A Few Tips on Setting the Stage for Easy Mixing

 

First, turn off the sound system!

What you want to do is balance the band with no sound system on. You want to sit in the audience, have them play and sound balanced at a low to moderate volume. Do whatever it takes to make this happen. You must get this done first. It is impossible to mix sound better than the original source.

Think about it. All you can do at the mixer is add to whatever is on the stage.

I keep having problems with drummers. Most of the ones I’ve worked with have no sense of modulation. They play hard and too loud all the time. I’ve only found a few drummers that “get it”.

They also tend to be “too busy”. Listen to any CD you want. With the exception of something like head banger or heavy metal, the drums are clean and crisp in the mix. The beats are simple and straight forward. There’s not a constant roar of beating every drum and smashing every cymbal on every quarter note. If you have to, take away one drum stick! Or put the drummer in a remote room or out in the parking lot and run some mics out there. At least the noise will be cut in half!

You can run into ego trips. Everyone wants to play lead, be the star, cut a CD. I haven’t had too many problems with this but I have had some to deal with. The point that needs to be made is the music is for the people sitting in the audience. Everyone on the platform is there to make the worship experience the best possible. It’s about working together to make that happen. It’s about turning down, getting a clean mix that sounds fantastic. As a musician, it might be boring. It might be “too simple” for you to play. Just do it. Work on cutting an original sound track on your own time.

I used to play in a top 40 band for years. It took us a long time to get the notion in our heads that we are hired to play what the AUDIENCE wants to hear - not our latest garage band music creation.

Next, face any stage amp away from the audience. If it’s an open back amp like a Fender for example, face it toward the musician, tilt it up toward their heads, and then find something to put behind it to block the rear sound. A piece of plex might work. The idea is to stop stage amp sound from blasting off of the stage into the front seats. Plus any stage sound that the sound tech has no control over must be overcome by mixing everything else above it. For example.

I’m behind the mixer. I hear the sound of a loud lead guitar or bass guitar coming off the stage – not through the sound system, but from his amplifier sitting on the stage, turned up too loud pointed out into the audience. I am forced to use that sound level as the lowest level in the mix and raise everything else in the mix above it to balance the sound. It depends on the style of the song but I usually will layer the mix this way:

Vocals on top – we must hear the words since that’s what carries the message. Vocals must be above every thing else.

Next will be keyboards. Vocalists key off of keyboards and the snare drum. Plus the keyboards tend to carry the music. Not always, but for the most part and that could even change during the song.

Next will be any rhythm guitars / other instruments that “fill in the holes” if they are playing the way they should and not be playing lead the entire song.

Next will be the bass and kick drum. They will be about the same level to provide punch and bottom end. The rest of the drum kit will be mixed in if the drummer knows how to play. If not, I’ll shut him out of the mix to keep the noise down.

That is generally how I layer the mix. Now, if the guitar player is already loud, I have to raise the volume of all of the other layers to get above the guitar player. That often makes the sound way too loud for the audience or I run out of “head room” in the sound system. In other words, I hit feedback before I can get the mix balanced.

So I start mixing the layers from the loudest thing on stage. If the band is already nice and balanced with the sound system off, all I have to do is add just a touch to the house mix, bring the vocals up, and we have a breathtaking listening experience. It will sound like a CD in that room assuming you have good talent on the platform to start with.

But if we start out with a too loud unbalanced live band, it will be work and a constant war to keep the mix together and make it sound like something you will be proud of.

So turn off the sound system, balance the band first, then move on to the next step.

Teach your vocalists how to “work” a mic.

If you want to see how pros use microphones see if you can find the PBS series on the “Hit Man” David Foster special. This was an outstanding example of how to work mics and a premium sound mix.

A microphone sounds different as the mic is moved to and from the mouth. Just a slight move can dramatically change the tone. As the mic is moved closer the sound is more rich. As it’s moved away the sound becomes more brilliant. Learning how to use this effect properly gives the vocalist a palette of sound textures to work with. Bring the mic closer for soft passages and move away slightly during powerful passages. And don’t let them sing with the mic a foot away or with the mic at their waist. Attempting to use a mic at those distances makes the sound very thin and shrill sounding. Not to mention turning up the mic to balance the mix is impossible. Properly working a mic is one of the most important skills a vocalist can master.

