Back to Basics: Guerrilla Mixing Part 3

Here we are on the last week of our Guerrilla Mixing series. In week one we went over what to do first in a time strapped situation. Namely just get the basics setup (VCAs, groups, etc), really focus on mic placement, and be sure to walk around and get a feel for the room. Last week, I talked about what to do if you find yourself with a bit extra time to get some EQ dialed in across the board as well as turning some compression on as needed. This week is all about the bells and whistles. More often than not I’ll be setting this up in the middle of the first few songs but occasionally things go really well and I’ll be able to squeeze all this in before the doors open.

If I happen to finish all that other stuff on time and have some time to get some more things done, the first thing I’ll dial up is some effects. Verbs first then delays. I love using verbs as a tool because they can hide a multitude of issues when used appropriately. It is quite amazing what a little bit of verb can do for a live mix in terms of gluing it together. If you can, try to separate instruments and drums from the vocals but if not it’s no big deal. I do this as I usually like to try and treat them differently (ideally I’d split them all up but remember, time is short, quality over quantity, what makes the biggest difference?). As a matter of personal preference I like to run the verbs on the vocals a bit richer than the rest of the inputs. After I get that setup I’ll go after getting a tap delay setup. As a mixing tool, the tap delay is likely one of my biggest and most versatile effect to add to a mix live as it can really be a neat thing to hear. Waves can be a big help here as well because you can really utilize the presets in something like the H-reverb or H-delay to get to a sweet sound really quickly. More often than not soundboards have presets for built-ins as well. No matter what the preset is, treat it like a starting point knowing you’ll be back to tweak it as you need.

From there it’s all about continuing to dial things in. Usually this part is actively happening during the show. The process slows down but as the show goes on I’ll be dialing in compression, adjusting EQs, looking at some group compression if I need it, and really trying to stay active as I mix. There is nothing that frustrates me more than watching someone just stop mixing. For me, audio engineering is not a “set it and forget it” experience. It’s an ongoing thing. As I hear something, I’ll fix it. Then start listening again for what’s different because of that change. Did fixing that one problem expose another? If I have access to some advanced metering with SPL readings or Smaart I’ll be looking at that as well. After a full day of running around and mixing at full volume for hours, your ears are also likely over exposed or almost there. This is where learning to read your instruments can come in handy as an assist your ears in mixing decisions. Lastly, If you haven’t walked around the room in awhile or at all and feel like you can, take a step outside the booth and make sure your mix is translating well around the room. You’ve changed a lot since you walked around in that first hour or so. 

Lastly I wanted to remind you of one last tool that I use as I’m making mix decisions: the pyramid of sound. Good mixes are built on strong foundations. If the bottom of the pyramid is kick, bass, and any other low end source and works its way up to the top of the pyramid where you’ll find the transients in your mix, lead vocal, cymbals, etc. You don’t want a Washington Memorial here. Your mix will be too bright and feel thin or weak. You also don’t want a 1 floor state building either. Big mixes naturally have a good foundation of low end and controlled but present top end. Remember, this is just a tool and your ears should always be the judge but as you build a mix, don’t be afraid of low end. Don’t be afraid of controlling the cymbals and compressing that lead vocal a bit to keep it sitting pretty. I’ve included a picture which sums this up visually. I like this picture because on the front of the pyramid it tells you common inputs that sit in each area and on the left describes their most common purpose in a mix. Obviously as style changes the pyramid shifts a bit but this is a great thing to see to get started down this road. Along with that is the idea of mix relationships. Does the attack of the kick sound off when compared to the snare? Do the guitars blend well with the vocals? The individual components of the mix should sound good but to get them to blend well together you can use the framework of the pyramid of sound and apply it to groups of inputs as a system of checks and balances as you build your mix.

Well that wraps it up for this series. Hopefully you’ve learned a bit from my process and can start to implement the principles here the next time you are tight on time and have to come up with a mix quickly. If I had to share 3 ideas that sum up the series they would be this: set the big stuff up first and fine tune later, presets can be your friend, and check your work by walking around the room as much as you can. Have any questions about this series or this week? Just leave a comment below or on Facebook. Alternatively you can always email the team here (engineers@studiostagelive.com) and we will respond ASAP. Be sure to not miss out on the coming weeks by going to this link and subscribing to this blog so you can get an email when a new post goes live each week. See you next time!

