Honestly, I just don’t get it. I’m at a church or event and the lead vocal is buried or it’s over the top loud, or the lead instrument is sitting so far back in the mix the musician could walk off the stage and no one would notice. What’s more is these techs think they’ve got the mix right—I can tell because they’ve stopped mixing and look happy!
Let me be very clear: I love working with techs who want help. I can see their efforts when they mix. They are working hard to figure out how to create a great mix—sometimes just a better mix than what they’ve been doing. These aren’t the people I’m talking about. But it does lead me into today’s post—what to listen for in your mix and how to make it better.
Where to Start
I’m going to make an assumption, as much as I hate to, but here goes: You already know how the song should sound. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check out this article:
So, it’s practice time and the band is into their first song but it’s not sounding right. Let’s get into what to listen for.
The other day, I caught these words from a studio engineer on how he starts his mix process;
“I’ll usually be throwing things up very quickly, almost like doing a quick monitor mix, and balance everything very quickly, just to see how all the elements are supposed to sound together, and I have a basic feeling of the entire track.” —Andy Wallace
I start with my channel volumes low and then bring them up to support my vocal. If you’re in a small room with an acoustic drum kit, then that kit volume is going to define how loud the vocals need to be to rise above everything else.
Imagine a song in layers with the top layer being the lead vocal. Everything else needs to fall under that. You’ll likely have the lead instrument just under that. Then we get into the supporting instruments and backing vocals.
If the volume balance is off, EQ isn’t going to help one bit.
It would be so easy to list off a bunch of instruments with key frequency areas for cuts and boost but that’s where too many of us, myself included, get off-track.
Each instrument has a role in a song and that role drives what we do with the instrument. Take the acoustic guitar, an instrument that can produce a wide range of frequencies. Do you take all the frequencies or do you only emphasize a portion?
For a single worship leader and a guitar, you take everything. However, as the band grows in instruments, you need to re-think this approach. Even with a few instruments, you can let the acoustic guitar ring out. But what about a full band with keyboards and drums and bass, etc.? Time to re-examine the role.
In the case of a full band with the acoustic guitar playing rhythm and as the instrument of focus, it’s best to cut back on the lows and emphasize the mids and above so it stands out. But such a solution isn’t enough.