Front-of-House Mixing: Here’s How a Sound Tech Does It

In the world of live shows, the front-of-house sound engineer controls one of the key ingredients to a successful gig: the PA system. Since keeping an eye on the sound, the band and the crowd at the same time is no easy task, we interviewed one of the Netherlands’ best sound-techs to ask him how it’s done and what it takes.

Just Go For It

Famed Dutch singer-songwriter and her band, Ilse DeLange is known for having a bang-on FOH-mix. For a long time, the man responsible for it was Jan-Willem Stekelenburg. He has graduated from the conservatory in The Hague and packs over a quarter of a decade of experience working as a sound tech for Ampco. So what’s the secret to a solid FOH-mix? There’s no single answer if you ask Jan-Willem: “As a front-of-house sound engineer, it’s essential to develop good ‘ear-knob coordination’ so you can translate what you hear into tweaking knobs and sliders. For the most part, this comes down to experience. I occasionally guide interns and can often tell when they know when something’s off about the sound, but aren’t sure how to fix it. They’re afraid to turn knobs while that’s exactly what every sound tech is supposed to do. The knobs are there for a reason, so just go for it.”

More Than Knobs and Buttons Alone

A tight FOH-mix is like a chain of events, meaning every piece of the puzzle has to be correct for the outcome to be good. But, like any chain, it’s the weakest link that defines the strength of the whole thing. “It’s all about teamwork,” Jan-Willem says. “The monitoring, the PA…even the food and everybody’s mood must be right for everything to work well together. It’s about more than buttons, knobs and sliders alone, and it all starts with proper stage sound. The right on-stage balance is a prerequisite here since, if some instruments are much louder than others, it’s going to be impossible for the FOH-tech to get it right for your audience.”

Jan-Willem continues: “The most common mistake is turning up the monitors too loud, which not only results in crosstalk, but phase issues. The part of the stage sound that’s in phase with the PA sound boosts the stage sound, while the part that’s out-of-phase weakens the PA sound. The result is a sonic clutter you won’t be able to clean up.”

How good a band is also determines the quality of their stage sound, and therefore the PA sound. What never helps is when each band member plays at a different volume level. “I’m lucky in that regard. My sources are perfect and so is the gear I have access to,” Jan-Willem says. Ilse DeLange and her band also use in-ear monitors when they perform. “This gives you a very distinct stage sound since you can only hear the drums, the bass, the guitar and the Hammond. Fortunately, the volume is low enough so it never gets in the way of a good FOH mix.”

Always Scanning

When someone plays a solo, do you lift the volume of the solo so it comes out on top of the rest of the band? Jan-Willem: “That’s something I prefer to leave to the musician, provided they know what they’re doing and only play solos that are in line with the band in terms of balance. I’ll only tweak as needed based on my responsibility to bring out the details.”

What’s the biggest mistake any FOH engineer can make? Jan-Willem: “Watching someone play their instrument without hearing it. That’s why I’m always scanning the stage, constantly comparing what I see to what I hear. At the same time, I’m continuously PFL’ing (PFL means pre-fade listen) so I can hear what each musician is playing and compare their sound to the overall audio image.” According to Jan-Willem, the trick is to keep your eyes locked on the stage instead of looking down at the controls. “No matter how much you love those buttons, this is a skill that every sound technician must master. After all, the buttons are just a means to an end. It’s all about the performance.”

Open Sound

Ilse DeLange’s gigs are known for their open sound, which Jan-Willem believes to be the merit of the musicians. “They’re never in each other’s way, which separates them from nonprofessionals who tend to play too densely. Ilse’s arrangements are very open, allowing everything to fall into place gracefully.” That transparency of sound can be achieved through a little equalisation: the boosting and weakening of certain frequency ranges. “I know for a fact that Steely Dan’s FOH engineer goes to extremes here. He’ll start out by determining the most important frequency range for each instrument before filtering out the rest. If you were to listen to each instrument separately, it would actually sound quite strange, but in the mix, it sounds just fine. While I also try to assign frequency ranges to each musician, I’m nowhere as extreme as he is. I’ll only filter out the bits that aren’t important. In the case of hi-hats, I get rid of everything below 1kHz. When it comes to vocals, I cut out all frequencies below 80 Hertz.”


