1. Know your Why
Many books have been written about the importance of knowing your why, and they are all true. Having a larger purpose and motivation that overshadows the weekend to weekend or day to day work is extremely important to help get you through the times when things aren’t going well.
For me, I feel called and fulfilled when I get to create an atmosphere for people to connect to the music. Whenever something goes wrong, or my mix is just not coming together, this is what I remind myself. I am able to refocus and take whatever steps are needed to minimize distractions and create a great environment.
Your “why” will probably be different than mine, but it is crucial that you figure it out.
2. Listen to Instruments
I’ve gotten the privilege to listen in many different venues. One thing that I often notice is that the instruments don’t sound real. As a mixer, the goal is to create a cohesive, natural sound that makes the speakers seem nonexistent.
The first place to start when doing this is by listening to the instruments. Go up to someone playing guitar and hear how it sounds. Stand next to some vocalists and hear them sing without a microphone. Now go back with that in mind and make it sound just as it did when you were right there. This step will really help create a stellar sounding mix.
3. Pick the Right Microphones
One thing you may notice is that every microphone sounds a little different. Microphones like a Shure Beta 52a or Audix D6 are typically used for low toned instruments like kick drums and bass amps. SM81s are great at picking up high frequency instruments like cymbals. Picking the right microphone is crucial when trying to achieve a natural sound.
Spend some time testing different microphones on your own just to hear how they sound different. Eventually you’ll be able to hear an instrument or singer and know exactly what microphone will achieve the most natural sound on them. Keep in mind that even the same model microphones have different tonalities.
I have a friend who has a very unique (in a good way) voice. There are a bunch of decent sounding microphones out there, but the one I always make sure he gets is the Shure KSM9. There’s just something about that microphone matched with his voice that just opens up the veil between the listener and the stage.
4. Prepare the stage
So, how does this one prepare you to mix? Have you ever had an instrument not come through in the right input? Have you spent time trying to find an extra cable or microphone right when rehearsal was supposed to begin? Making sure that your stage is prepared for musicians to just walk in and play is an incredibly important step. Not only will it keep the stress away, you will also get more time to rehearse and mix which means you will have more time to get the band sounding just right.
5. Know the Music
There is a whole article to be written about the importance of knowing your music...that might be coming soon. The short version is as follows: the FOH engineer is as much a part of the band as anyone else. The band plays the instruments in the same way we should be running the audio console…
Knowing when to push the electric guitar or pull back the BGVs is an art which can be learned. The best way to learn is by knowing the music just as well as the people on stage. That means listen to the recording and plan out what your fader movements will be. When I hear “You Make Me Brave” I can tell you every point in which a BGV will get pushed out or I switch the dominant instrument from piano to electric guitar. The band plays with energy on stage, but the FOH engineer is the conduit that carries that energy from stage to the crowd.
So know the music. Congratulations, you’re now officially a part of the band.
6. Know your soundboard
This one is critical. Have you ever been asked for some change and had no idea how to pull it off? I know I have. When I first started on my mixing journey, I was thrown into the fire like many other people might have been. It’s never easy to be under that pressure, but I knew that it was where I was supposed to be at that time. When I started, I knew that I had a big learning curve.
I was not ready to be running any soundboard let alone a 48 channel digital mixer. Luckily, God gave me the motivation and determination to learn that soundboard. For weeks I would read the manual over and over again, watch YouTube videos, and try out new things. Soon, I started to understand more. I eventually learned how to manipulate the soundboard to do whatever I wanted to do.
Get to the point where you can use the soundboard as an extension of your artistic expression piecing together many sources into one cohesive, sonic experience.
7. Get it right at the source
Perhaps you have heard someone say or you have thought, “Eh, just EQ that out.” This always leads to an inferior sound. Sure you can use EQ or compression or other tools to fix different issues, but it is always better to fix it at the source. If you have a 3 hour rehearsal, spend 5 minutes with the electric player to get a killer tone. If you have a 5 minute soundcheck, ask the player to come in a little early or stay a little late to prepare the tone for next time.
8. Have a Plan
With everything that you do, have a reason. A lot of times it can be tempting to twist knobs or push faders in autopilot, but it is crucial that we have reasons for making changes. So why would we make a change to a sound? Obviously, we have a subconscious idea of how it is supposed to sound, but where did that idea come from? Instead of allowing a subconscious idea dictate how our mixes sound, let’s have a vision for how it should sound, and create a plan to make that happen. Know why you’re pushing the guitar at one part of a song or putting some more low end in the bass.
9. Be Creative
When you are successful with all of the previous steps, you start to have a freedom to your mixing. You are no longer worried about making sure the drums sound right, but you become consumed with making them feel right. You no longer have to worry about whether the electric will fit in the mix, but you start to ask yourself how you can use the electric to push the song to the next level.
I recall a time where we were doing some unusual things for worship. I had a specific reverb sound in my head for the drums, but could not get the console to replicate it. So what did I do? I took a microphone and a speaker backstage and created the reverb I imagined. The reverb was subtle, but it added an energy that really brought the mix to life.
When we understand how a system works, we can begin to manipulate it to accomplish our vision and plan for the mix. Reaching this point of understanding gives a freedom in mixing that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.