As many territories begin to open up again after an enforced absence from live productions, it’s interesting to hear what everyone has been up to during the downtime. There’s definitely a period of adjustment while we get back up to gig-fitness – I know my own mental processes felt severely rusty for the first few weeks back behind a mixing console.
That’s not surprising, as apparently unused neural pathways start to atrophy after just nine weeks out of use, like forest roads that don’t get driven on. The roads still exist, but lack of use means the undergrowth reclaims them, potholes appear, and when we revisit them, it takes time to clear the pathway enough for full speed traffic!
Yet despite the break, it seems that many folks have used the time to upskill in various technical areas, with increasing progress and interest in immersive in-ear monitor mixing.
Sense Of Spaciousness
I first tried immersive IEM mixing with a KLANG:fabrik personal monitoring system back in 2016. I took one out on the road and experimented with putting different members of the band’s mix through it. The first thing that struck me was the sense of spaciousness that it created – there was a very alive, familiar feel to having instruments placed around the listener in three dimensions, just as you’d hear them naturally.
As I continued to experiment, I discovered that the immersive environment meant that mixes could be quieter – around 3 dB for the overall mix level and as much as 6 dB quieter for the central element of someone’s mix, such as a singer’s vocal or drummer’s click.
That’s extremely significant when it comes to protecting people’s hearing – of course, performers must bear personal responsibility for how loud they have their mixes, but the last thing any monitor engineer wants is to contribute to anyone’s hearing damage, so anything that can help us to reduce that risk has to be a good thing.
At the moment, we’re hearing a lot about immersive mixing with systems such as L-Acoustics L-ISA, d&b Soundscape and Dolby Atmos, and with good reason – they deliver an audio experience to the listener as we humans actually hear it in real life. Stereo, as much as we have been used to it for a long time, is actually a synthetic way of listening – real life doesn’t happen in one-dimensional stereo, it happens immersively, in 3D.
It takes a lot of work for our brains and ears – the whole biological auditory system – to decode the artificial information of a stereo mix into usable data, and that leads to our ears and brains getting tired.
It’s very common for performers to start turning their packs up toward the end of a long day of rehearsals or a show and to ask the monitor engineer for more top end as their ears become fatigued and start to feel dull. That action might feel like it solves the problem in the immediate term (they feel like they can hear better) but it quickly becomes a vicious circle as ears and brains get more tired, so they turn up more… and on it goes, and we can quickly find ourselves heading into dangerous territory of potential hearing damage.
Of course, as monitor engineers we’re required, to a great extent, to do what is asked of us by the folks we’re mixing for. But beyond compression, limiting, and offering our expertise, there’s not much more we can do – if the person on stage wants it louder, we need to deliver. How great would it be if they didn’t feel the need for louder mixes in the first place?
Immersive mixing can offer just that. Having the elements of a mix placed around listeners, just as they would hear the world naturally, leaves the auditory system with no more work to do than it manages in normal everyday life. There’s no sorting of synthetic information – everything feels organic, logical and open, and listening fatigue is greatly reduced.
In fact, I find that I don’t get asked for more level or top end at all as the day goes on – people leave their pack volume right where it started. Musicians and artists love it because it feels real and spacious as though they’re standing on stage and have removed their IEMs, and yet they can hear everything at just the right level as it happens around them, even things that make no acoustic sound such as direct inputs.
As a result, they tend to feel more settled and confident – what they’re hearing matches what they’re seeing, so there’s a sense of cohesiveness to their experience.
There are a couple of other interesting phenomena that happen with immersive IEM mixes. This advanced technology, ironically, takes us back to a more “old school” feel on stage, where bands vibe off each other more rather than feeling separated and in their own little world. They may also find that their mixes feel more stable and require fewer little changes between songs, meaning less snapshot use.
The thing that really excites me about immersive mixing is that it takes the quality of my mixes to the next level. I’ve had conversations with other engineers who feel that immersive IEM mixing is not for them because they “already create great stereo mixes.”
Well, after 26 years in the live music business, I’d like to think I create pretty great stereo mixes too, and of course there are lots of techniques we can use to create as much space as possible in stereo mixes. Applying high- and low-pass filters, for example, plus judicious use of EQ to leave only useful information, such as scooping out the mid-range of a kick drum.
The characteristic sound of a kick is the “boom” of the low end and the “thwack” of the top end, so by removing the unnecessary frequencies we can clarify that signal and clean out audio real-estate that’s better occupied by an instrument whose sonic characteristics are in that range.
But no matter how skilful we are as engineers, we’re limited by the parameters of the medium, and stereo is one-dimensional (left/right). Opening up a second (front/back) and third (elevation) dimension can only increase the potential of what we can do, and so to me the argument is like saying that you have no interest in flying because you have a really great car: there’s only so much that a car can do.
I don’t see pride in my existing ability as a good enough reason to reject something that can help me to do even better, and that’s why I’ll be taking KLANG’s new 128-input, 16-mix konductor unit out on my next tour, so that all the people I’m mixing for can enjoy the benefits of immersive IEM mixes.
As live shows open up again and touring resumes, many audio techs have had time to re-assess our way of life and consider how we can make improvements. There’s a greater focus on sustainability in many quarters, and I believe that begins with sustainability of our industry’s greatest resource – the people in it.
How can we look after ourselves, and each other, better on the road so that we have longevity rather than burn-out? How can we approach the inevitable pressures, challenges and demands of touring in a healthier way?
I believe that immersive mixing is one such way. Giving performers a mix that satisfies them at lower sound levels means that we can play an active role in hearing preservation – both theirs and our own. When the technology that affords us that opportunity also offers mixes that feel more natural, enjoyable, and animated – why wouldn’t we want to immerse ourselves?