘their tone’ in their in-ears they rarely complain. So a lot of the TPM’s take the time they need to make sure they player is happy, because if they’re not, they constantly fiddle with it during the show and it drives everyone nuts the whole evening.

I’m not opposed to seeing drum shields used in smaller venues. I don’t like drum cages, but the shields are super helpful sometimes. Its not uncool or taboo to use these things imo, and most pro musicians are conscientious of this overall.

If amps are in isoboxes and everyone is on in-ears, there’s almost never a need to ask anyone to turn down. Actually, if can’t even think of what’s left to turn down lol.

There’s laws on this in the US, but you don’t get fined or sued unless someone complains or get seriously hurt. Its VERY rare someones hearing gets hurt because of volume. And in the US, you assume this risk when you attend a concert. Most people who would go to a concert and then complain about it later wouldn’t even know which public authority to complain to. Basically, a FOH tech would need to be incompetently negligent in order to face a real lawsuit over this stuff, so most guys just ignore it.

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For live digital is vastly superior to analog. Load in is so much easier, sound checks are quicker etc. You actually have the tools to fix what needs to be fixed with more eq etc. The difference between the studio and live is very rapidly closing. That said many live engineers are over compressing and chasing their mix as it disappears into their speakers.

This depends on the size and budget of the gig. Usually no. Digital is great for recall for different bands. Digital typically gives you more i/o so that you can get a more complex monitor rig.

I treat this exactly like the studio. I may say to a guitar player “if you play at this volume you will not be in the PA and therfore won’t sound like your with the band” They usually will get this. In fact, some years ago I was mixing a up and coming local guitarist/frontman that was very well known for being LOUD and this is exactly what I said to him (very politely) He turned down and I cranked him in his monitor. He loved it. Later when I chatted with him about it he said that he didn’t mind turning down if it sounded good in his monitor. That had not been his usual experience.

In ear monitors are great for this. Aiming amps towards the back of the stage is also good. In a small club I will ring out the PA and get the vocals as loud as I can. This sets the max volume and everyone else must adjust their levels accordingly. I let the band know if their stage volume is overtaking the lead vocals. If I don’t have ultimate control(which is rare these days) I will let them overtake thier vocals with stage volume but only if they know they are doing so.

It is a creative limit. Just like anything else, no one wants a bad sounding show. If there are DB limits I work within them. If the DB limit is unreasonably low I will compress the RMS level of the band to get what I need.

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I would imagine this would be an issue if the latency was bad and you had loud stage spill from analogue amplification on stage. That said, with processing power improving so dramatically, my guess is it wasn’t an issue for long. In any case, with so many source and mics close to each other, live sound must be pretty much a phase nightmare at the best of times, so significant latency would be just an additional headache.

Yeah this is the bummer with digital - Nevertheless, as @AJ113 alluded to, the solution is probably having a backup system in place for seamless switchover if the worst happens.

That is very cool. That said, it has the potential to be an absolute nightmare with novice musicians, but I doubt anyone with limited experience would be afforded these type of options without closer supervision.

Seems pretty reasonable to me, although personally, if having an actual amp on stage with me was out of the question, & I only had the choice between an iso cab and going direct through a cab sim, I think I’d just “go the whole hog” and go direct. It almost seems like the same thing, but cheaper and easier.

This is how I rehearse/jam with bands at my place now - despite being a guitarist, I love it - I don’t seem to be able to convince many other guitarist to do it. Those who do try it love, though.

That’s interesting. Here, some venues have very strict limits, due to their close proximity to rapidly “gentrifying” inner city areas. I saw The John Butler Trio at a place called “The Zoo” a few years ago. It’s a 500 capacity place, so not huge, not too small either. The mixing desk (situated right in the middle of the venue) had a big sign say DO NOT EXCEED 105dB (can’t remember the specifics of the weighting etc) and there was a laptop set up next to the mix position with a large real time dB readout. I kept an eye on it the whole night and they absolutely adhered to it super-stringently. In fact the only times it exceeded the limit (107/8dB) was when the crowd applauded(!)

