Mixing Essentials: Mixing to Your Culture Part 3

Welcome back to this last week of our mixing to your culture series. We’ve been discussing what music culture is and what it looks like if you mix to your culture or against it, and this last week I’m going to mention a few things you should pay attention to at your next event as benchmarks for whether or not you are mixing to the context you are working in.

The first category is overall SPL. This can vary by a large margin. If you’re mixing a concert, there is almost no limit beyond that which is “mostly” safe for your audience. If you’re mixing in a small club, I’m betting your limitation will be the balance of your mix. If you regularly mix in a church like me, we shoot for 92 dbA one minute average. Whatever it is, there is a point to which people start covering their ears, complaining, and doing all the kinds of things we talked about last week. If you get to that point, put your ego aside and just turn it down. However, there is also times where people are coming back and telling you to turn it up, or to turn the subs up, etc, in which case, explore the possibility of giving it some gas if your gear can handle it.

The next indicator I see is where lead vocal sits in your mix. In the church world, the vocal is usually sitting on top of the mix uncontested while in the concert/touring world the vocals are very much embedded in the mix. Where does it sit for your venue? The toughest part of this is that it changes, almost weekly, and it varies based on musical styles and such. BGVs fall into this same argument. Do they get as much weight as an instrument, sit up a bit in the mix between the band and lead or do they get buried and just poke through here and there? Probably the hardest balance to maintain is what the band wants versus what the people want. Particularly in the church world you’ll have a band leader wanting one thing, leadership wanting another, and the congregation wanting something completely different. But that is our job as an audio engineer. Our job is to balance all of those choices with an average. A true “mix” of all the opinions.

Guitars are also another indicator of culture. This is usually dependent on the genre of music. When it comes to classic rock, the guitar is the lead all the time but in pop or more modern rock it gives way to other sources from time to time. How much you use them is also dependent on where the amp is located (is it isolated allowing you to mix them up a bit or on the stage and only needs a touch of clarity?). This is where listening to demos of the artist your going to be recording or mixing to see where they lay it in the mix. Being well prepared, especially in this area means knowing what the band is going to ask for before they ask for it and in my experience, this is an area you can nail with just a little bit of effort.

The last area I wanted to highlight is the use of backing tracks. Sometimes it’s strings, sometimes it’s a synth, sometimes a banjo, and sometimes it’s all of the above. Regardless of what the pre-recorded tracks are, it’s important to know from the band how they should fit in. Some bands use them to fill in gaps in their instrumentation that they just don’t have and others use them occasionally to be the soloist during the instrumental (i.e. power synth or synth bass). Understanding the context they are in as well as what the tracks are designed for can really help you feel out how they should be mixed into the overall sound. This is also where a lot of the creativity as engineers can come into play as you experiment with what could fill in here or there and feel out the musicality of the songs that are being played.  

Well that’s it for this week and this series. Hopefully these last three posts have made you aware of the culture you are mixing in and maybe even inspired courage to try new things and adjust accordingly. As audio engineers, we are ultimately mixing for our audience in support of our musicians. So I challenge you the next time you step behind the console, think critically about the content you are creating. Make sure that it fits within the culture and context of music that you are performing. As always reach out to me at daniel@studiostagelive.com or leave a comment on facebook. If you have enjoyed what you have been reading hit me up at this link to subscribe to my blog and get an email when new content is posted. Happy mixing!

Mixing Essentials: Mixing to Your Culture Part 2

Welcome back to this short series on mixing to your culture. Last week we briefly talked about what this means and how you can discover what the context of your mix is and what that means. If you missed that post, check out this link. This week we are going to discuss the indicators inside and outside your mix that can tell you whether or not you’re mixing to your culture. Through a short discussion of both sides of the coin I hope that as you think back on your mixes you can tell whether or not you were mixing in tandem with the band or fighting against it.

