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1+1+1: Three Things That Every Mix Shares

Let’s zoom out for a second and forget about all the tools that can help make a mix sound great so that we can talk about the building blocks that make up 99.9 percent of music.

There are a lot of ways to build a great front of house mix. And there’s a lot of information out there about best practices when it comes to routing, EQs, dynamics, FX, and everything in between.

But when it comes to my approach to mixing, there’s something that’s often overlooked and much more fundamental than any of the minutiae of mixing. Let’s zoom out for a second, forget about consoles and all the toys that can help make a mix sound great, so that we can talk about the building blocks that make up 99.9 percent of music.

At The Core

Almost all music is built from the same three elements: melody, rhythm, and harmony. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but hopefully you’ll forgive me for speaking in generalities here. I’ll define each element and then talk about how these influence my approach.

Melody is a pretty easy one – it’s the thing that the fans have come to hear. Most of the time, it’s whatever the lead singer is singing, the guitarist (or other lead instrument) is playing…and it’s the thing that audience members are humming as they leave the venue after the show.

The pivotal role of melody cannot be overstated. It’s the reason that I don’t start a sound check with kick drum, but rather with the lead vocal (more on this later). When mixing, there’s no reason that any other element or input should mask or cover the melody unless the arrangement specifically calls for it. This is relatively rare, but I can think of a few Radiohead songs where the melody takes a backseat to other elements for a moment – but again, those moments must be approached with intention. In 99 percent of cases, nothing should obscure the primary melody in a mix.

The rhythm element is pretty evident too, although it can take many forms. Drums play a critical role here, but I’m not focusing on the whole kit at this point. The most fundamental rhythmic element in [most] music that we’re mixing exists at the quarter note level. For those without a background playing or studying music, the quarter note is what the metronome or click track is playing for the most part; it’s what you tap in your delay times with, it’s the four stick clicks from the drummer before the band comes in.

Generally, you’re getting this information from kick and snare. A lot of rock and pop music structures rhythm with the same general pattern – with kick existing on the 1st and 3rd beat of a measure, and snare existing on the 2nd and 4th beat. Here are a few examples for you to check out to help connect the concept to a tangible sound: “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC, “As It Was” by Harry Styles, and “Butterflies” by Kacey Musgraves. These are three really obvious and simple examples of backbeat beats. Identifying the primary rhythm elements in these songs is pretty easy.

But a lot of songs won’t make it as easy to identify. Here are three more examples, with the same rhythmic foundation but a little more obscured: “Naeem” by Bon Iver, “Song In My Head” by Madison Cunningham, and “All The Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and SZA.

Almost every song you listen to will have a rhythmic structure that’s based on the quarter note. Jazz fans may take issue with this, but I would counter that the same basic concept can be applied at the eighth note level, basically doubling the frequency of each hit.

Harmony is an interesting one. In music, we use harmony to mean a lot of things: backing vocalists adding color and depth to the primary melody, chords and the underlying structure that gives a song a lot of its feel – but in this case, I’m talking about something more basic. In short, the lowest note in the arrangement. When talking about harmony in its most basic form, we’re looking for an instrument that is providing one note at a time that relates the melody to the key center of the song.

The idea of using the lowest note as a basis for harmony is a very old musical concept. The relationship between melody and harmony that modern music employs was formed in the Baroque period (~1600-1750). (1)

Bach was the predominant composer of this era, popularizing a technique called realization, or figured bass, which has influenced almost every piece of music written during and since. The technique, in summary, provides a written melody and a bass line to play, while giving the performer some license to fill in the harmony notes based on the composer’s notation, but it’s important to note that the inner harmonies were not written out, note by note. (2)

From this moment in music history to the present, the lowest note, or bass note, has been the most important factor in identifying the fundamental harmony of a piece of music. In our context of live sound, this comes from the bass guitar or bass synth; i.e., the lowest note coming off the stage. Rhythm provides the melody its relationship to time, as harmony provides the melody its relationship to pitch.

Main Elements

OK, now that we have a general idea of what each of these elements mean, we can talk about applying this to a mix. I was working with a band at a small festival a few years ago and, for a number of reasons, we were running behind schedule. The stage manager was emphatic that we started right away and yelled, “Just turn up the kick drum and vocal and let’s go!”

In the moment, I rolled my eyes and restrained myself from sharing some choice thoughts with him, but it stuck with me. Why do a lot of mixes seem like it’s a party of two – kick and vocal? When you think about it for a moment, it’s simple. Almost every audience member wants the same thing from a concert experience: to hear the words to their favorite songs and to feel something. And which input moves the most air? The kick drum! That’s the input that you feel in your chest when the subs are rocking.

Unfortunately, they’re missing part of the picture. Without the harmony piece balanced with the rhythm, the context for the lead vocals is lost. And without the other side of the rhythm piece – often the snare – there’s no backbeat for the audience to lock into.

Coldplay front of house engineer Daniel Green puts it well: “With concerts, you have a limited amount of things you can actually project through the PA. I just try to get the main elements like the vocals, have a nice solid bass and drums, if Johnny [lead guitarist] does a nice melody or something, you can hear that; so just trying to bring out the main elements of the song.” (3)

If you’re looking for a mix that feels powerful, present, and clear, these are the elements you have to get right first. Most of the time, I build a solid lead vocal, kick, snare, and bass guitar sound before I start introducing any other elements. Focus on those elements first and it’s much easier to fit the rest of the instrumentation around them than it is to do in reverse.

