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Mixing For The Boss: Dealing With Unsolicited (And Usually Unhelpful) Advice At FOH

Should we morph our approach to the mix when someone of influence is “contributing” as a member of the “mix committee” at FOH?

I’ve had an amazing career in professional audio and have been fortunate to mix some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever, but I’ve never been lucky enough to mix for Bruce Springsteen.

Many fine engineers have, including John Cooper, Monty Carlo and Troy Milner, but that’s not at all what this segment is about…

Rather, I’m going to focus on how your mix approach may stray from the norm when the band’s manager (or the lead guitarist’s wife) is standing next to you at front of house.

We all like to think we have the strength of character to mix the same way no matter who is peeking over our shoulder, but in reality, mix engineers often morph their approach when someone of influence is “contributing” as a member of the “mix committee” at FOH.

As an example, I worked with a band manager who thought there was always way too much sub bass in the mix. “This wasn’t the way the band sounded 20 years ago,” he would tell me. “Turn down the low-end!”

While perhaps true, the modern sound systems and FOH mixes now have plenty of low end; go to 10 concerts featuring popular, relevant pop/rock bands and you’ll find that this sonic signature is pretty consistent. No one’s saying it’s correct, but it’s the expectation, and what we’re all doing these days.

So how do can we handle the situation when certain influential individuals are handing out mix tips (often including advice on turning up the member of the band that got them their backstage passes)?

Here are a few approaches:

— Politely nod in acknowledgement while going right on doing things the way you always do, with a possible outcome of being called into the “principal’s office” later to explain your actions. Sometimes this can result in holding your head high and being proud of “sticking to your guns” from the comfort of a window seat on your way home.

— Follow any and all advice from the “boss” next to you and later explain your actions in a different principal’s office when that member of the band wants to know why the other guitar player’s level was much louder in the mix.

— Handle it the way that I usually do – make a minor adjustment that shows you respect their advice, and then decide after they depart whether the adjustment made things better or not. If not, go back to doing things the way you usually do – in other words, the approach that got you the gig and earned the band’s trust in the first place.

Most of this relates to managers and band member friends and families who swing by FOH to see the show from the best (and least crowded) spot in the house. But what happens when the band members are giving you advice “from the stage?”

It’s much tougher to handle, for sure, because in the end, they really are the boss(es)and thus their opinions matter a lot. Especially to your bank account.

The answer to this will certainly require another discussion…

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