Live Mixing Or Mastering?
I've been standing in front of mixing consoles for almost two decades now. From my first encounters with knobs and switches on a small-format analog mixer to touch screens and moving faders on large digital desks, my approach to mixing remained fairly uniform for the first half of my career.
During sound check, I would go through each channel, adjust controls, then move on to the next one. At the end, I'd ask the band to play so I could set the entire sonic image, adjusting all of the channels again so that everything worked well together. When the show started, I'd compensate for changes with the usual variables (audience, temperature and humidity, "attitude" of the performers, etc.) and then run the faders, knobs, and rack units through the end of the performance. This procedure was religiously adhered to and repeated, and even though my knowledge, confidence and experience grew, everything I'd learned simply helped me do things faster and with a more reliable outcome. Other than that, the approach remained unaltered. My focus was on each separate channel, where adjusting them during the show was the "bread and butter" of my mixing.
From A to D
However, a paradigm shift in this approach began with the introduction of digital consoles and the ability to save sessions, cues, shows, presets, snapshots – making it possible to not have to start from scratch every single time. It's a good starting point because most of the prep work has already been done: channel, bus and aux routing, basic gain structure, EQ and compression, all neatly stored in the "brain" of the console, available at the press of a button.
The initial struggles of forgetting to save sessions and snapshots after sound check or a show introduced a lot of graphic language and stress, but when saving and backing up my data became second nature, some of my "analog ways" became a thing of the past.
Yet I was still using the powerful world of digital in a very underwhelming manner – only as a starting point for my work. I still went through every single channel on the console during sound check, even if it didn't need adjusting, and I still ran the live show the same way I always had, manually adjusting all of the parameters between songs.
Sure, I got to the end result faster, but the approach was pretty much the same. Even though I'd been exposed to the magic of presets, I was still mixing one channel at a time.
Shifting focus to master bus
Constantly facing growing complexities of an increasing number of shows, I came to the realisation that my approach wasn't an option anymore. Setting up shows with time code, running cues that altered more and more parameters, introducing studio plugins to the world of live audio, extending channel input counts into three-digit numbers – it became humanly impossible to focus on every minuscule change on each separate channel.
The solution to this growing monster of complexity: programming the console itself to be the mix engineer while I assume the role of mastering engineer. During shows, I don't focus on separate tracks, but on the master bus. My workflow is different. Sound checks no longer involve saying “kick, please” multiple times; they're about room measurements, EQ curve matching and tinkering with the master bus EQ and dynamics. Separate channels only come to the foreground during line checks.
The focus of mixing for larger shows has turned from single channels to their sums – groups, DCAs, and the master bus. Sure, I have to be a mix engineer during the pre-production stages, and I might still go back and tweak some channels on various cues and snapshots during setup, but when show time comes, I'm zeroed in on the master bus, mostly taking care of snapshots being fired at proper moments. I'm tweaking the summed results of a mix, a stereo mixdown if you will. I realised that I have become a live mastering engineer.
Who's in Charge?
Does this take away from the mix experience? Maybe, for some. I've had discussions with engineers who still prefer to treat digital consoles with an analog approach. They don’t like the fact that they have to yield some of the control to the automation process, and feel like mixing should be the engineer’s contribution to that particular moment.
To some extent I agree – keeping our fingers on faders and controlling the sound in the moment gives us an exhilarating rush of being an organic part of the show. Yet it can only be truly effective if certain conditions are met: small channel count, a basic approach to effects, not using too many plugins, not being a part of a time code system.
However, if it's a major production with large channel counts; if there must be time cue changes to very specific moments of the show; if the console is used to control other gear via time code or MIDI; if there's a mandate to match the live sound of a band to that of a record with numerous effects and a lot of instant changes, then it would be very ineffective (and potentially career-damaging) not to use the powerful tools of the digital console world to their fullest potential. And the show will still retain your sound, because you programmed the board and made all of the choices. You are just trusting the equipment to execute your orders with a level of precision and complexity that could never be achieved by running all the parameters in real time.
As with most things in life, this is not black or white. Finding a balance between how much mixing remains under our fingertips and how much of it we transfer to the equipment is always a personal choice. Maybe we just want to have presets for various changes of effects between songs or want to introduce special moments with a dramatic change of sound at a few key points of a show.
But knowing all of the options and being able to program an extra set of “digital hands” to turn the knobs when needed allows us to expand possibilities, making us a better hiring choice for whatever job comes along. So I say give it a go, tinker with the myriad options of presets, snapshots, scenes, cues, snippets, and so on, and decide what's right for you.