Back to Basics: Guerrilla Mixing Part 2

Welcome back to Part 2 of this Guerrilla Mixing series. Throughout this series we are addressing a prioritized list of things to do if time is of the essence when on a gig or during an event. While it’s easy to dig deep into EQs and FX really quickly because that is where all the “eye candy” is for any mix but that stuff is only cool when built on a proper foundation. Last week we spoke about getting the board setup (i.e. VCAs, mute groups, labels, patching, etc), getting proper mic positioning, and getting that first walk around the room done before you get too far into building your mix. Those three things can be the largest factors in building a great mix. But if you have time to do all that what’s next? Well let’s talk about that. 

For me, EQ is next. If you haven’t already needed to make a few quick cuts for feedback or glaring issues this is when I usually dig in a bit and really get some equalization going. Typically, if I can, I’ll have high pass filters on every channel in my template rolled up to 100 Hz. This is just a starting place for me. Putting that filter on solves a lot of issues and fixes a few things right off the bat. Most often it cleans up the subs. Secondarily it provides great feedback protection as well. If it isn’t in your template, just turn it on for each channel. I love digital consoles for this because you can copy and paste this function across all channels. Now, there are at least two inputs that I’ll turn this off for, or at least adjust it: kick and bass. Just adjust to taste here. Don’t go for powerful low end just yet, go for clean and tight at this point (we’ll be back here later to bring in the bottom). From there it’s about going through inputs and pulling out a few things each for each input. That way my attention is getting evenly spread out across the whole mix. From my point of view, one bad egg spoils the bunch so it’s incredibly important to move quickly and be sure to check everything, not just the most prominent sources. Use your experience as well to make decent decisions really fast. For example, I haven’t met a mic that when used with a vocal doesn’t need some 600 Hz pulled out. Dial up that filter a bit maybe to 160 Hz as well and then copy that to all vocal channels (yes I know, more tweaking should be done but remember, we are short on time). Than maybe hop down to the kick and pull out some low-mid to crispen it up a bit. Jump to the acoustic and pull out some 300 hz and maybe a bit at 1200 Hz if it needs it. Just systematically work through each input, think through what you usually have to do, make your EQ adjustment, than adjust fader to fix the mix. 

Right about now is when I’m thinking, “OK, it’s time for some compression.” This step can take a long time though so think to yourself, “where would this do the most good first?” I like to drop in some simple compression on vocals with a slower attack and a quick release. After that its time to take on the drums (I would argue that drums are the inputs most in need of compression). Just a quick dial in on the kick, snare, and toms makes a huge difference. If I still have time I’ll hit up bass and guitars. Piano and keys, while better compression, could be skipped if time is needed for other things. As with the previous step, stop and adjust your mix as well. After all we’ve just completed two steps of processing that will drastically change the feel of your mix so take time and re-mix things. Remember, this is where presets in the soundboard or waves plugins can be really helpful just to get you in the ballpark quickly. They aren’t perfect but they can be placeholders for while you deal with more important elements in your mix and then you can come back to them later when you have time.

The next thing I do is more of an evaluation phase. I am a firm believer in the balance of certain relationships in every mix that I create. Certain things should just go together and checking for this balance can help you make some quick decisions. There are a lot of relationships that you should check but what’s key here the most audible things that are easy to spot. Here they are: kick and snare, kick (sub) and bass, and vocals vs. guitars vs. keys. If something is out of whack the first thing I’ll do is check out my compression settings. Sometimes it’s easy to overdue them on first glance. If it isn’t compression maybe a small fader move can fix it. Lastly, I’m thinking back to anything that I know about this artist. Is there anything they always have or always sound like that I need to recreate? If so, just take of those now and when that’s done, take another walk around the room and make sure things are translating all over the venue and not just in the booth. 

That wraps it up for this week. After getting a great foundation built now we can get to the fun stuff. Next week we’ll spend some talking about getting some reverbs setup, digging deeper into compression for important sources, delays, and just sticking to the basics while you learn the set in your mind in final preparation for the concert or show. If you have any questions about what I’ve just talked about, just leave a comment below or on Facebook. Alternatively you can always email the team here (engineers@studiostagelive.com) and we will respond ASAP. Be sure to not miss out on the coming weeks by going to this link and subscribing to this blog so you can get an email when a new post goes live each week. See you on the flip-side!

