KEN DELORIA: Mixology 101 ? The art and practice of live mixing

Why controlling dynamics properly is an essential skill for FOH engineers and how it can be used to full effect.
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A popular book about Buddhism is entitled Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, by Sylvia Boorstein.

The title refers to the Buddhist practice of engaging in quiet, introspective ‘sitting meditation.’ I was given a copy when I sold my Grotrian 277 piano to the author’s husband, about ten years ago. So now I’d like to use the book’s theme to discuss two distinct ways of approaching the art and practice of live sound mixing.

How many times have you seen someone at FOH who’s just standing there? Maybe making the occasional tweak but after having established a mix, he/she is convinced that there’s nothing more to be accomplished.

Well, the case can be made for doing exactly that – setting up a mix and then letting the band regulate itself. Jazz ensembles are often very good at self-regulating their own dynamics, as well as giving each other ‘space’ in the musical density. One instrument supplies the dominant voice for a while, then another, and then all together. Rock bands, on the other hand, do not always excel at self-regulation. I’m sure this will surprise most of you, but I’ve actually seen guitarists turn up for a lead and not turn down again when the lead is over!

Tongue-in-cheek anecdotes aside, many rock bands can use a lot of help in defining their dynamic range. Some just play loud… all the time. Others play louder. But then there’s the breath of fresh air when consummate artists, like Pink Floyd for example, create space for a lead vocal, a lead keyboard figure, or a lead guitar passage, so that each stands out as it should.

But whether your charges on stage fit one of these categories, or a category that’s uniquely their own, you as the all-powerful mixologist can do wonders to change the landscape, or in this case, the soundscape. The help you can give might make all the difference between ‘opening act’ and eventual ‘headliner.’

By keeping your attention on the band, and this means close attention (no distractions, no side conversations, no handing out phone numbers and room keys), you can time-travel to that golden era of rock n roll that took place several decades ago when balance engineers actually rode the faders, instead of letting compressors, limiters, and other dynamic range devices do all the work.

That said, we have nothing against compressors and limiters. In fact, properly adjusted, tasteful limiting can turn an edgy vocal that hops up and down in level like a playful Leporidae, into one that sounds polished, even, and delivered with finesse. Or at least better than it otherwise might have been.

But short-term dynamic control provided by means of sonic processing does not produce the same results as intelligent manual control of the mix. Bringing vocals up and down as needed, making guitar solos stand out (yes, even at the expense of ‘burying’ the rhythm guitar if that’s what it takes), letting those hot keyboard runs be heard, and giving important drum fills their due; all these are items that require eyes, ears, and an attentive brain to tell the hands how to execute the moves. Not to mention a sense of musicality.

YOU’RE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR LAST 15 SECONDS

I’ve heard fine sounding mixes that anyone would be happy to take credit for, only to be appalled at the absurdly high level of announcements in between songs. When you take 125 dB of backing music away after the tune is over, but leave the lead singer’s mic at 132 dB when she delivers an energetic, “How ya doin,’ Frankfurt!,” (Wie geht es dir, Frankfurt? –for our German readers) you’ve now got an obnoxiously loud and inappropriate level dialed-up for her chat-time.

And it’s gonna sound like a faux pas if you suddenly back down by ten, after a too-high announce level has already been established. So you must anticipate! And that takes being sharply present in the moment, but never failing to think three moves ahead of the game.

Can’t count the times I’ve heard ear splitting announcements. Breaks the mood, to say the least. Or the equally objectionable opposite – because someone other than the last vocalist to sing lead is now the orator who’s working the crowd while the lead has taken a quick trip backstage for a costume change…or whatever. While both are objectionable, I’ll settle for too low, quickly remedied, as opposed to way-too-high that makes you want to plug your ears with the nearest available object. You wouldn’t let a solo nylon string guitar be blasted out at an unnaturally high level, would you? So why let the singer’s crowd inspiring-speeches match the level of an emergency page announcement? It’s unnatural to hear speech at an absurdly high volume.

DYNAMIC DYNAMICS

But let’s go further. You can have fun with dynamics, a lot of fun, while enhancing the concert-going experience for the punters. The band is the band, and they rehearse with stage monitors, or a small PA, or maybe even on a full-size concert stage depending on their means, but in normal practice they are not able to experience the power of a 100,000-Watt system from the vantage point of the audience. But you can, because you’re out in front. That’s why it’s called FOH, which our research tells us stands for Fiefdom of Heaven.

So, just as an accomplished record producer will work with vocal and instrumental levels throughout the course of a track, letting textures come to the forefront, or relegating them to barely audible background support, you can do the same. But you have a lot more horsepower than the loudspeakers in the studio and far more still than the average listener is ever likely to experience in her car or at his home.

Make use of those 100,000 Watts. Concert-quality rock n roll can almost be defined by a kick drum backed with 100,000 Watts of clean, clear acoustic power. But mind you, only if it’s appropriate to do so (hint: Mariachi music should never be heard at 140 dB. I know. I’ve been there. I became ill quickly).

By when it is appropriate to let loose, vigorously exaggerating musical passages such as keyboard swells, certain drum fills, bass counterparts or accents, and so on, you can bring a new dimension of dynamics to the concert experience. Nothing says ‘professional engineer’ as loud and clear as one who plays the dynamics game and plays it well. This includes bringing the whole PA down – sometimes a lot – for quiet, intimate songs, but cranking it right back up again for rockers and scorchers. Nobody wants to hear Whiter Shade of Pale at 140 dB, but perhaps we do want to hear the finale of And You and I at a very high level, only to carefully (and smoothly) retreat 20 dB or so for those final, quiet four stanzas. Oops. I think I just dated myself.

CASE IN POINT

I had the pleasure of mixing Uriah Heep a couple of years ago. We did some large outdoor shows where it was very effective to add about 20 dB of additional dynamic range to the levels coming from the stage on songs like Stealin’ …by manually riding the very cool organ and bass intro up and down, and of course appropriately matching the other instruments to the organ swells.

In other words, though the band is shipping you 'X', you can augment and diminish what they’re sending, making the show bigger – or broader – or more intimate than 'X' – by firmly encroaching onto the landholdings of 'Y' and 'Z', and beyond.

Of course all of this is a bad idea if you don’t know the music and have a clear sense of what the band is about. Maybe they want to sound like their hits that are played on the radio – neither too loud, nor too soft, but instead firmly ensconced in the MOR pocket. Many pop acts fit this brief, and so do tamed-down Vegas-style performers whose audience members are decidedly not hardcore rockers. One size does not fit all.

So the key take-aways are thus: First, be aware of the dynamic power of the system you’re running. At what point does it start to break-up into excessive distortion? At what point is it too low in level to overcome the hook-up conversations in the back of the venue? Keeping an accurate SPL meter close at hand in the Fiefdom is a good idea. As the show progresses, it gets harder and harder to objectively discern what is really loud and what is not, as your ears become accustomed to the baseline level.

Next, develop an idea of the best way to showcase the music by either augmenting, or in some cases maybe squashing, the dynamic range. Personally, I’m a big fan of dynamic augmentation when it’s appropriate, and I can attest that it often results in sonic exaltation. Which also means that room keys will be in strong demand.

And lastly, at all times keep in mind that not every song – or every in-between speech – should be run at the same level as all the others. If you do no more than that, you’re going to top out in the 80 percentile of most who are practicing mixology today, and the gigs will just keep on coming.

Email: kdeloria@gmail.com

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