There are very few hard and fast rules to mixing any kind of music,
but here are some techniques that have worked for me and my colleagues when manning FOH at a jazz performance.
Jazz in 2012 is probably one of the most diverse genres in music to mix. A jazz performance can consist of anything from a solo instrumentalist to a band and vocalist fronting a full orchestra. Instrumentation can be as simple as a solo acoustic guitar or as complex as an electric band with numerous horns, keyboards, percussion instruments and even playback of pre-recorded tracks.
Given the wide range of sounds and styles of modern jazz, what common approaches can we take as mixers to best suit this genre?
There are very few hard and fast rules to mixing any kind of music, but here are some techniques that have worked for me and my colleagues when manning FOH at a jazz performance.
Use the Source
One of the first things I try to do is be true to the source material. Unlike many other forms of popular music, jazz is usually best served if the engineer does not attempt to “color” the sounds of the various instruments, but rather works to reproduce sounds as they are being created from the source. Drastic EQ, compression, reverb, delay or other effects can detract from the more natural presentation that often enhances live jazz.
Dynamics & Effects
The use of EQ, dynamics and subtle effects are still a useful part of the mixing process in jazz.
Horns can be especially bright when mic’s and amplified. They most often need a bit of attenuation of the high mids and highs to smooth out their sound. A bit of reverb can keep horns from sounding too “flat” or isolated. Slight compression can keep the signal’s extreme volume range in check.
Pianos, acoustic guitars and other wooden instruments can also benefit from some EQ, as they can sound mid-rangey when mic’d. They also have a tendency to feedback in the lows when amplified.
The key here is to use these tools more sparingly than one might on a rock, pop, or hip hop performance. Remember, we are trying to reproduce the natural sounds, not change them.
As is the case with all gear choices, this is a highly subjective part of the process. Some of us are most comfortable mixing on analog, others on digital. We all have gear that we are most familiar with.
On our recent Weekend of Jazz festival a 56 input analog console was used for one evening’s performance, as it could handle the inputs of both bands performing that night, and was the most comfortable desk for that evening’s mixer. We then used a digital console the second night to handle the 60+ channels needed.
For speaker systems the venue will dictate the size, type and placement of the equipment. For venues where PA must be stacked I’ve found line array systems are not often the best choice. Also, in many instances, the number of subs needed may not be as many as would be used for a rock or pop show.
For monitors, it’s important that the wedges have the best fidelity possible. In most cases fidelity outweighs volume on the jazz stage.
A Kuhn-mixed Fourplay performance of “Bali Run” from a show in Seoul, Korea in 2005
I have had the pleasure of mixing jazz shows for festival audiences of as many as10,000 + to club crowds of as little as a few hundred.
As much as any other type of music, jazz can be a very intimate experience for the audience. Jazz fans are known to be a “listening” audience, as opposed to a partying audience. They are more likely to enjoy a more moderate volume level at a live performance.
Being aware of these variables when you enter your venue is important. I’ve found that even coverage is more appreciated than sheer power. It helps to use front fills, balcony and underbalcony fills and other zone coverage elements of the PA whenever possible.
Meeting the Challenge
There are many challenges to mixing live music. For jazz, those include music which can have a very wide dynamic range, the amplification of acoustic instruments, a wide variety of venue types and sizes, and very discerning audiences.
When taken into consideration these and other challenges can be used to produce a great mix for the engineer, the band and the crowd.
Dave Kuhn is the owner of PMD Production in Cincinnati, OH. PMD specializes in providing engineering, logistics and production services to touring artists that do not carry production. Dave has mixed for a who’s who of contemporary jazz artists including Earl Klugh, Dave Koz, Chris Botti, and Fourplay.
PMD Productions, Inc