One of the hardest things to teach a new sound operator is how to mix. It requires the development of an “ear” for what to change, when to change it and what levels are appropriate. The best advice I usually give is to listen to the radio, streaming, or anywhere professional-level mixing is done. This will go a long way in understanding what goes into a mix, but that will only do so much. We also need Audio Mixing 101.
Audio Mixing 101
There are many schools of thought as to whether you add sound or take it away in order to get a good mix. I will simply say that if you can’t get the sound you want one way, try doing it the other. If you cannot find the sound you want either way, start over. I always try to mix music with the vocals at the “front” of the mix; this means that they can be heard clearly above everything else. This is simply because the vocals are leading the worship and they need to be heard in order to help guide the rest of the church in singing. There’s another quick and dirty trick I’ve learned; if I see it, I should hear it. This is borrowing from film production and sound design, but if you cannot hear an instrument, then chances are something else is too loud. Not to say that you should expect studio quality sound, but you should always push yourself to do better.
“Carving frequencies” is about creating a spectrum of frequencies for each vocal and each instrument to reside in; their own “address” in the mix, if you will. You don’t want your lead guitar to be at the same address as your keyboard, right? Listen to the music and decide which instrument is taking the lead, then build from there.
In mixing 101, developing an ear is more than just listening for certain instruments and voices, it is delving deeper into the actual frequencies. For instance, I do some mixing at a small church in Vancouver, and one of the speakers has a vocal frequency range that just wreaks havoc on us mixers. For whatever reason, his voice introduces frequences (or freqs) into the system that cause feedback at much lower levels than anyone else. For months, we tried our best to change EQ (equalization) settings to dial out those freqs, but to no avail. We finally discovered that all the changes we were making on our master system EQ were to the wrong side (left instead of right). Once we began to change the freqs in the right side of the system EQ, we were able to finally master his voice and crank the volume to where it needed to be.
But we never would have been able to do that if we didn’t have an ear for which frequencies should be addressed first. You see, a lot of church sound operators never took the time (or had the training) to dig into what they are doing. They know the basics of how to turn the system on, how to put the faders up and down, and how to mute. A bit more advanced operators will understand how to use EQ and how to route channels to the auxiliary outputs (or auxes). But a lot will stop there, and for good reason—what’s the point of learning more than what you will need to use?
But what if something goes wrong? Do you know how to fix it? If you don’t understand the ins and outs of your system (and are afraid to learn), then how will you react to a hum or squeal being introduced into the system? People will look to you to fix it, and if you don’t know how, then what? That’s why you need Audio Mixing 101, to help you know what you don’t know, and don’t be afraid to ask for help!