I came across a great video by Matthew Weiss (The Pro Audio Files), who explains in a nutshell what 5 concepts he keeps in mind when mixing. The 5 concepts for a good mix are: Clarity, punch, depth, character and emotion. If we strive to improve in these five areas, our overall mix will consequently improve.
Even if he talks about studio music in principle, these concepts can be applied wonderfully in the live area as well.
Every element of the music should be audible. It is not always necessary to separate all elements from each other. Sometimes we want two or three instruments to form a pad sound together. The listener should then perceive them as such.
Sometimes we want the bass drum and bass guitar to sound like an instrument together. In the Daft Punk song Da Funk this is clearly the intention. In most cases we want to hear the guitar and the drums separately. We want clarity.
In the studio, for example, we can create clarity by distributing elements of a piece of music in the stereo image. In addition, we can separate instruments from each other by creating space in the frequency spectrum.
In the live area, it is not appropriate to distribute elements in the stereo image. If a listener is further to the right in the room, in the worst case he will not even notice an instrument that has been moved to the left. We can very well provide clarity on frequencies. If the keys overlap e.g. with the voice, we can take out the keys e.g. around 300 Hz and around 2 kHz and the voice is much clearer.
In live music, the sound system must be very well designed, otherwise the reflections in the room alone ensure that we can no longer create clarity. The goal must therefore be that every listener perceives the direct signal as much as possible and that the early reflections arrive much more quietly. Sound design is very complex. I can recommend a podcast by Nathan Lively, which is mainly dedicated to this topic — Sound Design Live.
Punch power is about not only hearing individual instruments such as the bass drum and the snare, but also feeling them. Punch gives our mix a dynamic touch. In live music it depends a lot on the type of event, but in many cases we expect more of this punch live than we are used to at home. The event area is bigger, maybe the stage is very big, so I want to feel more of the music. At a big concert you want to feel the bass drum in the stomach area.
However, this is not appropriate in all cases. It is worthwhile to carefully consider for which occasion you are mixing and to generate an impact accordingly.
Michael Jackson’s songs are very often filled with depth. Sometimes the voice seems to be right in front of us, sometimes it fades into the background. Bruce Sweden, Sound Engineer for Michael Jackson describes how he created this depth in this article.
In general we create depth with different techniques. We can place an instrument in the foreground, in the middle with almost no early reflections and reverberation. We could distribute the elements that we want to appear further back in the stereo field and create the impression through stronger early reflections and reverberation that the element stands further back in the room.
In the live area, some of the reflections already arise through the room. We need a very well designed sound system, so we get more chances to create depth in the mix. We want to have the possibility to play with reflections and to integrate different levels of reverberation. That’s how we create depth.
Character is something that appeals to us. A boring mix becomes a great mix when we give character to the different elements. Does the bass guitar sound like any other? Or does she have something special, something unique? We can play something by adding overtones (by distortion), highlighting characteristic frequency ranges, rather lowering others, and so on.
Character breathes life into the mix. In the live area, it strongly depends on the mixing console how much room we have to give the instruments character. But there are also opportunities to create character outside the mixing console. How are the microphones positioned above and below the snare? Which effect devices does the guitarist bring with him? How is the microphone positioned on the guitar amplifier? Does it help to position a second microphone?
It is worth trying different things. Character makes a big difference. We have to be careful with EQ, because we can kill any instrument with it. But when used properly, we can also give it a new character.
We want to transport emotions with music. This is the most important thing we want to achieve with music and thus the most important thing we want to achieve in our mix. What is offered to us from the stage in the mixer tries to create a certain emotion. Our goal in mixing should be to intensify this emotion. We might as well try to create something more cheerful in the mix out of a sad love song, but that will confuse us and the song will not get stuck. If we try to intensify the effect, the mix will reach the hearts of the listeners and remain stuck. It is the most difficult element in our mix and yet the most important.
When mixing live music, the 5 elements clarity, punch, depth, character and emotion can make the difference between a good mix and a great mix. With each adjustment I make, I should ask myself what I want to achieve with it. Can I get more clarity? Am I increasing the punch? Do I add depth to my mix? Does my mix get more character? Or do I bring more emotion into my mix? If a change does not pay into any of these five areas, that change is probably worthless. If, on the other hand, the change affects several areas at the same time, it’s great.
And now: Have fun mixing 😉!