The Spectrum of Time, or How To Fit All That Stuff Into The Mix

My friend Dave says one of the most important things we can do as audio engineers is to listen to music. Lots of music. Many different styles of music. And don’t just listen, break it down. How is it mixed? How is it arranged? Where did they put things, and how did they make it sound good (or fail at making it sound good)?

I subscribe to this practice, though not as much as I would like. The other day, I was watching a Classic Albums show on Netflix. The subject of that episode was Phil Collin’s early solo project, Face Value. While watching, I was reminded that I listened to that over and over as a high school student. Honestly, I had forgotten how good of a record that was. So I broke it out on Spotify and listened to it a few times. After 30 years, it still sounds fantastic. 

As I listened, I realized they spent just as much effort placing sounds in time as in space. Let that sink in for a second and I’ll explain. We’ve talked a lot about the frequency spectrum and how we need to have all the instruments occupying their own little corner of real estate in said spectrum. And that’s very true. 

It's also an especially difficult proposition in many churches because in order to be inclusive, we often find ourselves with a lot of musicians on stage. And often, their skill level is, well, less than optimal, and as such they tend to all play the same thing. I’ve mixed worship bands that have three guitars, keys and piano, and they’re all playing the same line of cords. If you just turn it all up, it sounds like mush because all that energy is concentrated into a very narrow slice of audible spectrum—which is typically also occupied by vocals. 

Now to be fair, this is as much an arranging problem (ie. a musical director problem) as it is a mixing problem. In fact, it’s really more of an arranging issue. But as most churches don’t really want to deal with the lack of musicianship, it falls on us to fix it. And that’s where Phil Collins comes in (see, there was a point to that paragraph).

One of the things that stood out to me is that there were many, many instruments playing any given song. But they didn’t all play at once. In fact, there were a few things that hit a few notes and that was the last you heard of them. Take the remake of the classic Genesis song, Behind the Lines. Listen to the horns in that mix; they don’t play continually, instead they stab some notes than go away for a while. During the chorus, the horns play quite a lot, but notice that the other instrumentation lays back.

A few weeks ago, we had a pretty full band, so I had some opportunities to put this theory into practice. Instead of trying to make the B3 fit into the mix for the entire song, I pushed it up between phrases of the lyrics, then ducked it back down. I went back and forth between the electric and acoustic depending on the part in the song. Sometimes I pushed the bass up to fill the bottom, other times, I let the kick do it.

The result of all this is a cleaner mix, and better overall sound. Instead of trying to make everything fit, just turn some of it down. Each instrument will still contribute to the overall texture of the song, but some will carry more weight at different times. 

Ideally, the musicians would figure some of this out on their own and start playing segments instead of the whole thing; and it’s something our bands are generally really good at, actually. In fact, it’s our band that really has driven this point home for me. In most other church settings, I’ve dealt with the “everyone plays everything all the time” syndrome. But here, I actually have musicians playing around each other, and it makes my job so much easier. 

But if you find yourself in an environment where everyone is playing the same line, try spreading them out over time. It may just help clean up your mix.  

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