John Cooper On Breaking Into Live Sound

John Cooper has mixed plenty of household names—Lionel Richie, Sheryl Crow and Ringo Starr to namedrop only a few—but for the last 10 years, most of his time behind an FOH desk has been spent mixing hundreds of Bruce Springsteen shows. The guy knows his stuff, so when he offered his advice on how to get ahead in the mixing biz, we listened.
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John Cooper has mixed plenty of household names—Lionel Richie, Sheryl Crow and Ringo Starr to namedrop only a few—but for the last 10 years, most of his time behind an FOH desk has been spent mixing hundreds of Bruce Springsteen shows.

While he’s achieved a lot, Coop had to start out like everyone else in live sound, working hard to get his foot in the door. A teenage electronics buff, he began learning the ropes in nightclubs at age 17 and was working in large venues within three years. “By the time I was 22, I was mixing in arenas, so I’ve been very fortunate,” he says. “I moved up very rapidly. A lot of guys I started with are still playing nightclubs.”

So what does it take to make the leap from nightclubs to international touring? It’s an intangible mix of talent, good ears, affability, communication skills, and yes, some luck, but as the saying goes, smart people make their own luck.

With that in mind, we asked Coop what was the most important thing someone breaking into the business could learn. Standing in the center of an arena, about to mix a sold-out show using the very latest in bleeding-edge digital technology, he gave an answer that was strictly analog:

“Listen to music. That’s the number-one thing you’ve got to bring to the table if you want to be a successful music mixer.

“A lot of people call themselves engineers—and I do when I have to fill out a mortgage application—but I’m a music mixer. And you have to understand music. You have to understand progressions and how things are supposed to be put together. If you’re not a musician, which most good sound engineers are—I’m probably one of the rare exceptions to that—you have to have a sense of where music goes, how it’s structured and how it’s built. That’s the most important thing: Have a feel for it, and if you’re fortunate enough to have a feel for it and what you do pleases most people, then it becomes pretty easy.

“Just listen to the music. All this electronic stuff means nothing if you don’t have a sense of the music when it starts. Most musicians don’t want to hear about compressors and gates and 10K and all that business. They’re going to talk to you about music and that’s where you need some knowledge, because that’s what it’s all about when the lights go down.”