To what extent does the use of effects determine the quality of the FOH sound? “Effects are the cherries on top,” Jan-Willem says. “They’re my own humble artistic contribution to the show, my way to work some of my personal preferences into the sound.”

Reverb and delay are examples of popular effects. Reverb lets the sound slowly die off while delay adds an echo effect to the sound. Jan-Willem: “Just how intense both of these effects should be depends on the circumstances, the genre and your preferences. With Ilse, I barely used delays but I did pile on the reverb, especially during live shows. In any case, any added effects have to be tasteful. You’re doing it right if you can only tell that the sound has been enriched with an effect when you turn the effect off.”

Another commonly used effect is chorus. “Chorus widens the sound and makes it fuller. It works really well on stage in combination with something like an acoustic guitar or backing vocals. I tend not to use it much. Pour it on too much and things get ugly quite quickly.” There’s also compression, which technically isn’t an effect but is nevertheless indispensable for front-of-house mixing. By applying compression, quieter sounds get boosted while louder sounds are weakened, evening out the overall audio image. “I always add a little compression to vocals,” Jan-Willem continues. “It makes the inbreaths audible, something I personally think sounds beautiful. Compressing snare drums won’t do any harm either. While it eliminates the initial attack, it also fattens up and enhances your snare sound.”


During soundchecks, you’ll often see sound techs start with the details before they move on to the bigger picture. Sometimes, the bass drum is up first and will take quite a while to dial in, leaving little time left over for the rest of the band. Jan-Willem likes to flip the order: “First, I’ll let the entire band play like they’re rehearsing, which is something a lot of bands appreciate when they’ve got details they’d like to go over one last time. When that’s done, I’ll begin fine-tuning things. I prefer to listen to the drums as a whole, starting with the overhead microphones before moving on to the individual instruments – most of which I usually won’t go over separately. Of course, I’m doing all of this in conjunction with the monitor mix engineer since they’ve also got a job they’d like to do right.” When working festivals, the goal is to keep the change-overs as short as possible. This means that while one band is still up on stage, backliners are already preparing backstage for the next band. So everything can be swiftly set up on stage, all of the next band’s gear is placed on rolling risers.


While his colleagues are busy backstage, Jan-Willem hooks his mixing console up to the PA system with the help of the local PA tech. After everything has been plugged in, he’ll do a line-check through his headphones to make sure it all works. Since it’s taking place backstage, line-checks can be done without bothering anyone. “The art of mixing at a festival is doing it without any soundchecks,” Jan-Willem says. “Nowadays, digital mixing consoles are quickly becoming standard practice. For Ilse’s gigs, I saved all of my settings to a USB stick so I would simply slot the stick into the mixer and have almost everything dialled in perfectly right away. The only prerequisite here is that you work with the same microphones every time. I take the first few songs to dial in the specifics and, if possible, I’ll play some of my own music during the last minutes of the change-over. I know exactly how it’s supposed to sound, so I can already start tweaking things based on that.” Back when every mixer was still analogue, mixing engineers were forced to jot down their settings on paper and bring their lists to gigs. “Or you took a photo of your settings that you kept with you,” Jan-Willem quips.

For Casual Listeners

“When I’m mixing, I’m actually mixing for myself,” Jan-Willem concludes. “I’ll do things the way I see fit. That said, I am sensitive to feedback, so should people critique me, I won’t ignore what they’re saying. My mixes cater to the casual listener, which is why I like to over-emphasise bits sometimes. Say a song has a really recognisable melody line that keeps popping up. Since it’s so defining for the song, I’ll kick that melody line up an extra notch. It’s stuff like this I’m always looking out for.”

See Also

» Analogue Mixers
» Digital Mixers
» Powered Mixers
» All Mixers
» Speakers
» Amplifiers
» Microphones
» PA Starter Sets
» All PA Equipment

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