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12-Step Program: Key Questions In Critiquing Your Live Mixes

Borrowing some concepts and techniques from the studio to improve the live side of things...


6) Is the mix generating the expected energy?

This isn’t so much a critique as much as a reminder that live mixing is about the moment. The energy level of the band affects the energy of the audience, and that’s translated via the mix.

The set list affects energy as well. I recall a Jimmy Buffett concert in which he performed mostly deeper tracks, which for true fans should have been great. But the result was nothing close. It was obvious from the crowd’s reaction that they wanted the hits. We don’t have the choice of selecting the set list, but we can make the best of the mix for every song on that list, as well as from song to song.

7) Does the mix vary within the song?

This one’s tough because a bad song arrangement makes mix variation hard. A song can grow stale between the first verse and the final chorus when there are no movement or arrangement changes.

When this is the case, try making mix changes in the chorus or the bridge. For example, what if the drums were restrained during the verses but then set free during the chorus? The goal is to give the song movement.

A good arrangement makes mix variation easier. An instrument drops out during the bridge or a guitar patch changes in the final verse – whatever the arrangement change, it’s an opportunity to modify the mix to highlight a dynamic.

8) Does an effect benefit the sound?

Listen to the channel with the effect. Turn the effect off and listen. Which sounds better? Don’t use effects because they’re available, use them for benefit. The effect can be anything from reverb to gating.

Creative reverb or gating can be a component of an amazing mix but can just as easily destroy it. Compression and gating can be used as an effect, or as a means of controlling volume/dynamics, or for removing noise like the hiss of an amp. In these cases, I don’t worry about split-testing the difference.

9) Does the mix fill the whole sonic space when appropriate?

The primary frequencies of the majority of instruments and vocals are in the mid-range regions. Yet we’ve got the whole frequency range to work with, from window-rattling bass to glass-breaking sopranos. Use that space (again, when appropriate).

Further, listen to how the mix sounds in those extremes. A little more sizzle in the cymbals or brightness in an acoustic guitar can make a mix pop. As for the busyness in the mid-range, look for select places to cut to attain added clarity and separation, as mentioned earlier.


10) Does the mix fit the artist?

A pop band shouldn’t sound like a country band. While mixing for the same band isn’t a problem, if a variety of acts come through the venue, then it’s a good idea to listen to some recordings to better understand the style of each. Granted, acts often bring their own engineer but that’s not always the case.

Keep personal mix preferences limited to the home stereo. Hatred of electric guitar is no reason to pull it from the mix when working a rock concert.

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11) Are the backing vocals sitting in the best spot?

The song arrangement determines how these should be mixed. They might sit behind the lead, or they might come in at about the same volume level during a chorus. Use them to support the lead vocal to give energy and emotion to the song.

For the most part, backing vocals should form one voice. Vocalists with distinct frequency characteristics can be mixed together by softening those frequencies and deciding which can help create a better overall single voice.

12) Will I let another engineer critique my mix?

This question is about willingness to learn and not about confidence in the mix. It’s largely about emotions – our own. Be open to new ideas and constructive criticism. I’ve learned tomes of mixing material from books, web sites and training sessions, but some of the best lessons came after an engineer asked me, “Do you mind if I give you a few suggestions on the mix?”

So the next time out, ask these 12 questions of your mix. It doesn’t take long, it isn’t hard, and future audiences and artists will benefit. We don’t have extensive time to analyze our mixes like studio engineers, but we do have the responsibility to create the best live mixes possible.

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