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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Mike's Mixing Axioms: #1--Keep It Simple

Image courtesy of One Way Stock

Image courtesy of One Way Stock

As I write this, it’s a few weeks after my SALT mixing class. And I mixed at church this weekend. That means, I’m thinking about mixing. Based on the feedback from the class and the thoughts rambling around in my head, I thought I would write up a series that I’m calling my Mixing Axioms. The dictionary on my Mac defines Axiom as “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established or accepted.” I like that. After almost 30 years of mixing, these are things that—for me anyway—are established and accepted. This is what I do. Check back here throughout the month and you will know what I know.

Axiom 1: Keep It Simple

If you’ve ready any of my posts on parallel compression, frequency splitting reverbs or automating Reaper, you might thing my mixes are anything but simple. But the reality is, aside from a few little tricks, I try to keep the mix as simple as possible. For the most part, the music that I find myself mixing does not require tons of special effects. I don’t do hip-hop or techno, so I’m not creating effects for effect’s sake. 

Whenever I mix at a new venue, one of the first things I do is start flattening out EQ’s and removing plug-ins from the signal path. As much as possible, I like to minimize the number of things I’m doing to the signal. Someday, I’ll break out a mixer and do a video of what happens to phase as we pile on all kinds of EQ and plug-ins on a channel. As phase is time, the more phase distortion we add, the more time distortion we add. As all the inputs start to get out of time with each other, the sound field becomes blurry. I know blurry is a visual term, but it’s the best way to describe it. All of those slight time mis-alignments add up to a mushy sound field. 

Now it’s true that some consoles do a better job than others of keeping everything in time. But they can only do so much. And honestly, almost every time I go in and bypass all the plug-ins, people tell me it sounds better. The less damage I do to the signal during the mixing process, the better it sounds when it comes out of the speakers. 

This goes against the popular mixing process of putting a ton of plug-ins on everything. I’m almost always asked to put a Waves Soundgrid server on every mixing console I sell. This is not a dig on Waves; they make fine stuff. But beware putting plug-ins on just because you can. Personally, I don’t use them unless I have to, and then, I don’t use more than I need to.

I also don’t make huge changes to the channels during the song. After I demonstrated a mix during my class—a mix done with nothing except high pass filters and EQ on only the kick and lead vocal—I asked what people sitting near me noticed. One guy said, “You didn’t move the faders more than a few millimeters.” He was right. For the most part, I let the band mix themselves and only did some minor highlights. If the gain structure is set up correctly, the base mix is dialed in and you’ve done a good job with mic selection, you shouldn’t need to do too much. 

Now, this is true with most good bands. I have mixed some where I’m working really hard to keep the band from completely falling apart. And I know that’s where some of you live. Later on, we’ll talk about some things you can do that will help you with that. But assuming the band is reasonably good, we should be able to—for the most part—dial them up and let it go. 

This week, consider what you’re doing in your mix. What can you simplify? What can you take out? Trim it back until you have only what is absolutely necessary. Then see what happens. 

Next time we’ll be back with another Mixing Axiom

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Timing Reverb To The Music

My tempo calculator of choice, Audiofile Calc.

My tempo calculator of choice, Audiofile Calc.

I wrote a post about this concept a while back, but as there seems to be some renewed interest, so here we are. Also, I got to experience not doing this over the weekend and it made such a difference, I thought I would write a new post. Here’s the concept: I was listening to a Pensado’s Place podcast some years back and Dave was talking about setting his vocal delay to 1/16th or 1/32nd note relative to the tempo of the music. He said that usually works out to somewhere around 100-102 msec. I tried it, and sure enough, it sounded good. Then it occurred to me that I could do the same thing with reverb times. 

So I whipped out my handy-dandy BPM to millisecond calculator (I use Audiofile Calc for iOS), and tried it one weekend. The results were good. So I kept doing it. Here we are about four years later. 

The basic idea behind this is simple. All sounds decay naturally over time. Modern worship music is fairly percussive, meaning there is an initial impulse, a decay and then in some metered time later, another impulse. Time—for music—is broken up into measures and notes. Those notes are played over a constant time signature that keeps everything on beat. 

Have you ever heard a band where one musician can’t quite keep the beat? They’re either a little ahead or a little behind, or maybe they wander back and forth. When they’re out of time, it becomes apparently quite quickly. 

Assuming the entire band is playing in time, all the music has a common impulse and decay. It’s all in time. Now, if you take your vocal reverb and set it randomly to 2.2 seconds because that’s what the guy who trained you said you should always use, your vocal reverb tail may or may not decay in time with the rest of the music. Chances are, it’s not in time. And when it’s not in time, it stands out like the musician out of time. 

Now, what if you set your vocal reverb to decay in a whole note’s worth of time? Give it a try. What you’ll hear is not the reverb. The vocal will just sound more rich and lush. In contrast, if you pick a random, non-musical decay time, you’ll hear reverb. Some people want you to hear their carefully crafted reverbs—they spent all of sound check dialing it in, after all! But personally, I’ve found it sounds a whole lot better to not hear the reverb—until you turn it off.

What’s amazing about this technique is that you can use incredibly long reverb times without affecting the clarity of the mix. I’ve done 4, 5, even 8 second reverb times and all you hear is a rich, lush vocal. Yes, if you pay really close attention you’ll hear the reverb tail. But for the most part, because it’s decaying in time with the music, it decays with everything else. 

So if you’re playing along at home, call up your BPM to time calculator and set the tempo to your song in question. Now, look at the time for a whole note. Set your reverb time to that time, or as close as you can get if you’re using a Yamaha console. Take a listen. If you’d like to go longer, try a dotted whole note (that’s 1.5 whole notes). Or, if the song calls for it, a double-whole. If you got the tempo right, the reverb will just dissolve in time with the music and sound fantastic. Now, for fun, pick some random time between a whole and dotted-whole. Hear the difference? Suddenly, you hear the effect. Put it back and it just sounds good. 

If you don’t want to spin a bunch of virtual knobs on a phone calculator, you can download this PDF chart that I made up. It covers a pretty wide range of time signatures common to worship music and gives you the corresponding time from a thirty-second note all the way up to a double-whole. I find this faster and keep a copy in my weekend mixing bag. Give it a shot and see if you like the results.

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