Last weekend I had a cool opportunity to attend a very unique concert. It was unlike anything I had seen and I was grateful for the chance to go. As much as it was a cool musical experience, it was a less than stellar sound experience.
As I sat there listening to the choir and orchestra members position themselves on stage—and I could hear them clearly because all the mic’s were hot—it occurred to me that there is a vast gulf between knowing what a given piece of gear or setting does and why you change it.
Leaving all the mic’s on is just one example. There were numerous EQ challenges and many times when the drums more than overpowered the main instrument. In fact, it sounded a lot like the sound guy dialed up each mic to a good level, and left the faders at unity. So while he technically had good gain structure, he had a less than ideal mix.
The Great Divide
I understand this challenge. On the one hand, I have seen many sound techs who know music, but had no real understanding on how the equipment works. So while they may be able to force some sort of mix together, they typically lack the technical skill set to make it great.
On the other hand, I’ve seen as many (probably more) sound guys who really have no understanding of music but can quote specs, theory and technical gobbely-gook all day long. But they lack the knowledge of why any of that is important.
Science and Art
It’s true that we need to have a firm grasp on the technology we’re using to accomplish the goal of a great mix. But I think even more than that, we must understand the art. The craft. And that is the hardest to teach. I’ve said for a long time that I can teach someone with a modicum of technological understanding how to use the technology. But they have to have an understanding of how music works in the first place if they expect to be a great engineer.
I believe one of the reasons mixing comes so easily to me is that I grew up listening to music. I bought my first pair of headphones at age 9 and spend the entire summer in front of the hi-fi listening to records. Throughout Jr. & Sr. High, I spent at least 3-4 hours a day listening to music.
Knowing what it is supposed to sound like is the first step to getting it there. But there’s even more. Knowing when to mute mic’s and when to open them up is another skill that takes time to learn. There are two ways to learn this—spending hundreds of hours behind the console making hundreds of mistakes (and hopefully learning from them) or being mentored by someone who already did that. You can imagine which way I think is better.
In the climactic scene of Indian Jones, the villain drinks from the wrong chalice and turns to black ash. The wise old sage says, “He chose poorly.” When choosing people to mix, I have found it’s generally preferable to chose understanding of music over pure technical chops.
This is not to say that highly technical people can’t mix, it’s just that they usually take a lot longer to get there. And while it may take a musically literate person a little while to get up to speed with the technology, they will usually be better engineers in the end.
The best scenario of course, is a mixture of both. Those folks are rare, however. When it comes to putting up a great mix, knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing is probably more important than knowing what you’re doing. At least that’s my experience…