Mike's Mixing Axioms: #5 Timing is Everything

 Photo courtesy of  David Lofink

Photo courtesy of David Lofink

Well, I bet you thought I forgot all about our final mixing axiom. I have not in fact forgotten, but have been really busy. In the past few weeks, I was part of a launch of a new church campus in Indiana, we kicked off a design process for another church in Indiana, and I took a week off to spend time with my daughter and her boyfriend who were visiting from California. In the midst of all that, writing this post took a back seat. Sorry about that! But here we are, at the final axiom. And perhaps it’s appropriate that the title is Timing is Everything.

I’m going to look at this from two completely different perspectives, both of which will make your services better. 

Time your Effects to the Song Tempo

This tip has made one of the biggest, subtle improvements to my mixes of anything I do. It’s a huge improvement because you can get really creative and layer in a bunch of great reverbs and delays which create a super-rich sonic landscape while not muddling up the mix—if it’s all in time! So often, I hear mixes that have a ton of delay and reverb in them, but because it’s not in time, it just “blurs” the sound. All those extra reflections and delays out of time make it hard to understand lyrics and can obscure instruments. However, when it’s in time, it just sounds good! 

I’ve written about this quite a lot, so I’m not going to go into great detail here. However, it’s one of those things that makes such a difference—and is so easy to do—that it’s worth mentioning again in a post about timing. 

Nail the Transitions

The other issue of timing has to do with transitions. In my view, transitions can make or break a service. Picture this; you’re in the congregation, the worship team is finishing up the last song, everyone is in a posture of worship. It’s time for the pastor to come up and pray. Except his mic is off. Suddenly the mic snaps on mid-sentence while the band abruptly cuts off. You’re immediately jolted out of worship posture to, “what just happened” posture. Bad transitions strike again.

It’s super-important that we not screw up the service by screwing up transitions. Set you console up so you can easily transition from worship to prayer without breaking anything. Maybe it’s just setting up a few VCAs to make it easy. It could be using snapshots or scenes. But whatever you have to do to make those transitions seamless, do it. 

Getting these transitions right means you need to be thinking ahead and be aware of what is going on in the service. You shouldn’t be surprised when the pastor comes up to pray. You need to be ready to make that transition, even if it happens differently than it says in Planning Center. As you approach the end of the last song in the music set, start thinking about how you’re going to go from band to whatever is next. As the video bumper is winding down, figure out the movements you need to make to get to the next thing. Think ahead, don’t wait until one element ends to begin contemplating what is next.

This was an area that I spent considerable time training my volunteers on. Virtual soundcheck is a godsend here. I would cue up a transition point and let them run it again and again until they became comfortable. You may need to practice this as well. Spend some time during the week considering how to smooth out the transitions and the service will be better for it.

So there you go; Mike’s Mixing Axioms. Hopefully this has been a good series. I’ve got lots of ideas brewing for new posts as well as some big changes around here for 2017. Stay tuned!

Elite Core

Mike's Mixing Axioms: #4--Make Good Choices

Today we’ll be continuing our series on Mike’s Mixing Axioms. These are things that I’ve been working on and working through for the past 20 or so years of mixing. As I said earlier, this is not Gospel, and there are very likely other ways to do things. But this is what I’ve been doing and it seems to deliver consistently good results. 

We’ve already considered the first three: Keep it Simple; Basics First; Less is more. Today, we’re going to talk about choices. 

Axiom #4: Make Good Choices

When my girls were younger, when they would head out with friends, I would often call out as they left the house, “Make good choices!” I was reminding them to make choices based on who we raised them to be. Sometimes those are hard choices, but we all have to make choices.

When it comes to mixing, we also have to make choices. Sometimes they are hard choices. I’ve had to mix musicians that were—how to say this—less than good. Let’s say they had great hearts. There are times when we have to make choices as to what is heard in our PA. In fact, every time we get behind the console we have to make choices about what is in the PA. It’s up to us to make good choices. 