Back to Basics: Guerrilla Mixing Part 1

Well to start off 2020 I really wanted to do a series that, at least initially, my experience is built upon. As soon as I was going solo for audio and acting as an A1 I was working in a college environment doing outdoor gigs, last minute coffee shop gigs, etc. This meant I barely had enough time to get the stage patched let alone any time to really dial in a mix. The great thing about those gigs is that no one expects perfection and being outdoors or in super tight spaces there is a bit of forgiveness applied to the mix. I am calling this series “Guerilla Mixing” because sometimes you don’t get all the time in the world to prepare. Sometimes we all faced with circumstances that force us to prioritize doing what will make the largest difference first and hopefully get to the little stuff at one point. So we are left prioritizing what gets done before the event starts.

So you’ve been called to run sound for a gig, big or small, with short notice and a fast load-in. What do you do first? After everything is wired up and working initially (you can have a patch list but with speed comes change so its likely you’ve had to change your plan) it’s time to get the console setup. Hopefully you’ve had some experience with the board or were able to research a bit. The first thing I like to do is organize the board. If it’s an analog console I’ll rearrange the patch so that things are organized in a way that I’m used to. Likewise, if it’s digital, I go right to the user setup and customize the fader layout so that from the outset, things are where my muscles and brain thinks they should be. If there is a scribble strip, digital or board tape, I always take the time to fill it out. Memory is great but often labels are faster. Take that time to label things so in the heat of the moment you aren’t having to think through how you patched something. 

When you’re done getting the inputs and faders setup, it’s time for VCAs. If you don’t have VCAs, mute groups it is. The idea with this is that you likely will not have time for scenes so you need easy ways to not only control groups of inputs but also to turn them on and off quickly. Groups also work for this but since they are summing engines you have to be careful how you use them. I love using VCAs because everything is adjusted proportionately when I pull that fader instead of being summed first than lowered as it is with groups. Even with VCAs, if I know it’s going to be a crazy night I’ll create some basic mute groups to help with those transitions. I create mute groups for non-leader vocals, a mute group for FX returns, a mute group for any media inputs, etc. Having this stuff (VCAs and mute groups) laid out nicely really helps to get you going with your mix and gives you the tools to really mix, even in a crude way. Because you’re setup, even crudely, go ahead and get a mix going. Just focus on the basics, can you hear the important stuff? What about the vocals? Stick to just using the faders here, don’t get bogged down in the details. Remember, speed is what we are after. If you absolutely have to make a quick EQ change or roll in a hpf/lpf filter do so but try not to spend too much time with that.

I want to point something out, I haven’t really gotten to EQ, filters, dynamics, etc yet. Why? Because faders make the biggest difference in any mix. Yes, EQ and dynamics are incredibly important, but in a game of speed and priorities, set yourself up to make the biggest changes first and work towards the smallest sometimes even imperceptible changes last. 

In the last step for this week, I’m betting you noticed while you were getting things setup and hearing stuff through the PA for the first time that there are mics that could be placed different or might need a bit of tweaking. Take the time right now to go fix that stuff. Next to the fader, the source (and cleaning it up) makes a big difference in your mix. One example might be in your drum set. If the snare mic has fallen down and is now pointed at the side of your snare or sitting on the drum head, just fixing that problem will do wonders for how your snare will sound. This isn’t a mic but perhaps the keyboard is just pegging out the input, clipping, etc, and the band just cant turn it down enough, engaging a pad will make a big difference in monitor world and allow you to open up the pre-amp a bit on the console. These seem like small problems but if you can take a few minutes, walk around on the stage, ask your band about their monitors and fix any stray mics, your sound will be better, I promise. Lastly, on your way back to the board, stop and walk around the space a bit. Get a feel for how it sounds and then go straight to FOH and listen critically. Doing this will help you make better mix decisions and start to discern what you need to be doing to the mix so it sounds great everywhere. Ideally you’d do this often but sometimes time is tight so just doing it once is all you can do but don’t let yourself get to a point where you don’t go where people are going to be at least once. 

That is it for this week, next week we’ll dig into quick and dirty EQ tricks, getting compression dialed in expediently, etc. My process I’m sure is quite different than yours but my idea to convey this week is to really prioritize doing the things that will make the biggest difference in your mix. Getting organized, fixing mics, etc are all things that are the foundation of your mix which if they aren’t solid, you’ll just have issues that follow. Take the time to lay a good foundation to work with. If you have any questions about what I’ve just talked about, just leave a comment below or on Facebook. Alternatively you can always email the team here (engineers@studiostagelive.com) and we will respond ASAP. Also, be sure to not miss out on the coming weeks by going to this link and subscribing to this blog so you can get an email when a new post goes live each week. Happy mixing!