But before we get into what it looks like to be mixing with your culture, let’s talk about what happens when you don’t. For live sound it’s a pretty simple answer actually. You’ll start getting noise complaints, you’ll be dealing with unhappy musicians because they don’t hear from the house what they’d expect, and you’ll undoubtedly be always tweaking with the mix. You see if you’re sound is fighting the “intended” sound things likely won’t balance in your mix. You will be pushing something that the band isn’t really accenting. This imbalance that’s created will knock your mix out of whack in a way you can’t EQ out of or compress through. As a result, you’ll start getting complaints both from the audience and maybe even from the band.

In the studio world, mixing against culture will be similar but different. We all know that point when the mix locks in while you’re in the studio. You’ll fix that last thing and everything just falls into place but if you’re fighting the culture, your mix will probably never sound just right. When you’re listening back you’ll always want to be tweaking and changing something. A lot of the time you’ll get a band leader or songwriter who just isn’t really happy with the mix. They’ll say things like “well it’s close, but we aren’t quite there yet.” In either of these situations it’s important to connect the dots that perhaps you’re style of mixing that song isn’t quite jiving with culture or context of the song. As with all recovery steps, seeing where you are is always the first step in fixing the problem.

Inversely, if you’re mixing style is lining up with the culture of the band is exactly what you’d expect. In the live world, complaints are lessened and things just seem to blend effortlessly. You’ll also find that you likely need less tools to get your mix to the point where you want it to be. It’s almost like the band is mixing itself. In the studio, it seems like just turning things on is enough. The band hears it and loves it. Everything is just firing in all cylinders. While these aren’t an exhaustive or definitive list, noting these trends in our mixing (fighting it vs. finding it easy) can really help us fix issues in our mix and get to a better place each time we step behind the console.

So what things can we do after we realize we are missing the mark? The biggest thing I do is make sure my template isn’t starting me on the wrong foot. After you’ve gotten back to mixing in the culture, try to figure out what caused you to leave it in the first place and try to fix that. For me, a lot of times it’s basic EQ stuff or simple routing issues. Maybe we recently changed drum heads and I didn’t spend much time checking to make sure things were still cohesive with those new drum heads with EQ and dynamics. Making sure your snare sounds right with the style is incredibly important and the same is true with just about every input you’re working with (especially highly dynamic inputs like guitars). Sometimes it’s a mechanical issue where you have stuff already routed and perhaps stylistically it fit one show and not the next. Hearing that effect maybe inspired us differently than we needed. All that to say, if you can make a change mechanically to better neutralize your template, do it. Be sure that each time you load that template that it isn’t doing a lot of coloring right off the bat. Compressors should be dialed in for every show or session. EQ should be minimized and adjusted for each show. Doing this allows the music to inspire us, not the other way around.

Secondly, get into the music, if not physically, at least emotionally. As mixers it’s natural for us to stay incredibly focused and not allow ourselves to enjoy the music. Recently I’ve learned to turn that off. Enjoy the music when you can, especially early in the rehearsal process. Let those emotions inspire your choices and mix changes. Because emotions are often externally driven, letting them into the decision making process, if only just a little, when it comes to audio engineering allows you to be sure to be following the band. Obviously keep this in check at times, but letting your feelings drive your mix can bring an element of musicality to your mix, as if you’re playing an instrument with the band.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, if you don’t have access to a demo of the songs you’ll be mixing or another artist performing it, ask for some musical context from the band leader. Really take the time to think about what is unique about the music you’ll be mixing/recording. Perhaps this includes a short meeting with the band about what they want things to sound like. Really try not to walk into a session or a show having not done any prep for your mix. Know what sounds you need to be reproducing and what sounds should be minimized or cut out completely. Be prepared with the knowledge of where the tracks should be in the mix. Know what kind of vocals the band wants and how to layer in the guitars with the chorus portions. Do your homework so that when you get behind the console, you aren’t just making it up, you’re executing what you’ve researched and laying good groundwork so that your mix can compliment the band’s intent

Well that’s it for this week. I hope this series hasn’t been fluff for you. We all have tweaked mixes from time to time or just an off day. What I hope you learned is what I learned not long ago, some of those “off” days weren’t off days at all, I was just fighting the intent of the music. Next week I’ll get a bit more in depth on what it really means, nuts-n-bolts wise, about what it means to mix to your culture. If you want to be sure not to miss out on that post be sure to subscribe at this link. If you have any questions or thoughts be sure to email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com or leave a comment on facebook or down below. See you next week!