Damage Control

When you’re mixing a “good hearts” band, you are effectively damage control. You are going to have to do your best to present them in the best light possible, and at times that will mean turning some people down or off. The tone deaf background singer probably shouldn’t be highlighted during the service. The guitar player who refuses to tune should probably not be leading the song. Sometimes, your choices become the lesser of two evils and you have to do what you can. It’s not ideal, but as I said in It Might Not Be Your Fault, you work with what you are given.

Good Choices

The game changes when you have a good band. In that case, you still have to make choices, but they become much more creative and you have a lot more to choose from. A lot of people get tripped up when they’re mixing feeling like if it’s on stage, it needs to be heard in the mix just as loud as everything else. In those instances, you’ll hear the acoustic guitar pushed way up too loud during a big rocking song because, well, it’s on stage.

Now, I can’t tell you when to turn things up and when to turn them down. There are simply too many factors to consider. However, let me give you a simple example. Take a song that starts out somewhat mellow, builds, and then breaks down at the end. And let’s assume you have a few electric guitars and an acoustic in addition to the rest of the band. What I might do is feature the acoustic in the beginning and ending sections and the electrics in the big middle. During the big middle, you might not hear the acoustic at all unless you really listen closely. Trying to push the acoustic into the big section of the mix might well just muddy it up or make it harder to hear the vocal. 

Again, I’m not trying to give you a prescription, but rather permission. I want you to have permission to not feel like you have to hear everything all the time. Sometimes things like keys and pads are just there, filling in gaps, and you’d really only notice them if you turned them off. That’s OK! 

How do you decide what to feature? Listen to the band, they will let you know. In a well-arranged song, something will lead each section. It may be the same instrument, or it may change. Follow along with the band and mirror their choices. 

Now sometimes, you get a good band, with really good players who all want to be soloists. I’ve mixed those bands as well. In those cases, you get to choose who is leading and who is background. You’ll have to pick the instrument that makes the most sense for the song and tuck the rest behind. 

This is one of the hardest things to teach, honestly. Some people just know what choices to make. Others have to learn, and some will never get it. The best thing I can tell you is to spend a lot of time listening to music critically. Take a song you like and listen to it over and over. Map it out; figure out what you hear in each section of the song. What is prominent and what is in the background? What is the lead and what disappears? Music is a language and like any language, we can learn it—it just takes time and practice. 

This axiom is probably the most vague and I apologize for that. Like I said, it’s hard to illustrate with words. Next time, we’ll get into the last one which is much more concrete. Until then, make good choices!

Elite Core

Mike's Mixing Axioms: #3--Less is More

 Image courtesy of  theilr

Image courtesy of theilr

Well, we’re back talking about mixing again. In this series, I’m sharing with you some of the guiding principles by which I build my mixes. Like all things, these are not hard and fast rules, but more often than not, I’m doing these things each time I mix. It doesn’t matter what or where I’m mixing, this is where I start. We’ve already talked about keeping it simple, and getting the basics dialed in first. Today, we’re on to the next topic: 

Axiom #3: Less is More

You’ve heard this expression many times in the past, I’m sure. It may be hard to figure out how it applies to mixing, however. Here’s what I mean: I tend to do less to the mix, and it turns out sounding a lot better. By less I mean less EQ, less compression and less in the way obvious effects. 

If you follow any of the church sound groups on Facebook, you’ve seen the popular posts, “Guess this EQ.” Usually it’s a picture showing pretty much every band cut to -18 dB. You will probably never see that on any board I’m mixing on. In fact, if I’m boosting or cutting by more than 4 dB, it’s an odd day. And it usually means there was a problem I couldn’t solve with mic choice or placement (I don’t always get to choose the mic locker). 

You’ll also almost never see narrow cuts or boosts. I tend to use 2 octave or wider filters because I find them to be more musical—mainly because they do less damage to phase. My EQ is subtle and minimal. Less is more.

The same goes for compression. While I might use compression on most of my channels, I don’t use much of it most of the time. This is especially true for drums. My drum compression technique is to use just enough compression to smooth out minor variations in how hard the drummer hits each time. I don’t try to make every hit in the whole set the same—I want the player to be able to deliver dynamics. However, I try to smooth it out just a little so the occasional hard hit doesn’t stand out. 

