An Exclusive Dive into the World of Audio Engineering with Kieran McIntoshPosted by Mike Schumacher
Audio engineering is a fascinating discipline that bridges the gap between raw musical talent and the listener’s ear. It’s a field that combines artistry and science, responsible for capturing, mixing, and manipulating sounds to produce the quality audio we hear in concerts, films, TV shows, and music albums. Audio engineers are the unsung heroes who ensure that the beauty of music and sound is communicated effectively and resonates with the listener.
One such hero is Kieran McIntosh, a seasoned audio engineer who has spent years honing his craft. From his humble beginnings as a youth group band leader at his local church, Kieran was drawn toward understanding the intricate relationship between sound and music. He soon found himself in the driver’s seat, learning to manipulate sound to enhance the overall musical experience. His curiosity and dedication led him to dive deep into the world of audio engineering, where he has since carved out a significant reputation.
Kieran’s journey in the field of audio engineering is a testament to his dedication and skill. Starting from church services to eventually leading the audio at the best-sounding dancehall in Lafayette, Louisiana, his experiences have provided him with unique insights into the art and science of sound. His expertise lies in understanding the nuances of sound and adapting to the challenges presented by different venues and musical styles.
Kieran’s achievements in audio engineering go beyond his technical skills. His most notable accomplishment is his contribution to nurturing new talent in the field. He takes great pride in training young engineers, helping them to develop their skills and create their own impressive mixes.
This passion for teaching reflects Kieran’s dedication to his field, demonstrating that his success is not only measured by the quality of his work but also by the impact he has on the future generation of audio engineers.The complexity of his role was put to the test during the Asia/Australia leg of the More Noise !!! Tour in 2022 with Jeremy Zucker. Despite the logistical and technical challenges, Kieran implemented creative solutions to capture Zucker’s vocals accurately, further establishing his expertise and adaptability in real-world scenarios.
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Today, we are delighted to delve deeper into the world of audio engineering with Kieran McIntosh. As a musician turned audio engineer, Kieran brings a unique perspective to the table. His approach to audio engineering is not just technical but deeply musical, reflecting his belief that a great mix is built from a great arrangement. With his wealth of experience, Kieran will share insights into the beauty and intricacies of music and audio engineering.
This is an opportunity to learn from a master of his craft and to appreciate the pivotal role audio engineers play in shaping our musical experiences. Join us as we explore the art and science of sound with Kieran McIntosh.
Hi Kieran! What an exciting opportunity to have you here. We’re curious – what inspired you to become an audio engineer, and how did you get your start in the industry?
As a teenager, I volunteered at my church as the leader of the youth group band. Over nearly a decade, from ages 11 to 21, I performed with my peers in over 1,000 church services. Over time, and as I honed my musical skills, I began to perceive a discrepancy between how the music sounded on stage and how it resonated with the congregation. Given that it was a youth group, we lacked a sound engineer and a professional sound system. Undeterred, I took it upon myself to optimize our band’s sound using the resources at our disposal.
As I paid more attention to how we sounded through the speakers, and consequently to the congregation, I observed that the worship music experience became more profound and moving. It was then I grasped the pivotal role of a sound engineer. Even an immensely talented musician could be perceived poorly if the audience didn’t enjoy the music’s sound. After all, music is fundamentally about sound. If the sound isn’t right, then the music isn’t right.
Having developed some audio engineering skills in the church, I wanted to further refine my abilities with different types of music. I landed a job at a small dancehall in Lafayette, Louisiana, where I mixed shows for Cajun and Zydeco bands on weekends. This experience proved to be pivotal in my development. Most dancehalls aren’t acoustically designed; they’re often cramped, loud, poorly insulated, and equipped with limited audio gear. Nevertheless, after a few months and a steep learning curve, the venue gained a reputation as the best-sounding dancehall in the area. At this point, I had begun to establish myself as a competent and dedicated audio engineer.
What do you consider your biggest achievement as an audio engineer, and why?
I take pride in all of the productions I’ve been involved with, but my most rewarding achievement has been the work I’ve done mentoring young engineers. I take great joy in guiding them to hone their skills and produce their own exceptional mixes. There’s nothing more thrilling than working with an up-and-coming engineer and witnessing their transformation into a proficient mixer.
Can you tell us about a particularly challenging production you worked on, and how you overcame the challenges?
