In the past, I would have told you all about the show I saw last night.
From these great bands with a killer horn section, pocket drummer and bassist, angelic singer, yadda yadda yadda. Because the show was great and I’d really love to give props to the bands I saw. But I’m not gonna do that this time because this post is not meant to shame this one sound guy who was sucking hard last night. And if I reveal the name of these bands and the venue that I was at, this sound guy will be publicly shamed by his local community and I don’t want to do that. I’m sure he’s a great dude.
But hopefully all Front of House (FOH) engineers will learn from this. And do better.
Honestly, few things bug me more than a great band on stage getting their sound botched coming out the speakers because the sound engineer is either inept, not giving a fuck or just plain bad.
Which brings me to the Ari’s Take Cardinal Rule #1: For important shows (and tours) hire a great FOH engineer.
It’s worth the investment. It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend in the rehearsal space prepping for the show if your sound is mangled coming out the speakers. You could be the greatest band on the planet, but literally one dude could make people in the room think you absolutely suck. One dude!
The dude at the venue I was at last night, was this dude. And not The Dude, unfortunately.
The night started strong. The opening band sounded great. The mix was on point. My only complaint was that the sax was a bit buried in the mix. But overall, it was a real solid mix. Sonically, everything was in its place. It was clear this sound guy had chops. Dude was walking around the room with his iPad mixer making it sound sweet. I was so impressed that I was debating getting his contact info to potentially hire him for an upcoming show.
But then, the (touring) headliner took the stage to a packed house of about 300. This band is one of those bands with millions of streams, strong representation all around, but still very much emerging and can’t quite afford to bring a sound tech on the road with them yet. I’m a fan of this band and know their music well.
From the get go, their phenomenal singer with an angelic voice was nearly inaudible.
I turned around to look at the sound guy, wondering WTF was going on. Sure enough, he was making out with his girlfriend back by the board! Commence all jokes about sound guys getting the girls.
I’m not joking. I wish I was.
This lasted the first two songs.
Then he realized he should probably do his job so he (and his girlfriend literally latched onto his waist) wandered back to his spot in the middle of the room with his iPad and began showing his gf the magic of the iPad digital mixing board. He seemed to be teaching her how it all worked. And getting all geeky about the bass frequency map.
All the while WE COULDN’T FUCKING HEAR THE LEAD SINGER!
I’m sorry, this is honestly one of the biggest problems with many FOH engineers – even when they don’t have a woman latched around their body: they bury the vocals!
I’d like every FOH sound engineer to start their days, every morning, by looking into the mirror, saying to themselves 5 times over: “vocals come first.”
Do you not realize that 99% of the audience only really notices one thing? The vocals! If they can’t hear the lyrics, the vocals are too quiet. Everything else in the mix should support the vocals. Always.
You want to disagree? Ok, show me a record that has been released, well, ever, where the lead vocals are buried and you can’t understand the lyrics. If you find that record, fine, bury that band’s vocals because that’s clearly how they want their shit mixed. But 99.999999% of all records ever released have the vocals audible in the mix. So, please err on the side of what nearly every artist on the planet would prefer: audible vocals.
Don’t spend time dialing in the bass if we can’t hear the vocals.
Don’t spend time working on the effects for the snare if we can’t hear the vocals.
Don’t spend time finessing the EQ if we can’t hear the vocals.
That’s what sound check is for.
When the show starts, your 1st 2nd and 3rd priority is to get the vocals sounding right. THEN move on to everything else. But guess what, don’t ever stop asking yourself “can I understand these lyrics?”
I’m a musician. I get it. You want to get the bass to thump and to show off the incredible subs you got in the room. You want to bring sonic flourishes that tickle the back of your neck when the keys hit the 400hz range. Fine. AFTER the vocals are perfect.
For some reason many FOH engineers oddly prioritize vocals last. They want to flex their mixing chops first. Please stop. Name me one genre of music where the artist would prefer the vocals to be an afterthought to everything else. Not even EDM. Yes it’s all about the Producer, but when I was at Coachella last week, all the singing guests that came out to sing with the Producer stars of the Sahara Tent were heard! We could hear their vocals (AND the bass)! Fancy that.
Even the Marshmello show I went to (don’t judge me – I had free tix) when he didn’t have any human singers in the room with him, we could hear all the vocal lines and understand all lyrics. That’s clearly how this superstar producer wanted the vocals to sit in his mix – even when there’s not a singer on stage! Because he knows what people are listening for.
Last night, this was a show where they had an ample sound check. But unfortunately, this band didn’t have someone in the house to be able to tell the sound guy “uh, yeah, can we put her vocals on top of the mix? Yeah, the vocals should be priority here.”
Well, not that mind boggling considering dude was gettin’ some when he should have been givin’ some… shits.