SO WHAT DOES A SOUND ENGINEER’S JOB LOOK LIKE? WHAT EXACTLY DOES A SOUND SYSTEM CONSIST OF?
The job starts at the microphone, like dozens of tiny specialized ears, we place microphones throughout the stage to pick up the sound of individual instruments. Each microphone is selected for the instrument and style of music, placed very close to the source in an attempt to isolate the sound as much as possible. Microphones usually live on specialized clamps or stands, and use cables to patch into an audio mixer.
The audio mixer combines these microphone signals and manipulates them in dozens of ways in order to create a studio-quality mix of the performance. From equalization, to noise gates, to compression, to the use of effects like reverb and delay, each microphone is individually tailored before being summed to a single stereo (left and right) output that’s sent to the main PA amplifiers. (“PA”, by the way, stands for “Public Address”). Our mixer is a world class digital mixer from Allen & Heath, which can modify and mix up to 64 signals and sum them into 32 separate unique mixes to be sent to various speaker sub-systems. The mixer can even record them into a computer as individual tracks to be mixed down in a studio later for a live recording.
From the mixer outputs, the signal is sent through more cables to amps, where the signal is increased in level enough that it can move a speaker cone. Amplifiers require large amounts of power to be able to transparently recreate signals that have a lot of dynamic range and energy. Furthermore, low frequencies require more energy to recreate than high frequencies, so events requiring a lot of bass energy will need more available power for the sound system than events with lower bass level requirements. This power is only used in brief bursts however, so the maximum power consumption is rarely ever seen by the power supply.
The speaker cables from the amplifier outputs connect to the speakers, which are carefully placed in the venue to direct sound into the listening area to reduce reverberant energy in the venue from sound bouncing off the ceiling and walls, or spaces that aren’t a part of the listening zone.
The performers are usually outside of the coverage area of the main system, so they have another dedicated system called a monitor system which they use to ensure they are performing their best. This consists of low-profile speakers, usually on the stage floor in front of the performer, each equalized and fed a specific mix of instruments so that the performer can stay on top of cues and deliver a solid performance. It’s very typical to have completely different mixes for each performer, which requires some time to dial in just right during sound check. When the performer is comfortable they can forget about the technical aspect of the show and focus on the art and the audience. Coming from the performers perspective, we can appreciate the needs of performers and are ready to help make their experience as fluid as possible.
Having knowledge of the bands instrumentation and technical requirements ahead of the show day allows us to bring the right assortment of equipment and have it as close to ready as possible by the time the artist sets up for sound check.