Monday, October 1, 2012

Dear SNR: Eike Hillenkötter - Live Mix Smorgasbord

Tonmeister deluxe
Nothing has surprised me more than finding out that this blog and podcast had found a following in Germany. A couple of our most vocal contributors reside there and not too long ago our friend Eike dropped me a line with a wealth of suggestions.  If my responses run on too long look for a part two tomorrow!
Since you mentioned several times that you all are running out of ideas (sort of) I thought I'd write in with a couple of questions and ideas, some of them might be worth discussing on the show. If not, you're of course welcome to write me back, anyhow.

Here we go:

- When you mix live, how much of a "real time producer" are you? Do you just make sure everything gets heard, or do you sometimes  think you can make the band sound better by sort of messing with their arrangement a little? (pulling back annoying parts, highlighting great parts which maybe weren't meant to be featured). How about effects? Do you apply them at will, or do you err on the cautious side? (maybe only using vocal effects when the band specifically asks you to)
As soon as I'm done sorting out all the physical technical details that's about all I do. To do it well though you need to try and understand the band, as much as that's possible twenty minutes after meeting them that is. It gets easier the more you work with an artist. My philosophy is to make a band sound just like they sound, but better. Sometimes it's as simple as just turning up the guitar solos in the right places. But with more delicate types of music it requires careful listening and balancing the sound to suit the song. I'll be constantly listening for what instrument should be on top and when to make changes.

As for effects I tend to be pretty conservative. Unless it's an act that I work with all the time and we're really going after something that they did on a recording I've got a basic setup that has served me well for years. I like to have one reverb for drums and another for vocals and other instruments like acoustic guitar. If there's only one available I'll pick one or the other based on the type of music and the room. How I make that choice is basically just gut instinct based on past experience. I try not to over think it and I can always change my mind. 

The other thing I keep on hand is just a simple tap delay. I might do a short delay with no feedback to add a touch of "space" to a vocal in a room where adding reverb would just muddy stuff up. The next step would be a "Buddy Holly" type slapback which works great on country, oldies, and certain other stuff. Then there's the longer delays with more feedback, making more "repeats". That can be used for anything from doing literal repeats of the last word of a line like in Billy Idol songs, to lengthening screams in heavy metal. My favorite thing is to be subtle about it and match the beat to create an effect that just adds power to a vocal without being an obvious effect. Like the singer is so good that his voice is shooting out of the club and ringing off the mountains.

As for asking permission I never do. Only rarely has an artist specifically asked me to not do effects before a gig. More often I get asked what I've got and usually the paragraphs you just read are conveyed in shortened format and we quickly hit on something that appeals to them. Only a couple times has an artist asked me to turn something off mid-set and that was a long time ago when I was a much greener engineer. Usually if I hear anything about it at all it's an enthusiastic thank you for making the vocals sound great. But mostly it's not talked about, at least on the gigs that I work.

- While working as a bands live engineer, so I often work with systems I have no say of setting up. How do you advance a show? do you have to? whats on your "tech rider"?
I wrote an article about tech riders a while back (so did Karl). The long and short of it is that usually you send over an over inflated list of dream gear that you want and the venue sends back a pack of lies about what they have and how much of it works. I'll usually bring a mic box and a few problem solvers. If I'm really worried I'll bring a small rack with some effects, dynamics and a couple channels of EQ in it.

It really all goes back to my philosophy that you can day dream about wonderful gear all you want, but if you can't make it happen on a half dead Mackie and no working horns on the left side then you're in the wrong business. So much of what we do is compromise that you're better off getting good at making decisions about what's most important to you so you can adapt in a hurry.

A perfect example of how much things can suck is when you finally get to that point in your career when you're starting to mix artists that get to play decent sized festival stages. You salivate for weeks with the expectation of mixing on a big Midas through a sweet line array. Then when you get there you find out that the headliner has the first twenty-four channels locked out, eight are reserved for effects returns and you can't touch them either, and of the sixteen that are left, two don't work at all and one has an annoying buzz on it. Out the window goes your twenty channel input list and you better be able to do it in a hurry and still make things sound great.

Well, that turned into a pretty lengthy post and I'm only half way through the material he sent me. Tune in tomorrow Brethren of the Knob and Fader, and see what other audio goodness Brother Kike has for us!

1 comment:

  1. Hey,

    thanks for the post. Excellent advice as usual. I'll read your old "tech rider" posts for sure. I have had similar experiences. I wrote a pretty detailed tech rider / input list / board setup chart, but it rarely gets any attention at all :) Most of the time the channels and the board are set up as a sort of onesizefitsall solution, so I of course just work with that.

    As for fx and "producing" I have almost the exact same approach. :)


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