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Successful Stage Mixing

Finding that "perfect sound" can be a frustrating task, to say the least. Here are some of my rules for setting up successful stage mixes.

My current assignment has found me behind a monitor console once again. It’s been a while since I stage-mixed on a regular basis, so I am enjoying the change of scenery.

But this end of the snake presents a very different challenge from a FOH mix, or a system engineering position. Here, the fruits of my labors are not intended for the masses. They are tailored to specific individuals and each of his or her needs, wants, desires… and idiosyncrasies. Yes, IEM’s are coming of age, but not everyone will go there.

Here are some of my rules for setting up successful stage mixes.

To me, the first and most important stage-mixing rule is to understand exactly what you are trying to accomplish. (As with most things in life!) The objective is for the player or Artist to hear what they need or want to hear, in a way that makes sense to them. Do not confuse this with the idea that you are there to make it sound good to you! The two do not necessarily coincide. Wedge mixes do not generally sound like FOH mixes.

Be Realistic
Face it; on a one-off with an unfamiliar band all you can do is give it your best shot. If it’s a couple of folks with acoustic guitars, you’re probably “in there”. If it’s Godzilla meets Metal-Head, well… set up accordingly. If you are going on tour with a band, try to find out as much as possible about them. Perhaps the guy who was sitting in the seat before you got there would be a good place to start. Make a plan, but don’t try to reinvent the wheel on the first day. Many musicians get used to their mixes sounding a certain way, and right or wrong be prepared to leave it that way. But if you are lucky enough to tour with some receptive players, you will have plenty of time to try different things and fine-tune your “stage sound” as you go!

First Things First
Assuming this is a tour…you will probably receive information about what goes in to the mixes, but it’s best to speak directly to the band members if possible. This is your starting point. Following that initial information, you set up for your first sound check. When they begin playing and I am comfortable with my initial mixes, the next thing I like to do is walk around to the various positions and listen. I mean really LISTEN carefully to what everyone is hearing. It will change as you move around depending on your proximity to various instruments, amplifiers and wedges. It may change from song to song depending on the volume of the instruments. Make mental notes of what you hear. This will be the foundation for building a successful “stage sound” later.

You must also play psychiatrist a bit and try to get inside the player’s heads. It is important to understand the difference between a guy who will ask for his guitar in the wedge in front of him while standing in front of a Marshall stack turned up to eleven, and the guy who wants a taste of the keyboards because they are on the opposite side of the stage. If it is all about volume and ego… (Fill in the blanks…)

Speaker Placement
I am always amazed at how many guys don’t take the time to really place the loudspeakers properly. Aim them at the players’ faces, and away from troublesome acoustic instruments. (Like a grand piano) Try to keep from firing in to open microphones and the FOH mixer thank you. Drum fills are particularly troublesome. I like to get them as far down-stage as possible along side the riser, and aim them just up-stage of the drummer. Orient the box so that the narrowest horn dispersion is in the horizontal plane. (Usually on it’s side) This will help to keep the foldback out of the tom and overhead microphones.

Be careful when you are using more than one enclosure on a mix. Play with the placement of your wedges and find out what works. You will be amazed at what a difference a few inches can make when it comes to hot spots and nulls. Usually I try to find a place where they are close enough together and down-stage to still be in front of the musician, but far enough apart to aim the high frequency axis past the microphone at his ears. When they are too far apart, you loose that “In Your Face” feel. Avoid crossing the HF axis from both boxes at the microphone itself. Also be prepared for reflections from hats or costumes.

For fill speaker positions, if you have multiple enclosures try to stack them, as opposed to a side-by-side configuration. Horns that are not splayed properly will have several well-defined nulls and peaks in their response when acoustically added together. This is a classic case of non-coincident arrivals at the listener’s position and cannot be fixed with an equalizer! You would have to splay the boxes for a very wide coverage pattern in order to add the horns together properly. (Depending on the horns of course) There are many more enclosures with 60-degree horns than with 30-degree horns.

Low Frequency Reality Check
Look around you. A reality check will tell you that if you have a relatively large FOH system with low frequency and sub-bass enclosures that your monitors will not be able to compete with the LF information on stage when everything is up to show speed. Unless of course you want to turn everything up to warp nine, or add lots of sub-bass enclosures to you monitor rig, but this generally results in escalating levels with the backline amps and then the FOH system to overpower all of the information coming off of the stage. I think we all know what this leads to! If you have to overpower the band with your stage rig, the FOH mixer will hate you and the show will suffer for it! (Just as it does if the band plays too loud.) Use the low frequency information from the FOH system to fill out the bottom end in your “Stage Sound”. If you are carrying a smaller FOH system or playing on well-damped theater stages, this effect is not so prevalent and you can maintain a full bandwidth from your monitor system.

The “Stage Sound”
The best approach is to try to meld the backline amps, your wedges and the FOH loudspeakers in to a system that all works together to attain the overall stage sound you are looking for. To develop this environment the spectral response of the mixes should be tailored to fill in what is not heard on stage from the backline amps and the FOH system. This usually involves a lack of nearby instruments and VLF frequencies coming from the wedges. (*A bonus for you!!)

This is where the receptive players come in. You may have to point out the low frequency phenomena during a sound check, but it will be obvious to them if they listen. Also point out the nearby instruments and how they may be heard with out being very loud in their mix. Maybe even re-aim a stage amplifier to be more effective. How many times have you seen guitar players wailing away with their speakers aimed at their butts??? Tilt them back and aim them at their heads. I promise they have no idea what kind of havoc they cause the FOH mixer about 75 to 100 feet away.

Of course this will not work in every situation. It depends on the music, the venue and the players among other things. But if you can make these principals work you can achieve the most clarity with the least volume in your wedges.

Use localization to help keep things clear on stage. It is easier to hear different instruments if they are coming from different directions. The fewer sources in any mix, the easier it is to hear them a noisy environment.

Also consider the individual instruments and a mix containing all of them. You have a certain bandwidth in which to fit them. It’s pretty easy if it is just a violin and a tuba, but not so straightforward with several guitars and keyboards and drums. Work at making all of the instruments sound different and fill the available spectrum with more distinct differences between them. If a player insists on a particular tone in his monitor, but it doesn’t work for the rest of your mixes’ split the input into multiple channels on your desk so that you can tailor the sound for everyone.

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