It's said that good sound can make a performance and bad sound can break it. Often, this comes down to the work of a live sound mix engineer: one of the primary professionals involved in controlling a band or performer's live sound.
Live sound mix engineers meet with the band before the show to perform sound check, where they coordinate with the band about sound-oriented goals and concerns and make initial adjustments to volume, balance, and EQ. In the midst of the performance, live sound mix engineers continue to make adjustments on the fly, using their phenomenal ears, knowledge of mixing consoles, and quick thinking to ensure that both performers and audience members hear what they need to.
Although many employers prefer candidates with formal education in music engineering or production, there is no replacement for practical experience at the mixing board.
There are two primary roles fulfilled by live mix engineers: front of house engineer and monitor mix engineer. The FOH (front of house) engineer, who works at a mixing board located in the audience, controls the sound heard by the audience through the venue’s main speakers. On the other hand, the monitor engineer, stationed at a soundboard on the side of the stage, ensures that the performers are able to hear proper mixes clearly through the floor or in-ear monitors. In other words: the FOH engineer controls the audience's sound experience, while the monitor engineer supports the musicians directly in hearing one another, staying together, and giving their best performance. Both roles are essential for great live sound, but in clubs and smaller venues, they may be performed by a single engineer.
Live Sound Mix Engineer at a Glance
Although many employers prefer candidates with formal education in music engineering or production, there is no replacement for practical experience at the mixing board. Aspiring live sound mix engineers often start out by interning or apprenticing with working engineers, assisting for little or no money in exchange for on-the-job learning from a professional. Experienced and successful mix engineers might obtain full-time positions at music venues, establish close working relationships with specific artists or bands, or secure sought-after positions at prestigious clubs and festivals.
While many live music venues employ in-house sound engineers, the majority of live sound mix engineers are independent contractors hired by artists to travel with them on tour, and occasionally by local venues on a show-by-show basis. Because jobs are largely filled via word of mouth, building strong industry relationships and a reputation for consistent work is essential. Live sound mix engineers with the right skill set might find additional work as live sound systems engineers, studio mixing engineers, or venue managers.
- Mixing boards
- Basic acoustics
- Audio hardware
- Excellent ears (detail, nuance)
- Basic understanding of live sound systems
- Communication skills
Unlike engineering sound in the controlled environment of a recording studio, engineering sound for a live performance is fast-paced work with immediate consequences. As such, the ability to remain cool under pressure is vital. Equally important are professionalism and a sense of responsibility, as an entire concert experience can succeed or fail based on its sound.
Additionally, people skills can be a major asset; if it comes down to a choice between two equally qualified engineers, the one who seems like a fun person to spend a long evening with is more likely to get the job—and the one who knows when to speak up and when to keep quiet is more likely to keep it.
Live sound mix engineers work most nights and weekends. Freelance mix engineers are likely to go on tour at some point in their careers, an experience that comes with its own lifestyle: spending a lot of time on the road, sleeping in a different bed each night, and meeting new people every day.