Miking Rock Guitars Live: Timeless Tricks to Getting a Studio Sound Live

Since the dawn of amplified guitars, front-of-house engineers have grappled with players in a fierce battle for control over the mix — and nowhere is this more apparent than in the rock world. Usually the band soundchecks and the guitar player's rig is at a reasonable volume. When show time comes, the guitar player kicks it up a few dB. By the end of the evening, the guitar rig is pumping out 105 dBs. If the engineer asks the player to turn it down, the invariable response is, “I can't get my tone at a low volume.” In an effort to keep the vocals audible, the P.A. must be cranked up louder. Call me old school, but I'd like the whole thing at a lower level.

Obviously, others feel my pain, as technology brings options for amplifying guitar while keeping both engineer and guitarist happy. To find the best techniques for capturing rock guitars live, I turned to classic bands who have honed their performances over many, many years on the road — and the veteran engineers who make them sound great.

When engineer Mark Newman toured with Blondie in 2004, “They wanted a very quiet stage, so they used iso cabs for guitarists Chris Stein and Paul Carbonara,” he says. “Their amps were onstage [for easy access], and the cabinets were placed behind the drum riser. Each was a carpeted 18×18×40-inch custom cab and single 12-inch speaker, 1/4-inch input jack and XLR output on the side, with hinged lids allowing access to the speaker and mic. The speakers were mounted horizontally within the box, cone facing up. We stuffed the box lids with fiberfill to deaden them, as they didn't like the ‘closed-box’ sound they were getting without the fill. I liked it better with the fill, as it added a kind of natural compression to the sound. We started with Shure KSM 32s inside the boxes, then changed to Beta 56s. We also added a Palmer PDI-09 DI in-line with the guitar signal path, just before it plugged into the speaker cabinet. I would then mix the two sources together to create the most killer guitar tone ever!”

Handling no less than seven input channels for one guitar rig is William Wellbaum (of Sound Image, San Diego, Calif.), the current house engineer for Pat Benatar. “Guitarist Neil Geraldo runs his rig in the 100-plus-dB range, so we have his two Marshalls pointed upstage to keep it manageable in the house,” says Wellbaum. “I use three stereo pairs: L/R Sennheiser 421s, L/R [Shure] SM57s, stereo outputs from a Line 6 POD, plus a beyerdynamic M88. These are all at different levels in the mix. The 57s provide the overall tone, the POD gives me the low-mid crunch and I kick up the 421s for Neil's solos. The 421s and 57s are right at the grille, on-axis, with the 57s pointed close to the center of the speakers and the 421s pointed at the edge of the cone. The single M88 is placed back from the rig by a few feet, and I use it to capture the overall sound of the entire rig. Neil is a huge part of the band's sound. His Marshalls are running an eight out of 10, and he is quite prominent in the mix.”

Don “Dodge” Dodger, currently out FOH mixing for Foreigner, agrees with the offstage cabinet philosophy: “We are totally on in-ears these days and don't even have any amps onstage anymore. Mick Jones' amp is in an iso box and I mike it with two Shure KSM 32s so I can split the pan out front hard L/R to keep it away from the lead vocal, which is up the middle. This gives a little more separation in the house. It may not be groundbreaking, but it works.”

Employing a variation of the offstage cabinet is Kansas' production manager/FOH engineer Chad Singer. He uses a “fairly conventional” miking method on Rich Williams' guitar rig, but the cabinet location is a little unusual. The entire guitar rig is on the floor directly in front of Williams except for the Peavey 4×12 stereo cabinet. “We try to place that cabinet as far away from the stage as possible, either in another room or offstage in guitar world, blowing away from the stage,” Singer says. “We cover the cab with thick drape to absorb as much sound as possible to separate a very loud guitar cab from the drum and vocal mics. I use two Heil PR-30 mics on the Peavey cabinet, slightly off the center of the speakers. I like the edgy, direct sound of the diaphragm, which helps separate the guitar in the mix from the warmer keys and bass.

