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Feedback: A Big Necessity In Developing Quality Live Mixing Skills

The right kind of feedback, that is...Or, how some sage advice and live recording can be a big help...

By James Cadwallader April 17, 2009

A few nights ago, I attended the gig of a friend of mine who plays guitar. He’s a great player and a pretty cool guy. 

Sound-wise, there was a lot of stage wash that helped make the room sound muddy, and the house mix wasn’t doing much to help bring some presence and clarity to the whole picture.

I took a peek at the console and was glad to see the main fader at unity, though the submix faders were at -10 dB and the meter was bouncing midway into the yellow. 

The sound quality wasn’t bad so much; the mix just needed some improvement. But it was an opinion kept to myself since I learned long ago that people don’t appreciate a sanctimonious jerk butting in.

In my previous articles, I’ve been working an underlying theme of maximizing what you get out of what you have. My point being, we often suffer from less than the best audio quality not because we don’t have the best gear, but because we don’t believe we can do better with what we do have.

In the course of this discussion, I’ve taken a poke at some sacred cows and have purposely challenged some points of view. My experience in working with audio over almost three decades has shown me that few shows are ruined by the wrong crossover slope, the wrong loudspeaker, the wrong console or the wrong microphone; rather, shows are ruined because we fail to have faith in our own ability to get the best out of whatever happens to be at our disposal.

Throw open the amp attenuators, turn the gains down on the console, run all the faders up to unity and raise the gains until you have the foundation of a good mix at the desired SPL! Simple and very effective. I’ve yet to be in a situation where this failed to yield better results when asked for my opinion on why the sound wasn’t sounding so good.

Five years ago, I had the pleasure of mixing a few times for the Aaron Richner Band. The first show I did with them was a CD release party at a local all-ages club.

I got a call about an hour before the band hit the stage, and on the other end of the phone was Aaron’s bass player (a friend of mine) who called in a favor by asking me to come down and mix for them. They were the second band that night and had no confidence in the mix engineer (who was also the system tech) after hearing the first band. We sealed the deal with food, a T-shirt and a CD.

When I arrived 20 minutes later, the first band was still on stage, and it was immediately apparent why they called me. In addition to poor gain structure on the console, there were improperly set gates on kick and snare that were doing nothing more than cutting off the attacks. 

Yet my first reaction was compassion for the engineer, because I’d been in similar situations in the past where I had absolutely no comprehension of the fact that whatever I was trying to do was actually doing more harm than good. We can often get fixated on one idea and completely fail to hear the damage we’re leaving in our wake.

When it was time for my guys to go on, there was only enough time for a quick and dirty setup. I pulled down the gains, opened up the faders and ditched the gates, and then hit the stage and in two minutes had the mics in “good enough” (but not “perfect”) position. Did I sweat it? No, it wasn’t that important.

After a few checks to bring the gains up and get a monitor mix going, the band hit the ground running. It was a great show, but certainly not on my account – all I did was make sure the sound system didn’t get in the way and the band did the rest.

As sound techs and engineers, there’s one thing that we can never get enough of: feedback. That’s right, feedback. I’m referring to those of us who have been fortunate enough to apprentice under a great engineer and receive plenty of feedback on how to do things better.

But for every person who benefits from such a relationship, there are many, many more of us who don’t. 

What are we to do?

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