Less channels does not an easier mix make
“It is going to be an easy gig, we only have 3 vocal microphones and an acoustic guitar.” A sentence I’ve heard many times from PA providers who hired me to mix was surely meant to comfort me, but it had the exact opposite effect. Let me tell you why I still dread intimate acoustic events to this day and what techniques I have developed for dealing with them.
Most of my audio experience comes from mixing bands. Usually standard rock bands, with live drums, amplified guitars, keyboards, and vocals that have to cut through whatever sonic jungle the band is performing, but still feel like a part of the mix. These shows tend to get quite loud and it can often be a struggle to get the main body of sound to work together, leaving the delicate details behind as casualties of war. There were times I felt an immense accomplishment just because I could hear the lyrics of a singer in a loud band in an even louder club.
Open-air festivals are no picnic either. Dealing with a lot of band changes with major time constraints for sound check (if there even is one) usually means rushing through channel settings, slapping on some effects and hoping that you can make everything at least enjoyable by the end of the set.
My mission in both of these settings is always to carve away sonic slots in channels to make the whole work together. These reductions of frequency ranges can be quite brutal. If a kick drum does not behave to my liking, I can sometimes take away almost the entire mid range to make room for everything else. A vocal that is "boomy" in the low end will be met with a high-pass filter set quite high to bring it into submission. Even of it sounds a bit thin on its own, it works well in the mix. My job is to make the entire mix work well together, not really caring if its components sound a bit wonky on their own. And having many channels to work with provides ample resources of frequencies and transients to fill in the gaps of the sonic image.
But what happens when that one lead vocal is the entire mix? How do you fill an entire venue with a sound from a single acoustic guitar that is meant to embrace and entice hundreds if not thousands of people?
In my opinion, if you are able to mix a small number of channels, usually for a more intimate or acoustic performer, and still retain the full frequency spectrum, shape the space that matches the emotion, keep the intimacy of the performance, and allow the dynamics to shine through without getting away from you, you have reached the pinnacle of the craft. But getting there is no small task. Here are a few techniques I keep in mind when reaching for those stars.
Go to the Source
Great amplified sound starts with a great sound source. If you are expecting a nuanced vocalist, reach for a condenser microphone that can truly capture every detail of the singer. Also, select the mics and position them in such a way that they need as little intervention on your part as possible. Make sure that the instruments’ signal path on stage is free from anything that might reduce the dynamic range or signal strength.
I was recently doing an acoustic show where a guest performer was a singer/ acoustic guitar player. During sound check, I struggled with the sound of his guitar. It sounded harsh and muddy, it was prone to feedback and I could not shape it in any pleasing way. The solution - we bypassed the guitar preamp/ FX pedal and the skies opened. The guitar sounded full and bright and it only needed minor correction on the EQ. It became one of the most memorable performances of the show. Remember, if you can improve the sound at the source, you will reduce your work on every stage down the line.
Dynamics are Key
Intimate performances tend to be quite varied in terms of dynamic range. The artist will often go from whispering to screaming within a single verse. Although I want to tame the range so that it does not cause the audience to strain through the soft parts and go deaf during the loud ones, I still want to preserve as much of that dynamic range as possible. Being a performer myself, I am very aware of the fact that dynamics can be a very powerful tool in engaging the audience. If that tool is taken away because of over-compression, the performance can become flat and uninteresting. In contrast to loud bands, where I try to keep the dynamic range in a small pocket so I can bring the overall volume up in a very controlled manner, for acoustic or intimate performances I look for ways of allowing as much of the dynamic range to shine through, while still retaining some of the control. So when mixing, I usually compress in 2 stages, if possible (most digital consoles will allow for 2 dynamics inserts per channel and I use compression on both of them), but using small ratios of 2:1 or 2.5:1. Also, I adjust the attack time in such a way that it is longer on the first compressor, allowing to retain the dynamic feel of the performance, and slightly shorter on the second one, providing control over the transients in the performance. I would often adjust the threshold setting on the first one during the show, following the current dynamic feel and following the performer to bring out all of the nuances of the performer.
Another great tool for keeping a uniform sound with a lot of dynamic range are multiband compressors or dynamic EQ tools, like the ones you can find on DiGiCo consoles or external plugins (eg. F6 or C6 by Waves). Setting dynamic EQs properly can ensure that the overall sound of a channel does not change with the variation in dynamics, but remains uniform throughout the performance.
