How to Mix Sound, Session 7: Advanced Work

Fundamental to Everything:

Sound is an Art!

Mixing sound is a collaborative art. It’s a collaboration with the artists who are creating the sound, and your job is to shape it. All sound has two sides to its nature: its creation and its shaping.

You have to keep in mind both aspects as you mix sound. It’s more than just how loud some speaker is in some venue; mixing sound involves how intelligible that speaker is, how comfortable they are to listen to, and finally, yes, if they can be heard well, everywhere they’re supposed to be heard.

Mixing sound involves shaping it. You shape it through:

  • level
  • EQ
  • and effects.

And to shape it properly, you have to have a vision of the production’s total sound as a stage. Think of a theatrical stage: You have players to the sides, some to the back, and the lead characters are usually in front. Sometimes in the drama, they’re to one side or the other, but usually they’re in front.

Next time you’re at a live production, try to sit near the stage just once so that you’re not hearing the house sound, then close your eyes and listen. Hear how the main performers feel closer to you? Listen to how the secondary performers sound more in the background. This is what you should always try to achieve in your mix.

So now what you have to do is make your sound feel like that stage. Got it?

Let’s take it from a sound mixing viewpoint: Your lead performers are in the front of your secondary performers, so they should be just a bit louder. Instruments should NEVER overwhelm the vocals, nor should they EVER fight the vocals for your attention. The vocals are always your primary interest, and they should always sound like it. Unless there’s an instrument solo, of course.

This is key: you should be able to literally mix the sound with your eyes closed – your performers are in their proper places on the stage – as seen by your ears.

This is what’s known as Spacial Location.

The Stage of Sound

From this point onward, I’ll be using the spacial location terminology I explained above. Your lead singer will be front and center on the stage; so that person will be closest to you. Everything else keys off that person. Backup vocals will be behind that lead singer, and the instruments will be behind the backup vocals. We’ll talk more about folding the sound mix together to wrap the lead and backup vocals in the instruments, after we cover the basics.

Step One: Levels

Make sure to tell your performers that nothing is set up, that you’re going to tune the mix as we go. They know this anyway, but hearing this from you reminds them that yes it’s not perfect right now, but you’re working on it. This one simple bit of communication between you and the performers will go a long way in keeping the understanding and patience going between you on the mixer and the performers on the stage.

Begin with all performers and instruments up at some arbitrary level, say, -10 on most boards. In other words, ‘pot up’ everybody (meaning bring up the faders) and start from there.

Go through and set all the channel gains, starting with the vocals. You’ll have to fine-tune them a bit later, but this will get you a starting point.

After you get your channel gains set, do a quick preliminary mix:

Bring up all the vocals to somewhat higher than the instruments. For instance, set the vocals to about -5 on the faders, and the instruments to about -10. This will get the group enough level that they can begin practicing and trying out their sound together. By hearing themselves, it’ll also let them know that you’re on the case, you’re working on it and you’re listening to them. They can now begin practicing, and they likely will after they all realize that they can hear themselves.

Key point:

Always, always, ALWAYS ‘pot down’ (or turn down) a mike or source that isn’t being used, especially in a sound-reinforcement situation! Not only does it keep the noise level down in the venue, but it lessens the chance for feedback.

Time to ‘Work in the Art’

Start building your mix. Now listen to your lead and watch your meters. The lead should be hitting just over zero on his peaks.

Start really listening to the levels and bring up the background vocals to just below the lead. They should begin to blend in just behind the lead on your imaginary stage. They should not be as close to you as the lead, but instead a couple of steps back. Set up your backup vocals so that they sound as if they are all located in the same place. You will always have one singer stronger than the others (they’ll sound like they’re standing next to the lead), so put that person in their place: in the same space as the others. But as you do so, make sure that you can clearly hear the lead over the backup vocals.

Now with the singers set up, start setting up the instruments. Begin as always with the lead. His instrument should be ‘just behind’ the backup vocals. All other instruments now fill in ‘behind’ his.

Keyboard is always next. The Keys should fill in around and just behind the backup vocals. Keys add a certain ‘sweetness’ to the final performance, and should be held at this point – just behind the backup vocals. You should never have the lead vocal fighting with Keys for your ear’s attention.

Set your drum kit next. You should have the kit routed through a Group so you can bring him up and down with just one fader.

Now, use the bass as fill-in. By this point you should have a pretty good round, full stage of music and singers.

