How to Mix Sound, Session 2: Hear the space

The first thing you do when you’re going to be mixing sound in a live setting is to familiarize yourself with the space that will be filled. It’s more than just looking around; it requires standing in various spots in the space and actively listening.

By listening to the space you can tell how it’s generally going to respond in the way of feedback. Let’s face it, sound reinforcement is first about keeping feedback down and second about keeping intelligibility up.

Clap your hands sharply. Listen for the echo of the noise of your hand-clap, Listen to how it comes back:

  • Does it boom? When you clap your hands, do you hear the lower-frequency BANG of your hands coming back to you?
  • Does it echo? Does it come back like “CLAP-ap-ap-ap…?”
  • Does it reverberate? Does it come back like “CLAP-p-p-p…?”
  • Is the sound you hear coming back a sharp rap, or is it muted?

Each of these qualities will give you a preliminary idea of, and help determine how well, sound reinforcement will work in the space. If you hear a long-term echo, (such as several distinct repeated raps) then the space will tend to give you feedback problems related to echo. In that case you’ll have to stay on your toes as far as bass levels go; you can temporarily get the bass frequencies too loud, but if a single sound is maintained for too long, you’ll have feedback in the form of a low rumble. The longer-term the echo you initially hear, the lower the rumble. Spaces with a lot of reverberation will tend to have feedback in the lower frequencies, of  ‘booming’ kinds of feedback.

Speak into the space. Use words like ‘heeeellooo’ (draw out the vowels) to hear lower frequency reverberation, and the word ‘che—ck—ing’ (use sharp emphasis on the consonants, pausing before the ‘ing’). Speak in a monotone.

As you speak, listen to how the space responds. Sometimes a space will be “lively” in that there will be a lot of return for sharp consonants like the ‘ch’ and ‘k’ sounds. These spaces will give you problems with high-frequency feedback: the familiar screech.

As you walk around the space, try to remember the places where you seem to hear yourself more and hear your hand claps more. These are the spots you’ll want to periodically visit while mixing sound. (Yes, you’re supposed to periodically leave the board when you can afford to do so.) If you can keep these little noticeable spaces sounding good, you can keep the whole space sounding good.

 

Homework:

(It’s the same. We’ll continue to do this to help you condition your ears to spaces and how they’re created in the final mixdown.)

Find yourself a copy of some ‘classic’ music and listen to how the sound crew put together the three-dimensional stage of sound. Find something that matches your tastes and give it a good, deep listen with your eyes closed. Some examples would be:

  • Classical and symphonic music from most any era
  • Jazz music from any era up to the 80’s
  • Rock/Pop from any era up to the 80’s
  • Vocals from any era up to the 80’s

So why not later than the 80’s? There was a big breakthrough in recording technology (the dbx Compressor) which took a lot of the creative burdens off the sound crew. Or they just got lazy because ‘the compressor will catch it’. Concurrent with that, recording profits began to fall dramatically. People began to get lazy about how they did mixdowns in the effort to get the music out and to bring dollars in. The early CD compression technology also required a lot of extra effort to get the mixdown right, and producers just didn’t have the time/money to spend on the art and craft of a really good mix. Of course, painting with a broad brush never works; there are performers like Barbra Streisand (for instance, and of course there are many others) who cared a LOT about every single aspect of the end product, and it shows. Other examples are Jefferson Airplane, the Bee Gees, Bob James, It’s A Beautiful Day, and individual performers like Liz Story.

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