The HUB: What do you think the key differences are between engineering live sound and studio recording?
David Gaumé: In the studio you get all the do-overs you want. But in live sound, you’ve got to be in the moment; you’ve got to be more deliberate and decisive. I do studio work also and the two disciplines definitely inform each other. Working live sound teaches you how to move recording sessions along and work faster, and how to build a monitor (headphone) mix. Studio work reminds me how malleable audio can be and to not be afraid to color outside the lines. I don’t see live sound as something separately compartmentalized from studio work.
The HUB: What do you consider to be the job of the live sound engineer?
DG: As a front of house engineer, I’m working for the artist and I’m also working for their fans. Since the artist will never actually hear what you’re doing from the stage, you need to be intuitive about what the artist wants to deliver; what the focus and aesthetic of their music is. And what the fans might want to hear.
The HUB: What are some of the favorite bands you’ve worked with?
DG: I’ve tried to seek out bands to work with whose music has meaning to me. Some of the more memorable ones in that regard are Wye Oak, Other Lives, Failure, and Autolux. I mention those because their studio recordings leave a lot of space for a sound engineer to work in and creatively perform, to be a part of the music. Sometimes you want to replicate effects on the record, other times you might be able to go beyond that if you are given the creative license.
The HUB: How did you end up doing live sound?
DG: As a musician in my own band I began tinkering with microphones and sound about 20 years ago. I started out learning how to use a four-track recorder to record demos for my band. Then, going out and hearing bands playing the clubs I thought, ‘I can make them sound better.’ So I started shadowing some of the club guys who would let me watch and take notes, until it was time to jump in for somebody. It wasn’t amazing at first! There was a whole lot of trial and error. And I’m still endlessly attracted to sound engineering because there’s still so much more to know.
The HUB: What’s on your checklist when it comes to readying a room for a show?
DG: Tuning the sound system. I try to hammer out any issues with the system before the band walks on stage for the soundcheck. This would be done with level settings and EQ on my main and matrix outputs, listening to a select few recorded tracks I know well. If I’m on tour mixing one act, I don’t have to change the input channels which contribute to the mix very much from day to day, if I’ve tuned the outputs correctly. Sometimes there are things in a room that can’t be fixed with EQ and you have to live with those.
Another important part of live sound life is to anticipate how the room sound will change once people fill up the space. Types of PA, shapes of rooms, ceiling height, humidity, and so on can all be factors. Doing it with repetition if how those guesses get more informed as we grow in experience.
The HUB: Speaking of touring, what’s the gear you don’t leave home without?
DG: The first thing is my mic package. It gives me consistency, no matter what consoles or conditions I need to deal with.
Next are headphones — It’s important to know the sound of your own very well. In many festival settings you only get a line check through your headphones and don’t hear the PA until song one of the set. I use Shure 840s—I have a few pairs of those.
I also take a wireless router that I trust because I always have a tablet with me. Even if they say that they have these things, I always show up with my own because I know it’s going to work when I plug it in.
It should go without saying, always take ear plugs. And I also have a camping French press, plus a hand grinder and quality beans so I can have some control over the coffee situation. [Laughter.]
The HUB: Talk a bit about the things to do and avoid at soundcheck; what should bands new on the live scene know about interacting with the house?
DG: The soundcheck is not a rehearsal. You don’t need to play the whole song. Don’t play extended solo sections. Unless you’ve arranged a rehearsal with the venue, don’t do it. Be communicative. The sound engineer doesn’t know what you’re hearing onstage. They’re doing informed guessing at best. Don’t be concerned with asking for tweaks as many times as you need to in order to get it right. Engineers want to get it right in soundcheck, so speak up.
You should also trust that you and the house sound engineer are on the same team, going for the same thing — a great show.
The HUB: In terms of gear the band should bring — stuff like DI boxes — what do you recommend?
DG: Definitely. If your band has a lot of keyboards and gear like that, bring your own DI boxes. If there’s eight DI boxes coming from one side of the stage, bring your own XLR snake too. If you require more than a couple of power outlets for pedals etc, bring your own power strips, and extension cords. These things are cheap, can make life easier for the engineer and more consistent for you.
Even bands just starting out should bring their own preferred vocals mics. It doesn’t have to be something super-expensive. Start with an [Shure] SM58 and go from there. It’s important you are consistent with the mic you use so when you monitor through your wedge, you know the mic’s sound. There’s also the hygiene issue.
The HUB: As a sound engineer you sometimes work with bands and genres that you’re unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with. What are the best practices in those cases?
DG: Listen to the band’s records. Keep in mind the fans may want something other than what you’d usually bring right out of the gate. I’m pretty much a rock guy, but if I’m going to mix a country act, I really don’t see a lot of differences in how I go about doing my job. For something like EDM, the goals might be completely different. But I’ve been pretty deliberate and lucky in seeking out bands to work with songs and music I relate to.
But in all cases I can think of, the crowd wants to hear the vocals loud, clear and intelligible. Even when the artist themselves might not want that. It can be a tricky balancing act. Of course, with differing genres, the expectations might be different. Keep an open mind as much as you possibly can.
The HUB: Closing thoughts for aspiring engineers and bands?
DG: There are so many tools and DSP possibilities even on budget consoles nowadays; as a young engineer you might think you have to use those tools all the time. But don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t cause issues. Compressors, for example, aren’t always the answer, and have side effects. Leave things that already sound good alone. Most importantly, remember to have fun on your job. You’re getting paid to work on music so it’s your dream job. Right? If not, you’re in the wrong field.
As far as bands go, show up on time, and tell the club what gear you’ll be showing up with. And if you don’t know how to do an input list and a stage plot, ask a friend or sound engineer who does.