“The entire band uses in-ear monitors without wedges or side-fills, and with no guitar cab onstage to provide that ambient sound, we ‘fake it’ in a number of ways,” Singer continues. “We have a couple ambient mics onstage. Rich gets the direct guitar mics, the ambient mics and the entire front-of-house mix for a little clarity. That keeps Rich from feeling like his head's stuck to the side of the guitar cab, while at FOH I have a clean and direct guitar sound without a cab blasting onstage. The other electric guitar — played by our violinist Dave Ragsdale — is run through a Line 6 guitar POD, just using a mono DI without any guitar cabs.”

Yet not all guitar players are happy with an offstage cabinet. “For the guitar tone purists that want in-ears, putting the cabinet completely offstage just doesn't work,” says Brian Bavido, FOH engineer for Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band. “I found that turning the cabinets around [so they don't blast FOH or the audience] gives the players the ‘feel’ they want. If you take the cabinet completely offstage, the lack of air movement or vibration on the deck doesn't thrill most players. Iso cabs simply don't sound the same, they seem to choke the low end on the cabinet.

“I've also used Line 6 products at FOH,” Bavido continues. “I'll take a clean guitar line out to me, put it in the POD and then play around with sounds a bit. This is never used as the ‘main’ sound, but it can be added to fill out the mix a bit. With the new Eleven simulator plug-in included on the Digidesign VENUE console, my world has opened up with tailoring sounds on a per-song basis. I've seen quite a few bands doing amp simulators only and it's real slick. I would prefer a band to just use simulators alone and not even try using cabs.”

Engineer Brad Madix has worked with Shaker, Queensryche and Rush, and was introduced to the Palmer Speaker Simulator via Def Leppard in the early '90s. “I was immediately convinced that this would be great along with the pair of 57s on the Marshalls, adding a little ‘direct’ sound to the great cabinet sound I had,” he says. “It's remarkable what happens when you put two things side-by-side: I spent the next several weeks trying to get the 57s to sound as good as the Palmers! I finally scrapped the 57s. The direct signal always sounded better. The low end was tighter and the entire signal was clearer. The result was a significantly more usable and cohesive guitar sound, with no bleed from the monitors.

“After that initial direct-versus-57 experience, I had better luck with large-diaphragm mics like the [Audio-Technica] AT4050, but I always gravitated toward putting the mics offstage somewhere. The sound was just less ‘smeared.’ Queensryche — like many acts these days — puts a pair of single-12 cabinets in a pair of custom-made road cases, and we stuck the 4050s in there. There were no phase anomalies, no leakage from other sound sources and I didn't have to smash the mic up against the grille. I could back it off a bit and capture a little more of the cone. They had a superclean-sounding stage. I've used a similar setup with Shakira over the past couple of years, though she has a few floor wedges scattered around the stage.

“Another reason to consider using a direct or offstage mic setup is the shenanigans onstage, which brings me to Marilyn Manson. The odds that a mic stand would get knocked over on his stage were about 2 in 5! It just made sense to do as many things as possible direct and skip the whole headache. Consistency is also a huge factor. There are only a few knobs on the Palmers. It's hard to screw it up, and the Dis do the same thing every day. Any engineer who has spent any time fiddling with guitar mics knows that a fraction of an inch can entirely change the sound, especially when the mics are so close, as they need to be on an un-isolated guitar cabinet.”

Kurt Schlegel deals with some very unconventional guitar rigs. “When mixing house for The Melvins,” he explains, “there's always lots of amp to mike and lots of tone to play with. Buzzo's [King Buzzo, guitar for The Melvins] rig consists of a 4×12 and one or two single 15-inch speakers. The challenge is to make him even larger than life. For the 12-inch speakers, I use a pair of Shure KSM 32s on different speakers and pan the mics hard-left and -right. These mics have great body, top end that's easy to work with and rarely require much in the way of EQ. On the 15-inch speaker, I use an Electro-Voice RE20 [sometimes a Sennheiser 421] on-axis and near the center of the cone to capture the lows and a really growly tone. This mic is panned center and run about 3 dB lower than the KSM 32s. All of these mics are placed pretty close to the grille and toward the edge of the dust cover, slightly off-center. The RE20 or 421 is on-axis to the speaker, but the KSM 32s are slightly off-axis. I'm careful about checking the phase of these mics because I am not combining the mics as a form of EQ. During the set, I raise the RE20 for solos or ride the groups of faders for the huge washes of guitar that Buzzo is nice enough to provide.”

