May 15, 2023
Mixing in a live setting is a whole different animal than mixing in the studio. You’re dealing with crazy venue acoustics, random occurrences like drunken patrons or late band members, unpredictable power sources, time crunches, and usually – building your whole rig from scratch.
Still, it doesn’t have to be a crap shoot. Here are some live mixing dos and don’ts you can employ to reign things in and get great results every time.
You probably know there are a lot of moving parts on stage, especially during setup. You probably also know how hectic it can get. Most live sound engineers don’t do this, but boy does it help to have a checklist to follow. It ensures you don’t forget an item or get tangled up trying to fix something you forgot later. Plus, it eliminates reinventing the wheel for every show, which can eat up a lot of time.
There’s never enough time to set up for a live show, especially if you’re not the in-house engineer using permanent gear. Nevertheless, don’t rush. It just leads to mistakes that slow things down more. Remember the old adage “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. This is part of why a checklist helps.
This should go without saying but you need to know the gear in and out. It’s all too common that setups grind to a halt or unnecessary mix problems happen mid-show because somebody just doesn’t understand the gear or the setup scheme. If you’re a new mixer in a permanent house setup, go there on an off day and suss out the whole setup. If you’re setting up a mobile rig, either use your own gear or come early to learn the stuff. Obviously, PA gear is pretty standardized, but there’s always that one little detail that throws you for a loop – especially if you’re using a digital board.
You can do yourself a huge favor and minimize mid-show issues by thoroughly communicating with the band ahead of time. Best practice is to have a short conversation before you even start setting up. Granted, this is hard if the band is late, but even then see if you can have a quick talk. Better yet, talk to them days ahead of time. Bonus points to them if they bring a stage plot, but that can be rare for local bands.
Also, don’t be afraid to get their feedback (no pun intended) on the mix during sound check. Better than during or after the show.
Live mixing isn’t studio mixing. A lot can happen, so be ready for issues. What being ready means here is mostly expecting something to go wrong and having backup plans and contingencies so you can stay calm and handle whatever it is.
That, and surround your station with some kind of barrier so no one can spill beer on it.
If you’re using a digital board, be sure to save the mix once you’re decently happy with it. Any number of things can happen that cause the rig to reset or lose power (see above), and you don’t want to be starting from scratch.
It may be anathema to rock music, but seriously, your mix is going to sound better if you dial it back a hair. You’ll have to work with the band on this, as most bands come out of the gate too loud, but if you can diplomatically educate them as to the virtues of controlling stage volume, you’ll end up getting better mixes and winning a lot of hearts.
There’s a tendency to want to start riding faders and making huge EQ gouges early in a set. Try to stay patient. Many bands tend to mix themselves, so you’ll find things settling in a few songs in. Make fixes, sure, but try not to be too extreme early on.
Here’s one that nearly no one does but could make a big difference. Don’t ignore the venue itself. You probably won’t have the opportunity to treat the acoustics of a venue (unless you’re an in-house mixer and you get some buy-in from the owner), but even without that, take a listen to the venue’s acoustic properties before you set up.
You can dial in based on how live the venue is, whether there are flutter echos or audible nodes and peaks, etc. For example, in a super live venue, dial back or eliminate reverbs from your mix. The venue is already providing that effect. Or consider tamping drums or repositioning amps based on how the room responds. It can be tricky without actual treatment but paying attention to the room’s acoustic properties can pay big dividends.
When it comes down to it live mixes aren’t studio mixes and they shouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they should sound bad, either. Implement some of these simple strategies at your next show and see if you don’t do a little better.
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