Friday, September 28, 2012

Mixing Front of House

I just read an article over at covering the life and times of an engineer. I read the whole thing but what really struck me was the paragraph describing the time in 1968 when he mixed from the house for the first time. He's regarded as being the first British engineer to do so and discovered this trick while in the States. He liked it so much that he built his own snake while on tour and took it back to England. 
It was a real brain twister to imagine a time when mixing from out where the audience is was the new and crazy thing to do. Myself, when I meet up with a band that thinks they're doing fine with the bass player mixing their set from on stage, or I'm forced to mix a wedding band from side stage because the venue won't let me run cables I just shudder. It seems like the easiest thing to make sense of. The audience is hearing the sound, the sound guy should hear the sound from where they do.
So what do you do if you find yourself forced to mix from some spot that's so far from ideal that it's laughable? There's a few things:

Walk the room.
You should do this even if you're mixing from the best seat in the house. Things sound different in different places. Right in front of the stacks, by the back wall, under the balcony, in the middle, they've all got their peculiarities and it's up to you to hear them and take that knowledge back to the mix. Then you can work on optimizing your mix so that as many seats as possible are hearing the best mix possible. Doing it from beside or behind the stage just means you take more steps to accomplish this.
Get help.
There's nothing like a second set of ears to make things go faster and better in this situation. A two way radio or intercom system doesn't hurt either. Text messages will work in a pinch but are usually too slow. In the past I've worked out hand signals. Two fingers plucking for bass. Flat hand slapping for kick. Hand strumming for acoustic guitar. Fingers "soloing" for electric guitar. Numbers for vocalists. Throw the sign for a little more, throw the sign with a finger pointing down for a little less. 
I like to have a second set of ears on hand even when I'm mixing from a great spot. On a high channel count mix or when you're responsible for other details you can easily miss something. Having a pair of ears that you trust, or even just a helpful suggestion from a stranger can help keep all the details under control.

Fight for your right.
There's always a possibility that you can stick up for yourself and get the mix put somewhere that makes sense sonically. I've been told by a venue that I had to be side stage to then have the band threaten to walk off the gig. That gets results but can also backfire. You get more flies with honey than vinegar so start out by asking what the issue is. If it's cables offer to cover them, or run them overhead. If it's space, see how small you can make your mix position and see if that will appease the powers that be. 
Some people will be willing to deal but don't hold your breath. There's this conception held by many that mixing audio is just like car repair or something like that. That it's complex and technical but if you follow procedures you'll get results. "What?! You just turn the knobs and sound comes out, do it over there where you're not in the way of the dance floor!" You'll never convince those people, especially when you consider that they've likely also been burned by bad sound guys in the past.

Brethren of the Knob and Fader it's a wild world out there. It's amazing what will come against you when you just want to go in and do a good mix. Just keep in mind how things used to be and press on. Here's a link to that article:

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