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Mixing Mindset: Range for Impact

So I’m gonna break one of my rules today because I want to do a little illustration. I feel like a lot of newer engineers miss this boat sometimes when mixing. They make it all about loud when they should really be going for impact. I believe there’s a time to be loud, but loud is just another tool in our arsenal.

So I had my little iPhone camera at FOH earlier this summer, and I had it running through one of the music sets. Unfortunately you can’t see much in this because once everyone stands up they block the stage. I stand to mix, but sadly, my little iPhone was not that tall. However, you can see something here that I think some of you might find interesting. At the bottom of the frame is my RTA along with….I can’t believe I’m doing this…the A-weighted SPL of the room at FOH.

I’ve taken my FOH mix and slapped it on the video so your ears don’t fall off from the distorting iPhone mic, and then I mixed the audience mics into it a little. For full disclosure’s sake, you should also know there was an L2 on the mix doing about 1-2 dB of limiting at the loudest part of the song and Brainworks’ bx_solo plugin widens the whole thing just a hair. My point is, this is essentially an untouched 2-mix from FOH with some audience added. It’s not my favorite mix, but I remember it felt good in the room and it’s a good example for illustrative and educational purposes.

As you’re watching this, notice the RANGE of SPL in use and how it follows with the emotional impact of the song. I don’t have any kinds of limits on this stuff week to week. Nobody sitting in the seats or from leadership came up to me at any time to say it was too quiet or too loud. In fact, as memory serves, this was a day when I had more people than normal coming to FOH after the service to say how good it was.

Now, I’m not saying you should be running your mixes as loud as we do or with as much range as we do. You might want to run less, or in fact, depending on your situation you might benefit from running louder with even more range. Who knows. You have to figure that out. The point I just want you to understand is that music is not about hitting some target number.

When I’m mixing it’s about music and impact. Just think about what happened to recorded music when the recorded industry started pushing everything closer to digital zero. When you target a number, the music almost always suffers, in my opinion.

Parenthetically, one thing that really sticks out to me listening back to this several months after actually mixing it is the way I’m riding the vocal. I can really hear how I was pulling it back and sinking it into the crowd in the room especially at the start of the first verse. I’ll save talking about that for another time, though.

As you’re watching Smaart in the video embedded below, you’ll notice the RTA running there as well. Smaart’s RTA is running at 1/48 resolution here with a 5 second average. My Target Curve is overlaid on the measurement, but you’ll probably notice I don’t exactly adhere to it. Again, that’s because mixing is about how it sounds and feels and not always how it measures. That RTA is another tool I use all the time, but I rely my ears and gut far more than the RTA.


The Physics of Concrete

That’s what I’m blaming. The concrete. So here’s what happened.

This week we did a little experiment with our subs. Our subs are good, but in truth I have never been as satisfied with them as I feel like I should be. Playing with the d&b B2’s at last year’s almost-Concert on the Lawn and then the L-Acoustic SB28’s this year hasn’t helped my satisfaction, either. Oh, and then there were the J-Infra’s my buddy Zito had out with OneRepublic this summer. Those were quite nice. Quite. Nice.

Now, I know our Meyer M3D-Subs aren’t any of those, and that’s OK. Our subs are good, and most people would probably question why I’d even consider changing anything. However, it would make me happy if our subs performed a little closer to what I’ve been experiencing with some other boxes. Plus, a couple months ago when we were working on the outfills for the West PA, my friend Ed Crippen made a couple of tweaks to the West sub array that got them much closer to what I’ve been wanting so I’ve been even more motivated as of late to try and move our East subs up a notch. This week we took a shot at it.

I had three primary goals in reconfiguring the subs:

1. Tighten up their performance and punch.

The current horizontal arc of the array works great for even coverage without the fingers of destructive interference from stacks spaced on either side of the stage. However, arc’ing and/or using incremental delay on a horizontal sub array has a tendency to induce time smear in the listening area resulting in decreased punch and impact. Things can be punchy in the near- and mid-field of our sub coverage, but as you transition into the far-field, that punch goes away. And wouldn’t you know it, mix position is right on the edge of that. Moving the mix position 3-4′ forward would be all it would take to get that punch at FOH, but then FOH would be too close. So my hope was to tighten up the overall sub response throughout the coverage area so everybody wins.

