Sound Techs, Avoid the Dangerous “Wall of Sound”

Sound Techs, Avoid the Dangerous

The wall of sound is created when every channel in the music mix fights for sonic space and no one wins. Imagine all the channel volumes are equal so there’s no spatial separation in the mix. The bigger the band, the more likely it is the sound tech will battle the dangerous “wall of sound.”

This “wall of sound” mix happens for a few reasons:

  1. Poor arrangement
  2. Unbalanced mix

Notice that in point number one I didn’t directly blame the band. The band knows how a piece is supposed to sound, and they hopefully base their arrangement on a well-produced mix. However, when everyone plays “all in” on a song, your mix work needs to account for that combined energy and balance it out.

Understanding point number two requires an understanding of how all the facets of a song work together to create a beautiful sound. A music mix requires balance in areas that include volume, effects and EQ so every instrument and vocal supports the song as a whole. For example, you can’t crank the bass on a song that’s primarily led by an acoustic piano. You ought to have the bass at a lower volume in order to provide a bass line that avoids overpowering the piano. Yet, in this example, there are only two channels. This balance needs to span across all channels, and is obviously harder to achieve as you add more vocals and more instruments.

Even experienced sound techs can accidentally create a wall of sound, and I know because I’ve done it. It goes like this: You get a general mix sounding pretty good and then decide the electric guitar needs a volume boost. Then you think the bass might need a boost. But where did the keyboard go? Boost that. Next thing you know, everything is too loud.

Those are times when EQ changes might have been a better solution.

What to do with a Wall of Sound

The best way to avoid a wall of sound is to plan for it. Know how a busy song should sound, and mix accordingly. If you’ve attempted to do that and still get a wall of sound, or if the arrangement calls for changes mid-song and you are suddenly hit by a wall of sound, follow these steps:

1. Pull back instruments that aren’t key drivers in the song.

Do not pull any instruments out of the mix, but rather, pull back on those that are not the driving force in the music. This volume change will be the most dramatic fix to the “wall of sound” problem. Also, feel free to pull back all the volumes, especially if you do this during a practice or a sound check, and then carefully add channel volume back in.

There are two options for this:

  • Start with the lead instrument and lead vocal and layer everything underneath.

Or

  • Start from the low-end frequencies and work up. So, start with drum, then bass, on up until you get to the vocals which will end up on top.

2. Listen for competing sounds and cut where necessary.

Common competing sounds include combinations such as bass and kick drum and two electric guitars. Pick the instrument that sounds best in that frequency range and apply an EQ cut to the other instrument in that range. As a tip, first check that you aren’t boosting the frequency in both instruments. By using the frequency cuts, you can get a little more volume out of an instrument that might fall too far back in the mix.

There might be a time when you want to raise the volume of the band. Don’t use the individual channels. Use the main mixer fader which then keeps the balance.

The “Wall of Sound” can happen to anyone. Listen for it and use volume and EQ changes to alter the mix when it does happen.

This article originally appeared here.

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Chris Huff
Chris Huff is the author of Audio Essentials for Church Sound. He also teaches all aspects of live audio production, from the technical fundamentals to creative music mixing to keeping your sanity. Find out more at www.behindthemixer.com