Don't Forget the Basics

Image courtesy of The United States Army Band

Image courtesy of The United States Army Band

One of the cool things I get to do is travel around to a lot of churches and conferences each year. Most of the time, I’m just hanging out and talking to people, which I really enjoy. But when the session or service starts, I typically migrate towards FOH to see what’s going on. What I have observed is a somewhat disturbing trend. Now, this may make me sound like an old guy and a Luddite, but I’m really not. OK, I am old, but I’m not a Luddite. But here’s what I’m seeing; with the advent of digital consoles at FOH everywhere, I see a lot of engineers spending a lot of time tweaking plugins, turning on all the compressors or playing with SMAART, but not a lot of time on getting a good mix put together. 

Now, to be fair, sometimes this happens at conferences where there is not a ton of time to do a full soundcheck, or at least not as thorough as one would like. That’s a different problem, and a different post. But, what I see is people focusing on the wrong things. So here are some suggestions based on lessons I’ve learned over the last 25 years of mixing.

Start with Good Gain Structure

If you know you are going to be short on time for your soundcheck, get your gain structure right first. Before you start loading up the plugin rack or setting up all your cool parallel compression, get the gain structure right. Nail this, and you are 80% of the way there to a good mix. As I’ve said before, there is no plugin that will fix an overloaded and distorting input. And if you don’t have enough gain, you’ll be fighting noise the whole gig. 

It’s important to remember that for many, many years, engineers mixed with only a simple 3 or 4 band EQ on the channels, and maybe a few channels of compression. While I don’t advocate going back to those days, the point is they made it sound great by focusing on the basics. Start there, then dress it up.

Build the Mix First

Again, I see a lot of younger guys spending time trying out different plugins on the bass, when what they should be doing is bringing the mix together. Once the mix is sounding good, then go after the cool stuff. I remember hearing a story of a guy who spent all of soundcheck at a festival getting the rack toms sounding amazing! Problem was, he ran out of time and never got to the rest of the band. As a result, the show pretty much sounded terrible, except for those few seconds each song when the drummer hit the toms. 

Don’t get so enamored with all this cool new digital technology that you forget what you are really there to do—mix. When I am training volunteer engineers, I teach them to mix on a simple analog console first before letting them step up to the Digico. If they can demonstrate putting together a great mix on a GB16, I’m pretty confident they can do so on an SD8. 

When Time is Really Tight, Skip the Fancy Stuff

Sometimes we have to do events where we get a couple songs as a “soundcheck,” before the doors open. That is not the time layer effects, parallel compress or insert seven plugins on your lead vocal. Get your gain right, build the mix and go after big problems. Then when the lights come up, mix the show, tweaking as you go. Ideal? No, but it will sound good. 

Do we wish we all had time to record the rehearsal, then spend a full day tweaking every setting on the board and making it perfect? Sure, maybe. But we don’t all have that all the time, so we need to make sure we’re focusing on the right things when time is tight. Give it a go and I can promise you your mixes will sound better in less time.

Roland

Same Gear, Different Results

A few months back, my daughter asked me to mix for her worship leading final. Of course, I said yes immediately. Then I discovered the venue. It was not ideal. That’s being polite. It was a big, hard box with lots of parallel walls, a poorly implemented PA and a mix position outside the coverage are of the speakers. Oh, and FOH was only accessed by a tight spiral staircase. Cool. 

The mixer was a little A&H analog deal, the speakers were forgettable and someone decided to mount the projector in a rack right next to the mixing position so the hot air exhaust blew on the engineer the entire time. I fixed that by flipping the door on the rack around to direct the air away from me. But that’s not the point. 

I ended up mixing not only my daughter’s set, but three others as well. When the class was over, four or five people came up and thanked me for being there and every one of them said they had never heard that room sound so good. 

Now, I say that not to blow my own horn, but to make the point that the gear is not necessarily what makes something sound good or not. I have heard terrible mixes on great PA’s and great mixes on less than ideal ones. 

You Have to Get Better at Mixing

I talk to some guys, especially at small churches with small or no budgets and they continually tell me that they could do a better job if they just had better gear. Now, that may be true to some extent. But the reality is, you can get better at mixing no matter what you have to work on. Every time I mix a gig on some really crappy gear, people come up and tell me how much better it sounded than they expected. Again, not to tell you how great I am, but to say that I have spent the last 20 years learning how to wring the most performance out of whatever gear I’m given. 

Sure, I’d rather mix on an SD5 with an L’Acoustics PA, but if what I have to work with is some old JBL cabs and an MG32, I’m going to do my best to make it amazing. It’s what we do.

Complaining and Blaming Equipment Won’t Get You New Gear

If I were writing a book, this would be a chapter. It’s easy to constantly complain that you don’t have the right mixer, the right mic’s, the right speakers, the right lights, the right whatever. But no one likes a complainer. You know what church leaders do like? Someone who knocks it out of the park every week despite the crappy equipment their given. Learn to do that, and you will eventually get what you want.

New Equipment Won’t Magically Make You Better

You have to get better. I’ve walked into churches with fancy new digital boards and listened the result and cringed. When I look at how they have it set up, it’s often a mess. If you don’t understand the fundamentals of gain structure, EQ and basic mixing, it doesn’t really matter how many on-board compressors you have or how many plugins you can rack up. In fact, those usually do more harm than good in inexperienced hands. Learn to mix on crappy gear, then move up the food chain. 

Remember, these are all just tools. It’s up to us to learn how to use them to their fullest capacity. Learn to do that and it won’t matter what you find yourself mixing on.

