A fantastic trick I’ve used when the band has only one electric guitar player and that player’s sound is uncomfortably “mono” – dry and bright – is to double-assign that input into two channels on the console. Try panning each channel out of the center a fair amount (60-left and right) and then add a 30 millisecond (ms) delay to only one of the two channels. This creates a bit of a slap delay effect that adds complexity and width to that player’s guitar sound. I sometimes use darker EQ on the second channel and a touch of chorus. Try it – it’s pretty cool.
Keep in mind that the guitar tones and keyboard patches used in one song don’t always remain throughout the entire set of songs. Sometimes a musician will use a very dry, bright guitar patch for one song and then stomp on a few pedals and produce a big, washed out, dark tone for the next. The added FX can then create additional chaos, so apply it when needed if the instrumentation is feeling stark, but be aware that too much of a good thing is not always the answer. If the soup is already too thick, don’t add any more flour!
Taking It Further
Let’s switch gears and look at the widely used practice of adding additional tracks of music and vocals from a playback source. A laptop on stage is usually the trigger to fire tracks from a session in a DAW (digital audio workstation such as Pro Tools) to add fullness, provide missing instrumentation and percussion loops, and vocal enhancements that may not be possible to achieve with just the musicians in the band.
These additional tracks can often take a stark arrangement of live instruments and add a whole new level of excitement to a song. They can also create a less desirable result of excessive clutter and muddiness in the mix if not properly “treated.”
A great question for the audio engineer mixing the song to ask the musical director is, “What instrumentation is happening on these tracks that is already being played by a live musician on stage, and if that’s happening, why use both?”. Often, the musicians will learn the parts they are assigned to play, yet that exact part is “doubled” on the tracks. It’s a good practice to point out to the musical director that this is happening.
If the doubled section is a keyboard part and the tracks and live instrument have totally different patches, they may blend wonderfully together and it can be really nice. However, if the sounds are exactly the same, and that part comes and goes on the tracks, it can be difficult for the mix engineer to keep the overall mix balanced. Sometimes “muting” a section of the tracks so that the live musicians can play it is a much better solution. Or, leave the tracks in the arrangement but ask the live musician to play another part or a different sound to add to the song.
The same challenges can occur with drum, percussion and bass loops. If the live band already has a formidable kick drum and bass guitar foundation, adding super-deep kick drum loops to a song can often result in the whole room shaking! Some EQ and careful use of a HPF on the playback tracks or live kick drum for certain songs may be required.
Also, be mindful of “attack latency” between the very thick drum tracks and live instruments. If the kick drum being played live is not landing exactly on the timeline with the track kick drum, you may feel like some “sync issues” are happening, leaving you with a very messy, muddy result. The track kick drum may need to be lowered in the playback track stem in certain portions of the song, or the live kick may need to be “ducked” down and thinned out EQ-wise to get them to play nice together.
In the end it’s all about the song and how that song invites worship. If you’ve built a solid foundation with drums and bass, and dialed in some fantastic sounding vocals, finish the mix off with a deep, rich musical middle. Every musician on stage is contributing to achieve a fantastic final product, so do your part to let them all be heard individually, while you all participate as a vital component of a greater collaboration.