Back to the Basics: Building Your Mix Part 2

Welcome back to week two of our Back to the Basics series on building a mix. Last week we talked about the stuff we should do before we even start mixing to help our mix start out on the right foot. Things like knowing your console, having a template that you start from each week with all the basics ready to go, and making sure your gear is up to date and fully functional. I know these seemed trite and simplistic but I can promise you that these things will catch up to you if you don’t make sure to check them off the list each week. This week I’m going to talk through what I’m doing during rehearsal to build my mix each week. I am trying to stick with universal principles so that everyone can relate so if you have any more specific questions please don’t hesitate to comment below and I’ll answer as soon as possible. Keep in mind, all of this post is working under the assumption that you did a line check before rehearsal because it is my personal belief that line checks should be done before rehearsal starts, preferably before the band even arrives.  

Where I work we have a monitor technician who is taking care of monitoring for our band but before I go and get to work, the very first thing I do is stop back there and make sure everything is set and ready to go. All the inputs are patched correctly and each band member has the correct packs and mics. One thing I’ve learned over the nearly 20 years mixing I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of is that if the artists aren’t comfortable and dialed in, they won’t play like the kinds of musicians we all love to see and hear.

When that’s done we move on to soundcheck. If you don’t have a tech or your mixing a few sets of ears from FOH just take your time as you go through the process and fix issues as they come up, not pushing them off until later as well as splitting your time as a monitor tech and an FOH tech. Because we have a quite refined template, gains are close, EQs are set in a basic setting for each input, and mixes are already filled with a standard mix without any panning. This allows us to get right to good stuff. If you have a digital console, I would highly suggest taking the time and getting some basic settings setup for your band so you don’t start with a blank slate (i.e. empty monitor mixes, etc) every week and will end up making mostly small changes to mixes. Nothing drastic but just all the basics dialed in so that you can skip past the basic stuff. There are two methods of soundcheck that I would consider when going through this part of the rehearsal. The first is the typical input by input method where you check everything by itself and go mix by mix getting each set by themselves. A little while ago however I experimented with a different method to get through the sound check in response to a common problem I experienced with the first method described above. The problem is this: you get to the end of soundcheck, do a song, and then everyone wants a bunch of changes. I think the biggest downside with this method is that you aren’t making decisions on inputs with the rest of the mix. You are simply guessing what you like. So to combat that, we started doing additive soundchecks. To put it simply, instead of going one by one, we are starting with an input, than adding another and another and another and so on. That way, each musician is making informed decisions on their mix instead of guessing. We start by having our worship leader pick a part of song to repeat so there is a clear chord progression and then have the drums start. When everyone likes the drums than we add the bass guitar to it, than the guitars (one at a time), and piano, than whatever is left (one at at time). For the vocals, I usually have the acoustic guitar play with the voices and have them all sing together as well. What this does is to actually let you build that mix in your bands ears as well. Than when you get to the end of that first song, you’ll like only have a few small changes rather than lots of changes from everyone. This method works well in the studio as well though some bands might just prefer to get started and play a complete song instead of doing it in an additive manner.

From an FOH perspective, we run the PA full tilt during soundcheck so that the artist hears their mix but also feels how the room feels. That also lets your FOH operator go input by input, additively, and begin to dial in gains and compressors. If you’re doing both, just stop after the monitors are set and quickly dial a few things in. So right there in sound check I’m bringing inputs up one by one and building a basic mix really quickly. Don’t forget though, our ears are muscles just like our legs and arms, after extended heavy use they will get tired and start fatiguing. So during rehearsal I’m spending the first part focusing on EQ settings and compressors so my ears aren’t tired when I need them to work accurately. Than later in the rehearsal I’m focusing on macro concerns like VCA settings, FX, etc. I also wouldn’t be afraid to take a quick break for a bathroom trip in the midst of rehearsal if you are doing well in terms of putting a mix together. Sometimes I’ll step out for a few minutes and let my ears rest if the mix just came together really fast. Lastly, because we do two run-throughs for rehearsal, I always ask for a few minutes break for a few reasons. Primarily I ask so that our vocalists can rest and I can setup some automation but I also ask for that break so my ears can get another quick break. The vocalists come back rested and hydrated, I’m ready for the run-through, and my ears are reset a bit for some more content. In the studio because sometimes recording sessions can run really long, it’s better to run your monitors at a lower level during recordings and if the band wants to come listen, turn them back up, and mix it at full volume for them at that time. Whatever the circumstance, never forget that if your ears are tired, they might be lying to you!

During that second run through the set because my ears probably aren’t reliable sources for EQ information, I find myself paying attention to the relationships that need to exist in my mix. I did a series earlier this year (check out this page) about important relationships that should be held in balance so I won’t dig too deep on that now but the biggest ones I’m listening for than walking around my room checking on are the kick and snare (they need to sound balanced), vocals vs. band (mix of intelligibility and energy), and checking to make sure the tracks are properly supplementing not just taking over the mix. If I’m in the studio I’m just getting a quick mix setup for the band so they can make informed decisions over which take they’d like to use and making sure recordings are clean and smooth so that if we need to mix and match we can later. The other thing I like to do during those final runs in the studio or our second pass on songs during a live rehearsal is to start dialing in my FX setup. This is setting up the needed bussing, fine tuning any changes I’d like to do to any of my verbs, etc. Since FX can really glue things together I try to prioritize getting at least something started through those first few runs so I can make mix decisions with those included. 

Lastly, during rehearsal, as I’m walking around the room I’m checking in with my monitor engineer and producers if needed to get opinions on the mix. At the very least I’m hitting go for the next song and jumping right out of the booth to make sure the mix I’m shooting for is being recreated well no matter anyone sits in the room. If I’m in the studio, even though it’s just a basic mix for reference, I love to just slip on my headphones or pull up a different set of speakers to make sure everything is translating well. No matter how great your speakers or your PA is, it’s always good to check your mix either with a different output or with others around you. The way I see it, while mixing is an art and a science, it’s also a game of information. In order to mix the best that you can, you need the most information in front of you to make decisions. It’s important that you leave the booth or stand up out of your studio chair if only to get a different perspective on things.

So the keys from this week are to make sure soundcheck is productive for both the band and the audio team by building a basic mix for the house while setting up monitor mixes, be aware of ear fatigue, and get other perspectives on your mix and outside opinions when able. While these seem like simple ideas, I see these basic principles overlooked week after week and the weeks I don’t fully respect rehearsal time and prepare well are the weeks when my mix suffers a bit or takes longer to fully develop. Next week we’ll wrap the series talking about pre-show prep, setting show volumes so your mix adjusts well to the bodies that just entered the room, and the little things that I do to keep my mixes dynamic during the show. As always if you have any questions please comment below or email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com. If you’re new to the blog and would like to be notified when new content is posted sign up at this link and you’ll get an email each when the new post is up. See you all next week!

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