It's Called Mixing...

Photo courtesy of mtneer_man.

Photo courtesy of mtneer_man.

Several years ago, my friend Dave posted a tweet about a few of the things he did during a service. It went something like this: “Push up the snare for the open. Duck the hat down for the verse. Push the guitar for the bridge. Drums up for the breakdown. It’s called mixing.” I’m paraphrasing and don’t remember any of the exact phrases except for the end one, "It’s called mixing." I’m probably going to sound like an old guy here, but I sometimes fear we are losing the art of mixing. I see a lot of younger guys spending a lot of time tweaking all the plugins in the virtual rack instead of building and maintaining a great mix. In my day, I may not have walked uphill both ways to school in the snow, but we did actually have to plug in our plugins. And we were lucky if we had a couple of them. 

More than Effects

Mixing is so much more than stacking up virtual vintage compressors, EQs and tubes on every channel. Sure, those things are nice and I enjoy having a virtual rack full of compressors of many variations available when I mix. But those things are the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. If we don’t get things like gain structure and overall musical blend right from the start, plugins only make a bad situation worse. Expecting our plugins to mix for us is a little bit like expecting FinalCut Pro to edit a video for us. 

More than Set and Forget

I’ve watched more than one sound guy push the faders up, make some minor adjustments to the gain and EQ then stand there with their hands on the wrist rest, watching the service. They totally missed opportunities to add some dimension by pushing up the guitar between vocal phrases, or highlight a cool bass riff, or pop the drums out during a bridge. I’ve heard the lead vocal go from too quiet to too loud because they wouldn’t touch the fader. That’s not mixing; that’s guarding the console. 

More than The Sound Guy

I’ve long said that the guy or gal behind the mixer is every bit a part of the band. We can enhance the arrangement, add dynamics and make a mediocre band sound pretty good. By carefully crafting a mix then staying with it as the song unfolds, we have the opportunity to play our instrument in concert with the band. This is just one reason why sound engineers should know the music. When you know what’s coming up, you can prepare for it and make it better. Even when mixing unfamiliar material, having a working knowledge of music theory is most helpful. 

I got to thinking about this a few weeks ago when I found myself mixing for the Night of Illumination event in Nashville. Brady Toops was the artist, and while I’ve heard his music before, I’m not very familiar. The system was an old JBL club series PA and a Yamaha MG24. Not the best system I’ve worked on. With no compression and nothing but on-board effects, it was a lot of work. But it was fun! And by all accounts, it sounded great. Brady and his guitar player are great musicians, and starting with good source material is always welcome. And while the input count was low, I rarely stopped moving my hands. 

Without compressors, I had to resort to an ancient techniquemanually riding the vocal. I also rode both guitars and pushed the foot actuated tambourine thing up and down as needed. It was honestly some of the most fun I’ve had mixing in a long while. 

It’s easy to get into a mode where we rely on all our fancy digital tools to do most of the work for us. But I challenge you to turn off the plugins and just mix for a few weekends. Or at least pull up some tracks and try it. Getting back to the basics of building and maintaining a solid mix without assists will make you a better engineer. Then the plugins really do become the icing on the cake.

Can We Really Please Everyone?

Photo courtesy of DaveBleasdale.

Photo courtesy of DaveBleasdale.

The other day I was involved in a conversation in which someone said, “If someone leaves because it’s too loud, we haven’t done our job properly.” Now, I’ve heard this philosophy espoused on more than one occasion, and you probably have, too. It’s a commonly held concept that as tech people we should be invisible and no one should really notice we’re there. And I agree with that, at least in principle. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves, or the technology; we want to call attention to Jesus. I’m on board with that. 

However, does that really mean that if someone leaves because it’s too loud—for them—that we’ve failed? I’m not sure I buy into that concept. 

We have to establish our philosophy of worship; and that includes volume. I get so sick of the endless volume debate, and especially pastors throwing their tech guys under the bus because it’s too loud; especially when those same pastors have never established an explainable philosophy of worship. And by explainable, I mean that someone could explain it to a mad congregant who thinks it’s too loud. 

Pastors, if you’ve never sat down with your music and tech teams and established a good set of guidelines for how loud worship should be, you have no right to complain about the volume or send angry people back to the tech booth to complain. And by the way, this policy should be written down. And it shouldn’t be a single number; e.g.. “Worship shall be no louder than 90 dB.” You have a lot more work to do if you think that’s all it is.

Some congregations like it loud; and that’s OK. It’s also OK if some people are bothered by that. I know some churches who believe that during musical worship, they are celebrating the work God has done on earth through Jesus, and that celebration should be loud. To that I say, Amen! Now, there are other churches who prefer a more subtle, laid back and contemplative approach to worship, with more space for quiet and silence. To that I say, Amen!

