We have been talking about relationships that exist in all of our mixes and need to be held in balance and focused around the drums but this week we are starting down a different road and discussing how we mix our guitars. The guitar parts in most songs are often just carrying the melody and being quite normal however sometimes during the instrumental breaks we see electric guitars break into a solo or acoustic players start picking. Are we acoustically ready for those sounds to be turned up? Can it break through when it needs to? When there are more than 2 guitars, are they balanced? Do you hear the player strumming the notes or does it just blend into the band noise?
I’ve found however that if you aren’t setup to support guitar players well, you won’t be able to adequately balance this relationship and have the head room to expand the sound of the guitars when you need to. For electrics it all starts with getting the amp isolated. A little while ago I wrote a blog post about how I do this which can be found at this link. Isolating the amp from the audience in a live environment or from the vocalists in a studio environment allows for two things to happen. The first is that the player gets to run the amp as loud as they need to accomplish the tone they are looking for. As you may know, the tubes in an electric guitar amp add tone and analogue distortion that in most cases adds a pleasant texture but it requires the tubes be driven past a certain level to allow the “magic” to happen. Secondly, it allows a mix engineer to lower bleed across other input sources. The easiest thing to pickup to get started at isolating the amp is an SGI pair from Radial. It converts the 2 wire unbalanced audio from the pedal board to balanced audio in the form of XLR so your existing infrastructure can be used to move guitar signals, without interference, wherever you need to. If you are just using long guitar cables, be sure to try this out sometime, you will be pleasantly surprised how great it sounds. Lastly, I try to make sure I’ve EQ’d each electric according to their most common role. This means the rhythm electric will have a beefier EQ that minimizes that high end noise and fattens up the low end so the guitar has a good grunge to it. For the lead electric I’ll strengthen the presence and crispiness of the guitar so even if I don’t have a chance while I’m mixing to boost it during a solo it will naturally rise to the top when the player digs in during that line we all love. Doing so helps the guitars to separate a bit creating a space for each guitar in the mix. I have found that technique to be helpful in both the live and studio environments with the studio even more so because we can really lock it in in post as we slowly digest each song.
But what about the acoustic guitar? Well this is pretty simple, often the barrier to being able to turn up an acoustic guitar is signal before feedback. So all you really need to do is increase the isolation of the guitar pickup from the PA itself. If you physically can’t backup the player or manually do this, I’d recommend something like this. Hole covers on acoustics get a bad wrap in the studio world but that’s only because they aren’t usually needed and they do slightly alter the tone. However, if you watch most of the country concerts/tours, almost all of the lead acoustic players have a cover on. Why? Because it’s incredibly helpful in a live environment especially at the levels concerts usually run at. I challenge you to start looking…the lead acoustic isn’t always the lead singer, it’s usually a backline player. To give that acoustic some of that excitement back I’d recommend a stereo de-tuned chorus (left side is tuned slightly up, right side tuned slightly down, both those channels then sent to a chorus plugin). At CCC we have a channel that I use called “Inst FX” which is basically just that. Add that to the fact that my FX sends are post fader, when I push up that fader I get more color proportionately. Now it’s easy to overuse this, make sure the guitar still sounds normal but when it’s used appropriately, this can add all kinds of depth and width to any guitar/keys input. Sonically the acoustic guitar, if it’s well equipped and setup well fret wise, will sound pretty good with only a small need for EQ to prevent feedback and to beef up the bottom end so the guitar rings out well. The acoustic in my mixes, settles in pretty well between the rhythm electric and lead electric guitars and needs to be able to hop up into the lead range when picking or for that big acoustic intro.
However, now that we have helped each guitar find its place in our mix we have a bigger problem. The sonic range of guitars often significantly overlaps the vocal range so we need to be able understand the vocals while all three are strumming away during the song. Obviously this doesn’t include solos. But during the song, we need to have a dynamic sounding guitars and an intelligible vocals. This applies even more so in the live setting within worship like the environment that I work within. The idea isn’t even to bias one group of inputs or another but to find a good balance because in an ideal world, the guitars are complimenting the vocals and vice versa. The most common tool I use to do this are those attack and release nobs in our compressor settings. If you are unfamiliar with what those knobs do I’ll summarize really quickly. The attack nob tells the compressor how fast to respond after the signal passes the threshold that you set. The release nob tells the compressor how fast to let up on the compression after the signal has dropped back below the threshold that you set. You can create space for each guitar or vocal by simply being sure to set these up in the way that best compliments the mix you and your band are trying to create. I usually set the guitars up with a faster attack than the vocals so that vocals can bust through the mix and by setting the release the opposite way (slower than the vocals), the vocals can jump right back up to the top. If you’d like a more dynamic guitar sound try setting the release of the vocals to be a bit longer than the guitars which will allow the guitars to rise up to the top when the vocals give way. No matter what you do, because this is a style choice, be sure to check in with you band leader so that you are supporting what the band wants if you haven’t been given the freedom to make that choice. Another little trick I do is dynamic compression on the group busses. For example, if I need to, I’ll engage a side chained dynamic EQ/Compressor like the F6 or C6 to attenuate the vocal range out of the tracks and instruments that is driven by the level of the vocal group (in some cases I’ll use the lead vocal as the trigger instead of the group if you want it to be faster acting). This can really be helpful to create space in the mix when controlling the db level is a concern as you can really have a full band but have the vocals still pushing through. Than when no one is singing during those breakdowns the band can go full throttle and not sound weak in the mid range. There are several different ways to achieve the balance, but these are just a few of the more common ways that I use regularly in my mixes.
Well that wraps it up for this week. I’d love to hear how you maintain balance within the guitars to themselves and how you blend the vocals into that mix. Let me know in the comments below. Next week we will wrap up the series talking about how the tracks fit into all of this and spending a bit of time talking about piano sounds in contemporary worship. As always if you like what you are reading and want more, be sure to subscribe at this link. You’ll receive an email when new content is published. Have a good one!