Welcome to day two of our subjective sound adventure. Last time, we talked about ways to tune a PA. Today, we’ll delve into the tricky world of mixing. At the end, you’ll know exactly what is the right way to put together a mix and be able to identify all the wrong ways. [That was sarcasm]
The Goal of Live Music Mixing
I chose the words carefully in that heading; we’re talking about live music mixing. This is different from speech mixing (which isn’t so much mixing as it is level management) or studio mixing. Generally speaking, the goal of live audio mixing is to reproduce and make louder what is happening on stage, and to do so as accurately as possible. I say generally speaking because sometimes there are some things happening on stage that aren’t pleasant and a good sound engineer will either fix or eliminate those.
In addition to the making louder bit, we engineers can also enhance the audio experience by using things like effects and various mixing techniques. But those bits are never the goal; no one comes to a concert to hear the FOH guy’s super-groovy plate reverb on the snare—they come to hear the band. Our goal is to make the band louder, and therefore cooler.
Enter the Murkiness
While most FOH engineers will agree on what I just said, there is quite a bit of deviation in practice. For example, there is a movement amongst some engineers to assault the audience with low end. In my opinion, those mixes are not pleasant to listen to, and if we removed the PA and listened to the band in a small room (where we don’t need a big PA), it wouldn’t sound like that. However, some bands want that sound.
As engineers, we are an extension of the band. If we are doing our jobs correctly, we are delivering to the audience the band’s vision of the music. Now, that might mean that we mix in such a way that is different from what we would prefer. Here’s a concrete example; I don’t really listen to modern worship music outside of church. Like, at all. I don’t really like the way most of it sounds or the way it’s mixed. However, when I’m mixing in church, I mix the way the band wants it, which is usually the way it sounds on the album. I listen to the tracks we’re going to do for the weekend so I have my point of reference, and I try to enhance it and maybe move it a little bit towards my preference, but overall, I’m working hard to deliver what the worship leader wants.
This is all personal preference. Some people actually like One Republic. Go figure. It doesn’t really matter that much what we as the engineer like, we deliver what the band wants. If your personal music preference is the Gaither Vocal Trio, and your church loves to do Bethel, don’t try to make Bethel sound like Gaither. Make it sound like Bethel or find a new church.
Mixing Can and Does Suck Sometimes
There’s a big but in that last paragraph. While there are preference issues to deal with, the truth is sometimes we hear mixes that just suck. I’ve heard my share, mostly in church, but not always. Usually, a bad mix is the result of a lack of training, a lack of a musical ear, or someone who just doesn’t care. One of those things can be fixed.
We also hear mixes that are OK, but not very good. Sometimes that is an experience thing, other times it’s a lack of understanding how music works. Not everyone can do this, that’s one thing we should all agree on.
Should It Sound The Same Every Week?
This is another question; how do we get consistency in the mix from week to week. There are a few things you can do to help with this, such as starting with the same baseline show file each week. But the reality is, if you want the sound to be very consistent week to week, keep the same band and same guy behind the desk. Every week. Change either or both of those positions, and the sound will vary. How much it varies will depend on the skill of the band members and FOH guys. But with amateur musicians and sound techs, you’re not going to achieve the exact same sound each week if you’re rotating team members. You can get close, but it’s going to vary.
Finally, I feel I should point out that the mix is only ever going to sound as good as the band on stage. GIGO is a computer term that means Garbage In, Garbage Out. Basically, if you put bad data into a computer, you get bad results. If you put a bad band on stage, about all the FOH guy can do is make them louder—he can’t make them better.
I’ve seen pastors berate the sound guy when the real problem is on stage. I’ve wanted to tell them, “Pastor, it’s not his fault, the band is just terrible.” I once had a guy email me and ask what plug-ins or mic’s he needed to use to get that “huge drum sound” he heard on some album. I said, “First of all, hire that drummer. Second, have him bring his drums. That should get you pretty close."
The Bottom Line
Preference definitely plays a role in mixing. It should not play too much of a role, however. Your job as the engineer is to make the band louder, enhance their sound and fix any bad stuff as much as possible. The best mixes I’ve heard are when the engineer and band are working as a team and are on the same page.
Next time, we’ll talk about the politics of mixing. That should be fun!