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Lend Me Your Ears – When More Is Better

Sometimes there's strength in numbers in helping with a mix
This article is provided by Behind The Mixer.

One Friday night, I used three pairs of ears.

I’m not talking about earbuds or anything electronic in nature.

I’m talking about real human-tissue ears. 

And therein was the key to my success.

A friend of mine was a singer in a 30-plus-person barbershop singing group. He told me they could use an experienced sound guy and asked if I was interested. 

A few phone calls and emails later, I found myself standing in front of this huge acappella group as they practiced.

I realized, after standing there for a few minutes, that one of a few things could happen:

1) I mix like I think I should mix for such a group…and I’ve never mixed for such a large vocal group.

2) I mix based entirely on the instructions given to me by those in the group.

3) I mix based on my knowledge in the field of live sound as well as the recommendations of a few select individuals in the group.

—Option #1 wouldn’t be the wisest move. Heck, I’ll call it a stupid choice.
—Option #2 well, they wouldn’t have needed to hire me if this worked.
—Option #3 thus became my choice and after two successful nights, it proved it was the best decision.

As far as potential for failure, this had plenty of it. Two gigs, two nights, two locations, a portable system, six open microphones, and no mixing during the performance.

The process I used during each practice before the performance was simple:

1) Check for general audio levels and adjust boom mics over choir as necessary. Adjust gain structure.

2) Set a general EQ level at the mixer (located behind the choir) and then walk in front of the choir to see how it sounds.

3) After step 2 was done, I had the wife of the choir director stand in the middle of the seating area (isn’t it funny I can’t think of what to call it when I can’t call it the sanctuary?). I would work the frequency band of the house EQ and get signals from her as to how it sounded. Once a band was set, I’d walk out myself to listen for the sound of that freq band as well as the overall mix than make appropriate tweaks. For the sake of completeness, it’s noted that the first night, the assistant-director helped with this as well.

4) Once the EQ was nailed, I walked the room listening for uniformity in both volume levels as well as mix quality. Then, I adjusted as necessary.

5) Use similar steps as above for the quartet microphones but adjust the channel EQ.

6) Finally, the director and assistant-director would listen and thankfully, give their nod of approval.

I mention those steps to make this point; you and I are used to mixing in the same room week after week and take room audio dynamics into account without really thinking about it. 

When the room dynamics change from one event to the next, +6 dB at 60 Hz on the mixer in one room will not produce the same results in another room.

The first night, I felt my presence was met with some uncertainty from the singers. I didn’t blame them. I was a new guy. During practice the next night, when the director said “thank you to Chris our sound guy,” I was greeted by a huge round of applause. 

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The first night, there were quite a few extra ears listening to the mix during practice. The second night, someone listen closely to the mix and provided feedback only when I asked.

My success was because I took the knowledge and experience of those involved with the singing group and combined it with my own.

So the next time you are mixing a new genre or a guest worship band, ask them for an extra set of ears. Those extra minutes of mixing will be worth it.   

Then take notes so the next time you mix for that guest band or that genre, you have a better idea of the needs of the mix.

Ready to learn and laugh? Chris Huff writes about the world of church audio at Behind The Mixer. He covers everything from audio fundamentals to dealing with musicians, and can even tell you the signs the sound guy is having a mental breakdown.

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