EQ with a scalpel
For an intimate sounding performance, keeping as much of the frequency spectrum as possible for all sources is key to transferring the artist’s energy from stage to the audience. Make sure that your EQ cuts are only as narrow and as deep as they absolutely have to be. Removing large parts of the sonic image will lead to an underwhelming sound and usually won’t support the intimacy of the conveyed message. I try to have the performer sing softly, very close to the microphone and apply a high pass filter with a shallow slope (if I have that option on the board). That ensures that the proximity effect will not produce any “boomyness” or even feedback issues during the show, but I make sure that the low end is still present. Then I make sure that the intelligibility is there, adjusting the 2k-7k range to taste. Then I listen for the “annoying” frequencies of the sound and applying cuts, but making sure I am as precise as possible. I always try to keep in mind that there are very scarce resources for filling in the cuts. Those rare origins of sound have to retain the same impact and (almost) the same frequency range as an entire band, so keeping as much meat on the bones as possible is a must.
Imagine the Space
Selecting the right ambient sound for an intimate performance is a deal breaker. This is almost always left at the discretion of the mixing engineer, so I usually prepare a few options in advance that help me decide on what is best. My spatial decisions are based on one fundamental principle - does the space support the intention of the performance? Is the act going for that “playing for a few people down the pub” vibe or is the performer trying to lead the audience to their imaginary palace of magic and fairy dust? Whatever it may be, being able to add to that energy and intention is crucial for the success of the show.
My FX setup for small-channel-count performance is almost always the same: a room reverb, a plate reverb, a cathedral-type reverb and a delay unit.
I use the room reverb to fill-in those moments of the show that are particularly intimate and personal. It is added to a level where you could only discern its presence if I were to turn it off, but you would not necessarily hear it on its own. Sometimes, EQing this room verb acts as an additional master EQ parameter. If I need more low mids, for example, I could just add them to the room verb instead of the master EQ or individual channels.
The plate/ hall verb is the one you actually hear. I almost always have the decay set between 1.3 - 2s, but I also make sure that the predelay is set to at least 80ms. By using a longer predelay, I can retain the intimacy of a vocal or an instrument and still develop a nice space around it. Sometimes I remove the delay from the FX chain and just play with the predelay on this verb to get that one-time-repeat delay feeling.
The cathedral-type verb is an option that I would add to certain songs or moments in a performance to open up the space and make it more “dreamy” or “magical”. The decay times are usually over 4s, but just like with the room verb, it is never overpowering. It is like a delicate spice in a dish, just adding that extra dimension and helping the artist convey the message.
In 90% of the cases, I EQ all of my verbs quite dark, with a low-pass filter set quite low, usually between 2-3k. To me, intimate performances need to sound natural and a bright sounding reverb can destroy the illusion of listening to a performer up close and personal.
The delay unit comes on for certain songs, but only if I can make it blend with the rest of the space. To do that, I always run the send from the delay unit into the plate/hall reverb aux, just to make the repeats more a part of the imagined space and not having them break the illusion. Again, as with reverbs, removing the top end of the delay can help you maintain the sonic scape, making sure nothing is shifting the listener’s focus away from the initial source, if the natural sound is what you are aiming for.
Become the Fader-Riding Messenger
If the overall intention is to create the illusion that the performer is sitting in front of you, how much action is required on the part of the engineer throughout the show? Surely, if you have set everything correctly, then the act should be able to perform without you riding the faders and adjusting parameters throughout the show, right?
Well, in my experience, intimate shows actually require quite a bit of support from the mix engineer throughout the show. But I hasten to add that these changes are usually minute corrections. Riding the faders should be in support of keeping the dynamic range and making sure that all the nuances are heard. Making sure that I set my initial fader postitions arond 0 dB ensures that I have maximum control over the fader movements and that whatever I do with levels never sounds unnatural or harsh - except when the performance demands it. On one of my last shows I was working with an acoustic band that wanted to have moments of sounds rising to levels that were almost uncomfortable for the audience, only to resolve them with very intimate and quite passages. Although making sure that it was not unbearable, I supported those loud “noisy” moments by pushing the faders up rather than down, enhancing the dynamic range and helping the act convey the message.
All of these techniques help me support whatever the message is. But the underlying principle is the most important one: do whatever is needed for the song, performance, or act to convey the energy and message from the stage into the ears and hearts of the audience. Although that goes for all performers, the ones with small channel counts usually need that support the most. Since they give you little material to work with in terms of channels, you have no place to hide - every decision you make will be displayed for all to hear. Hopefully, these techniques will help you make the right decisions to ensure that the magic happens.