Mixing Essentials: Mixing to Your Culture Part 1

I hope you all enjoyed last week’s from the booth episode. It was fun to get to mix on Easter and bring you all a new perspective. Let me know what you think of the new layout! Anyway, it’s time to for a new Mix Essentials series, this time more on the global mix picture. We are talking about the culture of your sound. For the next few weeks we’ll talk about what music culture is, how you find it, what happens when you jive with it or fight with it, and tailoring your mix to line up with the music culture of your space. This week we’ll start by defining terms a bit and helping you discover what the culture of music is for your audience and/or clients.

So what is music culture you ask? Well, it’s just context really. Whether in a studio, at FOH, mixing monitors, on tour, or wherever, music has a context. There is emotion, feelings, and all the things that make it feel alive at times. For us engineers, that means we need to be sure to be reading what the culture/context is wherever we are and make sure we aren’t unnecessarily or accidentally changing it. This perhaps is one of the biggest reasons to get to know the band your mixing, sit down and talk with the artist your recording over a drink, or sit in on the planning sessions for the tour with the band so that when you are doing your thing, you fully understand not only what the art is supposed to be but more importantly how it is conveyed, which I would argue is the bulk of what we do as audio engineers. The instrumentation is chosen for us, we, to put it simply, get to choose how it’s interpreted.

What does this look like practically (yes another rhetorical question, it works ok!)? If I’m mixing a country song, I shouldn’t have a rock sounding drum kit. If I’m doing some post-production on a worship song, the guitars shouldn’t sound like the solo section of an AC DC song. Instead, R&B songs should have really tight kick drums. Folk music, while setup well for lots of verb, shouldn’t be swallowed in verb. Now, there are times where we push the envelope artistically, just make sure that when you do that, you are doing so with the artist’s knowledge. Remember, our job is to recreate the artist’s performance, not twist it into something of our own creation. We are part of the band not a PR agent “fixing” a problem.

When it comes to discovering what music context you work in…that’s going to be a complicated answer. But for the most part, listen to the music that your artists are listening to. If they are sending you their demo tracks from the composition process, pay attention to the details here. Intentional or not, you can learn a lot about the goal of a song from these early and preliminary steps. If it’s an ongoing relationship, pay attention to the music you are listening to as well. Odds are some of what you work with has rubbed off and you have found yourself listening to similar music from time to time. Lastly, pay attention to the instrumentation. Simple and stripped down doesn’t mean layer in a million tracks. It means simple and stripped down. While rarely completely indicative, instrumentation exposes what’s really important in the music for the band. Look up from your console and be paying attention to the vibes and eye contact during the recording as well. Often times, the musicians themselves will give away what should be in front just by body language and eye contact. As you’re recording, as your mixing, as you’re creating…look up from your board and see what is happening, than organically respond. If you’re doing that, you are on the right track!

I know this may not strike you as a particularly interesting topic but I can assure that it’s incredibly important that you grasp this concept. If you understand the culture of your work, you’ll know if you’re doing a good job before you ask. You’ll know exactly what tools you’ll need to create the art that is being made. I promise this won’t be a long drawn out series but I’ve decided to take some time and write about it because of the number of times it’s come up in conversation. So please, take some time before right now and next week to think through your process. Are you taking part in the culture in a healthy way or are you bucking against it?

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve been reading, consider subscribing to this blog at this link. When new content is posted we then let you know automagically! As always, let me know what you think below or on facebook. Drop me an email at daniel@studiostagelive.com or message me if you have any input you’d like to see added and as always, happy mixing!