Over the past year, Blue Öyster Cult has done some shows where we had the pleasure of supporting Kansas, and their setup sparked an idea that we now use for Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser when we're playing small rooms. Buck's Steinberger feeds an X2 Digital Wireless, and the output of the X2 is connected directly into a rackmount effects device, typically an Alesis Quadraverb but sometimes a TC Electronic G-Major. The stereo outs of the effects device are patched into the effects returns of two 100-watt Marshall JCM900s, which drive one Marshall 4×12 cabinet switched for stereo operation. Needless to say, this rig can get kind of loud — and Buck likes it that way! In smaller rooms, this becomes a problem because the stage volume can overwhelm both the audience and the house P.A. system.

Our solution to this volume issue stems from what we saw Kansas doing with Rich [Williams'] guitar rig: We turn Buck's 4×12 around so that the rear of the speaker cabinet faces the audience. This keeps the cabinet from blowing out into the audience and overpowering the room. Behind the cabinet (where the front now is), we place a pair of dynamic mics, preferably Audix D3s. I'll start with the D3s at the center of the cone, move them an inch or two toward the rim of the dust cap, and then angle them about 30-degrees off-axis. This tames any high-frequency nasties; pointing any mic straight toward the center of the speaker cone usually results in a sound that's too brittle for Buck. Buck then gets a bit of guitar in his monitor or in-ears to make up for the lack of stage sound. Problem solved.


In addition to being Mix's sound reinforcement editor, Steve La Cerra is tour manager and FOH for Blue Öyster Cult. From MIX Magazine. Used by permission.

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David McLain Technical Sales CCI SOLUTIONS
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160 Channels of Wireless Used for T-Mobile Flash Mob Event

Normally, a cell-phone commercial wouldn't be appropriate for the Church Soundguy page. Church technicians aren't usually concerned with cell-phone marketing.

But we are concerned with wireless microphones, and this commercial uses a lot of wireless technology. All of the mics in the shot are live: Shure got 160 channels of wireless working in one location at one time! That's a lot of frequencies. In addition to making a nice feel-good commercial, it reportedly set some sort of record for the most wireless mics in use at one time. All of the wireless mics were from Shure's UHF-R series.

A word from our sponsors: If you're looking for top-of-the-line wireless (or just "competent" wireless), email me, tell me you saw
it on Church Soundguy, and ask for your special pricing. We can design you a wireless system to fit your needs and your budget. OK. End of commercial.

First, here's the video from the 160-channel wireless shoot:




And here's Shure's press release for how it happened. It gives some of the technical details for the antenna distribution and frequency selection as well:

160 Channels of Shure UHF-R Wireless Used for T-Mobile Flash Mob Event

Shure Mics Performed Perfectly at the Largest Karaoke Event in the World


NILES, IL, May 19, 2009 — Hand Held Audio Ltd (HHA), a leading tour production company based in the UK, supplied 160 channels of Shure UHF-R wireless microphones for the latest T-Mobile flash-mob advertising event. Several Associates from Shure Distribution UK (SDUK) provided technical support for the karaoke style event, which was a world first and the largest RF event of its kind ever recorded.

Led by international pop/rock star Pink, more than 13,000 people descended on London’s Trafalgar Square to sing hits, including “Hey Jude” and “Is This the Way to Amarillo?” Members of the crowd were supplied with 160 Shure wireless microphones, including the Beta 58A® and SM58® models, each transmitting on independent RF channels. Footage from the event will be used to produce a series of television advertisements for T-Mobile, some of which can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orukqxeWmM0

HHA was responsible for deploying the wireless technology for the event and determined that 160 wireless channels were required to meet the needs of the project. Faced with such a massive technical challenge, HHA called on Shure to assist during the planning and to provide onsite support throughout the event. The final frequency plan comprised 162 channels (two extras for Pink) occupying 518 MHz to 865 MHz.

Providing coverage for all of Trafalgar Square, which measures 100 meters by 60 meters, presented a significant challenge because every microphone needed its own channel, as they would have to run alongside each other simultaneously all day. In addition, the busy RF environment in Central London and the potential inter-modulation between frequencies also compounded the problem of successfully isolating enough frequencies.

