Back to the Basics: Building Your Mix Part 3

In this third and final week of our Back to the Basics series discussing an overview of the steps I take to build a mix every week. These last two weeks we’ve talked about proper preparation before you mix and a process to go through rehearsal this week I’m going to share my pre-game habits, the changes I make to my mix when I hear it for the first time with people in it, and what I do throughout the event to help keep my mixes dynamic. While I am putting this process in the context of a live show, this process can be used when you are doing your final mix through a recording. Whether in the studio or mixing a live show, there are a few things we all need to keep in mind.

The first thing I wanted to talk about was to make sure you have rested ears going into your long recording session or live show. Because our eardrums are muscles they need to be rested. They also need to warm up. When I mix on sunday mornings I often find myself turning on some light music on the way in and do a little multi-track playback when I get in to get adjusted to the room before rehearsal starts. If it’s an evening show I’ll be very careful what I’m doing during the day so the my ears are fresh even at the end of the day. Sometimes that means not listening to a whole lot of music during the day and certainly, if it can be avoided, any full volume mixing. Secondly, as the show approaches I’m always sure to be thinking through the show. I am a firm believer in internalizing the order of the show so that you never rely on a program or list to know what is coming next. I also be sure to walk around the room when I’m warming up my ears and make sure there aren’t any issues that have shown up that I didn’t hear during rehearsal. If I’m doing a recording session, I’ll hop in the studio and put on my ears and check the monitoring system and make sure everything is working.

Next, If I’m running a live show and have automation available, before the doors open, I’ll do a quick walk through my scenes and make sure everything is set correctly. This also provides another opportunity to walk through the show in my head and think through the mix details I’ve been practicing (i.e. solos, who is leading each song, etc). I like to also use this time to check any outboard gear and make sure everything is linked up and working. If I have any wireless in play, I’ll check and make sure they are on and have more than enough battery left to make it through the show. In the studio I find myself soloing through inputs and making sure that I’m getting a good clean signal everywhere so the recordings end up clean as well as well as checking disk drive space, restarting computers, etc.

Than as the show starts, I need to quickly account for the one variable I can’t practice with live, the people in the room. Over the years I’ve learned to compensate for that as you mix in the room but it can change. For instance, the main room that I mix in has a 1200 seat floor and two balconies, if the floor fills, I can expect to see ~1-2 dbA drop in my one minute SPL averages. But if the floor doesnt fill enough, sometimes I don’t see that drop at all and I’ll need to make a mix change. This is where my “everything fader” comes into play. This is a vca that controls all my band vcas and my sub send master as well. It’s basically my true master fader. When I pull it down I’m turning down, in proportion, everything together, preserving as best as possible my mix (I know there are variances that need to be accounted for but these are usually minor for such a small change). Typically I’ll pull at least a decibel out and perhaps more if needed depending on the room response at the start of each service. Often during the first song I’ll find myself watching the meter to make sure SPL levels will land in the intended range and make a change if necessary. My everything fader doesn’t automate so I can make changes as needed although I don’t typically ride this up and down unless I need increased dynamics so my mix relationships are maintained through the whole event. I’ll make the change in the first song and then leave it for the rest of the event. 

The last thing I want to talk about is being an active mixer when it comes to live events. Sometimes it’s really easy to lock in the mix, even automate each song, hit go and let the board take over. But the reality is that you need to be actively mixing all the time, not just during rehearsals when you are programming and tweaking. Now I’m not saying that you ride a speaker’s channel up and down, I’m talking about the rest of the inputs, like the bands, quartets, etc. There are four things that I try to remind people to be listening for and mixing with, here they are: solos, hooks, movers, and primaries. Solos are obvious. Is there an instrumental section in a song? Who is carrying the melody that should be pushed a bit in your mix so it rises to the top? Hooks are the things you find yourself humming when the song isn’t playing, they are the melodic lines that carry the tune. Sometimes this is in the vocals, sometimes it’s in the guitars, sometimes it’s even in the bass guitar, but most times it moves around in the song. Follow it and make sure you can hear it, clearly. Movers are those times when an instrument is doing more than it usually does. For instance, piano players are often playing chords through verses but then switch to playing something more melodic during the chorus. Same goes for the guitars. If you have an acoustic just strumming chords that’s not a mover, but if that same players starts picking or you start seeing their fingering hand move furiously, it started moving and you should ride it up a bit to add color to the song. Primaries are usually a combination of the above. These are the sounds that are basic to the song. The sounds that without them the song would be less dynamic and far less memorable. If you have a singer, their voice automatically becomes a primary. Same goes for a soloist during an instrumental part of the song. In larger bands, it’s important to think about turning non-primaries down to make more room for what is really important in the mix. The solution isn’t always turning things up, sometimes it’s about turning other things down. So if you find yourself not know how to keep a mix dynamic, take those four things in to account and start listening. At the very least, make sure you are actively asking yourself what is missing or too loud and respond with your mix changes. What is catching you ear? Is there something happening that you are curious about? Odds are the audience is as well so highlight it for them!

That’s it for this week and this series. Hopefully you’ve been able to see my process, learn a few things, and be able to personalize a few of these points to a few of your situations or setups. If you have any questions about anything you’ve seen posted this week or in the last few weeks please don’t hesitate to comment or ask below, on facebook, or by emailing me at daniel@studiostagelive.com. In addition, these kinds of posts happen regularly and if you’d like to be notified each time a new post is up follow this link, fill out the form, and you’ll be subscribed. See you all next week!

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