How to Mix a Live Band

One of the best places to mix music is at a live gig where you don't have hours to spend making each song perfect. If you are used to mixing and production in a DAW, you will find mixing music live a very thrilling experience. I am going to share a few tips and tricks from my experience of live mixing to help you make your first few gigs sound awesome. If you are a musician or even a producer, keep reading as an understanding of how music is mixed live will help you perform and write songs to sound amazing on stage. By understanding what the sound engineer needs to do, you can help facilitate them for an overall better show.
The very first thing you need to know when mixing live is what the band needs. I have had to do sound on gigs with very limited resources where bands that were way too big were booked. To avoid things going wrong on the night, be willing to let the organiser know what the technical limitations of the venue are.

Get riders (lists of what they require) from every performer and try and provide as much as possible within budget. The worst case is having a guitarist show up with an acoustic guitar that needs mic'ed up when you only have a lead.



Preparing

Practice mixing a song as it plays out. Download some multitrack stems and mix them "live" in your DAW. Don't skip back and be willing to make mistakes - after all, it's just practice. Instead of using complex plugins, download some three band EQs that look like live mixer knobs to practice the limited control that is presented by a real mixer.



Perhaps try doing a few small acoustic sessions with just a guitar and singer to get the feel of a live mixer and figure out how to mix under a small amount of pressure. If you know basic mixing theory you will be great, so grab a few books (libraries are free) and learn a few things beforehand that will help. 

Stage Setup

Hopefully you don't have much to set up. If you do, make it as easy for yourself as possible. Already have an idea on how you are going to group the channels for the band. Keep the relevant channels together to make finding the right fader easy.

Stage boxes allow you to plug in everything on stage, meaning only
one wire is needed to be sent to the mixing desk. It is extremely
tidy and efficient.

A stage box is most likely provided for you. These have numbers on them, when you are plugging mic's and instruments into it, you should already know what faders will be assigned to what. This means you have an easy task of just plugging channel 1 into the same channel of the mixer.

I usually group vocals together, and run from left to right as the stage is viewed from the sound booth. 

For example, in the above image, channels 1 and 2 may be for the guitarist on the left (one channel for guitar, one for the mic). Moving to channels 3 and 4, you would have the same for the lead singer's guitar and mic. Channels 5 and 6 would be for the bassist's guitar and mic. Then the rest could be for the drum kit. 

This is and easy way to quickly find the channel you need as it is laid out in front of you in much the same way the stage is ordered.

I like to keep the bass guitar's channel next to, or near, the kick drum so it is always useful to have the kick as the first channel in the drum section. This means it is easy to adjust the two to get a really tight mix. 


The above table shows how I'd set up the mixer with "L", "C", and "R" standing for "left", "centre", and "right" regarding the stage position of the band members.

It is always useful to have a chart like this printed or written out and left by the mixer for quick reference and in case there are several people who will use the mixer. 



Of course, everyone has their preferences to laying out their channels so respect that if they have set up for you and always check everyone knows the layout.

Another trick is to use tape and a marker under the faders so you can label the channels used, which is easily removable for the next event.


One thing to watch out for is the musicians moving about the stage and so it helps to know the band and know their roles so you can easily jump to the right channel

Sound-check is Key

The most important part of the night for you is the sound check. This is more than making sure every connection works. This is hearing how the band plays and getting feedback from them. It is your means to get everything right so they rock from their very first notes when the event starts.

Get them to play a few songs and make them sound good. Then take photos of the mixer and effects rack settings so you can jump back to them during the event. This means you have a rough template from which you only need to make minor changes to adjust to the current song and section.

My first steps in sound-checking are testing each channel, set the gains correctly and find at what point each channel goes into feedback. This is essential to prevent feedback occurring during the night.


Make sure none of your channels are frequently
going into the red or feed-back.

Once each channel is tested, I like to get the kick and bass sounding tight. These are the two elements which need to work well together for the sound to be great. Start adding other instruments until you have the whole song playing and see what needs done. 

Last week's article talked about setting the FX send on a live mixer, read it if you don't know how to. Effects like reverb are best tested during the sound check too because the really do add a lot of sound to the mix and you want to get that sound really tight. Make sure to mute the FX channel when the singer is talking on the mic, this stops them sounding like they are addressing the crowd from a cave. 

