I talk a lot about getting great sounds from the source. This includes balancing keyboard patches and playback tracks.
When you’ve got a keyboard player with a variety of keyboards, synths, and rack full of sounds it’s very important to work to get not only the levels but the tones balanced.
It’s equally important with playback tracks or stems that can come in many different configurations and from many different sources.
I’ll start with keyboards.
There can sometimes be a big difference in what the keyboard player hears coming from their rig in IEMs and wedges, versus how it translates through the PA. For example, they could be compensating with extra high end to cut through their monitor mix while that extra high end is far too much for the FOH mix.
This becomes a problem when you've got for example; a string patch where the high end is screaming and an organ patch that is too muddy and needs more highs.
The ideal thing to do is first work with the keyboard player to understand what they are looking for in their sounds. Get things sounding right in the PA and then have the monitor engineer adjust the monitor mix to compensate for any changes needed to cut through or fatten up the sound in the monitors.
What you don’t want happening is the keyboard player making adjustments to the levels and sounds they are sending you during the show. Consistency is key when mixing live music.
When the keyboard is making adjustments to his/her levels and tone it's not just affecting you, it's affecting every other band member who has keyboards in their mix. If the keyboard player needs more high end to cut through their mix those adjustments should happen in the monitors not the keyboard rig itself.
You should also spend time working on getting the levels between patches to be as consistent in volume as possible. This is especially important if you’ve got a variety of different sounds or several keyboards sub-mixed down to two channels.
Compression is an option but there comes a point when you have to make a decision between hitting those channels with 12dB of compression and sucking out all the dynamics, or having uncontrolled sounds jumping out of the mix unexpectedly. Trust me when I tell you that having consistent keyboard levels is much better. So whatever you can do to make sure the levels coming to you are consistent and the tones are balanced will be of great benefit to your mix.
Stems and Playback tracks.
If the stems have all come from one source/producer, are consistent as to what instruments are on each from song to song, and the levels are all balanced consider yourself lucky.
More often than not they will need some work.
For instance, you’ve got stems from one producer for this song that has all of the drums combined on two channels, guitars, bass, and keys on another two channels. Then stems for another song that breaks all the drums out on separate channels, guitars, bass, and keys each on their own channels as well.
Hopefully you’e got a talented Programmer with you that can arrange things in a way that makes sense and works for you and the band. Decide on how many channels of playback you need and what should be on each. Group things in a way that makes the most sense for how you have to mix it.
It's a great idea to work with the Musical Director and or programmer to make sure the levels coming to you from the tracks are as consistent as possible and adjusted so that they aren’t being driven into unnecessary compression.
Much of the time, when stems are being prepared in a studio there is a tendancy to overcompensate with the Bass because the stems are being mixed on headphones or small speakers that can’t reproduce bass properly. What happens is the level on the Bass tracks is boosted so much that when played over a PA system, the bass is overwhelming and can easily drive the system into compression.
One thing that is very helpful, if time allows, is to spend an hour or so with the MD or Programmer (whichever is responsible for the tracks), and play the tracks by themselves in the PA. Listen to how they translate over the sound system. Aside from adjusting the Bass levels, other stems may need some tweaking. You may find certain things get lost in the mix when the band is playing and they will need to be boosted in the tracks to cut through.
These are all things that should be handled on stage at the source first, before trying to adjust them with EQ and/or compression.
Start with tones and levels balanced and as consistent as possible coming from the source and you’re job mixing will be much easier.