2. Increase headroom.

We have 10 M3D-subs in the room, but because they’re cardioid they don’t seem to sum quite the same as traditional subs, and on a typical week I mix them right at the edge of excursion. You don’t hear it at mix position, but if you get right down in front they don’t sound so good in excursion. Plus it’s probably not so good for the longevity of the speakers, either. I typically have Meyer’s RMS up on my machine so I can keep an eye on what’s going on with the subs, and I’ll back down my feed to them as necessary. So my next hope was to get the subs to sum a little better giving me a little more headroom in the overall sub performance.

3. Widen the coverage.

Horizontal arrays are great, but with an array length as long as we’ve got we end up with pattern control as wide as the actual array. It extends out beyond the array simply because of the arc, but that still leaves sections of the room on the far outsides with lesser coverage. In my opinion, they are not good seats, however, the people sitting in them are still important so I would have loved to increase the coverage.

The challenge in reconfiguring the subs is there’s not a lot of real estate to do it. They have to live under the stage, and that area was really designed for the subs to be in bays. So the structure doesn’t offer much flexibility for alternate configurations. There is a narrow path running behind each bay, though, so I measured the space under the stage several months ago when I was originally thinking about this. I plugged those measurements into MAPP so I could play around with some different designs knowing roughly where the speakers could fit.

So let’s look at the models.

Subs current

The photo above is our current configuration. Every color change represents 3dB so you can see how the coverage cools off on the outsides. You can also see how the level drops right at mix position just right of the center of the room.

Now here’s what I was envisioning. My idea came from conversations with Steve Bush from Meyer Sound when he was onsite last year helping with the install of the West PA. Since the subs are cardioid, my idea was to tight-pack them and position them so each side of the room would get its own stack of subs. I then aimed each stack so there would be minimal coverage overlap between the two. My thinking was the close proximity of boxes would tighten things up and aiming them this way would keep the coverage smooth on each side of the room. Here’s the model:

Subs new

You can see in the proposed idea that the coverage in the room gets wider and more consistent in level. Now let’s check out some Virtual SIM measurements.

03 Current  FOH
Current Configuration @ FOH

04 Stagl  FOH
New Configuration @ FOH

Virtual SIM measurements showed an increase in level relative to our current configuration of about 4dB at FOH, 2.5dB in the front row, the back of the room stayed virtually the same in level, and the front sections on the far sides would get around 6dB more level. I figured this was just the extra little bit of headroom I wanted without blowing away the front of the room to get it.

The model looked interesting to me, so I bounced it off some friends who were also intrigued, but there was still some skepticism. You see, the thing that MAPP isn’t accounting for is that the subs are under a concrete stage. And one thing we know is that when you put cardioid subs under a stage, they don’t quite work the same as if they’re in open air. So I knew the only way we would know for sure was we would need to actually move the subs.

We spent most of the afternoon on Monday moving the wiring and subs around under the stage. Fortunately, most of the area under the stage is carpeted so with the help of a crowbar we were able to get furniture movers under each 400lb. sub. With the furniture movers in place, the subs move relatively easy especially when two people were pushing and pulling them.

Of course, things didn’t go entirely to plan. The first issue that bit us was somewhere my measurements of the space went off a bit so things didn’t quite fit the way I had hoped they would. We ended up a few degrees off on the aiming of each side, and the back row of subs weren’t able to land exactly where I wanted them. Incidentally, the back row wasn’t an attempt at an end-fired array; that just seemed like the best place I could put the subs. Ideally, I probably would have had those two subs stacked on top of two of the front row boxes, but there’s not enough room under the stage, AND there’s no way any of us would have tried lifting them under there even if there was room.

I came really close to scrapping the whole plan when we couldn’t get the first side in position exactly the way the model was, but I figured I would always be wondering if it worked so we went ahead and moved them all into place. Of course, all hope drained away after I re-timed them to the tops and finally got some music going.