I honestly have no problem with either approach, and I enjoy both at times. What I do have a problem with is a person who prefers quiet worship going to a church that worships loud and complains the whole time. Just because someone doesn’t like a particular expression of worship doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or that the tech guys have failed. 

You really can’t please everybody and it’s foolish to try. If your philosophy of worship is to not offend anyone, you will either end up offending everyone, or just doing a really poor job. It’s much like a football team that is playing to not lose; they rarely win. You have to decide who you want to be as a church and go all in with it. To do anything less is to squander the gift of uniqueness that God has given your congregation. 

Figuring out who you are as a church takes a lot of work and prayer, but the payoff is so worth it. When people know what you stand for, they will lock arms with you and work tirelessly to advance the cause. But when you are wishy-washy and can’t articulate why you do what you do, people will come and go without any real buy in. Figure out who you are, and own it. 

Well, at this point, I’ve probably offended more than a few people. But that’s OK. You can’t please everyone…

“Gear

Today's post is brought to you by CCI Solutions. With a reputation for excellence, technical expertise and competitive pricing, CCI Solutions has served churches across the US in their media, equipment, design and installation needs for over 35 years.

Building Proper Gain Structure Pt. 2

Image courtesy of Stuart Cunningham, used under Creative Commons. 

Image courtesy of Stuart Cunningham, used under Creative Commons

Last time, we talked about why we want to have proper input gain structure. Today, we’ll talk about how to actually do it. This may not be the only way to accomplish it, but I’ve had great success with this method for over 20 years. 

Here’s how I approach the process.

Gain setting in the digital world

For each input channel, I would have the musician play their at their loudest level. I then dial up the input gain until I’m within about 8-12 dB of full scale (minus 8-12 dB on the meters). I like to leave a little room for the musician to play louder when the lights go up (they always do). Many digital boards also have a trim (or attenuation) control in addition to the input gain. I use my trim to dial the level back to where it should be in the mix with my faders at unity. Because I’ve gained my entire system properly, my main fader is sitting at unity as well, and all is right with the world. I am also using VCAs to manage groups of faders (drums, guitars, keys, BGVs, etc.) and those live at unity as well, at least to start. All of this ensures that my signal to noise ratio is optimized at the A/D stage (just after the mic pre), and my starting point for my mix is faders at unity. 

Now, if you don’t have a digital trim control on your board, you have a decision to make. You won’t likely be able to run the mic pre’s hard without having too much signal at some point, so you’ll need to dial the level back somewhere. Of course, you can always turn the fader down, but then you lose fader resolution. A better alternative would be to use a VCA to keep your fader at zero. That can get tricky, however. Take a drum kit for example: If you optimize the gain on the kick, snare and hat, chances are, the hat will be way too loud in the mix. But more than likely, you’re using a single VCA for the entire drum kit. So now what? Well, you could break the drums up into zones and use one VCA for each; kick & snare, toms, hat & overheads might work. That way you can pull back the faders at the VCA level (a VCA is really an electronic remote control of the faders), and maintain fader resolution. You could do a similar trick with groups if you have them.

If you run short of VCAs, I would suggest breaking my rule and set the input gain up so that the fader remains around unity for a proper mix. Audio is a lot about compromise, and in this case I’ll give up absolute input S/N to gain faders at unity. I have found that to be the wiser trade, especially for things like cymbals.

Gain setting in an analog world

Really, the process is much the same, though you are much less likely to have a trim control after the gain control. In that case, the same rules apply as a digital board without a trim knob. You still want to have good input level coming into the channel (at least as much as you can), then turn it down as needed later in the mixing stage. You also want to keep your faders running around unity. Make the trades where you have to.

In either the digital or analog world, what you don’t want to do is under-drive your mic pre’s and have to add a lot of gain down the road. Sure you can push a fader up for a guitar solo, but you don’t want to regularly run your input faders at +8, your groups at +10 and your main at +5 because your input gain is set too low.

The exception to the rule

Now, all of this assumes you’re running on a professional grade mixer that has a mix structure with enough headroom. If you find yourself mixing on a Mackie or Behringer (or similar music store brand), chances are you’ll run out of headroom in your mix bus very quickly. If you set input gains on a Mackie the way you should, when all those hot signals hit the mix bus, things tend to go south quickly. The busses saturate and you lose all sense of dynamics. In that case, you need to really keep an eye on your overall output level and run input gains down accordingly. This isn’t a dig on cheap mixers—you can only expect so much for what you pay for them—it’s just reality. 

That’s a quick guide to setting up your gain for an input channel. As I mentioned earlier, if you go through this whole process only to find that your overall SPL in the house system is either way too loud or way too soft, you have some work to do at the system processor or amp level. But that’s another post...