Who do you think is the most important musician?
This is not a question I have heard posed a lot, but I am very confident about how I would answer this question, and it may not be who you have in mind.
- It’s not the drummer, although this person is critical for keeping steady time.
- It’s not the bassist, although this person is critical for how chords move in the song.
- It’s not the guitarist, although this person is often the most notable in a band.
- It’s not the keyboardist, although this person can add so much color and depth to the sound.
- It’s not the lead vocalist, although the front man can make or break how a band connects with the audience.
The most important musician, if you ask me, is the sound engineer.
The sound engineer is a musician. Their instrument is the mixing board, and they need to be able to play that thing like a Stradivarius. They need to love, and I mean really love, music. If they don’t love music, that will become very apparent in the mix. It will sound clinical and boring. I call this the NPR mix.
Their role as gatekeeper is clear: Everything goes through the sound engineer. What is muted or un-muted is totally in their hands, and a band is helpless against a sound engineer who isn’t paying attention. The sound engineer controls the stage volume, and what the band hears is largely in the hands of that person. The band has very little control over the house mix, and while a sound engineer can’t “polish a turd” as the saying goes (even if they can mute a pitchy vocalist), they very much can make or break how a band comes across in the house, which translates to how the audience responds, which translates to how the band plays. This person couldn’t be more critical.
The rookie mistake I hear (see) engineers make is when they “mix with their eyes”. What I mean is if they set levels the same (to include gain) e.g. for all the backing vocalists, the sound comes out at the same volume. True, each channel could be producing the same amount of gain, but vocalists sing at really different volumes. You have no choice but to mix with your ears.
Or you think because you push a channel up a little louder that it got a little louder. But if you didn’t hear it get louder, it doesn’t matter if you pushed the fader up. Perhaps you pushed the wrong fader up!
You can actually walk by a mixing board and see an engineer who mixes with their eyes vice their ears.
And yet, when everything is going great, the sound tech goes largely unnoticed. The only time the engineer gets any attention is if there is feedback. It’s a thankless job to all but those who know the real deal, to those who really hear a mix.
So musicians, thank your engineer for a great mix!!!!