If you are wanting to communicate to the band, have a goose-neck mic plugged into the mixer for you to communicate with the band. Don't play this microphone through the main system, instead send it to the aux, or monitor channel so it only plays through the speakers on stage. 



One major thing to look out for is the stage volume. You want to keep this to a minimum as you want the audience to hear primarily the audio you have mixed. If the amps on stage are loud enough to drown out the main mix, you need them turned down as you will lose control. Likewise, if you are recording the live mix, and you have your guitar channels turned down to compensate for the amp volume, they may not be heard on the recording.

Contrary to the audience belief, big amps stacks like this are 
mostly for show and are often unplugged. The sound does not
need to come from all of them.

One way of convincing the guitarists to turn down their amp is to bring the guitar volume up in the stage monitors so they can hear themselves better. Which brings us onto...

The Monitor Mix

The band will be playing on stage, behind the main sound system. They still need to hear themselves however to keep in time. In a large venue, the main sound system could be far enough away that the sound takes time to travel to the musicians. This will affect their timing. We avoid this by having wedge speakers in front of the musicians which point towards them. this allows them to hear themselves without too much of the sound being heard by the crowd. 

Here you can see the monitors facing upwards to the musicians
so they can hear each other.

Each band will have different preferences to their monitor mix but try and nail it so they can perform to the best of their abilities. 

Some stage setups allow for a different mix to be sent to each musician, however I have not been fortunate enough to use such setup. For smaller venues, the monitor mix will be the same for each musician and so you want to consider what they need. 

The drums will be loud on a small stage anyway so the musicians will have no issue hearing them, this means they generally don't have to be as loud. The exception here is the kick drum. The bassist will need to lock into the kick and so for a monitor mix, it is often advisable to turn the kick up more, relative to the rest of the drums. Likewise, the drummer needs to hear the bass and so it must be loud enough to be heard on stage. 

Melodic and chordal content is often also good to be heard, particularly for the singer who needs to lock in tune with it, so have that loud enough that it can be heard. Usually this would be the guitars, which means that there is the added bonus that they don't have to have their amps as loud.

Make sure the monitors are positioned correctly in front of the performers so
they can hear correctly, too close and they will ask you to turn it up because they
can't hear it well.


It is best to discuss with the band what they like before and during sound-check so they have the best sound that they can perform to. If they are happy, they will perform better, resulting in less work for you.

Mixing

This stage is going to be very similar to theory you apply in DAW. With the exception of finite effects, the practice is very much the same. Be aware of the frequencies playing and adjust your EQs so that the instruments have their own space. If you have a graphic EQ, it may be on the main mix and so be mindful of the frequency bands that provide a crisp, mud-free mix. 

A lot of mixers have a band select for their mid-EQ knob. Use this to your advantage as the mid frequency has a lot of content. Lock into the desired frequencies by sweeping the frequency knob and then adjust accordingly. If you can find the prominent frequencies in the vocals, you can dip the same frequencies in the guitars to make it sit better.


I have provided sound at events that didn't have a compressor, so be wary of volumes and hard dynamics, ride the vocal fader and anticipate loud parts. Consider distortion pedals on guitars, if the guitarist is about to kick one on, you should be ready to reign down the guitar's volume to stop it swamping the mix.

If you have a reverb send, refer to the linked article above. Ride the fader to add small increases and decreases of reverb for different energies of the song.

Remember, you only have the four, or so, minutes that the song lasts to get it right so have a rough idea during sound check of the adjustments you need to make. Find, and note down the big changes in the songs and be ready to adapt when something unexpected occurs.

Consider each point in the song, weigh up the elements and think which are most important. For example, a verse may require the vocals to be brought up a notch, so the audience can hear the lyrics. The chorus may require the guitars to be brought up for the power and energy. Each song differs and make your judgement on what is needed to be brought out, and what can be reigned back.

Enjoy

Remember, you are at a gig. The main thing is to enjoy the music. If you can enjoy the songs, you will make better decisions, the artists will be nicer to you and the crowd will enjoy it.