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Mixing For The Boss: Dealing With Unsolicited (And Usually Unhelpful) Advice At FOH

Should we morph our approach to the mix when someone of influence is “contributing” as a member of the “mix committee” at FOH?

By Jim Yakabuski December 7, 2018

I’ve had an amazing career in professional audio and have been fortunate to mix some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever, but I’ve never been lucky enough to mix for Bruce Springsteen.

Many fine engineers have, including John Cooper, Monty Carlo and Troy Milner, but that’s not at all what this segment is about…

Rather, I’m going to focus on how your mix approach may stray from the norm when the band’s manager (or the lead guitarist’s wife) is standing next to you at front of house.

We all like to think we have the strength of character to mix the same way no matter who is peeking over our shoulder, but in reality, mix engineers often morph their approach when someone of influence is “contributing” as a member of the “mix committee” at FOH.

As an example, I worked with a band manager who thought there was always way too much sub bass in the mix. “This wasn’t the way the band sounded 20 years ago,” he would tell me. “Turn down the low-end!”

While perhaps true, the modern sound systems and FOH mixes now have plenty of low end; go to 10 concerts featuring popular, relevant pop/rock bands and you’ll find that this sonic signature is pretty consistent. No one’s saying it’s correct, but it’s the expectation, and what we’re all doing these days.

So how do can we handle the situation when certain influential individuals are handing out mix tips (often including advice on turning up the member of the band that got them their backstage passes)?

Here are a few approaches:

— Politely nod in acknowledgement while going right on doing things the way you always do, with a possible outcome of being called into the “principal’s office” later to explain your actions. Sometimes this can result in holding your head high and being proud of “sticking to your guns” from the comfort of a window seat on your way home.

— Follow any and all advice from the “boss” next to you and later explain your actions in a different principal’s office when that member of the band wants to know why the other guitar player’s level was much louder in the mix.

— Handle it the way that I usually do – make a minor adjustment that shows you respect their advice, and then decide after they depart whether the adjustment made things better or not. If not, go back to doing things the way you usually do – in other words, the approach that got you the gig and earned the band’s trust in the first place.

Most of this relates to managers and band member friends and families who swing by FOH to see the show from the best (and least crowded) spot in the house. But what happens when the band members are giving you advice “from the stage?”

It’s much tougher to handle, for sure, because in the end, they really are the boss(es)and thus their opinions matter a lot. Especially to your bank account.

The answer to this will certainly require another discussion…

About Jim

Jim Yakabuski
Jim Yakabuski

Jim Yakabuski has spent more than 35 years as a live sound engineer, working with artists such Van Halen, Journey, Avril Lavigne, Peter Frampton, and many others. He's also by author of "Professional Sound Reinforcement Techniques," which provides a collection of tips and techniques for mix engineers. It's available via Amazon.


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Simon says

I am currently mixing a large scale touring show that features a 9 piece band, 36 piece strings, singers, narration and sound effects. The original album from 1978 has become revered as being ‘iconic’ in many ways, sonically being a big one. It’s tough enough getting it all to knit together in a terrible arena, but when the composer and management start to give you notes based on what they read on the nerd forums it makes it not only only harder but downright depressing, especially when all your peers are saying how awesome it sounds. I’m supposed to do ‘something’ about it, but I’m buggered if I know what. Answers on a postcard please.

R says

When mixing a band, getting unsolicited advice will get this from me.
The band hired me to mix, not you. You want to mix? Go talk to the band,you can do my job better, see what they have to say about the manager or gitutar players wife mixing the show. Go talk to them NOW soon as they take their little break. If they think you can do my job let them tell me and NOW you can mix the rest of the show, be part of the load out and tomorrow’s load in and show.
If for some strange reason I get replaced by somebody’s wife, I’ll wipe as much of the console as I can or if digital, copy the current console settings to my stick, deleat from the console, recall some compleatly differnt show and take a walk before they come back from break

David Simpson says

Being a professional myself for many years in live and recorded sound and I’ve been on both sides of this discussion. Just for GP , I mixed from Duran Duran to the Phila. Orchestra and Itzhak Perlman , lots of British New Wave as well as Jazz. I switched to recording engineer when my family and I got tired of the road. Anyway I have walked through venues that didn’t have the luxury of multiple staff to check SPL’s and imaging and would politely introduce myself to the working FOH engineer and than report how I heard it from different central locations and sometimes would suggest an EQ freq. boost or cut. Now I don’t make a habit of working for free but for some bands I really like or know I go the extra mile. As far as less professional advise when Ive been behind the board, console, control surface...... It depends on who it is. Producers generally want it their way and that can be a tightrope. I’ve had band members (Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman) come off the stage during the first song to hear and correct the house mix. As you know any new venue sounds different from an empty sound check to a crowded freq. sucking room or auditorium and that first song is when you do the corrections. I was miffed back then not knowing that this man would become one of the most successful in demand soundtrack songwriters and producer.
Of course there is always the pain in butt drunk friend of the band who wants something turned up and that’s when you have to be diplomatic and do the fake out moving faders that aren’t assigned but marked like they are in different colors. Sometimes if there is a quiet moment you can diffuse a dispute by leaning over and touching the sides of the console and saying loudly “Do you think this is real wood? Or some other equally rediculous question. This always disconnects the aggressive behavior. Try it ...It works.
And the fake faders are good too.
Of course there are times when our hands are tied. Hope I didn’t bore anyone with the long comment.
Keep up the good work.

Todd says

just commenting on only the last point "But what happens when the band members are giving you advice “from the stage?”

especially if it's a band you know it's important to communicate to them at some point, just in case they aren't aware, that anything they say on stage will be 90+% a product of sound "from the stage" and less than 10% a reflection of what's going on in the hall / stadium or what have you. even worse, on stage they are getting a heavily off-axis, low-passed and imbalanced idea of the emissions from the FoH stage speaker arrays & front fills. add to that the signals making 90+% of what they are hearing on stage: actual instrument amplifiers, drums, stage wedges that are run either from a monitor engineer or from FOH but none of which are the FOH mix nomally, or IEMS that fit the same criteria. while it's true they would possibly notice changes you make to FOH from stage, and also notice it sounds different when the hall is full vs. soundcheck, nevertheless they do not have the perspective to evaluate these changes as good or bad most of the time.

I tell artists that they should know i'm operating on the assumption that during sound check (or earlier) if members want to come out and put in their 2c about the mix that's great. once the show starts i 90+% assume whatever they are asking for is invalid in the hall / stadium etc. since they are not in that auditory environment and have extremely limited, and misinformed perception of it, and therefore the same goes for their judgement of it. thus they need to know that everything they are asking for will be interpreted automatically as something regarding monitors or on-stage.

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