How to easily blend the monitor mix for vocals

Lets say you have 6 vocals out front. Set the monitor levels and channel equalizers the same on all of those mic channels on the console. Set the monitor levels loud enough to easily be heard in the floor monitors but not so loud to start ringing. Play a sound track. A live band can be used but start with music you can easily control. Start the music and let the vocals sing and move their mics back and forth from their mouths until they all can hear themselves in the monitors. Start with the microphones about 2 inches from the mouth. If they are too loud turn down the sensitivity or gain control usually the first knob at the top of each channel. But keep working on the gain and mic position until the vocalists can hear all of themselves blend smoothly with the mics about 2 inches or so from the mouth. Don’t let them move the mic too far out. Stay within 2 to 3 inches max. If your vocalists can master this technique it will dramatically improve the overall sound. It will also take the work and the judgment of the sound tech out of mixing your vocals. Only minor tweaks will be required to maintain a beautiful warm blend during the song.

Make sure the vocals are in the direct or near field of the monitors - typically standing very close to them. I've seen vocals stand 4 feet back and complain they cant hear the monitors.


A note on floor monitors

Another thing you can easily do to smooth the house mix is remove most of the bass from the floor monitors! Think about it.

The house sound will have more than enough bass to fill the room. If you have 6 floor monitors also pumping bass the low end will be muddy and hard to handle. On the equalizer for the floor monitors, assuming you have a 1/3 octave EQ, slide down all of the filters from the lowest one up to about 300 hz or so. Let the house PA fill in the bass and get rid of the extra bass in the floor monitors. It will really clean up the system.

Also you can “ring” the monitors to tune out peaks. Your monitor EQ should have the sliders positioned at the center except for the ones you pulled down as low as they would go from about 300 to 400 down before you start this process.

Next, Put the vocal mics on stands and position them where you would normally have the vocalists standing. Point them away from the monitors as they would normally be used. Bring up the master monitor level slowly until the monitors start to ring on the verge of feedback. Take each slider one by one and slide it down just a bit until you find the one that stops the ringing. If the slider doesn’t make a difference put it back to the center position. You most likely will find a slider or two next to each other that interacts with each other, both affecting the offending sound. Now, bring up the monitor level just a little more and keep doing this until you reach a place where you hear a low ringing and a high ringing sound at about the same volume setting. You have tweaked the EQ and leveled the range about the best you can by ear. Now, bring down the monitor level master to a level you would normally use. We only bought up the monitor master level to force the monitors to easily show up ringing / feedback problems.

You may have to work with the individual graphic sliders to get a pleasing tone from the monitors. Being “technically correct” about tweaking out ringing can sometimes work against achieving the best tone quality. You may have to compromise between minimum feedback issues and monitor tone quality.

Another note . . .

Most mixing consoles take the monitor send signal AFTER the channel EQ. That means if you change the “tone” or channel EQ of a mic, it also affects the EQ of that mic in the monitor mix. That’s another reason to keep excess bass out of the monitors. If you enhance the low end of a bass singer in the house by turning up the bass on the bass singer’s channel, you also just boosted the bass of that channel in the floor monitor. Of course any EQ you adjust on his channel will affect how his mic sounds in the monitor.

Some consoles have internal jumpers you can move on each channel to move the Aux sends prefader instead of post fader.

On professional performance systems I will install a second mixer on stage just for floor monitors so we can set specific tone for all mics / sound sources coming through monitor systems. This lets the front of house sound tech adjust the tone for the audience and the on stage monitor mixer sets the tone the musicians and vocals want to hear. Neither one interacts with the other.

If you have a contemporary service with live band / praise team / large choir and are having monitor issues, you need a separate monitor mixer on stage. The only downside is you will need two sound techs that know what they are doing or let one of the musicians adjust the on stage monitor mixes.


Build the sound mix from the right end in this order

1. Balance live music with the sound system off. Get that right first.

2. Turn on the monitors. Keep the main house speakers off. Adjust and blend all monitor mixes with vocals and instruments. Strive to get the monitors satisfactory for everyone on stage at the lowest level possible. Remember to point guitar / keyboard amps away from the audience. Use plex shields for drums. Do what you can to keep the noise on the stage and not “leaking” out into the audience. Of course, it’s impossible to make it perfect, just do what you can.

3. Now, turn on the main speakers and mix your sound.

If you have done a good job and everyone is cooperating, you will have an outstanding mix. Keeping it there is another day’s work! You may have to go through this process over the next few weeks again and again until everyone gets used to keeping the blend together. And don’t do this process backwards. You will fight a battle you can’t win. Always do it in the order above.

 


 

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