The Hotseat: An Interview With FOH Engineer, Zac Ruokari (Part 2)

I had the pleasure of sitting down to have a chat with a veteran FOH engineer, live mixer and musician by the name of Zac Ruokari. We discussed everything from mixing tips, how he got to where he is today, gear-talk, and more. Take heed – this information is absolute gold!


For part one of this interview, click here.

Q: What are some common live mixing pitfalls or ‘rookie errors’ you commonly see interns or assistants (or even professionals) making?

Over compression is a massive one; too much compression on the master buss and or channels. Use compression very sparingly if you have to. IF something isn’t sitting right in the mix, go to the EQ first. Then Comp. Having the kick drum too loud and boomy/thick is a sure sign of inexperience.
Also, there are far too many rookie engineers who stand behind the console throughout the entire gig. Get out and walk around the room and have a listen to how it sounds in all parts of the room! Get the overall idea of how it sounds to all the punters. Obviously different parts of the room are going to have a different sound… try to get a good mix across the whole room.
Don’t forget to relax! Bands, Tour Managers etc all can tell if you’re freaking out, and will either ride you much harder during the gig or say negative things about you after the event. Just chill! If something stumps you, say to the band or whoever, “yeah no worries mate, I’ll get right onto that for you”. Then, go to the toilet and get on Google and find out, or phone a friend and figure it out! The easiest way to instantly get bands and their entourage offside is to admit to not knowing something to their face. It’s your job to know. If you don’t, find out quick smart, and without them knowing you didn’t know.


Q: What are your thoughts on music education for career success? Do you feel that getting a professional certification or degree is necessary for success in the industry?

Well, this one is hard for me to answer. I don’t really believe that having a certificate of completion to any of the renowned music production education facilities really helps at all, and in many circles is actually a hindrance.
I personally had a very bad experience at the school I attended, and would never recommend anyone go down the same path as I did, but also accept that the course may have been very interesting to someone completely fresh, who had never even heard of an EQ before they enrolled.
But as I said to an earlier question, the student-to-job position ratio is way out of step in reality, so don’t go into a course expecting to have studios calling you desperate to have you work for them. It’s the other way around, and is a very VERY hard road.
Having said that, live work is definitely more consistent and there are more positions available, but you will be going up against the ‘old-school’ mentality that frowns down upon anyone who has gone to an audio school. It’s not easy, but hey…. horses for courses… I met some great people in my class, and that’s the most valuable thing I took from my time there.

Q: Give us your best technical mixing technique that helps you pull off those crystal-clear live mixes.

Parallel drum compression on a drum group blended with the dry signal. Do the same for Vox, and don’t be afraid of reverb/ short delays on lead vox. Pull the 2-4k region out of guitars/keys for the vox to sit nicely in the mix. High pass and low pass everything to taste. You don’t need those frequencies.

Sound Mixer is prepared for the big concert ** Note: Slight graininess, best at smaller sizes

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to aspiring live engineers that are looking to get their foot in the door?

Meet people! Talk to them. Offer to work for free bumping road cases and rolling cables! Show a serious interest in what you want to do. Talk to other engineers (not on a show tho!) Ask interesting questions. Go to heaps of live gigs. Listen intently. Try and hear what the engineer is doing. Stand behind them and watch them (not creepily tho) and even ask them if you can stand near them and watch.
If you strike up a good rapport with the engineer, give them your number and be keen. You never know when they might need you.

Q: Tell us about a time where you encountered a live mixing issue and had to think quickly to resolve it.

Too many to list! But, one that springs to mind; I won’t name the band, but the violinist turned up with an old violin which she repeatedly said was worth over $150,000. Unfortunately said ridiculously valuable violin had no pickup, and she was part of an indie rock band with 3 vox, a full drumkit, 2 guitars, bass and keys all on a stage the size of a drum riser.

Stage in Lights before concert, instruments setup

Q: And how did soundcheck go?

No soundcheck (get used to not having a soundcheck when you’re starting out!). All fold backs were pointing directly at the violin, and to make matters worse, said violinist kept moving away from the mic whilst playing. I had the parents up in my face saying they couldn’t hear the violin.
I thought about this for a second, and ended up having to get really creative with the placement of the foldbacks mid show, and actually gaffa taped her left foot to the stage and told her not to move. I copped heaps of weird looks, and the people associated with the band abused me, said I didn’t know what I was doing… but the violin didn’t feedback after the 3rd song, and I got it to sit quite nicely through in the mix.
Unfortunately, there are alot of very wealthy parents of musicians out there that just don’t understand that a $150k violin doesn’t necessarily work when put next to a drumkit and guitar amps.

Shootout questions!

Q: Favourite piece of hardware that you currently own?

Well, not that I own personally, but I really love our Midas Pro2 consoles at Manning Bar, used in conjunction with or d&b audioteknik J and V series PA. Seriously good stuff.

Q: Name the dream piece of gear you’d love to own.

2 x Empirical Labs Distressors, or any Manly outboard gear.

Q: A live mixing engineer whose work you admire.

Brett Tollis (sleepmakeswaves). Every time I watch him work, I can just tell he is loving what he is doing, and he just pulls such a clear, beautiful mix with so much openness and space, yet just kicks you right in the nuts when it needs to.

Q: Something you’d wish you’d known about live mixing from the start that you had to learn the hard way.

It’s a hard road to travel, full of potholes and people trying to keep you out of their profession. Just keep your head down, eye on the prize, and work on becoming the best engineer you can be. Be the person you would have pleasure in dealing with. Don’t succumb to being the ‘grumpy sound guy’ that has run this show for the last 20 years. Be pleasant! It makes yours and everyone’s day SO much more enjoyable.


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