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Five Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started Mixing Live Music

Skills and techniques to understand (and implement) from the outset to avoid as many difficulties as possible.

When I insert a compressor or noise gate on a channel, the solid input level ensures that only small adjustments need to be made to thresholds or makeup gain levels to hear and see the desired effect of the processor on the channel.

And when I route a channel to an aux send for monitor mixes or effects routing the initial send levels are at a place where the selected effect (e.g., reverb, chorus, delay) is sufficiently energized and returns to the console at an equally nominal level.

Proper gain structure also helps when patching a console into “PA de jour” and festival systems. If they’re properly gain-staged, nominal level from the master bus or matrices should provide the most bang for the buck without inducing noise, distortion or unwanted limiting.

Four. Only combine two similar inputs if the sum is greater than its parts. I’ve shouted from the rooftops more than once about the importance of sensibly combining two similar inputs.

With seemingly unlimited console channels available, it’s common practice to see multiple channels used for various instruments on stage. Popular “doubled-up” inputs like kick drum (in and out mics), Bass DI and mic, guitar cabinet (condenser and dynamic mics), and more recently double buss setups, using uncompressed and “crushed” groups, provide options for engineers.

These practices are often valuable and sometimes game changing, but like many other recent techniques, just because it can be done, don’t assume the result will be better than a single well-treated channel. I’ve learned over time to first check if a single source (by itself) is sonically superior to two or more combined inputs.

Let’s use the example of two kick drum mics. It’s wonderful to have the choice of two separate mics in two different locations (inside the drum and outside the front head). Each has unique tonal characteristics that can be used for different purposes. The inside mic is often tighter and punchier, with more attack, while the outside mic can sound round and deep with more “sub-friendly” frequencies.

If used independently, each can offer “song specific” advantages (e.g., kick in for faster songs and kick out for slower songs), but be cautious of problems that can arise when these two inputs are combined without the attention it deserves. Different locations, as well as mic brands with quite different frequency responses, will not always magically combine for a better result.

Using tools like the polarity reverse switch and/or the indispensable input delay can help ensure two low-frequency-rich mics are playing well together and not introducing phase cancellations at the very frequencies you’re trying to feature.

Get each source sounding great on its own and when adding them together, always double check that the sum is greater than the parts. A hard-earned lesson: Only use one source if there isn’t the necessary time to combine them effectively and A-B test the result. This goes for kick drum, two bass guitar sources, and multiple guitar mics (which can really “getcha”).

Five. Understand scenes, snapshots and scope. The first time I mixed on a digital console was in 2003, a Yamaha PM1D. I was taking over the FOH duties on a tour that had already been going for several months.

I stepped up to the plate on my first day and worked hard to make things sound better by touching up EQ on several channels. I was making these changes in scene number 1 entitled “Line Check,” and things were coming together nicely.

The band came in and played one of its songs, which prompted me to fire that scene. I couldn’t figure out why all the channels I’d just fixed suddenly sounded worse. It took a while to discover that the “scope” for each scene/snapshot was set so that multiple parameters would change every time a new one was recalled. One of those parameters was EQ, and every time I recalled the scene for each song, any EQ changes I made in the previous song were replaced by the stored settings.

The school of hard knocks had just taught me a valuable lesson: Until you know exactly what you want to change when you fire a new scene, it’s best to zero out the parameter scope and add things back in on an “as-needed” basis. Do you need certain channels muted in certain songs? If so, add “mute” to the scope on your inputs.

The same goes for fader levels and EQ. If you need them to change from one song to the next, enable those parameters in the scope, but if you feel that the EQ you’re tweaking daily during line check should remain unchanged throughout the show, disable that or you may suffer unwanted and unfortunate resets.

My rule of thumb is to zero out the scope until I have a specific function I need changed during a particular song. I’ve even simplified things so much that I only used two scenes for an entire tour: mute and unmute. Maybe I’m not taking full advantage of the digital console’s capabilities but I’m not getting burned either!

Bonus. I’ve acquired a lot of wisdom over the years that’s helped me become a better mix engineer, but I thought I’d end with a “day off” tip that every technician preparing to hit the road should learn immediately: the dinner check gets divided equally.

If you’re asked to join the “big dogs” of the tour for dinner on a day off, make sure you’ve got plenty of money in your account or per diem in your wallet. Many a fledgling crew member has accepted this invitation excited to spend time with the more experienced and worldly tour veterans.

It’s usually a fancy steakhouse with insane prices, so you decide to go with the soup and salad while the elite order ribeyes and multiple bottles of fancy cabernet. Dinner is wrapping up, so you ask the waiter for a separate check, but it’s quickly waved off by the tour manager.

You’re now hopeful the artist or management might pay for the crew meal, but a little math is done and you’re now asked to contribute one-tenth of the $1,000 tab. Yikes – that’s expensive soup and salad.

Lesson learned! Order big like the rest of the gang and be ready to pay or pick less financially blessed dinner companions.

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