It’s OK to steal. Wait – allow me to rephrase that. It’s OK to steal from studio engineers. Live audio is a different beast compared to what happens in the studio, yet my live mix quality skyrocketed once I started reading the works of studio engineers Roey Izhaki, Bobby Owsinski, and Mike Senior.
Last year, I stole…uh, found…a list of questions that studio folks ask in critiquing their mixes. The questions largely focused on emotion, energy, and clarity. It’s a great list but not quite suitable for the live world, so I embarked on creating my own list. A few months and many revisions later, my list of 12 questions emerged.
1) Can all musicians and singers be heard? With eyes closed, try identifying each musical instrument and vocal. If something can’t be heard in the mix, ask why. Determine if the instrument cannot be heard because the volume is too low or because another instrument is too sonically similar. A good example would be kick drum and bass. Also, electric guitar swells and keyboard synth pads can sound similar.
2) Can the lead vocalist be heard and understood? At a typical concert, people sing along and follow the lead. At a more subtle live performance, with a quiet audience, people are listening to the lead vocal above everything else.
Think clear and present. A common misconception is that we think we know the complete lyrics to our favorite songs. A well-known musician comes to town (or a band at a festival is doing a cover), and it’s time to start rockin’ in the free world! That’s when it seems we can’t remember anything other than the chorus.
3) Is it clear which instrument leads the song? Be it techno, country, pop, folk, whatever – one instrument is usually clearly the lead. It’s distinct, the one all other instruments are layered under.
Try to listen to professional recordings of each song prior to a show, noting the lead instrument and how the EQ and effects of the other instruments make space for it.
4) Do the instruments have distinct sounds? Each instrument and vocal should have a distinct sound, with backing vocals being an exception. Frequencies should overlap, but when seven instruments sound like five, then work on instrument clarity. Tighten up the frequency characteristics of each instrument.
For example, if a drum kit, an electric bass, and two electric guitars are filling the low-end space, clarity in that frequency zone is a problem. Try cutting the low end on the guitars until the drum and bass are clearly separate from them.
5) Does a vocal sound squashed? Compression is a beautiful tool, but unfortunately, it’s one that can be overused. Too much compression takes the life out of a voice. I was going to say it takes the breath out of a singer but my attorney advised against it due to a recent incident with a vocalist and an ill-timed request for “more me in the monitor.”
Cutting back the compression on a squashed vocal can help it come to life. Also strive for frequency separation (via EQ) between the vocalist and similar frequency-centric instruments and vocalists if it still sounds squashed. It might not be squashed as much as buried.