BY ROBERT “VOiD” CAPRIO
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.