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 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!

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 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!

Back to the Basics: Building your Mix Part 1

This week we are starting a new Back to the Basics series talking about building your mix. I’ve been asked before about how I consistently can produce good mixes and it comes from the process I go through to get to each mix. This week we’ll talk about what I do before rehearsal starts, next week we’ll talk about my rehearsal process, and then the last week we will talk about what I do during the show to keep my mix fresh and vibrant. The key to reading this, or any of my other posts for that matter, is to make sure to translate what I’m saying to your situation. There are so many different ways to do things in this digital age of soundboards just find the solution that not only fits your equipment but also your environment/culture. If it works for me that doesnt mean it will work for you because there are so many variables in each room and with each piece of gear that most tips don’t directly work in every room. With that in mind, let’s dig in to how I build my mix each week live or while I’m in the studio.

One of the best things you can do before you even start mixing is to take the time to understand every bit of your soundboard. Do you understand what each button does? Are you able to make last minute patch changes? Have you taken the time to create a template that, for all intents and purposes, zeros out your console before each use? Just like with analog boards, it’s better to start with a clean slate with basic settings already set and ready to go. From time to time, if you find yourself making the same changes for each mix then add that to your digital template. Not only do templates reset all those unique changes you made last week that you probably won’t need this week with an all new band but it keeps you honest as an engineer as you have to through things again and tweak EQs and such each week. It’s also important to completely understand what tools you have at your disposal (i.e. – onboard processing/FX and outboard equipment) but how to access and use them in a moments notice so you’re not wasting valuable rehearsal time figuring out a setup issue. Even in the studio, if you are having gear issues and can’t get them resolved quickly because you don’t fully understand the setup you are using you are going to have to refund some studio time.

Building on that foundation of understanding your console is spending time improving your template with multi-track recording. There aren’t many professions where the simulator actually can get you pretty close to actually mixing the show in real time (don’t forget about the stage noise from the band). If I have trouble with dialing in the drum sounds or want to try out a new plugin it’s so easy to just pull up some playback and start experimenting. There is nothing quite like some seat time behind your console to help you not only get some practice actually building a mix but more importantly get a mix locked in and then walk around your room to see what things sound like. Personally, I think taking a walk should happen quite a bit in the rehearsal process but also regularly so you can keep an ear on your PA. Sometimes things break and you don’t notice immediately. During one of my volunteers walk around the room he heard a weird noise from one of our boxes and when we went up there to take a look we noticed that the cone was separating from the frame and we checked out the rest of the PA to find this epidemic that was about to surface (we ended up replacing every driver in our PA). If we never leave our booths while we mix we might miss a catastrophic problem. Worse yet, your mix may sound great at the booth but sound super boomy in other parts of the room. You can’t mix for the whole room if you’ve never walked around to hear what it sounds like. After you’ve mixed in a room you can get an idea of what your room will do to your mix but it’s still good practice to walk around during a rehearsal. In the same way live that you need to walk around the room, in the studio you need to hear your mix through different mediums like headphones, cell phone speakers, car stereos, etc. The point here is to make sure to keep your perspective as large as it can be so your mix sounds great no where you’re standing or what you’re listening through.

The last thing I wanted to talk about this week is the need to prepare as best you can for each event. One thing that I do regularly is look through the event or service plan or a recording schedule and make sure you have an internal knowledge of the plan and more importantly the content you’ll be mixing/recording. A lot the content I mix is based on artist released music so I usually take some time to listen to the artist recording of new songs that come down the pipe. I find it’s easier to anticipate needed mix changes if I know when the solos happen verses when it’s just an instrumental or perhaps if there is big bridge with a synth line that needs to be at the top of the mix if I have a general knowledge of the content in play. If needed touch base with your band leader and figure out what they might be expecting from your mix/recording that night so you can be sure to pay extra attention to the details mentioned. In addition to preparing my mind I find myself making sure my gear is in tip top shape. Are there software upgrades available or firmware updates for wireless systems or consoles/recording equipment that will help your gear run as best as it can? Are the updates for any production computers either completed or turned off so there are no interruptions during the event or session? We recently purchased a new wireless system and had a few issues and reached out for some support only to find out that the wireless mics themselves have a firmware now that needed to be updated. Sure enough, after they were updated most of our issues have been solved and the rest just needed to be worked through. The new firmware also brought some new features that we were able to immediately start using. Most of the boards we are using today are digital and have software that does get updated regularly by manufacturers. Most of those updates fix issues and some even bring you new features. Be sure to take some time and look for these software updates if you haven’t checked in awhile.

That is it this week. I truly hope you read something new or saw something in a new light that inspires you to be better prepared for your next job. Next week we’ll dig into how I mix during rehearsals or recording sessions and go over our rehearsal process at CCC. If you have any questions you can comment below, leave a comment on facebook, or email me at If you’d like to receive an email when new content is posted just subscribe at this link and a message will be sent to your inbox when a new post is up. See you all next week!