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FOH, MON & Studio Mixing – What’s the Difference?

By Robert Caprio / September 16, 2015


I’m often asked how I transition so easily from mixing at FOH, MON and the in the studio. Well, for me, it’s not that hard at all because I follow my mantra of “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” and simply try to make it sound good no matter where I am or what I’m mixing. I don’t mean to imply that those that have a hard time making that transition are stupid, far from it! I simply find that most folks make too big a deal of the differences behind the disciplines and therefor get in their own way. I trust my ears to tell me if something sounds good or not. If it does I move on… if it doesn’t I do what I can to fix it and leave anything I can’t control or change up to the universe in all its wisdom.

Let’s start with some basics… the bottom line for an audio mix in any format is for it to sound good… so as long as that is your goal and you follow a simple path to get there you’ll be fine mixing in any medium. Wherever I am, after a line check I start mixing as opposed to soloing channels. I see too many engineers spend an hour trying to get the most awesome kick drum sound EVER and not have enough time left over for the rest of the band! Put all those faders up and get a mix going! Only once I’ve got a somewhat decent balance do I start to solo instruments and tweak things individually. This is true at FOH, MON or in the studio.

Since my background for the most part is from the studio world I’ll start with some observations from there. Obviously the studio is a far more controlled environment than any live show (except perhaps for a live studio recording?) so we as engineers in that world usually have more control over just about everything. Beginning with the fact that (hopefully) the studio is acoustically treated and somewhat neutral your “palette” is more of a sonic blank slate needing little or no correction prior to grabbing knobs and faders. Also in the studio you usually have more time to get things right if they aren’t in the first place. I say “usually” because these days with budgets so tight there are times when we’re crunched in the studio and I don’t have the luxury of a few extra minutes here and there to tweak, but that’s life in the modern world. Since we expect our acoustic environment to be somewhat agreeable in the studio we typically don’t have to spend hours “tuning” the monitor rig so I can typically go right in and get to work. If I’m in a studio I’m unfamiliar with of course I will play some reference material through the monitors to get a sense of how they sound but that’s about it. I find that’s the biggest difference. When on tour we have to tweak the PA or MON rig on a daily or per show basis, this simply does not occur in the studio. Feedback is another thing notably absent from the studio, at least it should be! Being that your artist(s) are most likely in another room with headphones on pretty much eliminates the cause of feedback so it’s usually not even a thought.

The live world is almost always anything but controlled and neutral so that’s the biggest difference and roadblock to your quest for audio awesomeness. But the goal is still to simply make it sound good so how do you go about that? Well, there are too many variables to go into in one blog but the best advice I can impart is to say:

Control what you can… the rest is always going to be a compromise. If you have a systems tech hopefully they’re doing what they can to make the PA rig do the best it can in the room. We all know hockey arenas are great for hockey, not so great for music. Again, in a situation like this you can only do so much so don’t sweat what you can’t control or change. Once you’ve gotten past the issues you can and can’t control, get those faders up and start mixing! A good show is about balance and you won’t achieve that if you’re only concerned with the kick drum (yes, this is a reoccurring theme).

In monitor world there are again a myriad of differences to overcome but it’s not so different from any other world of audio. Make it sound good. Simple right? Well, if you’re up against an amateur band hell bent on destroying their hearing while simultaneously melting some drivers it’s not so simple. But again, you can control some things. I politely refuse to run things all up in the red for anyone for a number of reasons; you can too. I see too many folks get intimidated by tone-deaf and outright deaf “artists” complaining that’s it’s not loud enough in their monitors. It’s their job to play, your job to mix. If you’re working with someone new that you don’t know start with a basic mix of everything with their respective channel louder. This is known as the “more me” approach. Simple enough. Tweak according to their requests and be polite but firm when they get unreasonable. The more smart and talented folks will listen and adhere to your advice. The not-so-smart ones will likely not be around long. All this is of course after you’ve “rung out” the monitors for gain before feedback (another upcoming blog). Feedback is your enemy at MON world if mixing for wedges. Learn how to control it. Feedback can certainly occur when mixing at FOH (especially if you have an artist that likes to rock out in front of the PA) but it’s far less frequent. I always take the artist mic out front to test for GBF and tweak accordingly. Learn your freqs people! I spend a lot of time testing my ears for freqs

even to this day. You’d be surprised how good at it you can get. There are a number of apps for smartphones that test your freq knowledge, get one or two!

