Can you teach anyone how to mix?
During my talk at the Live Sound Summit (thanks again Nathan Lively for organising this great event) I received a question from on of the participants, who wanted to know if anyone can learn how to become a sound engineer. And it is not an easy question to answer, but I will try to break it down as I see it.
The Technical Side
Bob McCarthy spoke at the same event and he suggested that audio can be divided into an objective and a subjective part. The objective one is the scientific approach of physics and measurements, the very quantifiable data that gets interpreted by the sound engineer or a system tech. That part is absolutely up for grabs for anyone who is willing to learn. Just a fair warning - there are many areas one has to study in order to become a great sound engineer. Let’s name a few.
If you truly want to be efficient, you have to understand the basic principles of electronics. Terms like “impedance”, “voltage”, “crest factor”, etc. must become a part of your vocabulary if you truly want to understand the way sound is transmitted and reproduced.
This is a big one. Knowing how sound behaves in different rooms, what the acoustic properties are at various frequencies, knowing about the relationships between time, frequency and phase are crucial to what we do. A big part of acoustics is also learning about measuring the sound in a room and how to read the data to make informed choices.
The modern age sound engineer relies heavily on DSP based devices. Knowing about file management, data storage, format compatibility is a daily occurrence, especially in the era of digital consoles, supported by server-run plugins, DSP-based speaker processors and even virtual instruments for modern musicians, is a must.
I distinguish IT knowledge from computer science for the simple reason that I have seen many computer-savvy engineers who did not know how to setup a network or had no clue about their router’s IP address settings. Since there are several digital format protocols we are using on a daily basis to network our digital devices in order for them to talk to each other, having knowledge about how to setup a network and keep it stable is a huge part of a sound engineer’s bag of tricks.
Audio processing knowledge
Audio processing tools, like EQs, compressors, and gates; mixing consoles of all shapes and sizes; microphones and speakers - there are many specific tools in our business you have to know about. The good thing is that for many of these tools, you only have to learn the basic principles of operation in a theoretical manner and that knowledge gets translated across all devices (eg. a threshold knob on a compressor will perform the same thing on a specialised analog device, in a digital mixing board, inside a plugin or a speaker processor). But there are still a number of manufacturer or even model specific functions you have to know in order to operate the gear at its full potential.
The Music Side
The subjective side of audio consists of all things that are not quantifiable, but rather emerge from your own vision of how something should sound. Although it is a matter of personal choice, do not think you do not have a ton of homework to do in this area as well. So what can you learn that will inform your choices when shaping sound?
You have to have a basic understanding of music theory to be a successful sound engineer. You have to know about rhythmical patterns, bars and beats, basic arrangement principles and even have knowledge on how instruments actually produce sound. Knowing how a drum produces will influence the way you position your microphone. Knowing how a song is arranged will influence your EQ decisions. If nothing else, you have to understand the vocabulary the musicians are using in order to be a part of their conversation and provide meaningful input.
This might sound weird, but it has a very practical aspect to our work. When you start working with a band, it is your job to know their discography and how their sound developed through the years. You will also engage in conversations with them where they will give you references to other songs or performers. Being able to reference a specific sound to a particular record is a very effective way of communication, so make sure that you can speak the language.
You might think I made a mistake by including this area in the subjective side of audio. Doesn’t 2,000 Hz sound the same for everyone? Well, the short answer is: no, it doesn’t. Everyone hears sound differently so it is your job to train your ears and mind to recognise frequencies, changes in volume, levels of compression and other nuanced changes in a very busy audio environment to make correct and informed decisions.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that mixing audio can absolutely be taught and learned. As with just about any other profession, some people have more natural ability or aptitude than others, but it will take everyone years of training, researching and learning to become successful in the business. Last, but certainly not least - one major factor that I have written about numerous times is also your personality and ability to be friendly, respectful and professional under very stressful circumstances. That is maybe the one thing that is more difficult to learn that any other aspect mentioned in this article, because it involves working on your self, rather than on your skills. But that is a topic for another day ...