Similarly, I use parallel compression on vocals so I don’t have to crush them so they stand out in the mix. If you look at my compressors, you’ll see they’re taking 2-3 dB off at most. I’m smoothing, not smashing. One of the biggest offenses I hear in mixing today is a lifeless mix that is neither hot nor cold, loud nor quiet, just blah. This is typically the result of too much compression. Just because you have compressors on each channel doesn’t mean you should turn them all on to max.

Finally, I keep the sound of my effects minimal by timing them to the song. I did an entire post on this a while back. With this technique, I can add in a lot more reverb without it sounding like the mix is swimming in it. This keeps the anti-reverb people happy, while still adding a nice sense of lush to the mix. 

How do you start with this? As I said in a previous post, start by flattening out the EQ, turn off the compressors and just mix. As you find you need to, do a little EQ here and there. Do the least amount of compression you can. Start with simple effects and work up. Let the music speak for itself, and it will almost alway sound better.

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Mike's Mixing Axioms: #2--Basics First

 Image courtesy of  Didriks

Image courtesy of Didriks

Last time, we started our series of Mike’s Mixing Axioms. We talked about my concept of keeping it simple. Today’s axiom is similar, but different. As I said last time, these are things that I do—it doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it. However, I’ve found that over 30 years, these seems to make a lot of sense and work pretty well. Were my situation different, I might have some different axioms. But since I mix in churches, this is what I do. 

Axiom 2: Basics First

You might think that this is the same thing as keep it simple, but it’s really not. What I mean by this is that when I come into a new mixing environment—new for me, that is—I work on the basics first before I start getting complicated. What are the basics? Making sure the inputs all work and are noise free. Getting my board is laid out how I’m used to it, or as close as possible, so I don’t have to keep hunting around for channels. Dialing up the gain structure properly so all my faders fall right around unity for a good mix, while still giving me solid levels. Working with the band to get them good monitor mixes as needed, and making sure they’re happy. 

It’s a little bit like cooking; salt and pepper are basic spices. But they’re not flashy, so some people go after all sorts of special spices without getting the simple salt and pepper right. Start there, and work up.

These are all basic elements, but too often, I see them overlooked in favor of the fancy stuff. I can tell you that if you jump past the basics and try to go straight to advanced techniques, you will not end up with a good mix. For my SALT mixing class, I started off mixing a track with nothing but high pass filters and EQ on only the kick and lead vocal. And you know what? It sounded pretty good! My gain structure was good, we made good choices on our mic’s, and the band played well. I had a little extra work to do as my “compressors” were my fingers. However, after the song was done, I asked the class if they could live with that, and most said they could. Now, by the time we got done, it sounded a whole lot better. But all those extras were just that, extras. 

Have you ever had a cupcake that had fantastic icing but the cake itself was rather dry and flavorless? That is missing the basics. I once heard a story of a FOH guy who was mixing his band at a festival. They had a few minutes to sound check between sets and he spent the entire 20 minute sound check working on the toms. The show producer told them it was time to go and he had to set up everything else during the set. That went well. 

My sound check is kind of like that. I have about 20 minutes to dial the whole band in and then we start rehearsal. Now granted, I get to start from a decent place each week, not a completely new board. And I do have a rehearsal to work up the mix. But still, I don’t have a lot of time to get fancy. So I make sure I crush the basics. 

Doing the basics well means moving quickly and continuously. But that’s easy when I’m not having to adjust 14 plug-ins on my rack toms. Over time, I’m refining my show file so that I can start adding in some of the fancy extras that make it sound just a little bit better. 

Getting the basics right means you’ll get the mix to 80-85% very quickly. And to be honest, that’s good enough for most folks. Sure, we can hear the difference between 80 and 100%. But most people can’t. Get to 80% and nail it. Then tweak your way up to 90-95%. But don’t shoot for that last 10-15% before locking down the first 80.

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