The biggest difference that sticks out in my mind as far as mixing for FOH and MON is the use of panning and compression. When mixing at FOH I don’t pan things too much. I’d love to but it would not be cool for the folks on the right side of the audience to not hear the ride cymbal if I’ve got it panned all the way to the left. Works on great on recorded material, not so much at a concert. So for the most part I’m mixing in mono when I’m at FOH. One thing I do to get a bit of “spread” across the stereo field when mixing at FOH is to introduce some “ghost” channels. These are delayed duplicates of a channel and panned opposite of the original source. I do this a lot on guitars. If I have a single guitar line coming in I’ll pan that to the left and then double patch it to another channel with a few ms of delay added to it. This is of course using a digital console that has an input delay, if on an analog desk I’d simply patch the dupe to a delay and then into the desk. You can also take a direct out of the original signal into a delay plug in and patch that back in as well. It does little to change the sound or audience perception but having ‘em panned L/R gives it a bit of width and opens things up a bit. I also do this with background vocals and other similar mono sources that are usually spread across the stereo spectrum.

Now when in MON world and mixing for IEMs I pan the heck out of everything! One thing that I learned from some TOP studio mixing pros is the “all or nothing” mantra when it comes to panning. Meaning there’s no 10 and 2 or anything like that, things are panned hard left or right if at all. That sounds drastic but if you listen to a lot of big hit songs you’ll find it’s pretty common. So when I’m mixing IEMs I’ve got stuff hard left and hard right to provide separation and depth. Of course I will bring things “in” if the client asks but so far I’ve had nothing but rave reviews when I get things all the way to the outside. I’m amazed when I mix MON for some artists and they tell me they’ve never heard their mix like that. I guess the previous engineers didn’t know they could use the pan knob? While panning really makes the difference when mixing for in-ears, with wedges (even stereo wedge mixes) it doesn’t come into play nearly as often but as always, use it where and when appropriate!

As for compression, at FOH I often have all kinds of parallel and serial compression going on to control what I can. Compression is a big thing in just about all recorded material and certainly for anything modern so in my attempts to closely recreate the sound of the record I use it judiciously. Tasteful (and I emphasize the “tasteful” part) compression also helps a lot in some of the more whacky rooms. Taming the peaks helps smooth things out and reduce some of the more annoying bounciness of a really live space.

At MON world I do quite a bit less compression on most sources, especially vocals. If I’m squeezing a lead vocalist’s channel into their mix they could easily blow out their voice because they won’t necessarily hear it get louder when they really blast it. Of course that means they try to go even louder and kablooie… voice gone. So I’ll have little or no compression on the sends to the mix. This is a situation where I’ll again have some things double patched so I can do different things to a channel and send different signals where they need to go. My own IEM reference mix will usually have a good bit more compression than the mix I send to the artists. This is just for my own taste and preference.

That’s pretty much the gist of it. Get to know your environment and adjust the mix to suit it. Trust your ears and the process of mixing, it’ll all come together.

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Loud Monitors–Are you Responsible if Your Artist Goes Deaf?

By Robert Caprio / April 6, 2015

After mixing monitors for a well known female artist last night I got to wondering: who is ultimately responsible for an artist’s hearing, if not the artist themself?

