Live Sound & Life on the Road with Engineer Liam Halpin
Unlike studio recording – where you can re-do a take or change your mind about microphone selection – live sound gives you just one chance to get things right. The live environment also presents a plethora of other challenges, such as reducing the pickup of unwanted sounds, maximisation of gain before feedback, and the added abuse your gear will be subjected to on the road.
You could experiment with microphone selection and placement until you hear the right result, but in reality you've got a very limited amount of time on your hands to get things right. Understanding the fundamentals of sound reinforcement and having confidence in your microphone selection from the start can make the difference between success and failure on the road.
To give you some insight into the life of a touring live sound engineer, we teamed up with Liam Halpin, who has worked with some of the industry's biggest names. His experience includes tours with Damon Albarn & The Heavy Seas, Barry Manilow, Prince, Blur, Joel Compass, The Who, Lou Reed, Tom Jones, & the Gorillaz.
Liam has also been involved in special events including the Teenage Cancer Trust shows at the Royal Albert Hall, Sundance London Film Festival, and The Ahmet Ertegun tribute featuring Led Zeppelin.
Shure UK: Having worked on some big productions, can you give us an overview of what you do?
Liam: It's quite varied really. Live sound encompasses so many different aspects. I do a lot of work for installation, including certain clubs in London. Occasionally I get called in as a consultant for various installations as well. The majority of my work is in the touring market, dealing with front-of-house speaker system design, looking after engineers and the equipment, mixing (FOH or monitors), and also dealing with the RF side.
Shure UK: What was your first experience with Shure?
Liam: Like most engineers getting started, my first experience with microphones of any kind was the Shure SM57 and SM58. Everything at that level was a dynamic microphone, so it's been in excess of 20 years since I first came across 58's and 57's.
Shure UK: Are there any stand out moments you can recall in your career?
Liam: I think the big one has got to be the Led Zeppelin concert at the O2 Arena in 2007. I was working for the PA company, basically teching a mixing desk, which was very early in its life. I had to deal with some software issues, and of course, because it was such a high profile event the pressure was really on. One of the magazine reviews summed it up quite nicely; they went through all the technical aspects of the show, and then finalised with a statement - "All the technical stuff aside, it was the ultimate Rock n' Roll I was there moment".
Shure UK: Moving into the specifics of microphones. How do you go about selecting the right mic?
Liam: The key thing in the touring market is reliability; especially if you're looking at something like an arena or stadium gig. You could be performing in-front of thousands of people. If it's televised, that number could jump into the multiple millions. You can't afford to run any risk of failure. You only get one chance.
Shure UK: How does your approach change from venue to venue?
Liam: It depends on the compromises that may or may not need to happen. When you work with a touring band, the setup can often be fairly fixed from show to show. However, depending on the criteria, different tools are required for different jobs. For example, you might need a lot of channels for radio mics on certain shows, which can then reduce your channel count for other things. You might then need to be more creative with your microphone placement. There's so much of live audio that is about compromise in some way or another and you just have to weigh up the pros and cons of each decision.
Shure UK: What's the most difficult instrument to mic?
Liam: Sometimes the toughest one is when you have a string section added to a fairly loud rock band, because of the delicate nuances of strings, getting a good amount of gain before feedback in those situations is tough.
Shure UK: Do you have any regular "go-to" microphones?
Liam: Recently I've been playing around quite a lot with Beta27's and Beta181's. They've been phenomenal. I've used the Beta27's as ambient mics, we've used them on the guitars recently, and we've also used them as overheads for drums.
The beta181's having interchangeable capsules have proven very versatile. For example, you can use those on snares. They're nice as a small diaphragm condenser and you can get them close to the snare without any fear of the drummer hitting them. I've also used them in their omni format inside an upright piano, picking up the low end of the strings, and then using the Beta98a to pick up the top-end -- playing around with positioning to get a good balance between them.
Shure UK: Do you have any mic tips or tricks you like to use?
Liam: I think the toughest one is when you have a drummer that doesn't take into account the position of the microphones. Because invariably we close mic all the drums, it's not that uncommon for people to hit a floor tom and say "well that sounds great. Why doesn't it sound like that when you mic it up?"
There have been a few occasions when I've motioned for people to stick their ears near the rim of the drum so they can hear what the microphone is hearing. In all cases you end up hearing rings and sustained notes that you don't necessarily hear from further away.
Wireless systems and life on the road
Shure UK: You also mentioned that your job sometimes involves the wireless side of live audio. Starting with in-ears, do you have a preference between wedges or IEMs?
Liam: That decision tends to be down to the individual artist, and there are many factors that can contribute to that decision. The toughest thing for artists starting out with in-ears is dealing with the fact that instead of having a big sound field their working in - it's all in their head - and that can feel quite isolated. If you've got an artist that isn't familiar with in-ears and an engineer that's not used to putting in-ear mixes together, it can end up putting the artist off. The artist feels completely isolated, and what they're hearing in their head can feel very unnatural.
Shure UK: What's the most important aspect of setting up wireless systems?
Liam: When you start getting into the larger format systems and touring a greater number of regions, it becomes more difficult, and planning becomes a lot more critical.
Shure UK: What's the average size of system you encounter?
Liam: A fairly common quantity these days is anywhere between 6 and 15 channels of in-ear monitors, and then, depending on the band, up to half a dozen mics.
Shure UK: What's the most challenging thing about being a live sound engineer?
Liam: Probably being away from home so much. And, being thrown in at the deep end with a group of people that you may or may not have worked with before. Being on tour is a very closed eco-system and if any disagreements arise, it has to be sorted out. At the end of the day, you're all getting on the same bus and living in each other's pockets.
Shure UK: What advice would you give someone starting out as a sound engineer?
Liam: The key thing I find with people coming into the industry, is attitude. The courses that are available are great, they give you a good foundation, but no one is going to let you walk out of college and straight into an arena to mix front-of-house for a big show. The key thing, is actually getting in with a crew, or with a band/company, and then building on the foundations that are laid out in the course.
It's also about knowing the right time to ask questions. Most of the people I work with don't have any issues answering questions from younger crew members, but when we're pushed against the clock, and split-second decisions have to be made, it's much better to ask once the dust has settled.
For more information about Liam Halpin, visit his website.