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Live mixing tips
It may be wise to occasionally look at an SPL meter as a “sanity check,” but don’t chase a number.

Live Mixing Tips: Concepts to Help Raise the Bar

Sometimes we get to a point where we feel we “get it” as audio engineers, and many folks stop trying to improve past that point. There is always room for improvement.

Mixing a church service can be one of most rewarding moments for an audio engineer. It can also be one of the most challenging. Sometimes, even, it can be a point of contention among the audio engineer, worship team, leadership, and congregation.

Don’t get me wrong – SPL targets do have their place, but you can’t obsess over them while mixing.

Today, I’m going to share some mixing tips to help you craft a fun, engaging, great mix, and help you move past any of the negatives that you may have experienced.

1. Read the room, not the SPL meter.

It’s too easy to get caught up in chasing a particular volume level that a person or group thinks is “right” for the room. I’ve heard from many church engineers who tell me that their leadership has set an unrealistic maximum level. Sometimes, there is even a well-intentioned person monitoring the levels with a phone app.

Don’t get me wrong – SPL targets do have their place, but you can’t obsess over them while mixing.

A great mix may have moments that go over that target without offending anybody, simply because the mix is good, and the moment was right. That’s why it’s more important, in my opinion, to pay attention to how the room is responding and mix tastefully.

It may be wise to occasionally look at an SPL meter as a “sanity check,” but don’t chase a number.

2. Mix for the church, not your personal taste.

Of course, your own mixing style is part of what makes you a good and valuable audio engineer. I’m not saying to abandon your judgement or experience. However, I have seen plenty of engineers who want to introduce their musical preferences in a way that doesn’t fit the worship style of the church. Make sure that your mix considers the church’s standards, while still maintaining your personal flair.

3. Recreate the band, not the CD.

Your worship team will have their own style and strengths, unique to them. It’s easy to want to recreate the recorded experience from the original artist, and I’ve been guilty of this myself. However, you’ll be much happier with the results, if you focus on the strengths of your worship team, and work to “package” that experience in the most flattering way.

4. Never stop training your ears.

Sometimes we get to a point where we feel we “get it” as audio engineers, and many folks stop trying to improve past that point.

There is always room for improvement.

Keep challenging yourself to up your game.

One simple way to keep moving forward is through “critical listening,” which is simply the process of intently listening to a recording, to pick it apart in your mind. You can exercise your ear/brain system, just like you can exercise any other part of your body, and the process makes you better.

Sit down with a good recording and try to figure out what kind of room the vocal was recorded in; what mic they may have used on the kick drum; the way they got that snare reverb sound; etc.

You may not know the answers, but that’s not the point. Simply making yourself focus in on details makes you better prepared to make quick and tasteful decisions live.

5. Use virtual soundcheck as much as possible.

This feature, available on many modern mixing consoles, allows you to do a multitrack recording (where each input source is recorded separately for isolation) and play it back later through the console, as if the band were playing live. That means you can hone your mixing skills at any time, without anyone in the room, and experiment and grow.

Normal (live) soundcheck often doesn’t provide enough time for an audio engineer to significantly develop their craft, but multitrack recordings of your own band will help you surge forward in your mixing skills.

6. Don’t abuse your plug-ins.

With the ease of access to so many processing options these days, it is tempting to use nearly everything you can on your mixer channels. I have walked into many rooms, only to see almost every plug-in slot occupied by chains of vintage compressors, EQs, and random processing tools. However, you are more likely to shoot yourself in the foot by overprocessing your mix.

Keep it simple, and maybe even start over with a clean slate and no plug-ins. Season your mix to taste with a plug-in as needed, but don’t overdo it. And in a broader sense, sometimes it even good to start your whole mix from scratch.

It’s good practice in refining your skills, and it helps make sure you’re not being held back by months or years of accumulated EQ changes, and inappropriate dynamics processing.

7. Make sure the artists hear well.

This one isn’t directly a tip for improving your mix, but it will work wonders for you indirectly.

Musicians don’t perform to their peak potential when their monitor mixes are subpar. They may not even realize that there is room for improvement, but you can routinely help them make sure they’re getting what they need, so that they can give their best.

8. Play your mixing console like an instrument.

This one, admittedly, sounds a bit cheesy. But the mixer is just as much an artistic tool, as it is a technical one. And, just as the worship team is constantly active during worship (singing and playing notes), the audio engineer should be constantly tweaking the mix and riding the faders to shape the moment. This also means you need to know the musical cues, so that you can highlight various parts of a song (and different members of the worship team). Mixing is not a set-it-and-forget-it process; it is a dynamic art form that you need to engage in, to get the most compelling results.

9. Stay open-minded about EQ.

It’s easy to get stuck making the same EQ changes for every kick drum or vocal, because we think we’ve learned what frequencies always need adjustment. All that’s important, though, is that your channels sound good, and your ears should be the only thing determining that.

Resist the temptation to automatically EQ things a certain way out of habit, and instead make a point of dialing things in “blind.” Along the same lines, don’t use online “frequency charts” as a crutch. They can be an interesting reference sometimes, but no two electric guitars will need the same treatment.

10. Verify the source.

This one, like number 7 above, isn’t directly a mixing tip. However, the quality of the source is the single biggest factor affecting your mix.

Don’t forget to consider mic placement, mic choice, tuning, and other acoustical considerations on the platform, because they are often your opportunities for the biggest improvements.

Live mixing is one of my favorite things to do. These concepts help me get the best results and enjoy the process the most. Start putting these ideas to work today and I believe you’ll keep raising the bar.

Happy mixing!

 

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