Part 3: Putting the Final Polish on Your Mix
This is a continuation of our first two articles, Mixing Live- 10 Steps to Pull Your Mix Together Quickly: Part 1 and 28. EQ your vocals in the main mix.
9. Consider where compressors and gates can make your mix punchier and tighter and apply them judiciously.
If you have some compressors or gates available in the rack, consider gating your drum channels to reduce background noise and tighten up the drum mix. Be careful when setting the threshold however, so you don't end up with strange, choppy-sounding toms that have no sustain. You'll also want to pay attention to how they are affecting the decay of the cymbals leaking into those channels. If you can hear the gate shutting down on the cymbal leakage, you might be able to eliminate the effect by rolling some high frequencies off on the toms. To make the kick drum punchier in the mix, try using it to sidechain the bass compressor to lock the bass and kick together. You can also sidechain any background vocals to the lead vocal as long as they only chime in when the lead vocalist is singing. This can really tighten up the vocal mix because anyone sustaining a little too long gets ducked by the compressor. You can use your compressors to beef up instruments that aren't behaving in the mix because they have too much dynamic range. The classic problem of dead notes on a bass can often be remedied with judicious compression. Acoustic guitars might sound more finished in the main mix with a little compression too. Remember that excessive compression has a similar effect to rolling off the high frequencies and can make the instrument you're compressing sound dull or lifeless. Go slowly and bypass the compressor here and there as you go, comparing it with the uncompressed signal for reference. If it sounds better, it is better. If anything is sounding muffled, check to see if you have a compressor adjusted too aggressively on that channel. If any channel doesn't sound quite a bit better than it did with the compressor bypassed, then just leave the compression off. You can also set the threshold very high, so it only compresses the high peaks that distort the mix.10. If needed you can now add appropriate ambience to make your instruments come to life, but don't push them back in the mix by overdoing it.
By now the band should sound clean, punchy and powerful. Ambient effects like reverb and delay are the 'secret sauce' that can make your instruments and vocals sound polished, but they also reduce how present that instrument is in the mix. If you use too much ambiance you might end up burying that channel in the mix instead of making it sound better. Find where it sounds amazing, then back it off ever so slightly and it will probably sound just about right, because it is really easy to overdo ambient effects. Chances are rhythm instruments will sound best with little or no added ambiance, but your vocals and solos might benefit and a nice clean drum mix might also come to life with some reverb as well. Negotiate ahead of time with the players who add effects to their stage sound, so you can either control that ambiance at the soundboard or work together with them to adjust any ambient effects they are adding at the amp on stage.
Take a quick tour around the venue to make sure the band is coming across in every area where your audience will be during the show. Make mental notes and go back to the board to make small, incremental changes as needed. It's perfectly okay to leave the board at times to check the room sound, just don't forget your cue to turn those backing vocal mics back on! These techniques might seem like a lot to do on a real gig, especially when time is limited. But once you're experienced they can be accomplished very quickly. Then you can concentrate on performance adjustments instead of tweaking the sound. When you've truly mastered these skills, you'll probably be able to pull together a mix in less time than it took to read these articles.
We'd love to hear from you. Do you have any favorite techniques that you use to get a great mix on the fly? Tell us below in the comments.
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