As you stand and work at the mixer, you’ll find you have a natural tendency to mix the bass and drums heavily into the space. Don’t succumb to this temptation. It may sound cool to you on the board, but the overwhelming amount of bass and sound from the drum kit will cut way down on the intelligibility of the lead singer and his backup vocals. This is because the ear can only process a certain amount of sound all at once, especially if some ‘interfering’ sounds (in this case the drum kit and the bass) are higher in volume than the ones you wish to hear.

Key Point:

In any live venue, intelligibility of the vocals is your number one priority.

When you have a music recording, you can listen to it multiple times to understand the lead vocals. Live music, you only get one chance, so the vocals have to be heard.

Now the levels should be just simple fine-tuning, and this is all there is to setting up a basic mix.

Step Two: Equalization

Now begins the process of ‘folding’ the sound together.

Each sound source contains a specific set of frequencies, and you can make a more cohesive and ‘fuller’ sound if you employ some gentle EQ to allow the body of the sound from each source to fold into the whole.

The trick with EQ and folding the sound together is to not be heavy-handed with it. The only time you should be using great amounts of EQ is when you are ‘fixing’ something; for instance maybe you have a guitarist whose instrument is made completely out of metal and it sounds uncomfortably ‘screechy’ through the system. In that case, you’d roll off the upper end of the highs pretty drastically to get the ‘ugly’ out of it.

One thing to remember is that adding EQ also introduces a type of distortion into the audio – hence the need to keep it as light as possible.

To fold the sound together, start with what you know should be the primary set of frequencies you’re interested in, then slightly boost those, while slightly rolling off the others. For instance, in speech, to make someone more understandable, give them a little bit of boost in the 4K range. If they don’t seem quite loud enough in comparison to others, give them a little bit of boost in the 2K range. Of course, if someone seems a lot louder than others, you can also roll this frequency off. See how this works?

When folding instruments into vocals, the same principles apply. You want to make a ‘hole’ for intelligibility of vocals in the sound stage, so you roll off most instruments a little in the 4K range. This takes them backward a bit on the sound stage and opens up a space for the vocals to be heard more clearly. Again, the trick is to not get too heavy-handed with the EQ, because big changes can be heard.

You repeat this process with each of your sources, and gently fold the sound together as much as possible. Keep an eye on your levels, because they will change a bit as you’re boosting or cutting with EQ.

This is definitely where the ‘art’ comes in, because your mix will change as you go through these steps.

Fixing Problems using EQ

Lead Vocal keeps time on the mike by thumping a hand or fingers on it: roll off the very lows as necessary; you may be able to cut them altogether since it’s a vocal. But listen as you do so. Cut the EQ in and out to make sure you’re not losing any of the musical quality.

You have a drummer that’s a heavy hitter: Roll down the 2K range to make them less ‘loud’. You may be able to roll off the very lows a bit to cut down on the ‘bang’ of the sticks hitting the heads. The rest of it is all watching the levels, and bringing them down a bit as necessary to balance them.

Guest guitarist has a guitar that sounds like you’re sticking hot nails in your ears: Roll off the very highs, reaching as far down as 11KHz, until it gets liveable – and then just a bit more – some in your audience will have more sensitive hearing in those frequencies. If the guitarist complains (sometimes happens), tell them it sounds too harsh coming through the system and you’ve had to cut it back a bit because it was distorting and stepping on the rest of the performance.

Guitarist string squeak: Try rolling down around 8KHz.

Backup Vocal artists are a “little less than perfect”: Again, reduce the 2K range of the mike that’s bringing you the most off-key sound. You can then taper that mike up and down level-wise during the performance as necessary to maintain some balance in the vocals. Keep in mind that you never really have your hands off the console, as live sound is a ‘living’ mix – it changes moment-to-moment.

 

Okay, time for homework. It’s going to seem familiar.

Homework:

(Same as last session. Yup.)

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 now do something different: find a well-produced piece from, oh, let’s say the Disco era. (Yes, go ahead and laugh.) But – hear me out – listen closely to any Bee Gees album and you find several things: Heavy rhythm, heavy bass, clean sounding drum kit, lots of guitar and keyboard in the mix, super-clean vocals. Every voice and instrument is distinct.

But notice something: It’s INTELLIGIBLE!

Now pick up most any later-produced “rock” or “grunge” piece and try to sort out the vocals. Try to sort out the individual instruments. Try to understand the lyrics with only one listen-through.

Harder than you thought? You’re hearing the result of an indifferent mix, the lack of any art in sound mixing. The result of “well we just recorded it, make us an air cut with the remainder of the 2 hours we paid you for”. Now go back to the Bee Gees and listen again. You can hear the space. Compare with the “grunge” again. Sound like it was recorded in a parking garage?

Now you’re getting it.

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