In my previous two blogs, I talked about how I prepare for a new tour. All of the things I mentioned are things I do prior to starting the tour or doing the show if it’s just a one-off.
This blog will focus on what happens once I start the tour.
Good communication is key!
When I first meet the band or artist, my goal is to find out what they are looking for in their live mix. How close to the record do they want it to sound? Is there anything, in particular, I need to know? Are there any cues or special effects, featured instruments on certain songs? Is there more than one singer and who sings on what song?
I like to speak to each member individually and go over the set list so I know exactly what is happening on each song. Who is doing leads or solos, etc.?
If I’m mixing a 4 piece punk band with only drums, guitar, bass, and vocal, it’s all pretty straight forward. If I’ve got a pop act with a full band (drums, bass, guitar, keys, percussion, theremin,) 3 backing vocals, lead singer, and 16 channels of tracks, that’s a bit of a different story.
I want as much info as they can give me on what’s happening on stage in every song and what it is they are looking for in the mix? What do they want to sound like? Sometimes it’s very specific, sometimes its “just make it sound good”.
It’s very important to develop a relationship with band/ artist in which they trust you and you can both communicate clearly. They need to be able to communicate their needs and desires of how they want to sound. You need to be able to speak to them with confidence, but not arrogance, in a way that puts them at ease.
With any luck, there will be a few days of rehearsals during which I make tons of notes. Even if it’s just being at band rehearsals, this is time well spent. I’ll pay particular attention to the drummer and anyone who is not prominently featured on stage.
What’s going on with guitars and bass is usually pretty straight forward but drummers are a different story. From FOH I can’t always see everything that’s happening on the drum kit and there could be some cool stuff going on that I want to make sure is heard in the mix. The same goes for percussion players and even keyboards, or anyone who doesn’t have an instrument that just plugs in and makes noise. I’ll pay attention to what everyone is doing.
If there are any tracks from Pro Tools, DP or some other platform, I want to find out what the breakout is of the stems. Stereo Drums/ Stereo Keys, Stereo BGVs? EFX, Etc… What exactly is on those tracks? If possible I ask the Programmer or whoever is responsible for running the tracks to send me the individual sub mixed tracks so I can hear what is actually on them. It’s important to know where the sound is coming from. Is there bass on the track and also a live bass player? Is there a ton of keyboard stuff? Some live and some on track? I need to know what the source is so I know where to go when it needs to be adjusted in the mix.
Rehearsals are a great time to sort all of this out.
If I don’t have rehearsals, I’ve got to work all of this out on tour usually during soundcheck or line check. That is why I want to have everything properly advanced so I have the time during the gig day to figure this stuff out.
Great sound starts at the source
I’ll also spend some time listening to the instruments acoustically or at the source. If the guitar player is struggling to find a good tone on his/her amp I will work with them on this. I pay particular attention to keyboard patches and tracks, working to get all the levels and tones balanced. Keyboard patches can vary significantly in tone and volume and sometimes what the keyboard player needs in their monitors doesn’t work well for the mix in the house. I’ll work to find a happy medium.
Working with tracks
Tracks can be a nightmare to deal with if they have not been mixed properly. Many times I’ll find the bass mixed extremely heavy on the tracks and when this is played through the PA, it’s overwhelming. Other things may end up getting lost and need to be brought up in the tracks.
I’ll work with the Musical Director and or Programmer to make sure the levels coming to me from the tracks are as consistent as possible and adjusted so that they aren’t driving the PA into unnecessary compression.
One thing that is really helpful if time allows, is to spend an hour or so with the MD or Programmer, whoever is responsible for the tracks and play the tracks with nothing else going on in the PA. We’ll listen to how they translate over the sound system which will be very different from how they translate over studio monitors or headphones in which they were mixed...
Mixing the Show
I put a lot of thought into how I need to physically mix the show. With digital consoles, it’s important to have a plan since it’s not always possible to have all of the inputs on the surface at once, as you do with analog. I like to figure out what the most important things I am going to need are and program the console to have them at my fingertips.
Efficiency is important. If I know that I need to ride my lead singers fader all night long, then I will make sure it is always where I can just reach out and grab it. If I have 4 people doing a lot of harmonies that (like with Styx or Mr. Big), I will make sure I have those 4 vocal faders right where I need them.
This means considering where I place inputs in layers and pages as well as VCAs or Groups. It may require duplicating a channel so it appears in every layer or locking it to the surface. I’ll often program songs into scenes or snapshots so that the inputs that are vital to that song are all on the surface when they need to be.
When I get to the bridge of ‘Blue Collar Man’ and I know I have to mix the 4 vocals while also pushing up my snare top and bottom mic and I’ll make sure they are all on the surface at the same time. Or if I’m mixing the intro of ‘Addicted to That Rush’, where my bass player and guitar player are riffing off each other while the drummer is working his butt off on the snare and hi-hat, I make sure I have all of those inputs at hand.
I start thinking about all of this prior to the tour when I am doing my listening homework but it will take a day or two of rehearsals to pull it all together in a way that works.
With any luck all of my homework and preparation pays off and once the tour gets rolling it’s smooth sailing! Ahh, wouldn’t that be nice!?!