Steps to Clarity in Your Mix
Ever find yourself listening to a song, maybe even the one you’re sitting behind the console mixing, and think to yourself “this doesn’t sound right”? The song may have started off sounding alright but as it built it seemed to get out of hand. Instruments in the song seem to be piled on top of each other. You can’t understand the lyrics the vocalists are singing. It sounds like a big blob of sonic yuck.
The mix lacks clarity. Here are a few steps to help find clarity in your mix.
Step 1 – Learn the song.
Before you even show up to rehearsal the band is practicing the music for Sunday. You have some practicing to do as well. I find it surprising that some audio engineers, both professional and volunteer, do not listen to the songs they are mixing before they walk up to the audio console. Unless you’re the guy in the studio recording a brand new song, this step does apply to you.
Take time to listen and dissect the song. As you listen, pay attention to where each instrument sits in the mix. Identify the tones and dynamics of each instrument. What is the relation between the band and vocal mix? Pay attention to what effects (reverb, delay or other effects) are doing to the vocals and instruments. Listen over and over. Take notes. Apply the vision you have from your worship leader/music director about the song to what you are hearing in the recording. Then start to imagine what you need to do behind the console to achieve the desired outcome.
Step 2 – Know the band.
Walk up to them on stage, shake their hand and find out how their week was. Help them get their amp mic’ed up or drums tucked in and feeling comfortable. You are there to serve. You will be amazed how easily communication will begin to happen during sound check and through the service now that you are developing those relationships with your band and worship leader on stage.
Then don’t rush off so quickly once they’re set up. Take this opportunity as they start strumming on their guitar or tinkering on the piano to listen to what their instrument sounds like. Understand what the instrument they have been practicing on all week sounds like before being amplified through your system. You may even chat with them about what parts they plan on playing through the worship set. This really helps if you have more than one electric guitar player.
I know you’re asking yourself, “How in the world do these first two steps help get my mixes sounding better?” It’s building a foundation so you know what you have to work with when you get back to the console to start building your mix.
Step 3 – Identify the frequencies.
As you return to your console and begin to push the faders up now is the time to help each input find its place in the song. Hopefully you have some good tones coming from stage through your microphones and direct boxes into your console. As you need, carve out the space from other instruments for the important ones to play in their range well.
For example, the lower frequencies of the acoustic piano can easily ‘muddy’ up your vocal intelligibility. The fundamental frequencies of both the acoustic piano and human voice are in the same range. Instead of boosting frequencies of the vocal – which change the tone of the vocal – scoop out, or cut, the frequencies of the secondary instrument. That will more than likely be the acoustic piano. This provides space for the vocal to sit properly in the mix and be understood without competing against the piano.
Another example is the bass guitar and kick drum. Both of these instruments will quickly muddy up a mix and take away clarity. You can often scoop out around 250Hz from the kick drum. The bass guitar’s frequency range can affect a number of other instruments. Finding the correct frequencies on the bass guitar between 200Hz to 600Hz and scooping out as needed will remove that muddy affect.
Step 4 – Leave out what you don’t need.
Using the high-pass filter, found in your Equalizer section on the console, will also help you achieve that clarity in your mix. The high pass filter will simply remove the low end frequencies of any input you select to use it on. This removes the clutter from the low end and mid-range of your mix that tends to lead to poorly defined sounds. Most of the lack of clarity will come from the overabundance of mid lows in the frequency range.
You can apply it to almost any input coming into your console where the low or mid-range frequencies are not needed. You will probably apply this to more of your mic’ed inputs than your inputs from a D.I. box. But that’s not a hard fast rule. This will take practice and lots of listening to see how the high pass filter will affect the input you’re working on.
The high pass filter is most commonly used on the vocal. I have found engaging the high pass filter on the vocal mic around 125-130Hz works for me. You can also use the high pass filter on guitars – acoustic, electric and bass guitars. The bass guitar can produce some lower frequencies and noises that you just don’t need in the mix. Take your time and engage the high pass filter and adjust as you listen.
It’s all about listening and adjusting to what sounds right for the system. Most of the time you will engage the high pass filter and hear a very subtle change. That’s all it’s meant to do.
Understand that if you remove frequencies, especially in the low to mid low range you are working toward bringing clarity back to your mix. It will also bring back some headroom to your mix helping you control the dynamics of the song.
Step 5 – The effect effect.
Using reverb, delay or other effects on vocals and instruments gives your mix that lush, full sound. It can really bring your mix to life. It can also give your mix a muddy, cluttered sound. This is another area you will want to pay attention to. What space are the effects occupying in your mix? Your effect processors are just another instrument in your mix. Treat it like one.
Determine what needs to have effects on it and then apply sparingly. Make sure it sits in your mix appropriately. Too much effect can also rob instruments from their unique tone and space in the mix. Once you have the effects dialed in take some more time in EQing the effect returns. Though it’s often overlooked, the EQ on the effect returns can help bring intelligibility to the effect and the instrument. At the very least, engage the high pass filter to keep the low end from getting too muddy.
Don’t forget about the guitars. Today’s electric guitar player will come in with his pedal board and effects dialed up so that it sounds really good…by itself…in the guitar player’s living room. But when you mic him up and put him in the mix, those guitar effects may not lend itself well to clarity in the mix. This may require a conversation with him about helping dial those effects back at his pedal board so you can get the most from his instrument in the mix.
One last note. All these steps are assuming you have a well-tuned sound system in a room that responds appropriately to it. The system and room will always have to play well together. If you are finding that everything you put into place to bring clarity to your mixes are unsuccessful, you may want to bring a professional in to help asses any issues within the room acoustics and amplified systems.
Bringing clarity to your mix can be simple to achieve and one of the most important things you may do for your weekend services.