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Monday, 7 December 2015

Live Mixing - Back to Basics

I’ve been mixing live around Melbourne for about 7 years now and I've been going as a punter for about 12. In that time I've learnt a lot of things about mixing live shows and what sounds good and what doesn't. 

There are a few very basic things that I've learned to focus on while mixing that I think everyone should think about when getting behind the desk. Don't get me wrong, I'm guilty of some of the worst live mixing crimes, and I'm far from the best mixer in the world but I'm improving my craft every time and there's some basic tricks to get you started. 

Forget The Rest - Volume Faders

So many times I've looked over to a soundie at a live show and they're meticulously working the parameters of their compressor or their EQ. Meanwhile, the sound of the show is completely unbalanced. The vocals are too low, the kick’s too high, the guitars are drowning everything out or the snare’s getting lost in the mix. 

Sure, if you’ve got the time before the show, or if everything is already balanced, start fine tuning your attack and release settings, but if you're mid show, your focus should be to just get it sounding balanced. You should be able to hear each part of the mix evenly and it's the easiest thing to do because you’ve got your volume faders right in front of you and all you’ve gotta do is push them up or pull them down. 

Now, this isn't a matter of just pushing each channel up a bit more when it's harder to hear. Sometimes you’re going to have to pull sounds that are too loud down to make room for other sounds. It's very easy to be caught just bumping up level more and more until your outputs are red lining and the audience’s ears are bleeding. 

Don't be scared to tell the guitarists to turn down their amps. Guitarists are a strange breed. They have this obsession with how their amps should sound. They think that they can only get the right tone if they have their amps cranked and that getting that sound is more important than the overall sound of the gig. If they're too loud, tell them to turn it down until it's not too loud. If they complain, tell them “the gig will sound worse if you have it this loud”. It's the truth, you don't want to be spending all your time getting the other instruments to sound good around the guitar just to stroke their egos. Of course, you want to get this done before the band starts. 

Next Up - Simple EQ moves

Again, this is assuming that you had little to no sound check time and are trying to get a great sounding mix on the fly. After your volume faders, EQ is your next step to a great sounding mix. 

It's very easy to get bogged down in what frequency of the high mid you should be boosting to get more punch out of your toms. I urge you to focus on the most important elements of the most important instruments first. 

Most of your EQing needs can fall into: too much high/low end, or not enough high/low end. That's where you really need to use your ear to decide what sounds need. Of course, the mid bands are very important as well, but usually sounds are either too harsh or too muddy and when you're rushing to get a mix to sound right on the fly, using these controls is the easiest and quickest way. 

Low end buildup is something you should watch out for. Low end has a tendency to get quite overbearing in a mix and can create problems in getting your mix heard nice and clear. Because most of the sounds are cardioid pattern mics used close up to their sound sources, proximity effect adds a lot of low end information. 

I suggest hitting the low cut filter button on every channel except kick and bass guitar. Many times I put it on bass guitar as well. On top of that, don't be afraid to pull out quite a lot of low end in each channel. Of course, use your ear to see if it needs it, but you'll find your kick and bass guitar really cut through and sound a lot better when there's less other unnecessary low end information in there. 

Back To Volume Faders

Everyone has seen this mixer, or maybe you are this mixer: the guy who gets the sounds to about where he wants them and then spends the rest of the show looking at his phone. 

The vocals aren't heard in the quiet sections and the guitar solos are inaudible. When asked why no one could hear the singing in the bridge, they say “the singer’s mic technique was terrible” or make some other excuse.

As a mixer, you're getting paid to make the band sound good and be heard. Compressors are great for some kinds of levelling but they have their limitations and you have to compensate for that. 

90% of the time, the most important part of a band is the vocal, and that vocal needs to be heard at all times, nice and clear, without being overbearing. I try to keep one hand on the vocal fader and use the other hand for whatever else needs doing. 

It’s become a subconscious process for me to always have control of the lead vocal level. If it's not loud enough, you push it up and if it's too loud, you pull it down. Do this enough and you can predict how a singer will sing and make your vocal level changes before they've started singing. 

I once had a singer who would change between screaming and singing all the time and even with a compressor on the vocal, I was making volume faders moves of 20dB between the two techniques. That is a massive change that had to be levelled out. But if I wasn't changing the level manually, it would be changing between overbearingly loud, to inaudible. 

If I have one piece of advice for any new sound engineer, it's to get off your phone, stop making arbitrary EQ and compressor moves, and ride the main vocal fader. 

The same goes for other instruments. If someone starts playing a lead part and you can't hear it loud and clear, boost it! If the keyboard changes to another patch that is too loud, pull it back. 

I've heard many techs blame the bad mic technique and bad patch levelling for the mix being off, and that’s probably true. But it's your job to make them sound better than they are, and if you won't do it, they'll find someone who will. 

My Mix From Hell

Many of these essential basics of mixing really came to me out of necessity. It was during a mix where I had very little time to get a sound and had to prioritise very quickly what moves I was making because of the lack of time I was given. 

So, here's why I was in that situation:

I was mixing the main stage of a one day music festival for a charity event. I was supposed to mix the first 9 bands of the night and then the second last band had their own soundie but he had agreed to mix the headliner as well, giving me the rest of the night off. 

All the bands if mixed during the day went great and, because we were supplying backline the sounds were consistent and relatively easy to mix. When the second last band got up, their Soundie started and I have him a rundown of how I had it patched and went for a beer. 

He changed all the drum, guitar and vocal mics to his own, which is fine as I was using the venues basic stuff. The problem came when that band finished. 

I was found by a very distraught stage manager, telling me that the Soundie had decided that he didn't want to mix the last band and instead, go and get high with his friends. So he ripped out all his mics and left the leads all over the stage with the headliner setup and ready to go.

I had to very quickly get up and plug in mics into whatever cables I could find to get the sound going ASAP as the band were supposed to have started. This meant that I essentially had to start from scratch on the desk. 

When I had everything on stage looking right, I got back to the desk, pulled out the compressors and gates, put a new strip of tape one the desk and got out my pen to mark my channels. I did the quickest line check ever, asking the band to go through each line, checking where it was metering on the desk and labelling what it was. 

If, by chance, I got the mic in the right channel, I'd leave the old EQ, but if it was different I flattened it out. Once all the channels were labelled and I knew there was a healthy level, I had to push up all the faders and just say “go”. 

Very quickly I realised what was too loud and what was too quiet. I had the vocal mic up where it should be as first priority and then proceeded to level the other instruments around it. Because I was only focussed on a good balance, and doing what needed to be done, I had a decent mix in less than 15 seconds. 

From there, I started addressing whether sounds were too bright or muddy, making quick adjustments with the bass and treble knobs, starting with the vocal channel. In less than a minute I had a good sounding mix that was well balanced without any sounds that were distracting. 

I could relax a bit and for the rest of the song, I kept one hand on the lead vocal fader and used the other to make some finer adjustments in the mid range EQ of each channel and dial in a bit of reverb where needed. The mix was near enough to perfect and all I needed to do was make sure the levels stayed balanced and be a little creative with the vocal delay. 

This was an extreme example of what can go wrong and I hope none of you ever have to be in that situation. However, it did show that, when focussing on the right things, a good mix can come together very quickly. The band were also extremely professional and that helped in keeping it together. 

I didn't use any compressors or gates for the rest of the set because I didn't want to add any more complications. I relied on my hand on the vocal fader to keep the vocal loud and up front. 

Do you have any live mixing horror stories? What’s most important to your live mix? Did this article help you rethink your live mixing? Do you look at your phone too much? Do you ride your vocal channel? Let me know in the comments below. 

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