Simple Tips That Might Improve Your Mix
Putting together a full mix I’m happy with doesn’t happen by accident. Oftentimes, I tend to be my own worst critic and take it personally if I fall below my own mark. Even though there are many elements that have to come together for a great mix to come to life, here’s a few practical tips I use to get things rocking.
System tuning can be quite involved depending on the complexity of your system. Usually this involves figuring out proper amp gain structure, optimizing each speaker component and how they relate to the actual speaker cabinet, and how all those speakers work as a whole. After that, some equalization and limiting is still usually necessary. Really simple right?
Well, even though it sounds complicated, it still needs to get done. But here’s the deal: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Even engineers running at the top of their game commonly have other audio professionals come in to help get their system tuned. Asking for help doesn’t mean you suck. In fact, it actually might just make you the smartest person in the room.
Some of us have spent many years tuning rooms in all kinds of situations. If you haven’t had those kinds of experiences, it’s no big deal. But it’s completely unrealistic to think you can be as proficient as someone else who has spent a career doing it.
One more thought here: Whenever you’re listening to your PA, either to analyze the quality, performance, and output ability of your audio rig or as part of a tuning process, listen to realistic and contextual content on the PA, i.e. something similar to what you’ll actually be mixing in the room. So many people want to listen to the latest and greatest content out there to rock their PA but if it isn’t content similar to what you’ll be using in the room you’re completely missing the point.
Want a place to start for a good tuning list? See my list at www.mxu.rocks/soundcheck.
Get to know your sounds at the source BEFORE amplifying them through the PA
Knowing how all the individual inputs sound BEFORE you amplify them is paramount to a rocking mix. If the first time you listen to an input source is through the PA, you’re already in the negative. Know what the guitar rig sounds like at the amp. Know what your drums sound like while standing in front of them. Mixing is a great responsibility. Take it seriously and do the homework.
If you get familiar with this information, it WILL affect how you dial in your PA and it WILL affect your mix. If I have to do a radical amount of board equalization and tweaks just to get a sound presentable, it usually means I haven’t done the homework listening and working on the sources and/or I haven’t done a good job tuning the PA.
Control your sources
This goes hand in hand with knowing your sounds at the source. You’ve got to get your band instruments and stage volume under control in the room before you attempt to rock a mix. No amount of work at the console is going to fix poorly controlled sources. I’ve dedicated entire blogs to this before but here’s a few points:
- Get your drums under control. Have the drummer play softer, use smaller sticks, acquire a drum booth, whatever it takes.
- Guitar amps: Isolate the cabinets backstage, use amp modelers, go direct. Again, whatever it takes.
- Organ Leslie cabinets: Lovely in a mix but can be a huge problem when left to roam freely onstage.
- Stage monitors: I suggest moving musicians to in-ear monitors but until then, go actually listen to the stage monitors and ONLY put in them what the musician NEEDS to play or sing. How about we read that one more time—only what they NEED, not WANT. Godspeed on that one my friends. In-ears anyone?
- Make sure individual sounds are leveled out from the instruments and players before you start mixing. This can be a game-changer. Take a few minutes and have them change their output levels from patch to patch so you aren’t chasing them during the whole mix. You’ll thank me later.
Get vocals dialed in to your own voice before listening to other instruments in the PA
I rarely mix anything before I’ve listened to the vocal microphones in the system with my own voice. Hearing how the audio system reproduces my own voice can help me greatly to determine the upper limits and maximum volume of a PA. There’s something about the dynamics of my own live vocal that can help me figure where the PA is going to feel loud, how the crossover points are going to affect the mix, and what volume I need to build up the other mix components to still keep the vocal prevalent in a mix.
Get GOOD drum sounds
OK, for all of you mixing in purely acoustic or liturgical situations, you can take a breath for a moment. But for the rest of you: For the love of all that’s holy, please get the drums right.
Again, I’ve devoted much time discussing this over the years but if you ignore everything else I ever say, please pay attention to this point, good drum sounds matter to a mix. Invest some time and a maybe a few bucks on some new drumheads. It matters.
Focus on layering the mix as you build it
Seriously, do the billions of tracks the band is sending just make the mix fatiguing to the listener? I’ll wager that it does. You must find a definite place for all the sounds that are going to hit the audience. Work with your music team to make sure you’ve got some space in your mix. Every breath and gap doesn’t actually need to be filled with content.
If you didn’t like that one, here’s even more audio heresy for you: Sometimes a breath in the onslaught of music information might be exactly what’s needed to let people absorb what you’re putting out.
Get the mix as good as it gets and bask in the glory
Too many engineers can’t quit fiddling around with their mix. Get better at knowing when your mix is as good as it’s going to get. You heard me—quit trying to make huge improvements and mix what you’ve got. A great mix is a piece of art, but tell me one artist that has ever felt like their art was actually finished. We have to be OK knowing that a mix can always be improved but does it actually NEED to be?
MIX like there’s no tomorrow
You are mixing a living, breathing thing. Act like it. Get involved with the live creation going on in your space and be a part of the art. The audio console is an instrument, one that’s just as important as the instruments on stage. Don’t be afraid to manage your mix in accordance with the live craft coming from the stage.
I’ve seen many concerts and accompanied fellow engineers at many front-of-house locations, and the guys with the worst mixes are always those who seem detached with what’s coming from the stage. I’ve actually seen several engineers standing at the console during an event with their hands in their pockets. Hmmm, perhaps that’s why they usually have a terrible sounding mix?
Here’s a thought: Mix every event like it’s your last time. Can you stand back afterwards feeling like you didn’t leave anything on the table? Start challenging yourself in that manner and watch your mixes improve.
Don’t use your mix to PROVE something
All the gear, time, effort, and resources are only here to help communicate a message. NOT to prove how cool we are or to show off our expertise. If your motive is to satisfy your ego, step away from the mix. I’ve discovered that my mixes are generally at their worst when I’m mixing to prove a point or mixing out of the wrong motivation. I’m almost always happier when my mixes get back in line with the bigger picture of what we’re trying to create as a team.
This list is by no means comprehensive. In fact, each point could actually be a blog on its own. But when it comes to creating a good mix, there is nothing that can be overlooked. Phoning it in just doesn’t cut it. Hopefully these items can get you thinking about what you can do in your own world of rock. Cheers.