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Leaving The Comfort Zone

Mixing for particular music styles -- it's not all supposed to sound like 70s rock...

Like the majority of people working in the audio biz, I love music. Growing up in the 1970s, I was fortunate that my favorite FM radio station played a pretty diverse selection of musical styles, including folk, soft rock, pop, disco, R&B, rock, and even heavy metal.

While exposed to quite a few musical styles and artists, I developed personal favorites.

Most Saturdays would find me at the record store, spending the few bucks earned that week from mowing lawns on new records, along with the occasional George Carlin and Richard Pryor comedy album.

To this day, I still have virtually every record, and long ago wore out the grooves on my favorites.

Cassette tapes eventually became popular, with my friends and I making “mix tapes” to listen to in our cars and on a wondrous portable device called the Walkman. And then wiith the advent of the compact disc, I bought many of the same albums again to take advantage of the “new and improved” digital format.

When I started mixing live music (somewhere after cassettes but before CDs), every mix sounded like what I knew and liked best from my stable or records. This was fine for local bar bands covering 70s rock, but not such a good thing for other artists, such as the jazz group that ended up with me behind the console at a local festival.

I learned two simple yet invaluable lessons that day. Lesson one: this traditional jazz band wanted a jazz sound to emanate from the PA. Lesson two: so did the audience. One other thing I learned is that jazz audiences aren’t shy if they don’t like what the sound guy is doing behind the board.

Quickly I realized that if I was to succeed in mixing audio, I needed to know and understand a lot of different genres of music in order to be able to present them correctly. Starting with jazz!

From that point on, I made it a point to listen to all styles of American music, trying to decipher the character of each as well as what elements make that style distinct from others.

Several years later, I thought I had every musical style pretty well defined when a big snafu reared its head. One sunny day at a large festival in Washington D.C. I found myself standing behind the house console, with the next act on the bill a soukous band from Africa. While soukous was (and still is) the most popular music in Africa, and is generally well known throughout much of the world, I’d never heard of it.

Grasping without a clue as to what this band was supposed to sound like in the PA, I ended up making them sound like what I knew best: a 70s rock band. I learned three valuable lessons on that sunny day.

The first two lessons are the same ones learned with the jazz band and audience. The third lesson was to be even better prepared to suit the style of every artist prior to a gig, and also to talk beforehand with unique or unfamiliar acts about how they want their music to be presented.

Years passed, and I really thought I was getting the hang of this mixing thing when I found myself at yet another festival. The next act on the bill was a modern country artist I’d not heard (or heard of). So I made my way through the crowd to the stage and asked the band how they wanted to sound.

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Craig Leerman is senior contributing editor for Live Sound International and ProSoundWeb, and is the owner of Tech Works, a production company based in Las Vegas.

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