Roland

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A Quick Fix When the Mix Isn't Working

Photo courtesy of kjeik

Photo courtesy of kjeik

Recently I had an experience I’ve had before. I was working on mixing down a song we did a few years ago, and I just couldn’t get it working. I do this stuff for fun now that I have more free time, and I enjoy playing with different techniques in the studio that I wouldn’t be able to do live. I had been working on the mix for quite a while, and it wasn’t happening. I rendered it out, sent it through my mastering process then went and listened in a few spaces. Nope. Not working. 

Back in the studio, I kept picking at it, but it wasn’t getting better. Finally, I took the nuclear option. I saved the file, renamed it and started over. I pulled out all the plugins, muted all parallel processing and pulled all the faders to off. I began to re-build the mix from scratch, doing only as much processing as I absolutely needed. Within an hour, it was sounding pretty dang good. Another hour later and I was really digging it. A test mix down revealed a few things to tweak, but overall, it was finally where I wanted it. 

Deep Weeds

The first time I saw this done live was about 10 years ago. I was at church, working with a guy on the sound team. He had been a touring engineer in a past life, and generally knew what he was going. But that day, the mix wasn’t working. We both tied to fix it, but we just couldn’t get it there. Finally, in what I saw as an act of desperation, he just pulled all the faders to off. “That’s it,” he said, “I’m starting over.” 

For the next few minutes, he rebuilt the mix channel by channel. And when he was done, we looked at each other and nodded. It was working. I’m not entirely sure what changed; the board didn’t look that different from where it was before he killed the mix. But it was different enough. 

Sometimes, we can get ourselves off in deep weeds and lose sight of what we’re trying to do. And, like being lost in a field of deep weeds, we can keep going, but never get to our destination because we can’t see it. There is so much noise happening in our minds at that point that nothing works right. Pulling all the faders down is like having a giant brush hog come in and mow the field. Finally, we can see where we’re going. 

Clear the Decks

When you clear the faders, you can re-start the mixing process. This is like re-booting your computer. You get a fresh start at the mix. Now, you can start from the rhythm section as I often do, or start with the vocals. I’m not sure one way is right or better than the other. Maybe try both and see what works better for you. I tend to think in terms of a foundation of drums and bass, layer in guitars and keys, then put vocals on top. But others prefer to work the other way. 

The funny thing about this process is that most of the time, you won’t be able to tell what was wrong with the mix before. But it will be obvious to all that it is better. 

As a word of caution, if your band is on wedges and not in-ears, you may want to warn them before you do this. If you pull down the house during a song, the sudden loss of volume from the house may freak them out. And while it probably goes without saying, do this during rehearsal, not the service. 

Happy mixing!

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Mic'ing Easter, Pt. 2

Last time, we talked about some of the things you’ll run into for the big Good Friday/Easter weekend; specifically, vocal and instrument mic’s. And that’s all good, but what happens when you have more things to mic than you have mic’s?

What To Do When You Run Out Of Mic’s?

Easter is a great time to rent mic’s. It’s hard to justify the purchase of a big mic locker if you only use some of the specialty mic’s once or twice a year. Microphones are one of the cheapest pieces of audio gear to rent, and most large cities have a couple of production houses that have a good selection. Don’t be afraid to go outside your city if you need to, either. Mic’s aren’t heavy or expensive to ship, so you can get them from almost anywhere. 

If you are unsure what mic to use for a particular purpose, ask your rental house, or contact an engineer at a nearby church known for good sound. Keep in mind that everyone has opinions on the best mic for a given purpose, and you may have to compromise based on budget and availability. 

The Wireless Option

Often, people will want to try to put everything on a wireless mic for big productions. I generally advise against this, for several reasons. First, wireless is hard. You have to frequency coordinate everything, deal with batteries and hope your antenna distribution system is up for the task. Second, they simply don’t sound as good as a wired mic. Instruments and sources that don’t move, have no real reason to be wireless. 

For big events, we often switch our worship leaders from the usual wireless mic’s we use for services to wired just to give us a little more security—and to accommodate the additional vocalists we always end up with. The rule of thumb should be, if you can wire it, do.

Mic’s Can Make The Difference

It’s really amazing how much difference the right mic can make, even if the sound system is less than ideal. On the other hand, if the sound system is good, a poor mic choice will produce harsh and brash results or make it sound like there is a blanket over the speakers. I’ve watched many a production and thought, “Oh that voice would sound so much better on a different mic.” 

And it is important to note that we’re not talking about “good” mic’s and “bad” mic’s here; we’re talking about the right mic for a particular source. I’ve personally replaced $2,000 worth of mic’s with ones that cost less than $400 on our Leslie cabinet and the resultant sound improvement was dramatic. It’s not that the expensive mic’s are bad; they were simply not the best choice for that instrument. The cost of the mic is a surprisingly unhelpful indicator of whether or not it will be suitable for a source. 

It’s almost always going to come down to experimentation and a willingness to try something that doesn’t seem like it would work. My current favorite snare mic is marketed as a tom mic; but I love it on the snare. We tried it based on the recommendation from a friend who though, “I wonder what this would sound like here?” 

Preparation is Key

Of course, Easter Sunday morning is not the time to be trying out new mic’s or looking to rent them. You must start working on this now. By the time you read this, we’ll be less than two months from Easter. There is no better time to start figuring out what you will have to put mic’s on, and which mic’s to use. And remember, this is the fun part of our job!

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.