Source Input Mixing
With the introduction of digital consoles for live audio, better microphone options, PA systems with higher fidelity, and more pre-production time for artists setting up shows, the gap between studio work and live sound has been steadily diminishing. Most of the live audio engineers that I know are also either accomplished studio engineers or at least have project studios that allow them to prepare for live shows and dial-in some of the plugins or processing that they will later use during live shows. Although this article is not intended to compare the two worlds, I would like to point out that the mixing process has shifted in the last years to focus even more on one vital stage of preparation that was always a priority for studio work - getting the sound great right at the source.
A traditional way of mixing live audio, still very much present at smaller shows or when mixing unknown artists, is to set up the band on stage and then through microphone placement and sound processing deliver the best results possible, given the situation. I still work that way all the time when mixing several bands or doing sound for festivals. The limitations of time and resources prevent me to go into great details with the band about their gear, stage setup, or positioning - the task there is simply to embellish what you are given as a sound engineer.
But for shows, where you are asked to create a sound design during pre-production stages for a band you work with regularly, that might not be your only option. If you can influence the sound source in a way that sits better in a mix and supports the entire sonic image without ever touching the processing part of the console, that might be the best option for minimising work for yourself down the line. Here are some tips to help you accomplish just that.
Communication is key
The sound that you hear through the PA system and the sound the artist is hearing on stage are quite often two very different beasts. Especially, if it is a sound picked up by a microphone, the difference can be very dramatic. So before you jump on stage and start ordering people how to change their settings, make sure to listen to the source on the stage and talk to the artist about the difference between what they are hearing and what you are hearing. Also, make sure to enquire about how they feel about their sound. If they absolutely love it and are not willing to change it, it might be useful to record a short multitrack session of the sound used and play it back through the sound system, inviting the artist to hear it from your position and explain what you like and don’t like about the sound. Be sure to always state your goal. Saying “we have to change this sound because it is not good enough” might not be as productive as “in this particular section of the song this sound competes with another sound, making things a bit muddy. Could we maybe try lowering the low mids to see if we can support this part?” Making sure the artists understand that the sound of the entire act, including their own, could improve with this change and that you really care about how the band sounds usually goes a long way. However, if the artist insists on not changing their signature sound, then I would not advise on pushing the matter. Maybe they just need more time for you to earn their trust before allowing you to suggest changes to their sound and pushing the issue when they are not ready will be counter-productive.
Suggest a better solution
If you are changing the sound of the instrument, you have to make sure how to get there. So your job is also to get familiar with instruments, how they make sound and what affects their tonal landscape. Although I am not a drummer, I made it my priority to know how to tune drums, match cymbals, research how different resonant heads affect the overtones and what products are there for controlling the sustain of a drum. I have stuck my head in front of a lot of guitar amps and boxes, trying to find the sweet spot for miking electric guitars, researching how a single coil pickup varies in sound from a humbucker, how a guitar behaves when it is tuned to a different tuning and so on. It has all been done for the same reason - if you know how sound is generated and what aspects shape a particular sound, then you can quickly assess what are the contributing factors to a potentially problematic soundscape and provide suggestions to the artist about possible fixes. I try not to approach an artist by saying “the guitar sounds muddy, can we fix it?”, but rather “the guitar sounds muddy, can I suggest using a different pickup combination?” There will still be a lot of trial and error, but at least you have a starting point that steers the quest for a better fitting sound in the right direction.
Consider your environment
Sound is a fickle thing - it is ever changing and absolutely dependant on the conditions of the environment. As a sound engineer, I might be considering the difference in the sound of a PA system because of a temperature drop between the sound check and the event, but in my personal opinion a greater sound difference comes from the instruments being affected by their environment. Consider the tension of drum heads during a summer festival show, where the sound check is at 2pm and the event at 10pm. During a hot summer day, the toms would usually sound way better during the event, when the drum heads are not under the influence of immense heat, making them hard to tune and even harder to stay tuned. With a drop in temperature, the instruments behave differently. Just make sure you account for that before making major alterations to your instrument settings. Once you have set a sound in pre-production changes, in my experience the alterations to that sound need to happen as a result of an average of several shows, revealing a consistent trend, instead of making knee-jerk changes after one sound check.
Level matching is the name of the game
Having a selection of sounds is a starting point. In order to achieve the ultimate goal of having all the sounds work perfectly throughout the show, you will have to go make sure that there are no sounds that are not level matched to prior sounds, unless they have to be. It is very important to nail that funky guitar sound for the bridge of the second song of the set, but it is equally important (or even more important) to make sure that that sound preset is at the same volume as the distorted growl coming from the same instrument a few moments before. To help you out, besides listening back to a virtual recording or marking down levels while the band is playing, you can also look at the meters on the console or even a dedicated measuring rig that can help you determine if there needs to be a change in volume. Making sure that all of the sound presets are level matched and working well with instruments that do not have that ability can again save you a lot of grief during the show, giving you space to focus on more intricate details of the sound.
Re-evaluate your mixing approach
After doing careful source selection, meticulous level matching, and appropriate microphone selection, consider the fact that the sonic landscape is now ready for the show, but you have to make sure that your approach to mixing is now adjusted to the new surroundings as well. If there are no spikes of level due to matched sounds, maybe the compressor is now used more as a transient shaper. Maybe the EQ has now become more of a notch filter, since you have already taken care of the bulk of the EQ with sound selection. Maybe you opt out for “faders at zero” approach to quickly gauge the small nuances of level riding that may occur. Whatever it is, make sure that you are conscious of you new surrounding and that you act accordingly and think within these new parameters.
Although you might not be among those who work with artist during pre-production stages, but rather see a lot of acts pass through your hands on a regular basis. But the approaches I have described can find their way into your routine as well. I always remind myself - if the source sounds great, then I will always have a much easier job and my mission will shift from putting out fires to actively participating in the show, enhancing whatever is happening on stage.