“We decided to use Shure UHF-R, as it offered the best in current radio mic technology and frequency ranges needed to make this work,” said Tarkan Akdam, Technical Manager at HHA. “The antenna system, designed to feed the 80 dual receivers, had to have enough gain to provide sufficient levels of coverage, but not too much that inter-modulation and RF interference would cause problems. It was a question of getting the balance right.”

“We opted for a four-way antenna system, with passive Shure wideband paddles [PA805SWB],” he added. “I designed and built a four-way wideband, low noise, high gain RF head amp system, all interconnected with over 400 meters of double shielded Triax cable.”

This set-up ensured that voice data from every microphone would be picked up, while minimizing interference from other RF channels. A second pair of Shure active wideband antennas were installed on the broadcast truck aimed at Pink’s podium to guarantee coverage for her microphone. To properly distribute the RF signal, Tarkan opted for 21 Shure UA845 antenna distribution units.

“Isolating 160 channels is a big task in any location, and being in the center of London made this an incredibly technical and precise task,” Akdam explained. “We faced several issues. Trafalgar Square is already a busy RF environment, with frequencies in use by local business, TV stations, and theater productions in the nearby West End. We needed to take into account any local TV transmitters so we didn’t interfere with anyone else whilst ensuring that the singers’ voices came through crisp and clear. Sufficiently strong wireless coverage, to ensure we picked up all the mics, was a must.”

Before the event, several field strength tests were conducted to check for potential interference and ensure that all 162 channels would run alongside each other.

“We ran tests initially with 40 channels, and the day before the event we had 160 running at once,” Akdam commented. “The task was incredibly daunting, but on the day it went off without a hitch, and we are very pleased with the result. The Shure mics and UHF-R equipment worked superbly, with voices of the singers delivered seamlessly to the receivers. In terms of size, we believe this is a world’s first in RF events.”

“Events of this nature require resources and having fewer things to worry about is always a great help,” he added. “I knew with Tuomo Tolonen from SDUK, I had the full backing of Shure…which in turn meant I was a lot more positive that we could achieve what we set out to do. Using the knowledge of the application engineers put me in a better position to cross any technical hurdles.”

Courtesy Shure Bros. Used by Permission.

As usual, if you have difficulty with the video, click on the article's title ("160 Channels of Wireless...").

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David McLain | The Wireless Guy! | CCI SOLUTIONS
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How to Set Up Choir & Overhead Mics

How to Properly Mic a Choir

Miking a choir or large vocal group is fairly easy and mic placement is not as critical as in other applications as long as a few simple guidelines are kept in mind.

When selecting a microphone, a condenser mic is your best choice, since most are able to pick up voices from up to 7 feet away and are more capable of a flat, wide-range frequency response.

Group of choir singersBefore positioning your microphones, imagine a 60 degree cone of sensitivity emerging from the front of the mic. Vocalists within that cone will be picked up louder than those outside the area. Also keep in mind that it is not possible to mic all voices evenly. Some voices will be louder than others. Take this into account when positioning your vocalists.

High quality mics will generally pick up about 25 people each, therefore use two microphones for up to 50 singers and add one mic for each additional 25. (Ex. a group of 58 would need three mics, a group of 80 would need four.)

If more than the recommended number of microphones are used, partial cancellation may occur. This occurs when the 60 degree cones overlap each other. A voice that is picked up equally by two microphones will not be heard.

choir miking diagramWhen positioning the microphones over the choir, they should be one foot in front of the front row and 24 to 36 inches over the heads of the front row. The mic should be pointed at the heads of the back row. This formula is very effective for up to three rows of vocalists.

Microphones can be either set up on mic stands or hung from the ceiling. Your decision depends on how long the system will be in place and how inconspicuous the mics must be and how portable they must remain. If the system is a temporary set-up, or the microphones need to be portable for other applications, mic stands will be your first choice. seated choir with directorIf you desire a neat, clean appearance and the system will be in place for a long time, hanging the microphones from the ceiling is the best choice.

If you have any questions on how to mic your choir or would like additional information, please feel free to call your CCI Solutions representative at 1-800-426-8664 or e-mail us at sales@ccisolutions.com


Courtesy CCI Solutions. Used with permission.

