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Mixing Christmas Eve Pt. 1

Occasionally I’m asked about my workflow for managing bigger events like Christmas and Easter. I thought I would do that in this post, but first, a little context. I mix on a Digico SD8, which has a great snapshot system (arguably, the best in the biz right now). On a typical weekend, we start rehearsal at 3:00 and are done by 4:20 with a service at 5:00. 

I ended up with 67 snapshots. The ones with + signs in front of them are grouped together, facilitating easy updating of all the snapshots in the group. Color-coding tells me the source of click (video or tracks).

I ended up with 67 snapshots. The ones with + signs in front of them are grouped together, facilitating easy updating of all the snapshots in the group. Color-coding tells me the source of click (video or tracks).

That doesn’t leave me a lot of time to go crazy with snapshots; typically I simply build a starting snapshot for each song, one that sets the mix up for the beginning of the song. That way, no matter where I end the previous song, I am good to start the next one. I’ll also create snapshots for transitions like prayer, announcements videos and the message. A typical weekend will have 12-18 snapshots, largely dependent on how many transitions we have. 

Start with Rehearsals

For Christmas Eve and Easter, we get to do mid-week rehearsals, which I track using virtual soundcheck (an RME MADIFace connected to a MacBook Pro running Reaper). With the whole band on the hard drive, I can then spend time working with the mix and refining my mixes.

On normal weekends, I don’t feel the need to do multiple snapshots per song. This is mainly because our bands are smaller and I can fit all the faders for every channel on the surface. It’s easy to mix songs live that way. But with the bigger bands for C&E, I end up with channels down a layer from my main layer. And sometimes, I need to build a segment or change the mix enough and I can’t do it with 10 fingers. In those cases I’ll use snapshots. Other times, I want to change the effects settings during the song—lengthen or shorten a reverb time for example. Also a great use case for snapshots.

Develop a Process

My process is pretty simple. I’ll start by listening to the recordings of the songs many times a few weeks in advance. Once I know the songs as well as the musicians do, I start to develop a plan for how I will approach them. During the rehearsals, I will not spend much time mixing. Typically, I’m making sure my gain structure is correct, the musicians are happy with their mixes and that the “tape is rolling.” 

I also listen to the arrangement they are putting together. We don’t always have the same band configuration as the recording, so we move parts around. Once I know those moves, I know where do make the adjustments. The next day (typically), I’ll sit down in front of the desk with the tracks and the music in my binder. I like to watch the music and make notes as the band plays through with the faders just pushed up. 

I take notes in pencil, noting what I want to feature during each section of the song. When I notice that there are more things that I want to change than I can physically do, I will mark a snapshot. Normally, I’ll listen to the song two or three times, making notes all the way through and developing my plan. 

Build the Snapshots

With an idea of how many snapshots I need, I’ll quickly create those in the console. I’ll talk about what I recall in those snapshots in a bit. With the snapshots in place, I’ll play the tracks again. I step through my snapshots (which are all copies of the first one), making changes live. If I need to, I’ll stop the track, back up, and tweak some more. This is the beauty of virtual soundcheck; I don’t have to keep asking the band to play bars 34-65 over and over again while I figure out where the acoustic should be. 

Depending on how much I’m changing, it may take two more passes through the song to dial each snapshot in. When I think I’m done, I’ll run it one more time for practice. The I repeat the process for the rest of the songs. It may take 20-30 minutes per song, sometimes less, sometimes more.

Now, while I may have 3-6 snapshots per song, I still mix throughout the whole song. This is not mix by numbers; I’m simply using the power of the console to make more fader moves than I can make at once. Often, the changes are very subtle, but there are a lot of them. I may drop the level of the acoustic, perc and winds and boost electric, keys and drums for a bridge. I could do that with VCAs, but moving 6 faders to the right spots for multiple rehearsals and four services is hard. Once I’m re-set, I start mixing from that point again. 

Next time, I’ll talk about my recall parameters and board layout.

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