I've mentioned this before but despite the vast differences between mixing in the studio and mixing live, the essence of the job is very much the same. You want to deliver the best sounding and most pleasing results for the people listening. There are however differences in how to approach achieving those similarities.
And these are 5 things I can’t live without while mixing live:
- Smaart: Tuning a PA system is maybe the most important and certainly the first step in making a show sound good. Having a good FFT and RTA program to give you a visual read out of the PA (Public Address System) and how it is interacting with the space you’re in is crucial. Rational Acoustics has been the custodian of this software for some time now with versions 7 and 8. They’ve advanced the software to include multiple channels of monitoring so you can tune a system from multiple points in the room at the same time and all from one computer. Ultimately you need to confirm with your ears that the PA is tuned to your liking but once you understand what Smaart is doing and why, it will help bring you to that point quicker and easier. We don’t get as much time as we would like to dial and tweak things to be 100% perfect. This is usually load in, do a show, load out all in one day kind of work flow. With all of the other departments having to work hand in hand and cooperate to get set up and ready before doors open, it often leaves the front of house mixer and system engineer with very little time to get it just right and having the right tools to hasten the process is essential.
- Lake Processing: A long time ago some engineers designed software and equipment that changed my life as a sound mixer forever. Lake Processing is an absolute must for me for live shows and on tour. With flexible matrixing and routing, delay control for every channel, graphic and full parametric eq per channel and limiting per channel, it gives me everything I need to shape the sound of what I send to the PA. And with Smaart integration you can fly the visual read out from your Smaart reading underneath the lake controller software to actually watch the changes you make take place in real time. These two things are first and foremost for me when mixing a show.
- Fully Featured Digital Console: My preferred console for the past several years is Digico. Now that they have released the Quantum engine and software, they’ve taken this format to another level. It’s very flexible. Very customizable and generally sounds great. I’ve always felt that it sounds very neutral which they’ve told me in the past is how they designed it to be. But over the years they’ve added features like the virtual tube drive and integration with Waves Soundgrid Servers which make it more musical so you can do almost anything you want with it. I like to group elements like my kick mics and snare mics as their own group to eq as a composite signal that I later send to my parallel and unprocessed drum buses. Digico gives me the flexibility to do that. It’s also a widely available console, I’ve never really had a problem getting a sound company to provide one. South America, Luanda Angola, the middle of nowhere in Siberia, anywhere in the Middle East, Jakarta Indonesia, Batumi Georgia, you name it. Digico has done a great job getting their consoles in these sound providers inventory. Solid State Logic far and away makes the best sounding live console. It has a unique workflow and its Stems can be used like Auxes or Busses so you can feed into other Auxes, Groups, other Stems or even Matrixes which makes routing very flexible on this desk. The first time I pushed up the fader on a kick drum my face lit up and I looked at the PA and thought, “This is what a kick drum should sound like" and I hadn’t even started EQ’ing, compressing or anything really. Just fader up and it was great. I would love to tour with an SSL live console. It would be much easier if I worked for more artists that ship their entire control package all over the world but that is seldom the case. I’m starting to warm up to the Avid S6L. It sounds light years better than the Profile which for years was my preferred console. For a few reasons. It was easy to use and almost every sound company owned one. I have a few complaints about the desk though. The encoders feel like they are going to break off when I use them and they have yet to allow the busses to feed other busses. So there are limitations to the routing that make it difficult to use based on my workflow. It does shine when it comes to plug in integration. Which is what Avid set out to do from the beginning. Seldom had I ever used a Profile without loading up my show file with all sorts of plug ins. Even to the point of achieving much of the gain structure from the plug ins rather than from the pre amp and channel. It too is widely available so is a great choice for most engineers.
- Bus Processing: This again. Same thing applies as it does in the studio. Ultimately you are still mixing music and still sending a stereo mix to an even bigger set of “monitors”. So you want it to be as glued together and cohesive a sound as possible. The longer I do this for a living, the more I run into scenarios especially in Europe that call for lower decibel levels. It's even happening in the US at outdoor amphitheaters. But through creative use of buss compression and EQ, you can greatly reduce the measurable dB level while not reducing any perceived loudness.
- Rupert Neve 5045 Primary Source Enhancer: The Primary Source Enhancer could be one of the greatest pieces of gear ever invented for live sound. So much so that I bought the 545 (API 500 series) version of this and it travels with me in an API lunchbox that also contains other essential lead vocal tools for every show I do. I have a decent idea of what the process is although I’d have a hard time explaining it but I do know that I get up to 6dB extra of headroom on the vocal before feedback. Since using it I’ve honestly found it to be a bit of a crutch but in the day and age with the technology and gear available, why not use whatever you can to get the job done.