Back in February of this year (seems like an eternity since then, doesn’t it?), I wrote about some of the changes I implemented in the showfile for the local classic rock band (named Tyler) that I mix (Go here to check out that article).
Despite having collaborated with this group for years, I always appreciate the opportunity to rework things and try something new, a continual quest to improve upon both the band’s live sound and my own mixing skills. The band recently moved to a new console – an Allen & Heath SQ6 – and the new platform gave me a chance to rework the showfile again.
Recently I’ve been enjoying the musings of mix engineers Ken “Pooch” Van Druten and Chris Rabold on the (appropriately-named) “Pooch and Rabold” YouTube channel, and decided to implement a move to a more subgroup-centric style of mixing after hearing Chris and Ken discuss the technique.
Breaking It Down
Since I mix five stereo in-ear monitor mixes from front of house with this act, my ability to mix using subgroups was always limited due to the IEM mixes consuming so many of the console’s buses. Five stereo mixes equates to 10 buses, and when FX sends were considered, this left me few remaining options for subgroups.
On the SQ6, the 12 buses can be configured as any combination of auxes and groups, and importantly for this application, can be made stereo with no loss of channel count. This feature, coupled with the fact that FX buses are separate and don’t count toward the twelve, meant that I now had a high enough bus count to effectively apply the subgroup mix approach.
I split the assignment six and six: buses 1 – 6 became stereo aux mixes for the IEMs (currently the band needs five, because the drummer and bassist choose to share a mix, but the extra leaves me room for the future if they ever choose to monitor independently, or if I need a “guest mix), and buses 7 – 12 became subgroups. These six groups (drums and parallel compression drums, bass, keys, guitars, and vocals) are assigned to the six rightmost faders on every console layer, so they are always under my fingertips.
Although the move to groups greatly reduced my utilization of DCAs, I did keep two in play, one for the tap delay return (for easy access to delay throw cues) and another on a double-patched version of the lead guitar input, to easily highlight guitar solo moments throughout the set (a big thank you to my friend Jim Yakabuski for that awesome tip!). This combination of DCAs and groups formed the “Master Section,” so to speak, and is assigned identically on every fader bank, with the remainder of each bank handling all the individual input and output channels needed for the show.
While I’m not doing a ton of processing at the subgroup level, the extra gain stage has made it easier to quickly and consistently balance the different instruments in the mix. A gentle bit of compression on some of the groups is contributing to an overall “tighter” sound.
Because every compressor on the SQ mixer has built-in parallel compression in the form of a wet/dry control, bleeding in a little bit of the dry signal brought a punchier “increased RMS” sound to the mix. I was initially concerned that this far more modern sonic texture wouldn’t be an appropriate fit for the classic rock vocabulary of the band, so I sent some board mixes over to the band leader to review. He was pleased with the overall texture of the mix, so – onward.
Perhaps the biggest mixing challenge with this group is to have a “big huge” guitar sound that still leaves room for the “big huge” drum sound, and also doesn’t step on the lead vocals. However, at the same time, I don’t want the vocal so far out front that it sounds like karaoke.
It’s a delicate balance, and the addition of subgroups allowed me to use a touch of sidechain compression on the guitar and keys groups to tuck them slightly under the vocals. This translated into a subtly more polished sound with less fader riding needed to keep things “gelled.”
One observation that struck me is that, probably due to the extra compression stage on each subgroup, it seemed like the “margin of error” for each instrument group – between “too loud” and “not loud enough” – was reduced, and even small fader moves at the group level felt very audible. I’m guessing this is a result of the reduced crest factor due to the compression.
It was a little bit of a learning experience for the first rehearsal, but after having worked with it a bit, I’m pleased with the result, and I’m keeping on the lookout for the next opportunity for improvement.