Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Category: Audio (Page 3 of 67)

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

This post is brought to you by Shure Wireless. The new ULX D Dual and Quad wireless systems feature RF Cascade ports, a high density mode with significantly more simultaneous operating channels and bodypack diversity for mission critical applications. Visit their website at Shure.com.

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.

Elite Core

It Might Not Be Your Fault

Recently, I taught a class on mixing. A four-hour class. This was particularly cool because I finally got to walk people all the way through my weekend mixing process, not just part of it. I had a ton of fun preparing for the class—which is good because it took me 40-50 hours—and learned a lot myself. 

I started the class by mixing a track with almost no EQ, compression or effects. Well, I did have high pass filters on most channels, and I put just a little reverb on the vocal. Believe it or not, it sounded pretty darn good! You want to know why? Because I’m an amazing mixer, obviously. That’s tongue-in-cheek, by the way. No, it sounded good because I was mixing some pretty great musicians who knew how to play around each other. 

It’s Not Your Fault

I’ve been to plenty of churches where the pastor or worship leader is frustrated by the “mix” and wants to know how I can help. Often, I have to say, “Well, it would help if you had musicians who knew how to tune and play their instruments.” It’s also helpful if they don’t all play the exact same line all the way through the song. 

You might have been to a larger church, or a concert and hear a mix that you thought was great and felt bad that you mixes don’t sound like that. It may not be your fault. It could just be that your band isn’t very good. A lot of small- to medium-sized churches have some wonderful people with great hearts who volunteer to play in the worship band. Unfortunately, they’re not great musicians. And often, the ones people think are “great” are only great compared to the truly awful ones that sometimes volunteer there. 

At that point, the role of the FOH engineer is damage control. You can do the best job you can, but it’s never going to sound better than the people on stage. 

You Can Only Grow So Far

I learned this first-hand. My mixing really didn’t get to the next level until I started mixing bands who were much better than I was. I had reach a point in my mixing where I could make a very mediocre band sound OK. But when I tried those techniques with a really good band, it fell flat. I had to learn and grow and figure out how to make a great band sound amazing. Last time I mixed at church I had three people—two of which I know actually know what they’re talking about—tell me the mix was really, really good. So arguably, I’ve improved over the years. 

I say that not to toot my own horn, but because I’m mixing really great musicians, my level of mixing has improved to their level. The better the bands I get to work with are, the better my mix gets. 

This is all meant to be encouraging to you. If you feel like your mixes are not where they should be, it may not be your fault. If you’re constantly being berated by your pastor or others in the room about the “sound,” take a look to see if it’s really a mix issue or a musician issue.

And I’m not trying to simply throw musicians under the bus, here. Sometimes, the engineer really is bad. I very recently heard a mix of a really good band that was so uninspiring that I left the room. That wasn’t a band issue, the but the FOH guy ruined it for me. 

The point is, the finished product will only be as good as the weakest link. Don’t be that weakest link.

DPA Microphones

CTA Reviews: DiGiCo S21

Here’s a quick video review of the DiGiCo S21 that I’ve been playing with for the last few weeks. 

This post is brought to you by Shure Wireless. The new ULX D Dual and Quad wireless systems feature RF Cascade ports, a high density mode with significantly more simultaneous operating channels and bodypack diversity for mission critical applications. Visit their website at Shure.com.

Go Back In Time

Image courtesy of  Rosenfeld Media

Image courtesy of Rosenfeld Media

I love the terminology we use in technology. Augmented Reality; Defragment; GigaFlops; Pre-Delay. If you’ve been around audio mixing—and particularly effects units—for any length of time, you may have seen the pre-delay control and wondered exactly how you can pre-delay something? After all, “pre-“ means before, and “delay” implies after. So it’s like saying, “before-after.” What’s that all about?

