The Mental Side of Listening and Mixing Like a Pro
The following text was submitted and posited on the SynAudCon list serve in 2012. It represents a non-technical perspective on the art of mixing live sound.
Like many of the sage voices that contribute to the SynAudCon list serve, I too have several decades of experience working in and around pro sound. The overview of my career looks like this: classically trained music student, professional musician, studio engineer, studio owner, studio designer, technical writer, studio trade magazine editor, acoustician, fixed install systems designer, systems sales, systems installer, live sound mixer, live sound mixing trainer, and contracting management. Those are the big and obvious hats I’ve been paid to wear over the years.
One of the challenges I regularly face these days is “training” sound operators on their new sound systems. A few years ago I came up with the following ideas, and have been using these ideas and processes to successfully teach the novice, and some not so novice sound engineers how to think about sound and mixing. Ok, here goes:
Step one: Most people are passive listeners. Sound happens to them, and they pay little or no attention to it other than to maybe notice that it is there, or that it is too loud or soft. To become a good mix “artist” (yep, there is a healthy dose of artistry that comes into play) you need to immediately become an “active” listener.
Active listening means that, whenever possible, you pay attention to all sound that you come in contact with. Movie sound tracks, TV sound, music and voice on the radio, environmental sound, concert sound, and all other every-day sound that you are exposed to. Be curious. Be critical. Put it into context relative to the surrounding activities and environment. If you are at a sporting venue, is the intelligibility good? Why or why not? In the beginning, you won’t be able to figure out the why of everything, but you’ve got to start somewhere. This needs to become a lifelong habit.
Step two: The best sound mixers in the world have a huge “library of sound” in their heads. You need to begin to capture this concept by building your own library. During our training sessions, I ask the class to raise their hand if they can “hear” a real common musical sound in their mind’s ear. I usually start with a trumpet. Then I’ll move to a few more common
“Can you hear a French horn? An oboe? How about an oboe vs. an English horn? How about an acoustic guitar with nylon strings vs. steel strings? A steel string acoustic with heavy gauge strings vs. light gauge stings? A stiff pick vs. a light pick on said guitar? A Martin vs. a Taylor.” We could go on for hours. I think the concept is established. The collected and archived, personal sound library is the mental gateway to the audio mixing craft.
Step three: So what do we do with this library? Well, over time, the library will contain the really good, the not so good, and the ugly. The best mixers are constantly comparing what they are hearing in real time to the desired or required sounds in their library. Then, assuming they have a sound system that is functioning reasonably well, they begin to use their experience and available electronic tools to adjust the sound that is coming through the mix console, so it matches the various sounds in their library, which they think are appropriate for the gig.
When fully developed, this library concept works on individual instruments as well as for the overall mix, and it happens semi- or subconsciously. In the beginning there is a lot of trial and error.
This overall process is not unlike that which a chef or painter will use to create their work. The chef has a selection of raw ingredients, and a pantry full of spices and condiments that may be used and blend to create an excellent recipe (mix). Even if he has never made the recipe, he can mentally taste the end result and the influence that each ingredient has on the overall flavor and texture of the recipe.
The painter does the same with their color pallet; knowing what colors to combine and what colors to lay down first in order to build the foundation of color (tonality) that will eventually lead to the finished picture. The chef and painter can consistently taste and visualize in their minds the end result that all the individual parts play in the finished product.
Step four: The next key ingredient is that they should begin collecting reference recordings. These should be relevant to the type of presentations or performances that they are being asked to work on. This collection should contain the very best recordings they can find.
What’s good you ask? For me it’s a musical recording with extraordinarily good production values, musicality, frequency response, tonality, clarity and space. It also has to be something that I can stand to listen to over, and over, and over.
I have searched through tens of thousands of recordings to find my collection (it only take me a few seconds to tell if a music track has something sonically special to offer), which currently numbers about 35 tracks of varying musical styles.
Once you compile a few really good recordings, I suggest you listen to these track over and over on the best, flattest, playback speakers or headphones (no ear buds) you can get access to. (Selecting reference monitors is a whole ‘nother article.)
If it’s a contemporary band track, you need to carefully study the mix to understand where the engineer placed each and every drum track, vs. the bass and guitars, vs. the keys and horns, vs. the background vocals, vs. the lead vocals, etc. Be critical.
Try to capture in your mind what is working and what is not. What is the tonal relationship of every instrument and voice? What sounds or instruments are conflicting? Why? What are the panning and volume relationships? When you start finding recordings that you wished
Step five: After all is said and done, sound mixing is highly subjective. In my opinion you need to mix to meet your own personal tastes and expectations; which must also be aligned with your library; which must also have common ground with the general public and the paying customer. Simple, no?
If you are consistently getting praise and thanks for the work you are doing, you are doing many things right. If you are consistently getting complaints, you aren’t.
Michael Fay is General Manager of the Sound Image Contracting Division; an audio, video and acoustical systems designer; a member and graduate of multiple SynAudCon workshops; a member of the Acoustical Society of America; and former editor of Recording Engineer/Producer magazine.
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© Copyright Michael Fay 2013