Ask any audio engineer globally about the most challenging element to mix, and 99% of them will likely say the same thing: vocals. After all, that’s what the audience comes to hear. The human voice is a complex instrument and can be difficult to capture accurately. My work with Jeremy Zucker focused primarily on faithfully recording his vocal performance. This task proved particularly challenging during the Asia/Australia leg of the More Noise !!! Tour in 2022.
Touring in Asia presents unique difficulties because flying is necessary for each show, as opposed to using a bus. This requirement significantly limits the amount of equipment a tour can carry. Another challenge is the wide range of venue sizes. With a vocal talent like Jeremy’s, the noise bleeding into his mic is a major concern. In smaller rooms, it can be extremely difficult to keep drums, cymbals, and audience noise from overwhelming his voice.
To overcome these challenges, I collaborated with our FOH engineer to implement measures that reduced stage noise and minimized extraneous sounds into his vocal mic. Our first step was selecting the appropriate microphone. For this tour, we used a Shure Axient wireless system equipped with an sE Electronics V7 capsule. We opted for the V7 due to its tight polar pattern and industry-leading feedback rejection.
Next, we engaged in proper gain staging for the vocal to maintain the signal-to-noise ratio as low as possible. Interestingly, this meant doing something counterintuitive: we reduced the gain as much as possible, compensating for it at the console. We employed this strategy to tighten the microphone’s polar pattern to the maximum, effectively keeping everything but Jeremy’s voice out of the mic. Applying makeup gain at the console did not negatively impact the signal-to-noise ratio, as the Allen & Heath D-Live preamps we used on tour have a very low noise floor.
Another strategy involved using cymbal baffles from ClearSound Baffles. These baffles create a barrier between the cymbals and the vocal mic, thereby reducing bleed. Lastly, we used console processing to minimize any remaining mic noise.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting in the industry and looking to build a career as an audio engineer?
The most crucial action you can take as an engineer is to practice. If we were guitarists or singers, practicing would be simple; we could do it in our bedrooms. However, for live sound engineering, there are two excellent methods to hone your skills.
The most effective way to enhance your abilities is to mix as many shows as possible. Offer to mix for your friends’ bands, find a local church in need of a sound tech, or if you’re in school, look for school events that require mixing. It won’t always go smoothly. Sometimes you’ll conclude a show feeling like you’ve failed. But those missteps will facilitate your growth.
Mix shows… at home!
If you have an interest in mixing, you likely know a sound engineer. Ask if they have any multitracks from live shows that you could practice with. If you have access to a mixing console, use the virtual sound check feature to build a mix with those tracks. This method offers a stress-free environment to experiment with techniques and refine your critical listening skills.
If a console isn’t available, use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Most DAWs offer a free or inexpensive version that you can use for practice. Insert an EQ and a compressor on each channel and get started! Don’t hesitate to start from scratch to experiment with new techniques.
What do you think sets you apart as an audio engineer, and how do you continually improve your skills?
Many engineers tackle mixing from a purely technical standpoint. However, I’ve always identified as a musician first, and my approach to mixing is more musically inclined than technical. Instead of merely making the best of the sounds given to me at the mixing desk, I prefer to start from an earlier point: Do the arrangements and instrumentation align with what the artist is trying to express?
A great mix stems from a great arrangement – the mics and gear matter less than what is actually being played. If I can help create a musical environment on stage, my mix has a significantly better chance of being successful.
Drawing from my musical background, I also understand that there’s typically more than one effective way to accomplish something. On the guitar, for instance, there are three or more ways to play every single note. Mixing is similar. So, instead of using the same approach and techniques for every mix, I challenge myself to rethink a part of my process before every tour. This could involve grouping tracks differently, using different types of effects or applying the same effects in novel ways, experimenting with a different console, or adjusting the positions of the mics on stage.
Admittedly, this isn’t a foolproof process. Sometimes my rethinking enhances the quality of my mix. Other times, it remains the same, or it might even deteriorate. But even when a change I make detracts from the quality of my mix, I still learn something valuable. I question why certain strategies worked better than others, gaining knowledge from each of these experiences.
What projects do you have lined up for the future, and what are your long-term goals as an audio engineer?
I am eagerly anticipating the upcoming shows with Jeremy Zucker for the rest of this year and into the next. In these performances, I fill multiple roles depending on the needs of the show. Looking further ahead, I have a wish list of bucket-list venues where I’d love to mix one day. This list features legendary places such as Red Rocks Amphitheatre, The Hollywood Bowl, and Madison Square Garden. It also includes renowned music festivals like Coachella, Primavera, and Glastonbury.
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