Apparently “virtual soundchecks” are all the rage for touring bands now. I suppose as long as the stage setup and gain staging stay absolutely the same, it’s a pretty cool idea.

Re: Live mix buss compression - I noticed this happening in one of my over-the-soundman’s-shoulder episodes. He was using Waves plugins (via Soundgrid) on the desk. He seemed to be making a pretty good job of it, although I remember that show being super-loud and uncomfortable near the front, where we were first standing. It sounded much easier on the ears behind the mixer’s position.

Makes sense. From what @Jonathan said, it sounds like, for smaller bands, digital now affords the option of each band member controlling their own monitor mix.

Again, that seems like a sensible approach… In very small places, I would imagine the acoustic stage spill from the drums might also be a factor in governing the overall volume.

Do you ever just use the PA to reinforce the acoustic sound coming off the stage, rather than creating a full FOH “mix” with all the elements in it? My main live experience has been in smaller, lower volume situations where usually all that’s needed in the PA is mainly vocals, keys, and a little bit of kick. Guitars & Bass maybe mic’d/DI’d, but kept minimal in the mix, more just for dispersion purposes.

That makes sense - Would you say that sense of excitement that raw volume gives can be simulated in a similar way to how it can be done in the studio? I guess again, that is the advantage of having multiple digital processors on call.

Thanks for your comments, guys!

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This is the approach I recommend in most club venues. It just gets too loud if you try to get everything through the PA IMO.

YOu betcha. :slight_smile:

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I can’t actually think of any pros for analogue, except that if a digital desk goes down the gig is a washout, so best to carry some redundancy.

Yes, although the band can adjust their own monitors from their smartphones if they download an app. Digital is a big advantage because you can set up the monitors on stage with the band using a tablet during the sound check. During the gig itself the situation is not much different to analogue.

It’s the singlemost recurring issue. If it’s not the guitarist turning up to 11, it’s the cymbals smashing the crap out of everything (in small venues). All you can do is talk to them reasonably and hope that they take note. Most of the time they do, to be fair. If the band is playing more than one set I will sometimes sneak on stage after the first set and turn down master volumes, but that’s a bit naughty.

My general philosophy is to ignore them until someone says something to me. There aren’t many gigs with a limit anyway, and I don’t think it’s good practice to have an ear-splittingly loud mix.

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I am. I think they look awful and they inhibit inter-band communication on stage, thus hindering he performance itself.

It definitely wouldn’t be seamless, but I could turn it around in ten minutes. I’m sure the audience would soon forgive and forget once the band started up again.

X18 has compression on every channel, and I use it on every channel, including the master bus. I also high pass the crap out of vocals, just like a recording. Sounds great.

You get that regardless of compression at any gig. If you’re going to be at the front, take ear plugs.

Yep, and it’s a nightmare if the drummer also sings. No OH or snare mic required!

Even the smallest of venues need plenty of kick and bass in the PA, it’s the only way to get the airwaves moving through the audience.

I don’t deliberately set out to do either. It’s a triumph if the backline is down to levels where it can actually go through the PA, because then you have control. Anything other than that is a bonus.

Nope, air must move, chests must be thumped, appendixes must be wobbled, trousers must be flapped. Otherwise it’s a totally underwhelming experience.


I have to tell a story here, I just can’t resist.

About 5 years ago I had the craziest FOH I’ve ever experienced. I had two shows. I was hosting a community event for 500 people in the morning, I was headlining a guitar show in the afternoon at a guitar convention and on my way home I get a call from an agent friend of mine that there was a multi-platinum rock band of yesteryear performing in this small club and their FOH engineer has gone a-wall. I am in a tux driving home for an hour and a half drive when I get this call. I go through a bunch of options with this agent of people to use etc, but RUSH is in town so literaly everyone is at that gig that you can hire. I agree to the gig even though the dollars suck. I owed the agent a favor.

