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Guerrilla Mixing: Making It Happen – With Excellence – When The Chips Are Down

A perfect show has all the gear and info we need with plenty of time to work, but that's as common as a unicorn dancing on a pot of gold beneath a rainbow.

In a perfect world of mixing audio, we would always have the right information and plenty of time to act on it. This includes information about the artist, the venue, the mixing console, the PA, the microphones, the audience, the timeline – anything that helps in making informed decisions about your approach, technique and style of mixing.

It also includes enough time to turn all of that information into a great-sounding show – to listen to the artists’ material, to talk with them and get to know their target sound, to check every cable run and every microphone, to align the PA, to have a detailed line check and sound check, to program the console for each section of a song, to dial in effects. In other words, to create the means for a sonic landscape that is impactful, emotional and memorable.

I’ve been in the business of tweaking knobs for a while now, and from my own experience as well as that of many fellow engineers, this perfect world is about as common as a unicorn dancing on a pot of gold beneath a rainbow. In the real world, however, we’re consistently faced with inaccurate or missing information, and everything needed to happen five minutes ago. Working in such an environment is what I call “guerrilla mixing,” where we’re forced to react rather than prepare.

Chances are you are fighting the same battles as well.

With that in mind, you might be guerrilla mixing if…

…the artist does not show up for sound check. You work in a club or for a rental company and you have to mix a show for an artist tonight. You received the rider in advance, the stage is set up and is all set for the sound check that should happen in a few minutes.

There’s just one little snag: the artist is running late. The van broke down or there was a traffic jam or they got lost on the way (yup, even with all of the navigation apps, that still happens) or their flight got delayed – for whatever reason, the sound check isn’t happening. In fact, they barely make it in time for the show, set up their gear and… lo and behold, the rider you received is outdated and additional input channels are needed along with two more monitoring lines, and the entire patch list has gone out the window.

With five minutes to show start, there’s just enough time for a revised patch list and line check. Guess what? In five minutes you’ll be doing guerrilla mixing.

…you’re doing sound for the opening act at a festival. It’s so exciting – the local band you’ve been working with got a big break, being added to the bill at a large festival with thousands of people watching (and hearing your mix). Sure, you’ll be running a console you’ve never seen before, but you’ve checked out the YouTube videos on it and have done some additional reading, and besides, there’s an allocated time for a sound check that will allow you to get more familiar with the board.

But on show day, the main act is running late and they’re having technical issues, eating up all of your time for sound check. Now your band is on stage, setting up, ready to go in minutes while you have about a thousand things to program on the console, need to set up a mix from scratch, and also must pay attention to their monitors. It’s all just a tad overwhelming, and yup, you’re a guerrilla mixer, my friend.

…the gear breaks down and you must improvise. Touring takes a toll, not only on the people but on the gear as well. Yesterday the gig went great but today, your console is out of whack. Maybe it got dropped during transport, maybe it just decided it was the right time to test your resilience and nerves; regardless, it’s just not cooperating.

There’s no way to get an identical replacement to the venue in time, but the local rental company can provide a console that will allow you to make the gig happen. All of your meticulously crafted scenes and cues are taking a break on your unused backup USB drive while you’re now rushing to remember all of the cue changes that now need to run by hand during the show. Please don’t forget to wear your “Don’t talk to me during the show, I’m guerrilla mixing!” T-shirt.

…you’ve made a name for yourself and now have so many gigs that you have little time to prepare. Congratulations, you’ve studied your craft, worked extremely hard, and you’re now getting calls to do all sorts of gigs. And you take them, even the ones that happen tomorrow because a resident sound engineer fell ill or a band got a call to fill a slot at tomorrow’s festival and they called you up last minute. There’s no time to prepare properly but you want to maintain your reputation of being a reliable “go to” engineer who gets the job done.

So what do you do? Guerrilla mixing. It happens because your business is booming and you’re doing things right, not because something went wrong.

What To Do?

Live sound is unpredictable. Even though we strive to take the element of the unknown out of our work as much as we can, it always finds a way to creep up and yell “Surprise!” For some of us it’s simply the norm. There’s little to no pre-production time, no time for adequate sound checks, and it’s different artist every night. Basically it’s the equivalent of audio speed dating.

If you find yourself in this situation, you might be wondering: “Does it ever get better? What can I do?” Here are a few things that work for me.

— Don’t panic. Accept the fact that you’ll occasionally get a visit from the proverbial Mr. Murphy, who tends to mess things up.

— Seek all of the information you can. Talk to the band, call a fellow engineer, look at a YouTube videos of the live gigs of artists you’re going to be working with. The more info you have, the better decisions you will make.

— Get methodical in the verification processs. Have a list of what absolutely needs to get checked before running the show so you can do your job when it’s time to mix. All of the mixing chops in the world won’t fix a missing input.

— Focus on the stage first. If the artists can’t hear themselves, they can’t play. If they can’t play, you can’t mix.

— Ignore the trees, focus on the forest. People might not even notice you don’t have the right reverb decay set, but they will surely notice a guitar solo they couldn’t hear because you were fiddling with some obscure parameter that makes the snare pop a bit more.

— Train to be a better guerrilla mixer. If you have access to a console, initialize all settings or recall a blank session. Set the timer to five minutes and start working. Using an input list, see how many items on your checklist can be accomplished in that time period and evaluate if there’s something else you might need more than what you have set up. Reset, restart, compare. It works even better if you have multitrack sessions you can route to your mixer – this really helps in getting the speed/efficiency aspect under your belt.

Over the years I’ve found that it can be extremely satisfying to create a good mix when the cards are stacked against you. I also consider it a true testament of a good sound engineer to be able to make something out of nothing. So don’t be shy, and say it out loud: “I am a guerrilla mixer!”

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