Sunday, March 4, 2012

Practice Makes Percect (er)

You know the old saying.  Think about how it applies to your mixing.  I come from a background that includes a lot of one-offs and festival style mixing.  It went a lot like this for me most of the time:

Step 1: Hi I'm Jon, I'm the sound guy.
Step 2: Kick, now snare, etc, etc, etc... lead vocal, everybody hear all right? Good, GO!
Step 3: Hey guys, good set, see you again never.

I've always enjoyed the challenge of making a band sound as good as I possibly can as quickly as I can.  This has lead me to have quite a few tricks up my sleeve for when something out of the ordinary turns up.  (I once drew a standing ovation from a crew at a rock fest because when faced with a cello I grabbed some foam and a 57 and had her in the mix without batting an eyelash.)  The other nice thing about guerrilla mixing is that the pressure to create a perfect performance isn't there and all involved are a bit more forgiving.  And it's a once in a lifetime experience.  Put it up and there it goes, off into the aether to join all the rest of the live performances wherever they wing there way off to over the horizon.

It was always nice though to have a band sort of adopt me as their pet sound guy.  You get to know the players and their preferences, memorize the set and come up with some custom mix tricks and effects.  And when you know things really well and have the trust of the performers you give some detailed feedback that can help them further develop their show.

Now days I'm firmly planted somewhere in the middle.  As a church sound guy I've got a few things nailed down for me from week to week.  Same room, same console, same basic sort of program material, and the only thing that changes in my case is that apart from a few key players, I'm looking at a different band every week.  Sometimes the stage is packed, sometimes it's really sparse.  So in that at least I'm always facing a new challenge.

Here's where I'm forced to be a little more on my game though.  I get one rehearsal on Wednesday night while the band works through the material.  Stops and starts, three or four times through a song some times.  It's a great way to get the material in my head and let it sort of percolate so I can come up with some ideas on how to present things at the weekend services.  I get a chance to make some notes and think about the over all composition and try pushing different things to the front of the mix.

I get another complete run through on Saturday night.  We try to make that as close to the actual set as possible, only stopping to go over something if it really needs it.  We also cover any lighting and projection notes, and anything the clergy might have to throw our way.

And that's it.  Two run throughs and we go live.  It's really pushed me to up my game and I have to say that if there's any way for you to attend rehearsals of the bands you'll be mixing you should definitely do it.  There are a couple things to watch out for though.  The first is that things sound way different in the rehearsal space on a rehearsal PA than they will in a venue.  The second is that rehearsal is rehearsal, and the show is the show (or service, such as the case may be).

When it's practice, most of the time the energy level isn't there.  People are focusing on learning and fine tuning.  When the lights go up and there are people in the seats the dynamic of the situation totally changes.  In my situation I'm lucky to have my rehearsal in the space where the service will take place.  But even with that, the room will be a different temperature and humidity based on attendance, HVAC settings, and a few other things.  Peoples' perceptions differ as well.  Things sound a lot different to me when I compare the Saturday night service to the Sunday morning ones.

So there's a lot to be learned in a rehearsal situation that can improve your game across the board.  If you venture into the realms of recording, having your ear well tuned to look for variations in playing over multiple takes is a real plus.  I think it helps you become more aware of the players too, their energy levels, confidence, and so on.  Also anyone who's been at this for a while can attest to the fact that the sound guy plays a similar role to a bar tender.  A shoulder to cry on, someone to complain about a break up to, or a problem with an instrument or amp.  You also have an opportunity to build your players up, with some constructive criticism and encouragement, you can do a lot for their confidence when it's go time.

And that's it for now, keep those comments and guest post submissions pouring in!

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