I attended a Sandra McCracken concert here in Nashville a while back. (She’s one of my faves. Check out her music. You’ll thank me later.) The venue was fairly small and crowded, but I managed to get a spot right next to the sound guy.

I love being next to the sound guy.


Really good sound engineers are always actively mixing. They don’t “set it and forget it,” then sit down to play games on their phone.

This guy was a pro. He had silver hair down to his shoulders. I’m fairly certain there was an earring or two, maybe a few tattoos. He was probably in his fifties, and I got the sneaky suspicion he had mixed many shows in his career.

Sadly, whenever I come across a music industry veteran, I expect him to be a cynical, crusty, angry old curmudgeon. But this guy was something completely different.

The Engaged Sound Guy

I didn’t actually have a conversation with him. Heck, I don’t even know his name. But just watching him work told me a lot about him.

First of all, he cared about the music.

This guy was “on” all night. He rode faders the entire show (more on this in a minute). He was constantly watching the musicians and bobbing his head to the music. He was engaged.

Who would you rather have mixing your show? This guy or some stoner in a black t-shirt who can’t be bothered to even look at you, much less act like he’s enjoying himself.

At the end of the show, Sandra made a point to say what a joy this sound guy was to work with. If you’ve worked with a lot of sound guys, you know that “joy” isn’t a word that gets associated with them very often. Many tend to fall into the disgruntled crowd.

But there diamonds among the rough, and this guy was one of them.

“Okay, Joe, so what? The guy bobbed his head and moved the faders. Big deal.”

It is a big deal. And it relates closely to the work we do in our home studios.

See, the reason this sound engineer was so impressive is because he was a member of the band. His instrument was the sound system. The mixer, the effects rack, etc. He played his instrument as hard as anyone on stage. He was arguably the most important member of the band.

He knows that music is a living thing, and living things MOVE. So he was constantly fading things in and out.

Work That ‘Verb

One of my favorite parts was when he would work the reverb. He had some sort of outboard reverb unit he was feeding with vocals (and maybe other instruments, too). The output of the reverb wasn’t coming into an effects return, where you control the volume with a little knob. Instead, it came back through a pair of channels on the board. That’s right, he took up two channels of precious real estate on his mixer to have reverb on a set of faders.

Why? Because he WORKED that reverb. Most sound guys will engage/mute effects like reverb and delay between songs. That’s pretty typical. You don’t want to hear them when the singer is introducing a song, etc.

But this guy would keep one hand on those two faders most of the time. He would fade the reverb in and out during each song at just the right moments. When the song got quiet and intimate, he would bring the faders up. When the lead vocalist finished singing a line, he would fade in the reverb to fill the space between phrases. When there were five or six singers on stage singing at once, he cranked up the reverb with them, creating this huge wall of sound.

It was never too much. Never over-the-top. But it was also never static. He played that reverb like an instrument, and it had a HUGE impact on the entire show, whether people realized it or not.

Closer to Home

Remembering back to that show, I feel a little guilty about how I tend to treat my mixes in my home studio. I tend towards creating fairly static mixes. There aren’t a lot of moving parts.

Then I imagine this live sound guy mixing one of my songs. He would work those faders and bring effects in and out to create something bigger than what I could get with a static mix.

Perhaps you’re like me, and you like to keep your automation moves to a minimum. I get that. Too much automation can be a bad thing. But next time you mix a song, think of yourself as one of the members of the band. How can you add your musical touch to the song in such a way that doesn’t distract from the song or the musicians but enhances them both?

It’s a question worth thinking about.

Got any thoughts? Leave a comment below.

Joe Gilder
Home Studio Corner

P.S. Update: The sound guy’s name is Frank Sass. He runs sound at The Rutledge.


  • John Friedlander

    Why wait for later? THANKS for Sandra McCracken… her sound is luminous.

    • She’s fantastic. Listening to her right now.

  • Jey Mayberry

    I always love it when I can hear the engineer’s musical contributions on recordings and live performances. Volume swells, reverbs, delays…I’ve always considered the man behind the mixer to be Maestro of the performance. When i sit at my DAW with my imaginary baton, i’m in charge of who plays, when, and how loud. It’s my contribution to the song, and i feel people forget to really appreciate that sometimes. Not MY contribution specifically, but I mean in general.

    Great article, Joe!

  • Randy

    Joe, I do both – live mixing for our band at church, and mixing in the studio, and this reinforces the ‘live’ concept for studio mixes. Taking and “active” part in the process as the engineer is completely acceptable! Increasing the reverb wet/dry mix at the end of a phrase for example can have a profound effect on a vocal or instrument track…. Great stuff! Thanks for putting this out there and reminding us to be ‘part of the band’!

    • You’re welcome. Thanks for the comment, Randy!

  • Bart Hamill

    Have no fear… breathe with the room & allow it to breathe with you.

  • Walt

    Well stated Joe! I’ve done more live mixing than recording over the last 25 years and have always felt this way about it. On any live system that I set up for my own use, I always run the FX through faders and feed each FX processor from an aux. Then each channel gets its own amount of feed to the FX processor and its output goes through a channel into the mix where it can come alive. I’m hands-on with the compressors, etc., too. Everything contributes to the life of that sound.

