By Greg Nelson, front-of-house engineer for Pearl Jam, Incubus, and others
When I began my career as a live sound engineer in the early 90s, I couldn’t have predicted how much the music scene was going to change — but I knew that live music was my passion, and that the quality of the sound was at the core of my work. Throughout the years, I’ve had the honor of working with legendary artists including Pearl Jam, Incubus, Goo Goo Dolls, Beck, and Band of Horses. And while much has changed — trends in sound, how and where people buy and listen to music, what drives artists’ success, and more — some of the challenges I face in engineering have persisted for decades and are only recently finding new solutions.
For example, as a front-of-house sound engineer, every evening presents its own set of challenges. The venues themselves are different — and while some sound great, others simply don’t. Many older arenas were designed to be very loud, yet aren’t acoustically-friendly.
When it comes to sheds, the problem is the huge lawns where the majority of people are listening to the show through venue-provided speakers instead of the artist’s PA system. It’s frustrating. I can’t hear — and have no control over — what the audience hears on the lawn. And as big a problem as it is for live engineers, it’s often artists’ biggest fear. All they want is for fans to hear what they hear on the stage. They entrust the front of house engineers to make their live music sound good, and when everyone in the audience doesn’t experience high-quality sound, it’s a major fail. So, once you learn the tricks of the trade and are well-respected in the field, change can be daunting — especially if it feels like another unknown between musicians and their audience.
My experience with Mixhalo — the brainchild of Mike Einziger — proved to be a solution to the lawn problem. I first encountered the audio technology in 2015 through my work with Incubus. Using Mixhalo as a sound engineer alleviates the worry of crappy sound in any part of the venue, especially in the lawns at a shed, as it gives everyone in the audience the same high-quality audio we get at the front of house. It gives me control without having to navigate various venues’ unique PA systems.
The other big opportunity with Mixhalo is giving fans the opportunity to personalize their own sound experience with multi-stream mixes — and giving engineers the ability to literally mix it up. Let me explain.
Over the years, the type of fidelity that PAs can produce has improved, but Mixhalo can go a step further and give people control and personalization. We can push beyond the one-size-fits-all sound experience and actually let fans decide which mix they hear. We can create up-mixes or mixes featuring only guitar or other instruments.
Last year’s Incubus tour let us do just that. We set up a multi-stream system in the Mixhalo app where fans could toggle between hearing Mike Einziger shred on the guitar or José Pasillas’ drum solos; or tuning in to the vocals of Brandon Boyd. It was a truly unique experience and people really geeked out.
Hearing is Believing
Earning the trust and respect of the live sound community will take some time. It’s a progressive change from how we’ve mixed sound for years — and the adoption of new techniques and technologies takes time to earn the respect of my creative class.
But I’m here to say that it’s worth it. Setting it up is easy; it takes only seconds to assign two outputs to the console. That’s it. From there, you can add plug-ins and master it — creating
various mixes or dial-in compression to make the output sound different than how the PA mix sounds. Or, you can create a whole new mix just for Mixhalo. There’s lots of room for creativity and the options are endless; it’s kind of a sound engineer’s dream.
Some people worry Mixhalo will eventually replace PA systems, but in my professional opinion, that’s not the point. PA systems at venues aren’t in danger of going anywhere; people simply love the traditional rock ’n’ roll experience too much. Rather, Mixhalo is a complement to the live sound experience. It adds a little something extra.
Piracy is another concern of both engineers and artists. The good news is that Mixhalo employs rigorous technology that prevents theft of audio directly from the soundboard. From specific encryption to detection of recording devices, no one will be able to steal a studio-quality mix from the board.
From the early days, it’s been exciting to see Mixhalo grow and evolve. As sound engineers are exposed to its countless benefits, I think we’ll start to see the technology used much more and more widely. And until then, I’ll keep spreading the word.