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Situational Awareness: Identifying Common Live Mix Mistakes & What You Can Do About Them

Five problems that the author -- a veteran live engineer -- has encountered at gigs. as well as some suggestions for how they can be avoided.

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.

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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…

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