Image courtesy of  Gary Denham

Image courtesy of Gary Denham

About 1-2 times per month, someone emails me and asks how they can get better at mixing. I ponder this on a regular basis. To be sure, it can be a challenge to figure out how to improve on something when you only get to do it once or twice a week. If you were a guitar player, you could practice shredding at home during the week. If you were a singer, you could sing often and work on technique. But mixing is tricky. Not many of us have a mixing console at home, and for those in smaller churches, it can be hard to get access to the equipment, especially if you’re a volunteer. What’s an aspiring FOH guy or gal to do? This won’t be the only thing to do, but one thing I strongly recommend is to listen to music. A lot. 

The Beat Goes On

I still remember when I really discovered music. I was 10 years old. We had just moved into my grandfather’s house and my dad set up his Realistic Hi-Fi. I found his record collection and began listening. That summer, I mowed yards, raked leaves and did other odd jobs to save up money for a set of Koss headphones. I sat in our rocker/recliner for hours at a time devouring music. As I got older, my musical tastes expanded and I kept listening. Of course, I saved up for better equipment and by high school had already spent thousands of dollars on my set up. 

I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I’ve spent listening to music, both critically and as background. I am sure one of the reasons mixing comes so naturally is that I know what music is supposed to sound like. 

Someone once relayed a quote from a sculptor—I believe it was Michelangelo. Someone had asked him as they admired one of his sculptures, “How do you know how to create that?” He is said to have answered, “I start with the big rock and chip away everything that doesn’t look like the result I have in mind.” 

Now, I probably butchered that quote, and it may not even be true, but I love the concept. He knew the result he had in mind; it was so clearly formed that it was a simple matter for him to remove what wasn’t supposed to be there. Mixing is very similar. If you know what it’s supposed to sound like, it’s a simple matter of using the tools at your disposal to make it sound like what it sounds like in your mind.

It May Not Be That Easy

To be sure, it’s not always that easy. One of the big handicaps church FOH guys face is the quality of the band is often not up to what you’d hear on a record. Having good source material goes a long way to making a great mix. Some Sundays you will be fighting to simply keep things under control—forget making it sound good. 

But if your band has even a modicum of talent, then you can pull together a good mix—if you know what it’s supposed to sound like. Just chip away the stuff that doesn’t belong there. 

Find The Time

Again, I know this is not the only step. You still need to figure out what EQ does, how compressors work and how to properly set up effects. You probably won’t get that from listening to music. But you will have a better frame of reference. And today, there is simply no excuse for not listening to lots of music. It’s everywhere. I recommend stuff made in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a great place to start, sometime before the loudness wars really started cranking up and limiting started squashing it all. But find stuff you enjoy and start listening. 

Listen critically, on decent equipment. Apple headphones don’t qualify. Spend $100 and get a set of Heil ProSet 3 headphones or spend a bit more and get some decent 3 or 4 driver in-ears. Or get some good speakers and break out the CDs. Start to pay attention to where sounds are placed in the audio spectrum. What is the relationship between the kick and bass. Where do the vocals fit? How do the keys and guitar stay out of each other’s way? Listen to how the mix is crafted. You’ll have a much better idea of what to do when you’re behind the console. Plus, it’s fun. And far more productive than watching another sitcom.