My average adolescence changed forever one summer evening in 1985 at the old Charlotte Coliseum. Excitement hung thick in the audience as the walk-in music faded. House lights dropped and hundreds of sweaty bodies surged forward as the guitars roared the stage to life.
The emotional power of that moment has followed me for 34 years. Music, especially the live concert experience, became a positive way to channel all my tumultuous young emotions. Now I find myself in the position of crafting the technical and artistic recipe which transfers that emotion to thousands of fans every show.
Music is an emotional conductor. Everywhere you go on this beautiful planet, you find music conveying every possible nuance of feeling, fulfilling our human need for both personal and group catharsis. Recent studies in neuroscience are finally beginning to uncover profound connections in the human brain between music and empathy.
Like-minded fans gather together to experience the shared emotions generated by every possible style and genre, from EDM to polka and thousands more. This human ritual is sometimes bolstered by generational, ethnic or linguistic similarities, but increasingly in our modern age, the music itself is the powerful glue holding groups together.
As the producers of live music, we find ourselves in the unique position of helping create fundamental emotional connections between creators and fans. Our day job is their peak experience. The hard question is how to quantify that emotional conductivity in some way. What is better? How is it experienced? How is it produced?
The first and most important thing we can do is step away from the desk and listen. Listen with the heart of a fan and the ears of an engineer. Listen and focus on the musical styles and techniques at play and the production qualities attributed to the best of each genre. Then optimize our production choices to make the musical experience as immersive as possible for fans who connect passionately to whatever type of music we have the pleasure of mixing.
Volume and dynamic range are usually the most direct and effective tools we have when it comes to showcasing a musical style. Mixing a drum kit for a heavy metal style band requires a very different approach compared to an afternoon jazz group in the park. Both classical and operatic music are known for having huge swings in volume and dynamic range.
But EDM and pop music will maintain consistently high RMS levels with rare exception. Both are correct in their own context. Those thousands of fans at the hip-hop show expect loads of low-frequency content, but attendees of the ballet will protest if the same approach is taken. Fans of flamenco guitar get just as excited by hearing their favorite solo as do fans of electric bassoon.
When you find yourself mixing the same genres over and over, pay attention to the emotional reaction, in both the audience and yourself, and use that time to evaluate and quantify patterns and causation. For example, if you’re mixing a pop vocalist, the lead vocal is everything. If that vocal isn’t clear and prominent, the fans will feel it and their energy and enthusiasm will be noticeably diminished.
For bluegrass, know how to balance rhythm and melody while anticipating who’s got the next solo. Just like poker, watch the body language of the performers to predict who’s got the next break. For klezmer, know the difference between rhythm accordion and lead accordion. For classical, know what the main melody is and how to blend polyphony, making sure each Chair is heard.
Every genre has subtle patterns which exist within its production. Do your homework, listen as a fan and the patterns will become ingrained in your process in a way that will thrill audiences, musicians, and hopefully even you.
We’re not here to just turn the knobs and get paid, though it’s nice when one leads to the other. We facilitate joy. We instigate rage. We illuminate hearts breaking and healing. We encourage revolution.
A musician I once worked for told me, “You mix heroically.” He meant this in the true Joseph Campbell tradition, in the sense that my mixes were not just technically accurate, but became a seamless part of the story he was telling with his own art. The story all artists are telling about humanity and its need for emotional fuel.
Music is possibly the oldest emotional conductor we have. You’re lucky enough to wield some of that power. Do.