BY MARTIN FREY

As a live FOH mix engineer, I’ve made it my business over the years to learn as much as I could about the basic principles of sound system physics.  This philosophy has given me two great advantages as a mixer: 

The ability to successfully trouble-shoot and best optimize any PA whenever I find myself under less than ideal circumstances. (This almost never happens!)

To better understand how and why both the set-up and adjustments in the PA may directly affect both my FOH mix for the audience and the resulting sound onstage for performers.

In my experience, a skilled system engineer can make any festival, one-off show or an entire tour a very happy place for me to mix at the FOH.  (Note: The potential for the exact opposite emotion also exists!)

I know from experience that my relationship with the FOH system engineer on any show is crucial to achieving a very important common goal.

That is a great listening experience for the entire audience at every show. 

Both the PA system and mix engineers each possess a unique skill set.  In combination, they can successfully merge both the art and science of live sound reinforcement.  “Science” being the physics of sound and “art” being the final mix the audience experiences during a show.

For both engineers, depth of knowledge—i.e., individual expertise, experience, good communication skills and trust—are all key to achieving this end.

In my opinion, “Synergy” is the best way to describe this important relationship.

The job of the PA system engineer is to provide me with a “blank canvass” so to speak, so that I can “paint” a sonic picture for the listening audience.

A skilled PA system engineer will use his or her knowledge, tools and greater understanding of sound reinforcement physics, including but not limited to:

1.   Physics, math, acoustics, safety.  

2.   A detailed understanding of the specific PA system being utilized, including all related PA specific hardware/software-based tools, etc.  

3. Proper installation, measurement and alignment techniques to install and optimize the PA system safely and correctly in each venue.

4. Really cool tricks like how to create a “precedence” effect, “Haas” effect, how to beam steer subs, arc-delay subs, create an end-fire or cardioid sub pattern, etc.  

Each of these cool tricks requires combined elements of precise measurement, time/delay and/or polarity/phase manipulation.  It also requires the correct interpretation and implementation of hard data i.e., math and physics.    

These are just some of the skills required to deliver a predictable, repeatable uniform response throughout the audience listening area (and performance area) every day, in every venue.  

My system engineer enables me to present my final mix evenly throughout the entire audience listening area with minimal affect upon the artist/performers.

That’s why my system engineer is most definitely my best friend on the job!

Having said that, it’s also my responsibility to clearly communicate to my system engineer my own specific needs and/or tastes as to the expected response and performance of the PA system. (Aside from any specific audio tech rider) 

Why?

Because these needs can and do vary greatly!  They may depend upon the style of music or type of presentation that I’m mixing.  They may depend upon specific needs or demands directly relevant to my client and/or artist.  They may depend upon the needs of a particular audience, venue size, special event or promoter.  They may also depend upon locally imposed and enforced volume (SPL) restrictions (becoming more and more commonplace today).  And last but not least, the final budget for PA may to some degree become a deciding factor as well.

However, once we have arrived at a mutually acceptable (happy) place sonically, it’s time for me to mix a show.  There is still potentially work yet to be done by my system engineer.

I must now rely upon him or her to quickly make any adjustments or changes to the various elements of the PA (as they become necessary) during a performance. This is to ensure consistency for the listening audience throughout the show.

Why? 

Because our listening environment may change dramatically between sound check and show time.  Also during the show itself, for that matter! The audience, once fully seated inside the venue (the difference between an empty and a full house) or a sudden turn in the weather (moisture/humidity and wind) are just a few examples of how the PA may react differently from earlier in the day. 

I’m now behind the console mixing the show and I can’t leave this position once the show starts. My attention is directed solely towards the mix and the artist/performers in front of me.

A very good system engineer will constantly monitor, take all of the aforementioned elements into account and make any necessary adjustments.

My system engineer is both my eyes and ears outside of the mix position once the show begins.

Trust becomes an essential part of this relationship for obvious reasons.

In my opinion, these are all key elements in providing our ticket-buying patrons with a consistently high quality, memorable listening experience.

Synergy is what happens when my system engineer and I are on the same page at all times. Real “synergy” can only happen when we come together as a team.

Our combined instincts, abilities and passion for excellence can only result in us truly becoming a part of the audience’s entire listening experience. That’s positive synergy!