Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Art vs. The Science

I got into a great discussion the other day on a forum about how much of what a live mixer does can be considered "art".  My counterpart's point of view was that yes, you do need to be able to get creative when coming up with solutions to problems but when it comes to the actual mixing it's only about 5% art and the rest is just being on top of the tech.

Let me start by getting completely away from audio and using some examples from a museum.  Unless I'm in a really good creative relationship with a performer I think of myself as more of a curator, but even then there's an art to it.  There's a school of thought that would take any painting in a museum and just hang it on a blank white wall with a good light on it and call it a day.  That way the environs don't interfere with the art. I think maybe my counterpart is in a situation where he's limited to this type of work.  But some curators would take paintings from a French artist and hang them on a stucco wall with a few hints of red roof tiles tucked up by the ceiling, throw around some peasant furniture and try to make things a little like the South of France to be more engaging.

In another example, I got to experience an exhibition where there was a mummy of an ancient Egyptian king on display.  Years ago it would have been in the middle of a big room with ropes around it and security guards.  Instead, you went into a side gallery and got funneled through rooms that slowly put you in context with the culture and process.  The rooms kept getting smaller and darker until you were in an eight by ten room, very dark, with one down light on a glass case that was just big enough for the mummy.  You could put your nose two inches from an actual pharaoh's shoulder.  There wasn't a person in there who didn't fall immediately silent and experience it in a truly profound way.
One last museum example.  At the Smithsonian there's a room that shows you what it's like to be on a WWII era navy ship.  Instead of artifacts in cases, they chopped a two story chunk out of an old ship and built it in.  When you walk in, all the light was daylight temperature, the air was five degrees cooler, and the air smelled like salt.

Let's go back to the audio realm.  When I'm mixing in a club and meeting bands for the first time I try to get beyond basic info like how many members and what instruments.  I try to find out what kind of a vibe they're after and what they want to sound like.  It's usually pretty clear and from there I know what my next step needs to be.

If they've got a record and they want to sound just like it you're looking at a painting on a white wall scenario.  If that's the case then I try to get them to play at least a little of it so I can try to figure out how I'm going to match days of studio work with dynamic mics and no time.  Respect is the key, the studio engineer's work is the guideline but you have to pick and choose what to try and recreate to get the sound as close as you can.  

If they've got a concept or direction but not any definite idea what they want to sound like then you can take a little creative license and go the route of the environmental route like the French painting scenario.  It sounds kind of bad but I'm reaching for stereotypes at this point.  Hair metal revival act?  Big hair = big snare, wailing guitars, lots of vocal effects.  Punk bands get the dirty treatment.  You get the idea.

If they're a little more conceptual, you get to go the route of the Egyptian exhibition.  They describe a feel and give some ideas, and then you go off and try to build that display that shows the audience what they're about and funnels them toward the heart of it.  To me this means doing things like picking and choosing what instruments are in the foreground and blending back and forth.  There might be loops or samples and room for strange effects patches.

And lastly there are bands that just want to sound like what they sound like, only louder.  This is one of my favorite types to work for.  It's the battle ship scenario.  This is it, the real deal, with just a few extra tidbits thrown in to kick it up a notch.  I'll usually have a band like that just play their instruments for me one at a time while I'm micing up.  Once I've got their tones in my head it's an easy reach to head back to the mix and make it sound like that out front.  And of course you can add in those nice little touches that make a live band sound great like tasteful effects and dynamic processing.

Going one step beyond this is when you strike up a good working relationship with an artist.  I love it when a band feels comfortable around me and says, "Yeah Jon, just do what you want with the effects and stuff, make us sound great!"  When you know the material and the players you can do all sorts of stuff.  Not just easy stuff like anticipating solos or tap delay settings either.  When you can tell what a band is thinking you can start mixing to match the emotion better.  I've had many a band walk up to me after seeing me mix someone I know and ask me if I can do that for them.  It's not as easy but I'll always give it a try.  

There's not always a lot of room to experiment though.  A four piece rock band is pretty much a four piece rock band.  The times when you get to really stretch your creative muscles are when you're working with a larger group that has more to work with.  A typical band where I work is drums, bass, two electric guitars and one or two acoustic, three keys doing piano, organ and pads, sometimes a sax and six vocalists.  I have so much fun trying to figure out what instrument I'm going to feature at any moment.  Sometimes it's by design or request from the director, but a lot of the time I'll just hear something and go for it, or try random stuff at a rehearsal and see what's hiding under the main theme.  Or if a stretch of music starts to get boring, like multiple repeats, I'll grab three channels and slowly work them back and forth against each other every few measures.  It's the same thing for dozens of measures but every four the acoustic comes a little to the front, then the piano and so on.

And finally, going back to getting creative about the tech.  Let's say I'm out with a band and we show up at a festival stage.  There's a big ol' Midas or A&H at front of house, 48 channels let's say.  But the headliner has 24 of them locked out, and there's another 8 in use for returns, playback and a DJ.  That leaves me 16 but two of those don't work.  So now I've got to figure out how I'm going to take my 24 channel input list and get it down to 14 channels that I also have to share with the other support acts and won't have access to until line check.  Oh... and don't touch the reverbs.

To quickly run through the process... 12 drum channels is out of the question, so do I really need two kick mics? maybe not, two snares, probably yes.  Toms area  given but can I get away with just one overhead, sure what the heck.  Bass DI only and skip the mic.  Have to have two mics per guitar, it's another post but I just can't live without it. What am I up to, 12?  That leaves one singer out so skip one of the tom mics and just double the other one up on the racks.

Now I have that settled and figuring it out has informed my mixing technique.  One kick mic means I'll need to be very careful about placement to get all the boom and crack that I want.  One bass input means careful EQ and compression too.  Twin guitar mics on each rig means I can spend more time on other stuff because having a fat channel and a skinny one that I can play back and forth against each other usually means the EQ can stay flat.  And if I know my singers pretty well I can usually set their channel EQ in advance and just tweak it when they check their mics.  That's getting creative about the tech, but it has to lead to getting creative with the music or I feel like you may as well just get System Engineer or Audio Tech printed on your business cards.  
A real audio engineer, even one without a degree, understands the tech and the gear, but the most important thing is ears, yours and the audience's.  A great engineer get's the music and the artist and uses his or her craft not just to amplify sounds and couple them into a room, but to do the same for the emotions involved.  They understand and respect the audience too.  There's a lot more to consider than not abusing them with too much level, there's a connection to be made there.

So that's it for now Brethren of the Knob and Fader.  Hit me up in the comment section or on Facebook or Twitter and weigh in on the subject.  The links are up top on the right.

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