As a sound engineer, you spend years honing the ability to subtly appraise a mix. You learn to zoom in on each individual element and then zoom out to the whole mix, rapidly making decisions about what is and isn’t working so that you can tweak various parameters to bring those individual elements into one glorious whole.
After a while it becomes sub-conscious, you’re not even aware of it, it’s just part of what you do. The only problem being that once you’ve acquired this ability, it’s hard to turn it off.
Most of us got into sound because we love music, so it’s inevitable that we’ll end up at a gig as a member of the audience at some point. It’s not easy having no backstage privileges—no free beer, no artisanal catering, and only being allowed to occupy the space between the stage and the front doors for the duration.
What can make this experience even worse is being exposed to common live mix mistakes. Here are five that I’ve recently encountered at gigs as well as some suggestions for how they can be avoided.
Big Roomitis. This particular affliction can be observed in medium to large venues where bands suddenly find themselves thrust into larger rooms than they’re used to playing in, often as a result of being the support band to a more established act. This often means the band can afford to bring their own sound engineer along for the first time, and they’ll often engage someone who’s cut their teeth in small rooms. So when greeted with a large PA in a large space, the engineer struggles to cope and produces a big messy mix.
Now obviously we all need to step out of our comfort zone every now and then to up our game and take things to the next level, so a little bit of thought can help ease the transition. The key thing to realize is that in small venues you’re not really mixing the whole sound; there will always be a large amount of ambient sound coming off the stage.
The obvious candidates are drums and amplifiers but bear in mind that the monitor system will also be generating a fair amount of level (unless the band’s using in-ears, of course). So in effect, a big chunk of the mix is already there and you’re just adding a top layer of sound which (hopefully) gives the mix elements the definition they need to stand out and work together.
However, as soon as you get into a bigger room with a large PA, the stage spill is much less of a concern so you’re required to build the entire mix from scratch. This is where a lot of engineers fall down because if you’re doing the same thing as in those smaller venues, the mix lacks body, so you try to compensate with extra level and end up with that big messy mix. The key to avoiding this problem is to adapt your approach to the mix to suit the room and the system you’re mixing on.
Unknown Desk Syndrome. The great thing about analog consoles is that once you’ve figured out how to work one of them, you can pretty much operate them all, it’s just a question of scale. Unfortunately this maxim does not extend to digital consoles. Each manufacturer has its own unique way of addressing the digital paradigm, which can make it difficult for engineers to get to grips with all of them.
Hence you turn up at the show, often as a support band, with a limited sound check and thus a limited amount of time to figure out a decent work flow on an unfamiliar control surface. I know from painful experience that if you don’t know the console it can slow you down and really hamper the ability to mix the show as you normally would.
The trick here is to do your homework. This starts weeks in advance of the gig/tour. Find out which console you’ll be using, and if it’s not one you’ve used before, contact the manufacturer to see if you can get some training. Many of them offer regular free training session and some are even happy for you to pop along to their facility to practice.
If this isn’t possible or is geographically inconvenient, then the next best thing is to download the offline editing software for the console and become familiar with the basics.
Most offline editing software resembles the desk itself so you can get a head start or at the least gain a better understanding of the workflow.
The act of pre-programming a show file can also help you get used to the console, and most desks allow the creation of custom fader layouts that enable organizing the faders in a familiar configuration, which can greatly help speed up your operation.
Big Bottoms. We’ve all been to gigs where the mix is pretty good overall, except for some reason the bottom end is uncomfortably loud, with the kick drum and bass instruments grossly out of proportion and threatening to overpower the whole mix.
Modern sound systems provide us with prodigious amounts of bottom end which, if deployed properly, helps to enhance the visceral experience for the audience.
However, too much bass is just as likely to shake free the fillings in their teeth or induce intense nausea, so it’s important to remember that just because there’s lots of bottom end available doesn’t mean you have to use it.
Some people don’t like to high pass bass instruments but a high-pass filter at 30-60 Hz can really tame a wayward kick drum or bass instrument and help bring the whole mix together.
Another key is to be aware of how the bottom end sounds at front of house and how that differs from the point where the subs focus. This point might not be obvious due to the acoustics of the room so it’s always a good idea to walk around as much as possible during the sound check. Try to ascertain the point at which the bottom end is most prominent, compare that to how it sounds at FOH, and adjust accordingly.
Where’s The Snare/Mandolin/Tibetan Nose Flute? This can apply to any specific instrument that is curiously absent from the mix. I witnessed it most recently at a reasonably high-profile gig in London where the snare drum couldn’t be heard at all.
At first I thought, “he hasn’t noticed it yet, he’s focusing on the top line, he’ll get to it eventually” but as the gig drew on the snare failed to trouble the mix whatsoever. I even went down to stand by the mix position to see if it was a quirk of the venue acoustics, but there was no snare at that location either. I could just about hear it acoustically in the room (snares are pretty loud after all) but I was pretty certain it was completely absent from the PA. Eventually, after about 20 minutes I noticed it tip-toeing into the mix, as if it were sneaking in late and didn’t want anyone to notice.
The best way to ensure everything is present and correct when the show starts is really very simple: just perform a full line check every time. It doesn’t matter if nothing has been moved or changed since the sound check; doing a full line check shortly before show time is a good habit to get into. It takes mere minutes but can help prevent a multitude of mishaps, not to mention the unwelcome sight of stage hands scampering around, trying to find the fault, while the band has already launched into the set.
It’s also a good idea to perform a review of all active channels every song or two, just to make sure that everything continues to be present and correct.
Wandering Microphones. This is more of a problem I’ve witnessed in small venues where the equipment is less than perfect and the crew less than attentive, but I thought it worthy of a mention as it can affect all gigs.
I’ve always been a strong believer that the key to getting a good sound is capturing the sound properly at the source. The right microphone in the right position can not only help you get the signal you want while rejecting those you don’t, it will also require less EQ and channel processing to work in the mix.
However, mics can easily move during the show, either because they’re knocked or because they weren’t fully secured in the first place, and when you’re all the way over at FOH, you might not immediately notice that the mic has moved or that the sound it captures has changed. The way to avoid this is first, make sure all mics are properly secured in place; tighten every joint of every stand and give them a little push to make sure they stay put.
It’s also a good idea to make sure the musicians and stage techs are aware of the correct positioning so that they can also spot and correct any wandering mics during the show. This can be particularly useful during the quick changeover of a festival show when you’re busy out front and the gear is all being wheeled in on rolling risers (which is a prime time for mics to wander).
Well, that’s enough for this time. In my next article, I’ll be presenting another five mistakes recently encountered. And don’t be discouraged—we’ve all experienced these (and more) over the course of our careers. The key is avoiding repeats…