    I’ve seen guys “set it and forget it” and it boggles my mind. I’ve even seen someone running sound for a chart topping band from the 70’s~80’s (who I’ll leave nameless) sit around and laugh with his friends while he missed queues – it was infuriating to watch and it had to be frustrating to the band…

    The FOH sound engineer is certainly one of the instrumentalists and can make or break the performance.

    It feels great to breath life into a group’s sound while being transparent – about makes you want to dance behind the board. 🙂

    • Great stuff, Walt. I wonder if sound guys can get away with it because the band usually isn’t hearing the FOH mix, so they don’t know if he’s keeping things interesting or not?

  • Johnny Fuller

    You tell em Joe! good post

  • boingy

    Great post Joe !.. That’s my thought :/

    • Thanks boingy.

      • boingy

        Its Jason Mark Yates by the way…dont know why but Boingy is my footie fan name ;)…lol

  • Joseph

    Well said Joe. Automation can really make a great song exceptional and a good song sound great. EQ being so powerful becomes becomes a nuclear power when it is combined with automation/ active mixing. I use it so often.

    Great read Joe

    • Nuclear, eh? That sounds dangerous…

  • Darcy

    I so enjoy this post! This sound guy was helping the music breathe — and that is a great way to think about using reverb and delay in a mix! It keeps our ears engaged and conveys the emotion of the song in a way nothing else can. It is an awesome music sculpting tool!

  • Billy Hooks

    Thanks Joe I am a “live sound guy” mostly for church,and what you are talking about is what I tend to do when I mix I always try to use more reverb on soloist when appropriate. and I am always moving with the beat highlighting guitar solos and bass. Always serve the song.

  • jp65535

    I Love Automation! Gone are the days when it took 8 hands and a foot to make all the fader moves necessary to get that chorus to swell just right. And using it on effects makes them interesting again.

    • Part of me wishes I had lived in the “8 hands and a foot” days.

  • Christopher Jansen

    Alas, you underscore a crucial point, once and for all: the mixer (sound engineer or whatever title you wish to affiliate with the operator(s) of the boards – whether in the studio or at the show) is a musician, period. She, or he has every bit as important a role (if not more so) than each of the musicians, regardless of their status. How often have I performed to witness the amazing transformation of sound in the house? Often enough.

  • Guy

    Great post Joe! I’m a firm believer in moving, living, breathing mixes! Take the time to ride those faders to achieve dynamics! It never has to be drastic….just the most subtle fader moves make a big difference. That’s why I’m such a fan of control surfaces in this ITB age.

    • Great case for control surfaces, for sure.

  • Johnny Bigg

    Hey Joe, I’ve been listening to the simply recording podcast you do with Graham and have been really enjoying everything you guys talk about. As I write this I’m listening to your song forgiveness which is a beautiful song by the way. I was wondering how I would go about finding all the bands that you or Graham have tracked or mixed? Thanks for all your great guidance and information you guys are doing a great job. I hope to record an album one day.

    • Thanks so much, Johnny. Not sure what you mean by all the bands we’ve tracked and mixed?

  • I’ve always been a big fan of using volume and panning automation to emphasize certain tracks at just the right time. I feel like probably that comes from my (minimal) experience doing live sound, where I could definitely ride the faders as the song progressed.

    I had never really thought of automating the reverb level. I might try that out on my next mix. I’m sure it’s the kind of thing that could hurt more than help if you overdo it. But it would be interesting to try and see how it works.

    Thanks Joe! Great article.

  • Modis Chrisha

    I am working from time to time as the sound guy for bands beside working as a DJ/producer and sound engineer in my home studio. I know all to well what you just said in this article and yes this is so true, I am like this guy, I consider my mixer an instrument which is extremely important to rest of the band/crew. I realized the difference with automation when I was listening to some former music productions, the ones where I was using automation on every channel and on every plugin. These mixes were so alive and vivid that I simply had to agree that I haven´t put the same efforts in my current mixes. I changed my work flow and “bang” the boring and static mixes became pumpinng, powerful and alive again.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and wisdom 🙂

  • Jack Todd Dickinson

    One of the best posts you’ve written, in a long line of well written posts man.
    Fantastic portrait of how important being active, and a part of the music, helps the sound come alive.
    Well done Joe.

  • Gary Foss

    I love the idea of using faders for verb. In my mind, I’m seeing using delay in the same way. There’s times when some huge delay would come in handy, even just for a couple of seconds. Any thoughts on this anyone else? Thanks.

    • Absolutely. I think a really well-used tap delay can make a huge impact live, but it definitely needs to be “ridden.”

    • Jay

      When considering the moving parts within a homestudio mix, I think that
      makes all the difference. Although I don’t ride the faders for the reverbs I will have multiple reverb channels for different styles within the mix. My mixes tend to get to big to, so that may be a downside. For live mixing Gary is on spot though….