In my live band we have a microphone on every drum and on every piece of equipment onstage and it’s all run through the main P.A.. It’s by far the best way to get a good mix and the best way to control your live sound level. Of course we have invested a lot of money in our live setup and we also play fairly big venues so having everything mic’ed up and mixed through the P.A. is not a problem for us. But there are times when we play a smaller room and we don’t need to mic everything up. There was even a time when all we could afford was a drumset, instruments and amplifiers and a microphone with a small P.A. for the singer. That’s when it can be tricky to get a decent live mix. So what’s the best way to get a good live mix without mic’ing everything? Here are some tips for you to help you with your small venue and and small budget live mixing.
The most important thing to remember is you should never be louder than your quietest instrument. If you have an underpowered guitar amplifier, then everyone in the band is going to have to set their volume levels to that amplifier or else it’s going to be totally lost in the overall mix. The most common instrument to mix to when you don’t have the ability to mic everything is the drumset. Nowadays, even the cheap amplifiers can get louder than the drumset. So how do you determine what your quietest instrument is? That brings us to tip number two, always record your mix.
The best thing to do is bring along a portable recorder such as the Zoom H2 Portable Stereo Recorder. Simply place the recorder somewhere out in the room and record a song. Listen to the playback of the mix and a lot of problems will become very obvious. You’ll be able to hear which instruments jump out and which instruments disappear in the mix. You’ll also be able to hear if there are too many high frequencies or if things sound muddy and muffled. The recording will be your most powerful tool in getting a decent live mix. Once you’re able to identify which instrument is the quietest it’s simply a matter of setting the volume levels on everything else to match it. Which brings us to tip number three, listen to your neighbor.
If you don’t have a soundman and are mixing by ear from the stage, it’s essential that you listen to the other instruments in the band. There is going to have to be a lot of compromise if you want to achieve a good live mix without mic’ing things through the P.A. and having a soundman. Just remember that it’s in your best interest to have the entire band sound good. All the players that can move around while they play should walk around onstage and listen to the mix. Remember to be fair in your evaluation. If the guitar seems too loud by the guitar amp, that’s because it should be loud in that spot and that’s okay onstage. Be sure to check your recording to make sure things are blending well out where the audience is. Just remember to listen to your band mates when you get things set so you know how things should sound onstage in relation to each other.
Finally, remember to EQ your amplifiers to compliment each other. That means backing down on the the bass frequencies on the guitar amp. It seems like guitar amps with too much bass are almost always the main offenders when it comes to muddy sound. Check out my posts on amplifier equalization and EQ Frequencies for more EQ’ing tips. Watch out for extremely loud cymbals or individual drums as well. Hopefully your drummer is skilled enough to control his touch to maintain a balanced sound on an out of balance drumset.
It is possible to get an excellent live mix using only onstage amplification if you’re willing to spend the time to get things set properly. Hopefully the tips in this post will help point you in the right direction.