Before Delay

Perhaps the best way to think of pre-delay is “the time before the delay.” That is to say, how much time elapses before the delay (or effects) start. You typically see pre-delay on reverb units. The pre-delay control essentially allows you to create a gap between the time the reverb unit is first excited and when it starts spitting out it’s warm, rich, diffuse sound. 

When To Use It

Almost all signals can benefit from some amount of pre-delay. How much will depend on multiple factors. But first, why do we want a gap between the original signal and the reverb? Mainly it’s about articulation. If the reverb starts before or just as someone finishes singing a word, it can be hard to hear that word or phrase. Reverb by it’s very nature is diffuse and lacks clarity. When you add a lack of clarity (that’s a mouthful, huh?) to the end of something that should be clear, it makes it hard to understand.

Setting Pre-Delay

If you only have one reverb unit in your system and everything goes through it—that is, everything that you are putting reverb on, don’t put reverb on everything—then you will have to come up with the best compromise. Usually, the vocal will dictate how much pre-delay in that case. I find I like to have about 30 msec. of pre-delay on my vocal reverbs. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to work well most times. For drums, it might go a little less. Acoustic guitars might need more. Or less, depending on how it’s played and the tempo of the song. 

If you have multiple reverbs—as you are likely to on a digital console—you can customize the pre-delays for each effect unit and each purpose. But don’t get too caught up in this. If you have a mid-week rehearsal you can record and then play around with in virtual soundcheck for a while, you can dial in the pre-delay just perfect. But, if you’re in the situation I find myself in, which is to say we rehearse for an hour or so then have a service, just set a round 10-30 msec. of pre-delay and don’t worry too much about it. As you have time, you can grab some tracks and find a setting that works well for vocals, guitars, drums, whatever. Use that as your starting point and tweak if you have time. 

Pre-delay isn’t going to make or break your mix. However, if you add some pre-delay to your reverbs, you’ll find you can use longerand more reverb and still have plenty of clarity. And if you’re like me, that’s a good thing.

This post is brought to you by Shure Wireless. The new ULX D Dual and Quad wireless systems feature RF Cascade ports, a high density mode with significantly more simultaneous operating channels and bodypack diversity for mission critical applications. Visit their website at Shure.com.

Feedback is Not Always Bad

Image courtesy of  Loren Kerns

Image courtesy of Loren Kerns

Audio guys are taught to fear and loath feedback. We have parametric EQs, notch filters, magic boxes and feedback eliminators, all to keep feedback from rearing it’s ugly head. The mix could be great, the lighting perfect and the song words spot on, but if the pastor’s mic runs into feedback, you feel like you’ve failed. For most of us feedback=bad.

But Is It?

The feedback of which I speak in the opening paragraph is of course, the electro-acoustical kind. The mic picks up it’s own signal, it goes through the amplification loop and repeats, ending in a high-pitched scream. And I agree, that kind of feedback is bad. But not all feedback is. In fact, sometimes, feedback can be very helpful. 

Getting Better All The Time

Any sound engineer worth his salt should be striving to get better all the time. But how do we get better? How do we know if we’re making progress or just making things louder? One really good way to get better is to get some feedback. By asking others to critique our mix, we will learn valuable insights and hopefully, get better. The challenge is, we’re so trained to avoid feedback (the bad kind), that we tend to avoid all feedback (the good kind). 

Now, it can be humbling to ask for feedback. I’ve done this in the past, and sometimes go home feeling less good about my skill level. However, after the sting wears off, and I’ve processed the feedback, my mixing usually gets better. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking we have this thing figured out and continue to do the wrong thing over and over again. 

Fundamentals Improvement

I recently took a shooter improvement class. I’ve reached a reasonable level of proficiency, but want to be more competitive in local matches. I knew I had a few troubles with my fundamentals, but couldn’t diagnose it. The instructor came into my bay as I was shooting the drill and told me exactly what I was doing wrong. It was like learning something for the first time. Almost immediately, my groups tightened up, and my times shrank. Asking for feedback made a huge difference and I won a stage few days later. 

