Friday, March 17, 2006

It's all in the Mix

Have you ever stopped to think just how much power sound engineers have?


Well, it's a lot.

The power to make you heard. The power to stop you being heard. The power to take a £1500 Taylor acoustic and make it sound like it was made by Tomy (Heard it done!) The power to deliver an entire orchestra, each exacting phrase, to thousands of people (done it.) The power to CONTROL (!) really!

How? Well, most of it's in the mix.

The 'mix' is the name for the collection of signals that have been brought together and balanced against each other. Essentially it is the output from the mixer, and is created by using the channel output faders to set the individual levels of each input to create one soundscape or 'mix' (Soundscape being an audio landscape.)

The skill is in how you balance all of those signals.

I have learnt that it all comes down to how you approach what you do with sound.

When I learned what Sound Reinforcement was, it revolutionized my approach to sound, saved me time at gigs and services and reduced my workload and stressload. So what's the secret? OK, here goes...

In sound reinforcement, you simply listen to the sound source and reinforce what you need to.

Here's an example: You have a 4 piece band (Vox, Guitar, Bass & Drums) They play a song and all you can hear is the snare, hi-hats, and guitar, other than some noise underneath it all. What you can hear will depend on the tonal content of the source, the size and type of the venue and where you arelisteningg from. What do you want to hear? (We'll becoming back to that question later.) Here lets say the band should be a tight sounding funk band. Well the first thing to look at is the vox (Vocal.) It has no reinforcement of it's own on stage, and it's the source that will limit what we do in terms of it's feedback potential. With funk we need the kickdrum and the bass to balance the rhythm and feel of the bass underneath the riff-based guitar. Result?
All the PA needs to do is bring up the vox above it all whilst filling the bass range with some kickdrum and bass guitar. Simple. Simple? Yep. You see there's no need to mike the whole kit, necessarily, or mike the guitar. There's no mention of effects, EQ or anything else.

That's why it's so simple. All the extra refinements are either your own artistic input or your corrections for the room or system you're working with.

If I were to be the sort of person who liked "Golden Rules" (I currently work with one.) I would say that it's a Golden Rule that:

The Responsibility for the quality of a bands sound lies WITH THE BAND!

As a Sound Engineer you are responsible for the reinforcement system itself, but not the band. If you're engineering a band that sounds bad, then it will simply sound bad. That's not to say that there's nothing you could do about it but that's several other stories! So back to that mix...

Here's the process to getting your mix together:

It's simple maths...What do I want to hear? - What can I hear? = What I need to reinforce.

What do I want to hear?

In the example above of the funk band, the context could be a party. What you're looking for is a mix that people can dance to. In a church context you need a mix that people can dance to, sing to, listen to, pray to, be still to and so on. In fact what we need is more than one mix; or rather, the mix needs to change.

What Can I hear?

This relies on your hearing, so firstly look after it and second, practice it. The more you listen to mixes and listen to sound sources the quicker and more accurately you'll be able to mix. You should practice listening to a mix as a whole (how different sounds work together, such as a hi-hat and an acoustic guitar,) and tracking individual sources, such as a Bass guitar part (identifying the individual characteristics of a sound source.) This will help you understand how to put a mix together and how sounds work together or clash. Then line check everything, and listen to every source on it's own. If you don't do this you won't be able to see how each source will work/clash with the others. Your ears are your greatest tool in sound engineering.

My Mix

So what do I look for in my church mix? What do I want to achieve?

Firstly I have to say that this is one of the hardest types of mix to achieve because my first requirement is that the mix be invisible. At no point do I want people listen to my mix. I want them to hear everything they need to without the mix or the system catching their attention. This includes issues such as volume, feedback and extraneous noises.

Next I want the band to be faithfully reproduced. If they are playing something simple and calm, the mix needs to follow that. If a soloist starts playing they should feature higher up in the mix. If the song is loud and full I want to feel the bass and the drums, the guitar/s and keys need to fill the sound out, and the vocals need to be clear above it all.

Finally I'm looking for a mix that is sensitive to it's audience. Now, I'm not about to contradict myself here, but if the band is loud and it's sounds good, but it's not appropriate for the congregation, then I want my engineer to exercise some of their power and take control.

This is all about how to think when engineering sound. Practically how to use EQ and processing to create better mixes is something I will cover in another article.

1 comment:

  1. Good article, I look forward to the next.