Layering the Mix

By Jonathan Malm

Editor's Note: This is an introduction that Jonathan wrote for his church's audio engineering team. It's a basic introduction, but in those basics, it's going to be helpful, particularly to volunteer sound guys or sound guys at smaller churches. Thanks, Jonathan, for the good material, and for permission to use it!

This is one of the most important parts of running sound. A good mix has basically three sound level layers. The top is the loudest, and the bottom is the softest.

(1) Lead vocals,
(2) Instrument solos,
(3) Featured loop elements

(1) Drums,
(2) Electric guitar,
(3) Bass,
(4) BG Vocals,
(5) Loops

(1) Acoustic guitar,
(2) Pad/Organ

The Theory of Layering
When you listen to a CD that represents our musical style, the main instruments you hear are drums, electric guitar, and bass. If you listen closely you will hear acoustic guitar and pad/organ...but those are mainly to fill in the gaps. You wonʼt really hear them that well...only when everything else has cut out. Then the main vocal or any other instrument solo should be clearly heard and understood above the rest of the layers.

Guidelines to Layering

• Every few minutes you should evaluate your layering.
• Is the top layer clear and distinguishable?
• Are the middle layer elements properly balanced.
• Are the bottom elements barely audible?
• Then adjust as necessary.

Volume of the Spoken Word

15 dB above volume of the room. Always changes

Bass Guitar versus Kick Drum

When youʼre running sound youʼll want that sweet low end coming through the system. The proper balance between the kick (bass) drum and the bass guitar is critical to this. Typically you want the bass guitar just under the kick drum. The bass guitar provides a critical musical element while the kick drum provides the rhythm that people feel.

Without the bass guitar properly mixed in, the music will feel empty no matter how much kick drum you put into the mix.

Itʼs also important to remember that some times people will say there is “too much bass”...but that does not mean bass guitar. Most people donʼt realize the difference between kick drum and bass, or they canʼt distinguish between the sounds. Typically lowering the kick drum will satisfy bass complainers.


Never let the snare or kick get lost in the mix. They should be clearly heard. The snare gives people something to clap to and the kick gives them something to tap their foot to.

Myths About Running Sound

Myth 1: Sound is subjective. Each person can run it differently.

To a small degree this is true...but the style of music that the worship leader is producing dictates the way the sound is run more than the sound technician. Rock and roll has a different sound than Gospel music...but the musician determines the sound. A good sound guy makes it sound like the musician wants it to.

Myth 2: A sound guy is supposed to make the band sound good.

The sound guy is supposed to accurately reflect what is happening on the stage. Because different people have different preferences, what sounds good to the sound guy is not necessarily what sounds good for the musicians.

Myth 3: A sound guy should constantly be adjusting the levels.

If youʼre constantly adjusting the levels, you are micro-managing the band. The only time you should constantly adjust levels is when you have musicians or vocalist who are not consistent with their volume.

By Jonathan Malm

1 comment:

TJ said...

This was really good. I run my mix 96% this way..