FOH Kyle Hamilton on Mixing In-Ears and Favourite Gigs

Front of house engineer Kyle Hamilton – who’s worked with some massive names in music including Janet Jackson, Usher, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell Williams and many more – joins Headliner on a call from CenterStaging rehearsal studio in Burbank, CA where he’s gearing up for a string of one-off live shows with Doja Cat...

How’ve you been keeping busy lately? Can you tell us how you first got into mixing live sound?

Right now, I’m literally juggling three artists at the same time: Doja Cat, Lizzo and Usher. It’s about to be full throttle for the live music world for a while now, because everybody wants to get out and have a good time. I’ve been in live music for 28 years, and last year was the first time I’ve been home for that duration of time for at least 20 of those years.

My career really got going in 1994; I was working with a number of different artists as a system engineer just doing a little bit of everything – patching, setting up backline etc. I started out doing gospel plays – that’s where I really cut my teeth, learning how to deal with multiple microphones, feedback, and all that other good stuff. When you’re in a theatre setting for two or three weeks at a time, that’s a good way to learn your craft and tighten things up.

My first breakthrough was when I graduated from system engineer to front of house mixer, and was called up to work on a show for The Isley Brothers. It was off to the races after that.

Whoever you’re mixing, you need to know their catalogue and their sonic identity, because these are hit records for a reason.

Tell us about your general approach to mixing front of house.

You have to do your homework. Whoever you’re mixing, you need to know their catalogue and their sonic identity, because these are hit records for a reason. I’m not mixing them from my perspective, I’m mixing them from the perspective of the producer or artist who intended to convey a particular feeling in the first place.

I listen to the music and then I talk with the MD, and ask – for example – ‘do you want the drums in Pro Tools to be more predominant during this part?’ It’s important to have these little conversations with the powers that be. They’re the ones hiring you for your expertise, but at the same time, you’re there to bring their audio vision to life.

The audience wants to hear those signature sounds, like guitar solos and synth lines. If the band is doing something that makes it a special moment per se, you feature those little nuances, but for the body of the music, you keep it true to the record with a live feel.

You’re somewhat of a JH Audio loyalist. Tell us how you use IEMs in your workflow.

I’ve got a couple of pairs of Laylas from JH, and I love them. For certain situations, like when we’re building the show, my approach is – if I know my desk sounds right, I’m never going to adjust the mix in the desk. I will adjust things in the room before I touch my console. 

When I give a mix to my client, they want it to bang in their headphones, their iPods, their car, their little Bluetooth speaker in the dressing room, and so on, so I use the JHs a lot to fine tune my mix within the desk and the sub to my own environment.

My JHs are like my near fields, except they’re on my head. So if the background sounds low in the mix of my in-ears, it probably means that the background sounds low in the overall mix, so I need to push that up. My Laylas are true, nicely balanced and add no colour.

Any particularly memorable moments from your time on the road?

One was when I was on tour with Rihanna. She played the Stade de France, and she was the first black female artist to sell that place out at the time, by herself without support, and I was the first black engineer to mix a gig of that scale in that venue. Looking around and seeing 80,000 people, all for her, was breathtaking.

The one that really takes the cake though is The Isley Brothers, way back when the SARS pandemic was happening. We did a show in Canada for 500,000 people on an Air Force Base; I have a picture hanging on my wall of an aerial shot taken from that show. That was epic for me.

Listen to the full interview with Kyle on Headliner Radio below: