I somewhat haphazardly fell into live mixing a long time ago while working towards being a professional musician, and here I am now, mixing live sound for about 20 years on a professional level. Whether that’s been in small clubs around town while cutting my teeth in the business, to corporate theater events, to touring with bands in vans all over the US, and all the way up to touring all over the world with major artists and finding myself mixing in the craziest environments and under the craziest conditions.
There are so many factors in getting that mix that you desire and presenting the artists vision to an audience. A good set of ears is the first thing. This isn’t something that can necessarily be trained. It’s really an innate sense. It’s really important to have a deep understanding of what sounds good. And that comes in large part by knowing music inside and out by being a musician or singer or passionate fan of music. It’s important to have a broad knowledge of music and understanding what makes it palatable to the ears. Also experience. Mostly by encountering every conceivable problem a live show can throw at you and being able to adapt to those conditions. This is just something that comes with time.
But there are a few key things to keep in mind to help start achieving your end result.
Mix to the room. Don’t try and overpower the natural ambiance of a room. You will lose. Always consider the stage volume you’re being given by the band. Obviously the larger the room the less that is a factor. Every room you encounter will give you a unique set of problems to work through. From the size and shape of the room to the materials it’s made out of. But is important to listen to the environment before you can find that balance in your mix. If you’re new to this, just start by using your ears. Tune the room with equalization but take care not to dig yourself into a hole that will be hard to climb out of. It's very easy to suck all of the gain out of your system by over equalizing. Time alignment is also a key factor with speaker systems. Maybe the most important aspect of tuning a PA system. If all of the speakers are projecting the information at the audience at different times, you’re going to encounter a lot of problems. We can discuss things like FFT later but that will help you better fine tune a room. If there are songs that you know intimately, play those through the PA system. Get it to sound familiar.
Know your gear. There are lots of fundamentals to mixing whether it be live or studio mixing. There are many disciplines that are unique to each but the end goal is still the same. Creating something palatable for the listener. That said, read every article, brochure, and manual about the gear you are using. From compressors, eq’s, gates, effects, mixing consoles, speakers, amplifiers, etc. It’s important to know and understand what they do and why. These are your tools no differently than any other industry like carpentry, baking, painting, mechanics, etc. There are specific tools that achieve specific results and it’s imperative to really understand that. For example, there are many types of compressors. While they all are designed to achieve more or less the same results, they all do it slightly differently from each other.
Understand and oblige your clients needs. They created this material. Your job is to present it to the audience the way they have envisioned it. Modern music is subsequently often a collaborative effort. Between song writers, producers, mix engineers, managers, label reps, mastering engineers, etc., the creation and ultimate vision of a song is to a great degree the decision of a committee. Now they are presenting this to an audience and you are the one now who have inadvertently become one of those committee members. But it’s important to please the people who have hired you to do this job. There are many creative aspects and liberties you can take in this process as long as the bigger vision is achieved. Always keep that in mind.
I’m hoping this shed some light into this kind of process. My goal here is to help people achieve a broader understanding of what some would consider a very specific and esoteric process.