From my point of view it seems logical to think that the next person besides the artist themselves bears that burden, and in a typical concert environment that is the monitor engineer. We all know you can talk honestly and convey your concerns to some artists and then there are those artists that you can’t speak directly to. You have to go through management or some other department. The likelihood of getting one of those types to actually pass on your thoughts and concerns accurately, or even at all is about 0%.
The artist almost always claims that they need to “feel” it onstage and I get that, but it’s at the expense of their hearing. Don’t they realize they are jeopardizing their own career? Hasn’t anyone learned from Pete Townsend? Many don’t realize they are also sabotaging their own show by smearing the FOH mix with stage wash. Few, if any artists will take responsibility and they put the whole mess in your hands. In reality we can’t do much about it during the show if the artist is on stage motioning to you frantically to turn everything up. Such was the case last night. The venue is an old theatre with a capacity of about 1,200 seats. The PA is a well tuned Meyer M3D line array with plenty of aux-fed subs. On stage I was using a Meyer CQ on top with an M3D Sub for side fills. I ended up not using the subs since the artist only wanted vox and some tracks in the fills. Downstage wedges were Clair 12AMs with a few Meyer powered wedges upstage for the band. During soundcheck everything was within reason and sounded great. Everything was rung out tightly with not a hint of feedback and I still had plenty of headroom if needed. Band and artist were all thrilled, at least from what they told me. Then comes showtime and all of a sudden the artist wants the fills CRANKED far beyond what we had at soundcheck. I’m pushing up faders and I’m soon seeing lots of red lights, both from the CQs and then also the aux outs of the desk (Avid SC48.) After the artist motioned for me to turn things up further I indicated to her that we had hit the limit of what we had available. She wasn’t happy but soldiered on. After the show I spoke to the MD and he confessed that they have been trying for the last ten years to get her on IEMs. I told him that they should update the rider (from 2006) to indicate a larger side fill rig. I didn’t get the chance to talk directly to the artist who, by the way, is someone I first met at the very beginning of my career, working on her second album as an assistant engineer in the studio. If I had had the chance to talk to her I would have tried to openly discuss the options available that would enable her to continue to perform without damaging her hearing… FOREVER. It’s clear to me that she already must have some hearing loss and at the rate she’s going it’s likely she’ll be nearly deaf in a few years.
As we see more and more artists using IEMs it seems crazy that there are still people that want 115dBA (and more) on stage. It may be a bit easier for some of the musicians in the band because even with IEMs you can at least give the drummer a “thumper” attached to his or her throne, and even bassists can get a “rumble pad” to stand on that gives them a tactile response to the music they’re playing. All these tools are great but they don’t do a damn thing for singers. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with better ways to incorporate IEMs with sidefills and/or wedges that project strongly for singers that are not fully satisfied with just IEMs. So far I’ve had mixed results with my experiements but the bottom line is that the stage volume can still get out of hand. The best scenario to date has been to use subs only as side fills so the artist feels the kick drum and bottom end. At this point in time there are really no other tools or resources besides the standard wedges and fills on stage so its frustrating to try and come up with alternatives, but I’m working on it.
I’m now mixing FOH for Cee Lo Green and he is a fan of frighteningly loud stage volume. I first met and worked with him when I was mixing monitors for a large corporate gig and he was a guest performer. At the time he was using IEMs along with a standard complement of wedges and sidefills. For that show the stage volume was under control and by no means out of hand or potentially damaging. When I got the gig to mix FOH for him I found that he was no longer using IEMs and had gone back to using just wedges and side fills onstage. The band is all on in-ears. So in order for Cee Lo to “feel” it onstage our monitor engineer (Aaron “Double A” Dilks) has to crank everything to clearly damaging levels. We discussed getting Cee Lo back on IEMs to no avail so far. There have been numerous occurences when we’ve soundchecked and people have commented on how loud the rig is and I’ll point to my master fader, which of course is all the way down. They are shocked to find that all that volume is from the stage alone. To say it interferes with my FOH mix is an understatement. It’s at the point now that if I were for some reason asked to mix monitors for Cee Lo I would refuse based on the simple fact that I don’t want to be the one responsible for ruining his hearing. I’m at the point now where I’m comfortable enough with my own ability and ethos that I can approach an artist and discuss with them the damaging effect that loud stage volume can have on them. Unfortunately it seems that for the most part they just don’t listen or don’t care. To this day not one single performer has done anything to change their ways. I almost wish I had started in this industry sooner so I could have been one of the engineers that was able to change a band or solo artist over from wedges to IEMs, just to feel like I had accomplished something.

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