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Can You Hear Me Now? Why the Fletcher-Munson Curves are so Significant

The human auditory system is a fascinating and complex affair. As sound reaches you, it is in various parts deflected, absorbed, and otherwise filtered by your shoulders and head. It is then collected by your pinnae (the external part of your ears), whose dimensions and geometry further affect the sound on its way to the inner ear. There, vibration is translated into neural signals, which are interpreted by your psyche. In the 1930s, two scientists at Bell Labs tried to objectively measure the linearity of this elaborate affair, and what they discovered has profoundly affected everything from the design and measurement of audio gear to the development of audio data-reduction codecs.

Dangerous Curves

Harvey Fletcher and Wilden Munson discovered that our hearing is decidedly nonlinear with respect to frequency and perceived loudness, and they mapped this data at various levels to produce what have come to be known as the Fletcher-Munson Curves, or more generally the equal loudness contours (see Fig. 1).


FIG. 1: The Fletcher-Munson Curves, or equal loudness contours, show the degree to which our ears are nonlinear with regard to frequency. They favor upper-mid frequencies and struggle with quiet lows and highs.
Illustration: Chuck Dahmer

The two researchers asked subjects to compare the loudness of sine waves at different frequencies, identifying those that they felt were comparable in loudness to a 1 kHz sine wave at a fixed reference level. In general, tones at the high and low ends of the audible spectrum had to be significantly more powerful than the reference tone to be perceived as the same loudness. For example, to be “as loud as” a 40 dB SPL 1 kHz tone, a 10 kHz tone needs to be about 50 dB SPL, and a 100 Hz tone must be more than 60 dB SPL. The curve actually dips between 1 kHz and 5 kHz, with its nadir between 3 kHz and 4 kHz, depending on the reference level.

At lower SPLs, the variation is greater, while at higher levels, the variations are less significant, coming closest to leveling off at around 90 dB SPL. This is why wise mix and mastering engineers monitor at levels in the 85 to 90 dB SPL range, where our hearing is particularly flat.

The ways in which this nonlinear sensitivity is demonstrated in our audio experiences are myriad. Consider the sound of AM radio, low-bitrate audio codecs and public-address systems, all of which favor the overtones that give clarity to speech above all else. The Loudness button on consumer stereo receivers is an equalization circuit that boosts the highs and lows as the volume is lowered so the music will sound the same whether soft or loud. Noise-shaping circuits filter dither and quantization noise into the extreme upper range, where we will simply notice it less.

More Equal

To describe the concept of equal loudness regardless of frequency, the unit phon was developed. Each curve of the equal loudness contours defines a single phon level. For example, the curve that is 40 dB SPL at 1 kHz is defined as 40 phons; 40 phons at 10 kHz is therefore approximately 50 dB SPL and at 100 Hz slightly more than 60 dB SPL. Phons and decibels SPL are the same for a 1 kHz tone — an increase of 10 phons is equal to an increase of 10 dB at 1 kHz, but it may be more or less at other frequencies.

Many audio measurements are made using weighting curves that attempt to skew the results in favor of the way we actually hear. For example, the signal-to-noise ratio of a microphone preamp might be listed as 108 dB A-weighted, or sometimes just 108 dB(A). This means that the noise was filtered before measurement to exclude the extreme lows and highs to approximately the same degree our ears do at 40 phons. The rationale is that if we listen to the device at that level, then we will perceive the noise floor to be very low, even if there is significant noise in the low end of the spectrum because our ears are too insensitive to notice it. It's a reasonable proposition, except manufacturers sometimes use A-weighting for measurements at which a 40-phon reference level is of debatable relevance. Other weighting curves exist, but only C-weighting, whose curve resembles the 100-phon contour, and Z-weighting (zero-weighting), which is really no filter at all, are in common use.

Since the 1930s, other scientists have validated Fletcher and Munson's work, most notably D. W. Robinson and R. S. Dadson in the 1950s. The collective wisdom has been codified by the International Organization for Standardization as ISO 226:2003.


Brian Smithers, author of Mixing in Pro Tools: Skill Pack, from Cengage, teaches at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Fla. Published in Electronic Musician. Used with permission.
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David McLain Technical Sales CCI SOLUTIONS
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Dealing with Microphone Feedback

What is feedback?
Feedback is characterized by a sustained, ringing tone, which can vary from a low rumble to a piercing screech. Echoes and reverberation caused by room acoustics, as well as ground buzz and other extraneous noises, are not the same thing as feedback, and cannot be cured in the same manner.

