Your band spent a lot of time practicing in order to put on a really great show. No doubt each player also invested a lot of time and creativity into getting their instrument to sound its best. But even if your band sounds amazing in the rehearsal room, you've probably found that getting it to come across that way live is very difficult to accomplish. To make things even more challenging, being allowed enough time for an extended soundcheck is rare. Sometimes you might even have to finish "mixing on the fly," while the band is playing their first number. If this happens and you aren't prepared it could ruin a great show, and learning how to get a good mix quickly is a learned skill. But if you follow these basic guidelines consistently (and perhaps invest in an ear training app like this one), you will be able to approach the situation with confidence and achieve success. Here are 10 Steps to Pull Your Mix Together Quickly.
1. Make sure everything is working properly.
Part 1: Cover the Basics So You Aren't Fighting a Losing Battle
The last thing you need to do is to waste time trying to sound check a system that isn't in good operating condition. Start by turning on the system and making sure everything is powered up and connected properly. If your band is playing a show with more than one artist and you're on next, try to avoid the temptation to skip this step. Bypass the main EQs temporarily. Play a recording of a band that sounds fairly similar to yours through the system and make sure that it sounds at least decent. You only need to get a quick check in here so don't stress on perfection (you haven't tuned the system yet so you just want to know that it's working). If it sounds good, go ahead and add the main EQs and see if they make the mix sound better the way they're dialed in. If so, you're lucky to be working with another professional and you can just leave them and continue on to the next step. If you don't hear balanced full-range sound coming out of both sides of the system, try to localize the problem by ear and then troubleshoot the part of the system that drives the speaker that doesn't sound right. If everything sounds terrible even with the EQs bypassed there might be a bad cable or jack in the rack. You can try running a cable from the main output of your mixer to the power amp bypassing added rack gear. If this improves things, you can decide if you have time to troubleshoot the rack or just move forward without it.
Taking time to check the system can really be a lifesaver. A live engineer of ours once discovered this mixing the band in front of a national act that refused to allow us a soundcheck. As we launched into our opening number he knew something was very wrong. The whole mix was muddy and muffled coming out of the mains even though everything on the board was clear, and nothing he tried to do seemed to have any effect, including bypassing every unit in the rack. Fortunately, he had enough experience to realize it wasn't a problem with the board and commented to the house soundman, "It sounds like everything is getting squashed by a compressor!" The other tech replied, "It is. The headliner routed the main output of your rack through a hard limiter." Our tech had to drastically reduce the output of the main faders on the board to get enough headroom to mix, but after he understood the limitations of the system he was able to devise a solution. Once you know the system is working and putting out clean full-range signal, go on to the next step.
Set the main fader to a nominal level and bring up all your mics individually. Listen closely to make sure they aren't sensitive to feeding back when the system is up to power. Add in your test recording for a moment to see if it triggers any feedback frequencies. If you do encounter feedback, use the minimum EQ adjustment that corrects it. You aren't fine-tuning so be careful you don't spend too much time here. The idea is that you want to avoid feedback that could shorten your soundcheck by irritating people in the venue, especially if you have to do all of this when the audience is already in the room.3. Tune the system to balance the room.
Go back to your test recording and fine-tune the master EQs to get the most accurate sound reproduction. If the venue fills up with people between soundcheck and show time it's not a bad idea to run your test song one last time with the audience present so you can compensate for the effect of all those bodies absorbing sound and the background noise of the audience.4. Optimize your gain structure starting with your input gain.
Have each player give you a test signal on their channel at the level they actually intend to play during the performance. Adjust your input gain for a strong, clean signal without distortion. Too little gain will result in excess noise along with the signal, and too much gain will cause the instrument to distort. Make sure that nobody in the band is planning to "sneak up the volume" or intentionally leave out a boost they use during solos, or you'll be chasing your tail adjusting the input gain all night. Sandbagging on the volume is unprofessional and it will make it much harder for you to recreate your band's carefully crafted sound during the show. You'll need the buy-in of the whole band to get the best results, so take as much time as you need in advance to explain all of this until they understand what you need them to do. A pretty convincing argument with most musicians is to tell them that if the input gain isn't optimized to their performance level, it will ruin their tone. It's funny how quickly you'll get their attention if you frame it in terms of making them sound great. On a side-note that is also very important for your musicians to understand ambient effects should be kept to an absolute minimum in the instrument amplifiers. Work together with the band in advance so they are confident you know what effects each instrument needs to sound right and plan to add them in the main mix. With planning and teamwork you can give instrumentalists the ambience they need onstage via their monitor or side-fill system. A good way to explain this to your players is to point out that you can't make the guitar sound "all up in your face" out front without a "dry" (unprocessed) signal at the channel input to work with.
In our next article we discuss the basic building blocks of a good mix:
Part 2: Perfect is the Enemy of the Good- Just Try to Get a Good Mix!