“It’s going to be an easy gig – we only have three vocal microphones and an acoustic guitar.”
This is a sentence I’ve heard many times from PA providers who’ve hired me to mix. It was surely meant to provide comfort, but it had the exact opposite effect. In fact, I’ve always dreaded intimate acoustic events, and have developed several techniques for dealing with them.
Most of my experience is mixing bands. Usually, standard rock groups with acoustic drums, amplified guitars, keyboards, and vocals that have to cut through whatever sonic jungle the band is performing while still feeling like a part of the mix. These shows tend to get quite loud, and it can often be a struggle to get the main body of sound to work cohesively, leaving the delicate details behind as casualties of war. There are times I’ve felt an immense accomplishment just being able to hear the lyrics of a singer in a loud band in an even louder club.
Open-air festivals are no picnic either. Dealing with a lot of band changes with major time constraints for sound check (if there even is one) usually means rushing through channel settings, slapping on some effects, and hoping to make everything at least enjoyable by the end of the set.
My mission in both of these settings usually involves carving away slots in channels to make the whole work together. These reductions of frequency ranges can be quite brutal. If a kick drum doesn’t behave to my liking, I sometimes take away almost the entire mid-range to make room for everything else. A vocal that’s boomy in the low end will be met with a high-pass filter set quite aggressively to bring it into submission. My job is to make the entire mix work well together, not really caring if the components sound a bit wonky on their own. And having many channels to work with provides ample resources of frequencies and transients to fill in the gaps of the sonic image.
But what happens when that one lead vocal is the entire mix? How do you fill an entire venue with a sound from a single acoustic guitar that is meant to embrace and entice hundreds if not thousands of people?
My take: if you’re able to mix a small number of channels (usually for more intimate or acoustic performers) and still retain the full frequency spectrum, shape the space that matches the emotion, keep the intimacy of the performance, and allow the dynamics to shine through without getting away, you’ve reached the pinnacle of the craft. But getting there is no small task. Here’s how I approach it.
Go To The Source
Great amplified sound starts with a great source. For a nuanced vocalist, reach for a condenser microphone that can truly capture every detail, and in general, select mics and position them in such a way that they need as little intervention as possible. Also, make sure that the signal paths of the instruments on stage are free from anything that might reduce the dynamic range or signal strength.
I was recently working an acoustic show where a guest performer was a singer/acoustic guitar player, and during sound check, I struggled with the sound of his guitar. It was harsh and muddy, prone to feedback, and I couldn’t seem to shape it in any pleasing way.
The solution? Bypassing the guitar preamp/FX pedal, and then the skies literally opened. The guitar sounded full and bright, only needing minor correction in EQ. It became one of the most memorable performances of the show.
Always remember that improving the sound at the source will reduce your work at every point down the line.
Dynamics Are Key
Intimate performances tend to be quite varied in terms of dynamic range. Artists often go from whispering to screaming within a single verse. Although the idea is to tame the range so that it doesn’t cause the audience to strain through the soft parts and go deaf during the loud ones, the overall goal is preserving as much of that dynamic range as possible.
As a performer myself, I’m very aware of the fact that dynamics can be a very powerful tool in engaging the audience. If that tool is taken away because of over-compression, a performance can become flat and uninteresting. In contrast to loud bands, where I try to keep the dynamic range in a small pocket in order to bring the overall volume up in a very controlled manner, for acoustic and more intimate performances I look for ways of allowing as much of the dynamic range to shine through while still retaining some of the control.
So when mixing, I usually compress in two stages if possible – most digital consoles allow for two dynamics inserts per channel, and I use compression on both of them, at low ratios of 1:2 or 1:2.5. Also, I adjust the attack time in such a way that it’s longer on the first compressor, which retains the dynamic “feel” of the performance, and slightly shorter on the second one, which provides control over the transients in the performance. I often adjust the threshold setting on the first one during the show to better track the current dynamic feel and to bring out all of the nuances of the performer.
Another great tool for keeping a uniform sound with a lot of dynamic range are multiband compressors or dynamic EQ tools such as those on DiGiCo consoles or external plugins (e.g., F6 or C6 from Waves). Setting dynamic EQs properly can ensure that the overall sound of a channel doesn’t change with the variation in dynamics, remaining uniform throughout the performance.