What causes feedback?
Feedback occurs whenever the sound entering a microphone is reproduced by a loudspeaker, picked up by the microphone, and re-amplified again and again. The familiar howl of feedback is an oscillation that is triggered by sound entering the microphone. The easiest way to create feedback is to point a microphone directly into a loudspeaker. (We don t recommend you try this!) Placing the microphone too close to the loudspeaker, too far from the sound source, or simply turning the microphone up too loud exacerbates feedback problems. Other contributing factors are too many open microphones, poor room acoustics, and uneven frequency response in either the microphones or loudspeakers.

What can I do about feedback?
The single easiest way to reduce feedback is to move the microphone closer to the desired sound source. Additionally, using a directional microphone (cardioid, supercardioid, etc.) will typically increase the amount of gain before feedback. Reducing the number of open microphones with an automatic mixer will also improve the situation. Try to keep microphones and loudspeakers as far away from each other as possible. Lastly, acoustically treat the room to eliminate hard, reflective surfaces such as glass, marble, and wood.

When all of the above solutions have been exhausted, the next step is to look towards equalizers and automatic feedback reducers. A common technique used by sound engineers is ringing out a sound system by using a graphic equalizer to reduce the level of the frequencies that feedback first. After the techniques described in the above section have been applied, slowly bring up the system level until you begin to hear feedback. Now go to the equalizer and pull down the offending frequency roughly 3dB. If the feedback is a hoot or howl try cutting in the 250 to 500 Hz range. A singing tone may be around 1 kHz. Whistles and screeches tend to be above 2 kHz. Very rarely does feedback occur below 80 Hz or above 8 kHz.

It takes practice to develop an ear for equalizing a sound system, so be patient. After locating the first feedback frequency, begin turning up the system again until the next frequency begins ringing. Repeat the above steps until the desired level is reached, but do not over equalize. Keep in mind the equalizers can only provide a maximum level increase of 3 to 9 dB. Parametric equalizers, though more confusing to the novice user, allow for more precise control of feedback frequencies. A graphic EQ allows the user to cut fixed frequencies with a fixed filter width. A parametric EQ allows the user to isolate specific frequencies and adjust the width and depth of the filter.

Automatic feedback reducers will accomplish the same results as above. They find and cut the frequencies that are feeding back automatically. The same precautions listed above apply to feedback reducers as well as equalizers. Automatic feedback reducers are very helpful in wireless microphone applications. Remember that microphone placement is crucial to eliminating feedback, and the temptation to wander away from the ideal microphone position when using a wireless is great. If the performer gets too close to a loudspeaker, feedback will result; a good feedback reducer will be able to catch and eliminate the feedback faster than a human operator.

Proper implementation of the above techniques will go a long way towards eliminating feedback in your sound system. Do not rely solely on equalizers or feedback reducers, and remember that feedback results from more than just the microphone!

From CCI Solutions, used with permission

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David McLain Technical Sales CCI SOLUTIONS
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PO Box 481 / 1247 85th Ave SE
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Critical Listening Tutorial: How to Improve Your Mixes

Editor’s Note: In researching this important topic, we came across this excellent tutorial on the AUDIOTUTS website. We have reproduced it here, with permission.
Mixing & Mastering, by Mark Garrison
When I teach recording classes my favorite lesson is this critical listening exercise. It’s fun and light, and practicing it helps us all improve our mixes. First, let’s look at what makes a great mix, then we’ll jump into the exercise.
The Elements of a Mix
Balance
Do all instruments feel like they have appropriate weight in the mix? Are any instruments being lost in the mix because they are being overpowered? Are some instruments more prominent then others? (The answer may often be yes to the last one, but that should be a deliberate decision, not an accident.)

Panorama
Do instruments sit at various points in stereo field (left to right speakers)? Does the point of interest shift within this field?

Frequency Range
Are all frequencies represented somewhat equally? Is there something happening in all frequency ranges? (There are times when we deliberately have little happening in a frequency range – a violin concerto would sound silly with pounding bass – but again this should be a conscious decision.)

