Audio engineers new and old are always looking for ways to improve their mixes. Sometimes the simplest improvements come from working with other engineers and seeing how someone else approaches the same job. Here are 5 quick tips that I have found to be useful when mixing bands.
1. Reference the Source
A good friend and touring engineer once commented to me about how surprised he was at how often budding engineers seemed to have a predisposed “sound” in mind for the sources they were mixing and how little some seemed to listen to the sources beforehand. There is a fine balance to be found between coming in with a plan (something I also view as important) and coming into mixing a band with a bunch of mental “presets” in your head of how a kick drum needs to sound. Walking the stage and listening to the sources your going to be working with can really help you dial in a clean mix. This helps avoid trying to force certain sounds that just aren’t there. While we do work at shaping the tone of our sources, trying to force a sound won’t generally work. Better to work with the musicians in getting sounds that you’re looking for straight at the source than trying to artificially create what’s not there.
2. Listen to the Room
I’m sure we are all aware of the impact our surroundings can have on the final sound we get. Certain spaces are chosen in the recording world based on the acoustics a room offers and the natural sound of the space. If you’re a touring engineer, I’m sure you’ve battled problematic rooms and sighed a breath of relief in those spaces that have been designed with acoustics in mind, either way, it’s very important to be aware of how the room sounds and the active or “live” frequency bands present. This can play into the stage layout of your band as well, wanting to maintain distance from reflective surfaces as much as possible. If we find ourselves pulling the same frequency bands out of every source, it’s wise to take a look at our main system EQ to see if we can deal with that frequency band in the entire system, freeing up our channel EQ for fine tuning our source material.
3. Have a Plan
It’s important to enter each mixing session with a plan, a painter would rarely start painting a portrait without an outline (possibly mental only) of the final product. We are artist creating a final product and it’s good to know where we want to end up before we start. This can come down to knowing the material we are mixing, knowing the sounds we will be working with (instrumentation) and also knowing how to effectively use the tools we will have at our disposal. We should have rough ideas of where we want the vocals to sit, how we want the bass guitar and kick drum to interact, how we want the guitars to sit and work together. This will make our soundcheck more effective, if we spend out time getting the kick drum to sound like a cannon, only to leave ourselves no room for the bass guitar, we’ll just end up changing it (hopefully) later when the band plays together. Now, I know I started this conversation commenting on how we should listen to our sources and not have predisposed ideas of what our sources should sound like, and this is true, what I do encourage and what we are talking about here, is having a rough plan of the total outcome, the tone of drums, guitar amps, etc. can change from space to space based on surroundings, however we’ll still need to make these work in the overall end product. If you’re mixing a recording act, they’re likely looking to sound like the recorded product, so this would be good to be familiar with! If we think of our soundscape in terms of a visual landscape, not everything should or needs to be in the foreground, certain guitar or keyboard parts are ok to be part of the background as it suits the song. It’s in these fine details that our mixes come together and move from okay to organized.
4. Choose the Right Tools
Tools are an important part of every job, and in previous posts I’ve mentioned how the right tools make a job go much smoother. Having said that, I realize that we don’t always have access to any and everything we’d like to use, and while I don’t think that gear makes the gig, I do think that carrying some familiar gear can help us get and maintain sounds we want. The first and most obvious to me would be microphones. These are listed on riders for a reason, they are familiar and an engineer prefers the sound they deliver versus another choice. Often this preference can change based on the style of music as well as application. There are certain kick drum mics I really like to use for IEM (in ear monitors), however wouldn’t be my first choice FOH (front of house) and this is due to the tonal characteristics it carries based on it’s design. As well, there are certain mics that I would choose over others if I was mixing a folk band versus a rock band. An often overlooked tool is the DI or direct injection box, these are not all created equal, and while you CAN use generic DI boxes, there is certainly an advantage to considering specific application DI’s as they truly do offer better performance in certain applications, specifically dealing with acoustic instruments and piezo type electronics. Along your journey you’ll find gear that suits you and that you may come to prefer. With the large prevalence of digital consoles, not many people are leaning on analog outboard equipment such as compressors and mic preamps etc, as more and more people are leaning on digital plug in packages to maintain their sound. These pieces can be a very large part of a signature sound. Whatever tools you find suit you, at the end of the day they are just aids in the job we have to perform.
My last tip would be just as important to newer engineers as old road dogs: and that’s to remember simplicity in our approaches. With all that is available to us the temptation to over complicate things in our mixing approach is abundant. In most cases, if we nail the basics (gain structure, eq and mix proportion) this will get us to where we want to be. The addition of dynamics controllers such as compressors and gates, effects such as reverb, delay, chorus will certainly add the polish to our mixes and should be applied once we are confident in the basic sounds we have and happy with the balance we have achieved. Also, we must never forget how interactive the job of the engineer is, levels will always need massaging, raising and lowering, highlighting parts where needed and pulling parts back from the foreground as to not clutter or distract from the key elements such as lead vocals or focal guitar lines and so on.
To wrap up, we should try to build habits of referencing our sources, having a plan in place, paying attention to the sound of our room, using the tools we know and not over complicating our approach. By doing this, we will naturally find our mixes to be much cleaner. Then, as we grow in confidence, we can introduce newer, more complicated, techniques.