The Sum of the Parts
Original text published in Church Production Magazine, March 2014.
This version has been modified to protect the innocent.
The power of a decent audio mix is almost always built on the overall sum of many different inputs working together, NOT on each input standing on its own. The trick for an audio engineer is to not get lost in space soloing each input individually hoping to make them all sound perfect. What sounded like a glorious input on its own may actually suck when folded into the rest of the mix. On the other hand, an input that may sound great soloed may not sit correctly in the mix at all.
Honestly, most of my individual inputs aren’t that awesome on their own. Truth be known, a lot of them are really kind of boring by themselves. They desperately need the strength of the other inputs to achieve the power and presence I’m going for.
Since drums are the best part of any mix (ahem…) let’s use them as an example. My primary microphone inside the kick drum DOES NOT sound good without combining it with the secondary kick mic outside the drum’s front air hole. The top snare mic sounds hollow and boxy without sneaking in the bottom mic to add some high end and clarity. Actually, the whole drum mix sounds neutered without pulling in the individual cymbal mics as well. The overall sounds of the kit bleeding into these mics adds just the right hint of flavor to keep the kit sounding like one instrument rather than eight different pieces.
As you start working on the sonic character of a mix, you’ll find this principle applies to almost every other input on stage. Paying attention and using this to your advantage can make dramatic differences. Exploiting the good parts of a bass guitar to combine with the kick inputs can make or break the entire bottom end texture of your mix. Equalizing your acoustic guitar to be kind of thin sounding on its own may actually work better with the vocals even if it doesn’t sound amazing all by itself. The interplay between ALL of the inputs is what makes your whole mix come together, not the power of the kick drum you worked on by itself in an empty room for two hours.
As you work on your glorious mix, never forget the power of the vocal microphones. If you’re not careful, these can add all kinds of mix “smear” begging to be dealt with. For this reason, I do all my sound checks and rehearsals with live vocal mics regardless if someone is singing into them or not.
The point is this: I want to build a mix WITH the obstacles that will be present during the event. That row of vocal mics lined up across the front of the stage can cause some fairly gnarly ambient situations but figuring out how to tame them early on versus getting surprised later is a good way to avoid some serious suck.
Remember that context is everything in a mix. It’s quite common for me to love a keyboard sound by itself only to hate it once I hear it in the song. It’s almost getting to the point where I don’t really want to hear a sound WITHOUT the context of the other instrumentation—making a judgement call on anything less than ALL the information is just bad form, plain and simple. Most of the time, I pull up all the inputs together right from the start. I’ve found this can greatly help me build the momentum and power of the final product.
All that said, don’t think I’m suggesting to ignore input problems. It’s still our job to find and resolve audio complications and issues. I’m merely suggesting a different approach in our fervency for seeking out the integrity of each input. If you solo almost any channel on the console during one of my mixes, you can almost always find some issues. But here’s the deal, NO ONE IN THE ROOM IS LISTENING TO THESE INPUTS INDEPENDENTLY! I’ve yet to find a normal person who even cares what the kick drum sounds like by itself.
My opinion may or may not have merit to your own audio situation but at the very least, consider relaxing a bit on your quest for global audio input purity and embrace the reality of our live medium. Listening to your mix in the way it was designed to be listened to just might work to your advantage.