1. MIC INSTRUMENTS THE RIGHT WAY!
I’m occasionally pulled into a church to listen to their music mix and make recommendations. Before the event starts, I check out how the instruments are mic’d. The wrong mic setup will have a hugely negative impact on their mix. In many cases, mixing tweaks can’t compensate for the poor mic setup.
Poor mic setups can be categorized in two forms; too far and too close. Mic’s that are located too far from the instrument will pick up a lot of stage noise and won’t pick up enough of the instrument. For example, a kick drum mic located too far away from the drum head would give you a dull kick drum sound and a bunch of stage noise.
Mic’s that are too close to the instrument can produce a distorted signal or a poor sound. For example, if an instrument microphone was set up with an acoustic piano and the microphone is placed too close to the piano strings. In this case, instead of capturing the full sound of the piano, the resulting sound is dominated by the frequencies produced by a handful of strings.
Instruments should be mic’d so you hear the best representative sound of the instrument and the least amount of stage noise. It is the live environment so sound isolation isn’t possible but you do have the ability to get really close. Oh, and make sure you are using the right microphone.
2. LEARN TO SET THE CHANNEL GAIN!
Second to microphone location is gain setting. And gain setting is the second place where I see people make mistakes. The problem is it’s assumed the GAIN (a.k.a. TRIM) knob is a volume control and from there, it’s easy to mess things up. Hey, I’m not judging…I used to think the same thing myself.
How do you know if your gain settings are whacked? Do you hear a lot of hiss in a channel even when the musician is playing? Do you have feedback issues all the time? Are your fader controls normally down near the bottom of the fader slot? If you answered yes to any of these, chances are you have gain issues.
The GAIN controls the level of audio signal coming into the mixing board. Along with the audio signal, there is the presence of electrical line noise that’s part of any audio system. When the GAIN control is set too low, you hear this noise in the channel. When the GAIN level is set too high, you experience problems like audio feedback.
Each channel’s gain should be set so you have the best audio signal-to-noise ratio (S/N ratio). This means you hear a strong signal and little-to-no electrical noise.
3. DON’T TREAT MUSICIANS EQUALLY!
There is a time and a place for bias and this is one of them.
I remember it like it happened yesterday. I watched the sound guy during the sound check and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The band took the stage, he set all of the channel volumes at the same audible volume level and then he stopped. There was no mixing or volume balancing. It was all singers and instruments coming out of the main speakers at the same volume.
In my complete guide to church audio production, I go into detail on volume balancing and there is even an audio file where I mix instruments all at the same level and then compare it to a properly volume balanced mix. The difference is dramatic. Don’t treat musicians equally!
The problem, I believe, is that what you hear and what you think you hear are two different things. For example, if the band is doing a final song that should sound big with full-on instruments and everyone singing, then you might think you should bump up all of the channel volumes. But as soon as you do that, your whole mix falls apart because the bass is stepping on the electric guitar that’s stepping on the acoustic guitar and all the instruments are stepping on the vocals. Taking this scenario as an example, it would be better to boost of house volume so the overall balance of instruments and vocals stays the same. I digress.
How do you learn where musicians should “sit in the mix?” I’ve said this before but I can’t stress it enough; analyze professional recordings of the song. So whatever Chris Tomlin song your worship band is playing next week, get a copy of the original and listen to it over and over. Listen to one instrument through the whole song. Is it “upfront” in the mix? Is it more of a supporting instrument in the background? Imagine all of the musicians on the stage and their location on the stage is based on where you hear them in the mix. That’s the best way to learn where musicians should “sit in the mix.”
A quick tip on evaluating your volume balance: test channel volumes by muting them.
4. PUSH YOUR PRIDE ASIDE!
Whenever I find significant problems with a music mix, it’s because the sound tech messed up in one or more of the above three areas. So what about this last one?
Maybe it’s a guy thing. Maybe it’s a geek thing. Maybe it’s just me, but I doubt it. If something is wrong, I want to figure out why. If I’m learning something new, I want to figure out the how’s and why’s and where’s and all of that stuff. While I applaud anyone who desires to learn, I will applaud even more for the person who asks for help.
The last point comes down to this; no matter how long you’ve been mixing, no matter how young or old you are, there will always be something you can learn from another audio tech. And one of the best ways I’ve found of learning is by creating my mix, during band practice, and then asking another tech to show me how they would change my mix to make it better.