Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wrangling a Big Mix

Editor's Note: This marks the 100th post since this blog was started about three months ago. That's a post a day the whole time. Thanks to all who have read and all who have contributed. Interested in writing for us? Get in touch!
I've been thinking a lot lately about mixing my next big project in the box and how I can make that more like mixing on an analog console. When I get right down to it, on the forty-eight channel Midas I mix on every week, I really don't touch every fader every week once things get rolling. Through careful planning and use of VCAs I can stay right at the master section and have everything I need right within reach.
My first article about VCAs can be found here LINK

The planning that went into how I patched my show really just follows what's sort of an industry standard. Drums start on channel one and you work your way up through the inputs until you wind up with lead instruments and vocals right near the master section.  There are slight variations depending on the situation and the engineer, but for the most part you should be able to walk up to any mix in the world and find the bass channels near the drums and then rhythm instruments followed by lead instruments and so on.

I used to not see the utility in this back when I would mix a whole rock band on ten channels. What does it matter where I put anything if I can touch the whole mix with my two hands? Maybe not much, but if someone is going to take over for me, even on a small mix like that one, and has to look to channel one for the lead vocal when they're expecting it at the extreme right it slows them down. Maybe not much on a little Mackie, but on a big Midas it could be disastrous.

So back to my layout. I start out with drums way down at the left. I don't touch them much during a service so having them all on a VCA at the center of the console is usually enough. I can drive the drum mix more into compression or open it up by moving that VCA fader. If something needs to change in the drum mix it's just one big step to my left, but that's a step that I don't want to take too often. I keep piling on inputs and remote controlling them with VCAs until I get up to the ones that I'm going to want to keep a hand on at all times. Keys and electric guitars need a lot of attention, so even though they have their own VCAs in the center, they're right there within easy reach if I want to change the balance within those groups of instruments. My left hand seldom leaves the guitar channels.

Skipping over the center section where I now have remote control over all my instrument groups I've got all the vocals immediately to the right. For festival work I lay the channels out as the mics appear on stage from left to right, but in church I put my two lead vocal channels first, closest to hand, then my backup singers, then speaking mics and lastly the choir (on a VCA of course).  I also keep a couple channels open right next to the center section for guest musicians. I want a player I'm not familiar with to be right there so I can continue to tweak as things turn up. Also, they may just be sitting in with the rhythm section, but there's a good chance they'll be taking a solo and I don't want to miss that because they were way down on channel thirty-nine.
Way, way, way off in the distance are eight channels of playback, all set to unity and their monitor settings all dialed in. Once again those are something that I don't want to take a big hop to my right to mess with. I seldom have more than one playback rolling at a time so it's super easy to have one VCA for all the canned audio. I dial the individual channels up to account for any differences in level, so when that remote control fader is set at a certain point, I know about how loud things will be.

Now getting down to mix time. When the band starts up for the first time I do a couple sweeps of the whole console and tweak a few things. Then I settle in with my left hand on the guitars and my right hand on my lead vocals. Once things settle in I move my right hand to the bank of VCAs. I've got the whole mix under easy control, usually without looking. I can keep my eyes on the performers, which is important because I'm also responsible for ten monitor mixes from up at FOH. When the dynamics of a song change, I'm only moving my hands a few inches, maybe swapping my left hand to the VCAs and working on the vocal balance for a minute, then switching back. Every now and then I'll wander off to drum land but usually not more than once or twice in a service. I do like to change the balance between the two kick mics and the two snare mics if there's a big shift in the tone of the songs.
I mention all this because the same philosophy transfers very easily to mixing in the box. If you've got a big project that you'll be mixing with a mouse, setting up your channels in an orderly fashion is a big help. If you'll be handing it off to someone else then organization is a must. By setting up group master faders or VCAs or whatever method your platform has to offer, you can pre-mix a lot by working on groups individually. Then when your drums and guitars and keys and vocals are all pretty close, you can get down to business without having to touch a multitude of channels. 

If you have some sort of physical control surface you can try to get all your groups represented there and save a couple for important channels like lead vocal or dialogue.  Then you can enable the automation recording and start to make passes. Once in a while you'll want to stop and go in and tweak something with the mouse, but you can do a really organic, human sounding mix this way. But you have to do your homework. Good editing and preparation are key. You don't want to be trying to fix a blip in the keys mix with a fast fader move at mixdown.

These are just some of my thoughts on the mixing procedure. I'd love to hear from our readers on what your doing with your own mixes. Hit the comment link below or look us up on Facebook or Twitter and join the Brethren of the Knob and Fader.

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