Dimension
Do some instruments sound closer or farther away than others? Is there a sense of movement in the mix? Dynamics
Does the song change over its duration? Most often in recording we use the term dynamics to refer to changes in volume, but we need to consider other dynamic changes such as tempo, time signature, key, or major/minor tonality.

Interest
There are two important sides to interest. First is the hook - is there something memorable about the mix? This could be a melodic hook, or a memorable tonality (think Cher’s “Do You Believe” or Smashmouth’s “Walking On The Sun”).

The second, and less thought about, side of interest is this: What pulls the listener through the song? When the lead instrument stops playing, what takes over as the focus of the song? The analogy I like to use is that of a TV show or play. If the characters leave the stage, other characters must enter right away to keep the viewer’s interest. If a TV show had long gaps of just background between dialogue and action everyone would get bored and change the channel. Music is no different.

It All Starts With Arrangement
Keep in mind that the first step in all of these comes with arrangement. Keeping these elements in mind during the arrangement process will make mixing far easier. The Exercise

Now that we have outlined some criteria that we can use to critique a mix, pick some commercially produced recordings and pick them apart. Do this on a regular basis and it will become instinctual. Your mixes will improve and your creativity will soar.

Step 1: Listen For Balance
Try to pick out each instrument being used and take note of exactly what it is doing. In a well-mixed song this should not be difficult. Poor balance often results in instruments being hard to pinpoint. What instruments do you notice the most? What instruments are subtle enough that you only notice when listening carefully? In this song the bass and percussion are very prominent. They are what drive the song forward. The vocals are clear and upfront as they are the focal point of the mix (after all, it’s Michael’s name on the album cover).

Step 2: Check For Panorama
Picture where from left to right each instrument seems to be coming from. If it helps, you may want to draw a line on a piece of paper and make a tick for where each instrument seems to be. The percussion, synths and backing vocals in this tune take full advantage of the stereo field. Note the double-tracked backing vocals panned left and right such as at 0:44 and leading into the chorus at about 1:28.

Step 3: Examine The Frequency Range Being Used
Listen for low, low-mid, high-mid and high frequencies. Is there content in each if those ranges? Does it feel like there is too much in any given range? In this song the thin kick and snare make room for the thick bass.

The synth fills the mids subtly in the verse, thickening along with some guitar and additional vocals in the chorus. The highs have some percussion, backing vocals, and the higher overtones of the synth.

Step 4: Listen For Dimension
This is a harder one. It may help to close your eyes. Imaging that you are watching this being performed on stage. Which instruments feel closer to you? Which feel farther away?

In “Billie Jean”, the bass and kick feel right up front. The snare and other percussion is farther back, as are the lead vocals. The synths are farther back still. The layered backing vocals sit at various depths (such as at about 2:50).

Step 5: Observe Any Dynamic Changes
Take note of changes in the song. The most obvious dynamic changes in this song are the energetic choruses, which contrast nicely with the more reserved verses (see about 1:30).

Within the chorus itself the guitar provides a dynamic change. It comes in first at 1:39 and plays double time in alternating 2 bars on, 2 bars off and then 2 more bars on, greatly changing the feel of the chorus while it plays.

Step 6: Take Note Of Where Your Interest Goes
Pay attention to what is holding your interest at each moment in the song. Again, pen and paper may help. Here, the interest is pulled forward by the interplay between the additional vocal tracks, the guitar and the synth which each take their turn as focal point when the lead vocals pause. Let’s take the turnaround at the end of the first verse as an example (1:14). At the end of the first line the sax-like synth takes over our attention between lines (1:17), then after the next line the backing vocals (the famous Michael Jackson “Heee-eee”) do the same (1:20), then the synth again (1:25), then the layered backing vocals pull us into the chorus (1:26).

Finally...
Remember that ear fatigue can alter your sonic judgment. Keeping your ears fresh can be as easy as:
  • Being aware of the problem and potential risks to your hearing.
  • Giving your ears a rest by taking short breaks
  • Keeping volume levels down
  • Paying attention to room acoustics – according to MIX magazine, a dead room or brittle system can accelerate ear fatigue.
This tutorial appeared at AUDIOTUTS - a source for magazine-quality Reason, Cubase and Logic tutorials
Courtesy Shure

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David McLain | Guy with Answers| CCI SOLUTIONS
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