If you’re a visual learner like me, imagine you have a jar. (This may be a familiar metaphor to you.) Next to the jar is a handful of large pebbles, a pile of smaller pebbles, and a cup of sand. Your task is to fit all the pebbles and sand into the jar. If you put in the sand first, you won’t be able to fit everything into this jar. The only way to make it all fit is by putting in the large pebbles first, then the smaller ones, and finally the cup of sand, which will fill in the gaps between all the pebbles.

In case it’s not obvious, the large pebbles are the lead vocal, kick, snare, and bass, the smaller pebbles are things like rhythm instruments, toms, and the other main elements of your mix. The sand is the small details – wet effects and other less crucial parts, which of course changes depending on what you’re mixing.

Avoiding The Extreme

How do we put this knowledge into practice? In a perfect world, it would start with having a set list well in advance of the first sound check. Go and listen to the songs you’ll be mixing. Identify those large pebbles in each arrangement. Write yourself a mix guide to reference during the show.

As useful as this kind of low-tech pre-production can be, it’s not always possible. If you’re a house engineer, you could be mixing several different bands each week, with little to no preparation time. In a lot of cases, you’re lucky to get an accurate stage plot before load in. If that’s your situation, you can skip to this next step – which takes place during sound check.

After the lines are checked and everything is working, we can begin building a mix. It’s at this point that I normally pull all my faders all the way down and start from scratch.

For the first several years that I mixed, I would take my fader levels from line check into sound check and make incremental adjustments from there. But a few years ago, some words from famed mixer Michael Brauer caused me to change the way I begin a sound check. When talking about his overarching approach to starting a mix, he said this:

“I want to feel something great in the first 15 minutes. The first thing I do is try to get a groove going, so I’ll search for that. It may be just a vocal and a piano and guitar with a loop. If someone walks in 15 minutes after I’ve begun mixing they’re not going to hear just a kick. They’ll be saying, ‘Wow, that feels cool!’ I still have a long way to go, but it already feels good. I don’t have the energy or patience to wait two or three hours until I start to feel good. I want to start feeling good right away; that is why I’m mixing!” (4)

My sound checks and mix sessions now start with getting the lead vocal into the mix properly. Until I get that, no other faders are coming up. Once I feel comfortable that the lead vocal is stable and clear, I start bringing in the other main elements: the kick, snare, and bass channels. After I’m happy with the way they sound together, I start reaching for those “small pebble” faders.

By the time I’m here, it’s already starting to feel like music. Why? The three elements that are foundational to all music are already living comfortably in the mix – the parts of the music that people most easily relate to are clear and audible. In other words, I’ve taken the parts that make it feel great, and brought those into focus first.

This is just one way that I ensure that these elements are always at the front of the mix. Here are a few other techniques that can help.

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time playing with mid-side compression. Mid-side is a commonly applied technique in recording mixing, but I don’t see it used as often in a live audio context. When compression is used as a tool for making certain elements pop out of a mix at certain moments rather than relying solely on fader movements, mid-side technique becomes extremely powerful.

Currently, this is how I’m using it: I create two mix groups that almost every channel ends up being sent to: a band bus and a lead vocal bus. The lead vocal bus doesn’t get a ton of processing, but I use it as a side chain source. I insert a mid-side compressor (Waves BSS DPR-402) onto my band bus and set the lead vocal bus as the side chain input.

I then dial in the threshold of the mid channel of the compressor to the point where the lead vocal is subtly triggering the compressor on the band bus whenever the vocalist is singing – for me, 1 to 3 dB of reduction is enough to achieve this. This way, instead of compressing the entire width of the band bus, I’m gently pushing down the center to make some room for the lead vocal.

You can get a similar result without a mid-side compressor if you have a multiband compressor at your disposal. Insert the multiband compressor onto the band bus, side chain the vocal to it, and set the upper mids threshold to gently push down that band of the compressor so that the vocal can cut through. If you’re feeling brave, try both inserts at once.

The overall result is that the lead vocal is always sitting on top of my mix without requiring too much separation between the band and the lead vocal. As mixers, we’re always trying to find the balance between vocals getting buried by instruments and the mix sounding like karaoke. This technique helps to prevent the mix from getting to either extreme.

Focusing On The Lows

Another technique I find useful is some use of EQ on the master bus. Whenever I’m looking for more low end out of my kick or bass channels, I often reach for the EQ on their channel strip. For subtle shading this can be OK, but when trying to achieve a more dramatic outcome, I find that using additive EQ in the low end of those channels tends to choke the rest of my mix.

The reason for this is that the group and bus compressors are now seeing more information and start to clamp down earlier and more aggressively than I want them to. In those cases, it again starts to sound like karaoke, but like I’m trying to make the kick drum behave like a singer – every time the drummer kicks, the rest of the mix disappears for a moment.

What I do instead is start the mix with a +1 to 2 dB low shelf on the master bus. This gives the low end the lift that it needs without having to fight with it on multiple channels. Also, low end tends to fight with itself less when frequencies aren’t competing for attention early in the mix chain.

These aren’t the only techniques that can be applied to this concept – there are many paths to the same result. The crucial elements to keep front of mind are the primary melody, quarter note rhythm, and fundamental harmony. If you focus on those first, you may quickly find yourself with a great feeling mix.

1. The Origin of Harmony (1886). The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, 27(522), 463–465.
2. Hammel, M. (1977). The Figured-bass Accompaniment in Bach’s Time: A Brief Summary of Its Development and An Examination of Its Use, Together With a Sample Realization, Part I. Bach, 8(3), 26–3.
3. YouTube. (2012). Behind the Live Sound of Coldplay. Retrieved January 7, 2023.
4. Tingen, P. (2008, November). Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Michael Brauer. Sound On Sound.

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