I arrive 20 min before the gig still wearing the tux. It turns out it is a triple bill. There is a house system so I walk over to the console and it has a big piece of tape on it that says “this console is slowly dieing, Channels XYZ don’t work, Clipping channels will cause them not to work” Or something like that. I was so stunned I actually took a photo of the sign :slight_smile: I start digging around trying to find the mic pack etc. The system was all analog, very old(which I’m not opposed to) they had Monitors hooked up to it and the Jukebox was hooked up to part of the matrix.

I could not get any sound out of the fronts. THere was a machine room with massive racks of gear in the back. I could get monitors and the jukebox to work. Meanwhile, I’ve got band members getting anxious because we are getting way too close to show time. I asked the bartender and the agent if there was a house tech that understands the PA that I could call. No one. I could, of course, figure the system out but I had no idea how long that would take.

My decision was to run the band through the jukebox:) I ran vocals and kick only. Everything else was monitors and their backline. As I am sound checking the head liner I can tell that he knows something about FOH and engineering. For example in his vocal mic he is saying to me. “can you cut a little 400hz and okay there you’ve already done it”. I let the bands know the situation and that they are going to have to let me control their stage volumes of guitar amps etc. They all cooperate very well. We all survive the gig and they have an acceptable show.

At the end of the night I get multiple customers that come up to me and say "this was the best sounding show we have ever heard in this venue?!? Mostly I say thank-you but after a few people say this I inquire as to what the difference was. They all say it is normally WAY TOO LOUD. For me that night the limiting factor was how loud I could crank vocals and kick through a jukebox to supplement stage volume. All the low end on vocals came from monitors.

To top it off the bar manager, in true bar manager fashion, takes me in the back room to give me a “sit down” which means he doesn’t want to pay. He starts off with a list of complaints like I was late getting bands going by 10 minutes(Which I didn’t even know I was in charge of and had no schedule), and a bunch of other non-critical stuff on a gig that I just saved when most people would have walked. When he gets to the “if you ever want to work here again” part of his speech I interrupt him and say “oh you are mistaking me for someone that wants to work here again.” I tell him I never want to set foot in his shitty little club again and that I had just saved his ass from having to pay big bucks to a band that was very close to not being able to play at all because his PA is a total piece of crap. He hands me the cash and I have never been back and would not:)


Ever tried running sound for a church?? lol :wink:

Whoah! That statement alone is worth a thousand words!

It’s funny, because I was at a show (in the US, actually) where a similar scenario unfolded:

In 2014, my wife and I did a road trip from NY down to Tennessee (& back) as part of a holiday we had in the US, and we stayed in a little town in Kentucky called Marion. We noticed an advertisement for a band playing in the Restaurant next to our Motel on the Saturday night, so we decided to check it out.

The band were a southern rock-type deal, 6 piece with keys, 2 guitars, vocals, bass and drums. Because it was a low volume restaurant environment, the band had opted for a cajon for the drummer in place of a full kit.

The band turned up, and from what I could gather, they were under the understanding that an adequate PA would be provided. They brought all the necessary mics, foldback speakers and backline amps.

Being a sound nerd, I noticed (somewhat worrisomely) that the house system looked pretty much like a typical low-output restaurant music distribution system, designed for functions, events, weddings etc, where you might have someone making speeches over the PA, and pumping out some canned music for background music and a bit of a dance.

So, they set up and plugged in, did a quick line check, and launched into the first song. About halfway through the first verse, the house system completely shut down. All that was left going was their backline and their monitors. They stopped, apologised and tried to trouble-shoot. The house system was dead in the water.

Being resourceful dudes, after a bit of head-scratching, they upended their monitors, pointed them out toward the audience, and after a tentative check that we could all hear them, proceeded to play an excellent set, complete with pitch-perfect 4 and 5 part harmonies. Very enjoyable.

I got talking to the keyboard player after the show. I commented on how impressed I was that they could sing such beautiful harmonies without any foldback. “How can you guys do that without hearing yourselves?” I wanted to know. He said they come across all sorts of situations from great foldback to worse than none, so they had learned to adjust. He casually mentioned they had just finished playing a 5000 seat show in Nashville the previous day… obviously complete pros.

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