Everything measured quite nicely, but the subs felt worse than before. I tried turning the back row off and flipping polarity but nothing worked. My measurements showed me the same, if not more low frequency level at FOH, but I didn’t hear it. There was no punch and the deep lows I was used to were missing. Some of the guys who helped move the subs were wondering if I was wrong in my initial assessment on the new position. After mixing on this system for 4 years, I knew what it could do, and the new configuration was far from that. I really wanted this to work, but it didn’t.

So on Tuesday we took a couple hours in the afternoon to move things back into the original positions. I was very thankful I had spiked the original locations of the subs because as soon as we got things back up and running it was quite clear that our original setup is the optimal one for now. I’ve still got some other ideas I might explore, but the subs are staying put for the foreseeable future.

Now some might look at this whole escapade as a waste of time, but I don’t see it that way. This was a priceless learning opportunity. I’m still a very strong proponent of computer modeling and using measurements for loudspeaker optimization. However, even if things look good in computer models and measure nice, you still have to put your ears on things. In this case, I liked the model and measurements, but I didn’t like the way it sounded. If we hadn’t actually moved things around and given it a listen, I never would have known how the setup actually worked. Personally, I think the cavity underneath the stage thwarted things because it was a missing variable in the models, so I’d still be curious to hear a setup like this in an open air environment to see if it’s something I should rule out for all-time or not.

There was one other great thing that came out of this, though. Through the course of rewiring our RMS lines to our subs, some of the RMS issues I’d been having from time to time cleared up and some missing boxes that were up in our tops finally showed up in RMS. If you’ve played with RMS at all, you can probably guess how happy that alone made me.


Prioritized Learning

IMG 3540

This is for everyone who’s on that path learning to mix and refine their craft. I believe the nature of learning how to mix is that you typically end up doing a lot if not most of it “on the job”. As you’ve probably figured out there are many facets to mixing, so it can be easy to be overwhelmed early on. While the nature of the process is you often have to learn a lot of different things all at the same time, I think there can be a benefit to prioritizing what you’re focused on learning. In other words, you’re gonna get your hands in all of this to a certain extent any time you’re mixing, but you should focus on refining certain skills one at a time. What follows is my personal recommendation for what order to focus on things.

1. Tone

When it comes to mixing, I think the first thing you need to really get a handle on is tone. Basically, do the things in the mix sound good? Is there a good frequency balance within individual sounds and across the entire mix?

Note that I’m not calling this EQ because tone goes beyond that, although, learning how to EQ things properly is part of this. Mic positioning is another part. And yet another part is learning to talk directly with the band about sounds. I’ve talked before about how you need to start at the source, and that means Tone. You should be able to push up a fader and have that thing sound good to start with. You might mess with it later to get it to sit with the rest of the band, but I think you need to figure out how to get things to be good on their own first and foremost.

Now, I say focus on mastering Tone first because I think it’s the largest contributing factor to bad audio experiences. For example, I recently went to see a classic, well-known artist, and it was one of the most disappointing sonic experiences I can remember largely because the frequency spectrum where we were sitting was incredibly out of balance. I pulled out my handy iPhone RTA at one point to confirm what I was hearing because I couldn’t believe it was so bad at that high profile of a show. Lo-and-behold there was a 10 dB dip in the low-mids resulting in a mix without any fullness or warmth.

While the mix at that show wasn’t always to my tastes, by-and-large it was solid. However, the thing that ruined the concert for me was the frequency spectrum out of balance. All night long it was like listening to a bad clock radio with subs, and personally, I am fed up with paying for tickets to listen to shows where the frequency balance is out of whack. We had some of the worst seats possible for the show, but we still ended up paying over $200 for the entire night out, and I’m sorry, but there’s no excuse for me listening to what was painful audio when I pay that kind of money.

And even if folks aren’t paying to listen to your mixes, you still need to get a handle on this. If you are mixing in a church, the balance of the frequency spectrum may be the biggest factor in whether people think things are too loud. If your mix is too bright and thin ala my aforementioned concert experience, odds are some folks are going to think your mix is too loud. That particular show I was at was only measuring in the low 90’s dBA where we were sitting, but it was still too loud because when it doesn’t sound good, it’s ALWAYS too loud.

So you have to get a handle on the frequency spectrum and master Tone. Getting tone right will get you 75-90% of the way there in most cases, in my opinion.