The same has proven true with my mixing. You see, we tend to plateau in our skill level. We get to a level of proficiency, but can’t move beyond it. By asking others for some input, you might be surprised at what you’re missing, and suddenly, your skill levels up. 

Be Careful Who You Ask

Now, you can’t ask just anyone for feedback. I prefer asking musicians who aren’t playing that weekend. Preferably, I like to ask musicians with whom I have a good relationship. If we have a good relationship, I know they have my best interests at heart and aren’t simply looking for a chance to be critical. Ask not only for the trouble spots, but the good points as well. If you know you’re struggling with a particular aspect of the mix, ask about that specifically. You may even want to prep them with that. 

Ultimately, if you want to get better at what you do, you’re going to need some training. You can get quite a ways on your own with enough practice and hard work (not to mention natural talent), but if you really want to excel, you’ll need some help. Don’t be afraid of feedback. It might be what takes you to the next level in your mix.

Elite Core

Mixing Class With Me at SALT

Normally, I don’t like doing self-promotional posts. But my friend Luke pointed out we’re going to a lot of trouble to arrange this class, and it might be good if people knew about it. So here we go.

Most of you know that I’ve been part of the SALT conference for the last few years. Last year, I had the privilege to organize the audio track. This year, SALT organizer (and good friend) Luke McElroy asked if I would do a pre-conference mixing class. Never one to back down from a challenge, and always wanting to be part of my favorite conference of the year, I said yes. 

Here’s the deal: On Wednesday, Oct. 12, I’ll be teaching a class called Becoming the Mix Master. I did not name the class. But it’s kinda fun. Instead of teaching you how to drop beats and spin vinyl, I’ll be teaching you the basics of mixing. 

Fundamentals Not Basic

Basic is probably the wrong word; perhaps fundamentals is better. I’ve only got 3.5 (maybe 4 if I push it) hours to work with, so I can’t teach you everything that I’ve learned in 25 years of mixing. However, I will teach you the fundamentals of crafting a good mix. And don’t worry; none of this will be gear or plugin dependent. Everything I teach will be things you can take back to your church the following Sunday and use—no matter what equipment you have or how big or small your church is. 

Break It Down

Playing up on the Sir Mix A Lot theme, I’m going to start off having you listen to a mix that I’ll put together. Then we’ll spend the next few hours breaking down how I got there. We’ll talk about things like mic selection and placement; building proper gain structure; setting your console up for success; proper use of high pass filters and EQ; selective compression; and effects. If I have time, I’ll show you my super-secret trick for helping the lead vocal stand out without being painful. OK, it’s not super-secret—I’ve written about it here several times. 

Gear Independence

As I said, this will be a gear-independent class. My buddy Jake Cody from Yamaha has agreed to provide consoles for me to work on, which is super-cool. Most of you know I’m a Digico guy, but to prove the gear doesn’t matter as much as the technique, I’ll be doing this whole thing on the very capable CL. For fun, we may also demonstrate some of the techniques on a TF-5 as well, just to prove the point. My goal is to create a training session that you can use regardless of what you mix on. 


As I said, this whole shindig will take place on the first day of the SALT conference, Wednesday, October 12. The cost for this littleconfab will be a whopping $79. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Luke is generously sharing some of the funds with me, though I told him I’d do it for free. You can register for the class here: http://saltnashville.com/salt16-labs/. Space is limited, but I hear there some room left. 

And really, you should be coming to the SALT conference anyway—it’s really one of the best conferences of the year. There are some exciting changes coming to this year’s event, and this is the one that I look forward to. I know the team responsible for the event and I can tell you they have a huge heart to help the church and the church tech. 

So come on out and hang with me for a few hours this fall. I don’t claim to be the best, but I’ve learned a few things over the years and look forward to sharing them. And if you listen to the podcast or read this website, please say hi before or after the class.  

Elite Core

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