Mixing to suit musical styles
Mixing to suit musical styles
A Chapter from My Book. “Live Engineering in New Zealand"
I may be able to teach you to engineer but I would have difficulty teaching you good taste. As I have said earlier you are not there for yourself and you must overcome and forget your personal tastes and prejudices and work for your customer and his audience. One day you will be engineering an all female voice choir at a carol service. I do about six per year and I know exactly what is expected of me and I strive to give it my all. If you cannot learn to think like this you will never make it in this game. You must learn to be humble in the face of your client whatever you think of his or her music. You must show total and committed interest in what is expected of you even if you are working with 20 kids with Piano Accordions strapped to their chests or a Brass Band. You can't say, "I don't want to do that job” if you had to do a group of little kids reading poetry at a Teddy Bear's Picnic. You might get work from a Hard Rock Band but you will never work for a sound company if you think for a single minute that you can pick the eyes out of the workload. You can now see that sensitivity to your clients needs is one of the main prerequisites of the professional sound engineer.
Different musical styles require a different approach to engineering. If I have a Brass Band through the PA, as I have many times over the years, I need to be very sensitive as to how a Brass Band sounds without the assistance of my sound system and I am going to do my utmost to maintain their uniqueness and not attempt to change it in any way to suit how I might think they should sound. This would be an insult to the entire Brass Band fraternity and I may well expect to take a verbal clobbering from someone that was well aware that I was totally out of my depth. This would of course be the case if I tried to add a lot of bass boost, or I dropped the midrange way down or whatever. The same goes for an Accordion Orchestra or even a Bagpipe Band. You are concentrating on what makes them what they are and you are doing your humble best to reproduce that as it really is. Forget yourself entirely and concentrate on tonal accuracy and a balanced mix.
Jazz is a difficult one as I have found out to my horror when I got it very wrong some years ago. My first reaction was to mix it like a Rock Band, I could not have had it more wrong as I found out later when I got wrapped over the knuckles by a couple of Jazz muses who were in the audience at the time. The first thing you need to know about Jazz is that they want a very middle sound. They don’t even care if the kick drum is barely audible off stage and no "boom" in the toms either. They certainly do not want heaps of snare and they do want a leathery bass sound. The Saxes and Trumpets and Troms should be out front in the mix, not too much treble and a very natural UN amplified sound from the Piano and Rhythm Guitar. Think mellow. Lead guitar should be warm and full. Forget Rock Bands entirely when you do a Jazz Band, they are poles apart. Listen to some Jazz albums and familiarise yourself with how they tend to sound.
These guys are what many engineers live for but they are not always whom you will be working for. In fact if you are employed by a sound company on a full time basis they are just one of the many different type of live acts you will be asked to engineer. Remember most of the good well known ones will have their own engineer but of course a lot of full time sound guys also work for bands as well. So you may well find yourself regularly engineering for your own band in this situation. You may also find yourself engineering the oppositions rig as well because of this as bands often have no say in the choice of the PA they are using, especially in concert situations.
Rock Bands like a solid and fat Kick sound with a click on top of a prominent bright snappy Snare and powerful thunderous Toms. The vocals should stand out and often they don’t because the engineer can’t cope as he has the instruments saturating the PA and has often lost the plot entirely. The Guitar should be out front in the mix during Solos and backed off during the vocals. The Bass Guitar should be at the same volume as the Kick Drum and equalised according to the type of music the band is playing. You should feel the kick and hear the bass. If he is playing Funk and likes 'Popping' you would have the Bass backed off and the treble lifted a bit to get a bright twang sound. Very slow tracks often call for low frequency boost on the Bass Guitar sound. Vocals should be fresh, preferably with no bass boost unless the singer really needs it. Be careful with the treble on the Lead Guitar as often it is very loud anyway and more treble will only make it sound even louder. Mute the instrument channels if you can during track breaks and mute the reverb return as well if the singer is speaking.
OK, well yes, Blues is similar to Rock but many Jazz players also play Blues and tend to stick with the Jazz type of sound. Blues comes from different eras and as a general rule I would venture to say that the older the style the more like Jazz I would expect the sound to be. Use less highs and lows than you would with a Rock Band. Do not be tempted to have the kick and Bass Guitar too loud and keep the treble off the Lead Guitar.
Orchestras are a serious challenge and a book could probably be written on this subject alone but I am only going to be brief here. I have done a very good Youth Orchestra on many occasions and have come up with a method that is not too complicated but works for me very well. Instead of trying to close mic everything as I did for years I decided I would try using Shotguns instead. I knew I would have trouble with the quieter instruments such as the Flutes and Clarinets so I was aware that I was going to have to close mic some things. There was no getting away from it. I used a total of six shotguns across the string sections. I placed these along the front edge of the stage on large studio stands up as high as I could get them to go. I angled them downwards and cantered them evenly across the players. I then used dedicated condenser mics on each pair of Flutes, Clarinets, Oboes, CorAnglais and Bassoons. I close minced each Cello and Double Bass and I did the same with the Tympani and Percussion. Out front I had two good mics on stands for the soloists and a radio mic for compares. During the sound check I gave some special treatment to the Strings by sucking out an area center dipping at around 2.5 kHz from 1 kHz to 5 kHz. The sickout was about 6db in the trough (lowest point). Very little other EQ was required and most of the tone controls were set flat. We had the best sound in ten years of doing the job and we only used a twenty four channel desk to do it.
I usually use Shotguns on choirs as well and normally only about four. This depends on how far away the speakers are from the singers. If the speakers have to be in close I would probably use a few more mics. Again I use my tall studio stands with the mics as high as I can get them and aimed at the middle seating row spread evenly along it with the mics about six feet away. The EQs would close to flat. I DI the keyboard and give the commentator a radio mic. The rest is just concentration on levels and backing tapes if any and taking care to avoid feedback when the commentator strolls too near the loudspeakers.
This is way too big a subject to cover here. I may decide to do an article on Rock Opera as a separate subject sometime in the future. It would be possible to actually write an entire book on this subject. Watch this space.