2. Level Balance

Level balancing is part two of mixing 101, and the next thing to focus on. Here you need to work on getting the different instruments and sounds in the mix properly balanced against each other.

You might be wondering why this isn’t the top priority for me. Well, for some folks it might be, but I think there can be a lot of subjectivity in this especially when you consider that level balance is a moving target. Over the course of a song, different instrumentation may change in importance and things may need to get pushed and/or pulled back at times to highlight elements.

Level balance is essential to the mix, but I think there is a lot more leeway in terms of getting the balance right compared to Tone. If the drums are a little buried and some of the other instrumentation is a little low or high in the mix but you can still hear the vocal clearly, most people are going to be OK with that and forgive that things weren’t just right. But if something is too bright and painful or muddy and unclear, that’s the kind of stuff that rubs people the wrong way. So get Tone right first, and then focus on perfecting your level balancing abilities.

3. Dynamics Processing

This is compression, limiting, gating, expansion, etc. And, No, you don’t need to learn this before the first two because it’s only in recent times that every console that seems to hit the market has all these bells and whistles available. Just 10 years ago most live consoles didn’t come with any of this stuff. In other words, many engineers–myself included–mixed for many years with little or no dynamics processing. So don’t worry about this stuff too much if your tones are a mess and your level balancing needs work.

All that said, mastering dynamics processing is one of those things I think really adds polish to a mix. It’s not the only thing, but it is a big part of the the sound of commercial recordings and what people consider to be a professional sounding mix. You can get a pro mix without this stuff in some cases, but for things like rock and roll or pop I think it’s kind of an essential ingredient. It’s also going to affect your Tone and Level Balance, which is why I think it’s best to work out those abilities first. When you’ve mastered Tone and Level Balance, the effect of dynamics processing on those two things will be more easily apparent.

4. FX — reverbs, delays, chorus, harmonizers, flangers, etc, etc, etc.

Effects are another one of those things that can really move a mix to the next level. I suppose this could go in the third slot in place of dynamics processing, but it’s really only in the last couple of years that I’ve really started digging in on effects. One of the keys to using these is often subtlety which is one of the reasons why I put this at #4. When you have mastered the three things above, your sensitivity to subtleties in the mix will likely be tuned up making it much easier to start mastering FX.

5. Tricks

When you’ve mastered all the other stuff, tricks are really all that’s left. These can be things like parallel compression, using a split-harmonizer, side-chaining things, etc. Tricks are fun, and I actually wrote an article on tricks, or at least how tricks aren’t really tricks at all last year. To me, mixing tricks are really just advanced techniques. But, it’s best to learn all the other stuff first because then the tricks make a lot more sense.

So there are 5 areas to focus on, and how I would prioritize them. And let me reiterate and reclarify this: you’re probably going to be doing some if not most of these things every time you mix no matter where you’re at in skill/experience. So the idea here isn’t to only do one of these at a time until you master it; that won’t work because every time you mix you’re dealing with Level Balancing and Tone. Instead, the idea is you prioritize your focus on one of these areas until you master it.

For example, if you’re brand spanking new to mixing, you should, in my opinion, be focusing the bulk of your energy/brain-power/listening/etc. on Tone until you can get really good tones every time.

Here’s another way to think of this: you should only be letting one of these areas keep you up at night.

The idea is when you prioritize one thing or area to focus on, you progress much faster in that area which then makes mastering the next area a lot easier and faster. If you’re new to mixing or trying to figure out how to move to the next level, I suggest you give this little guide a shot and see what happens with your mixes in the coming months.

On Mixing...
  • So I’m gonna break one of my rules today because I want to do a little illustration. I feel like a lot of newer engineers miss this boat sometimes when […]

    Mixing Mindset: Range for Impact

    So I’m gonna break one of my rules today because I want to do a little illustration. I feel like a lot of newer engineers miss this boat sometimes when […]

  • This is for everyone who’s on that path learning to mix and refine their craft. I believe the nature of learning how to mix is that you typically end up […]

    Prioritized Learning

    This is for everyone who’s on that path learning to mix and refine their craft. I believe the nature of learning how to mix is that you typically end up […]

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