1. Setting Your Gain Properly
Setting your gain properly is the foundation to your mix sounding amazing. Without that one step being right, everything else you do will be a struggle to compensate for it.
If you’re not familiar with the term “setting the gain”, I’m referring to adjusting the little knob at the top of each channel that says “Gain” on it. This controls how much the signal coming from the microphone is amplified going in to your mixing console. The signal typically has to be amplified because the initial signal generated by a microphone is a very weak one, and the components in your mixing board and outboard gear require a stronger signal to work properly. The easiest way to set the gain is with your VU (Volume Unit) meter. You’ll want to confirm that your signal is hitting the channel right at the ‘0‘ mark on the VU meter (a little under or over is fine, just as long as it’s close).
Now this may seem like the most simple tip ever, but you’d be shocked at how many times channels go unchecked from week to week. Maybe we expect it to be the same as last Sunday, or maybe in the rush of soundchecking everyone, we just don’t think of it, but it’s SO important to check! Just because an instrument was a certain level one week doesn’t mean it’s the same volume this week! The guitarist could have got a new pedal that adds gain to his signal, a drummer could have nudged a mic, or the singer could have adjusted the height of his mic stand and suddenly your gain structure has changed. Then maybe your gates don’t open and close right, maybe your bus compressors don’t react the same way, maybe it’s even clipping and distorting the signal (Heaven help us!). Either way, it’s worth it to take a second and check every time!
2. High Pass Filtering
Now, you guys all know that I’m all about #CrankingThatBass, but…I’m also all about having a clean mix and one of the best ways to clean a mix up is by high pass filtering your channels. Just in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, a high pass filter or HPF is an EQ filter that cuts all of the low frequencies below a certain point. You may get to select the point at which the filtering begins, or it may have a set frequency such as 120 Hz. If your mixing board has a HPF button with a set frequency, you’ll want to high pass on MOST of your channels, specifically anything that isn’t a bass instrument (i.e. Kick Drum, or Bass Guitar). Other than that, HPF the junk out of it! Most other instruments don’t have any content down that low that we really want to hear anyway. Electric guitars might have a bulky rumbling that just sounds bad, and vocal mics can pick up extra low vibrations from the stage or low pops from the singer singing a word that starts with a ‘P’ or ‘B’ sound that we’ll definitely want to filter out. If you’re lucky enough to have a console with an adjustable low pass filter, you’ll want to solo each instrument through a pair of good headphones and then adjust your HPF knob until you hear it start to effect the sound. In other words, turn the knob until you really hear it doing something and then back it off a little bit if necessary. You may find yourself turning it up to 250 or 300 Hz before you actually hear any difference, and that’s totally fine. Remember you’re just filtering out the unnecessary sounds that shouldn’t be there in the first place. If you have a board where you can control the HPF frequency, you can even *GASP* high pass the Kick and Bass. Ok, ok, you can pick your jaws up off the floor. I promise it’s not that crazy. The fact is, this can actually make your subs work better and sound louder! I’ll commonly filter my kick and bass around 30 Hz to cut out some of the really low sub bass that my system isn’t that great at reproducing anyway. The majority of systems I work with have subs that are really great at putting out sounds at 40 to 120 Hz where a lot of the “bigness” is in kick drum and bass guitar. That’s just how they’re designed, and it’s our job to help them work most efficiently. By cutting the really low frequencies, it frees up the subs to work harder at putting out sound where they’re really designed to, and the result is a tighter, more present low end.
3. Listening While Soloed
I don’t use the solo button much, but it’s REALLY important. I recommend listening to every instrument soloed during sound check just to make sure that what you THINK you’re getting through your microphones is actually what you ARE getting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent valuable time chasing down something like a ringing frequency in a snare drum only to find out it was in a Tom of Overhead mic. By soloing, we can easily find out what we’re really getting through a mic at a given time. Once, I spent about 15 minutes trying to find out where rattling snare sound was coming from. I assumed it was from the drum set, but later discovered that the drummer had brought an extra snare and had set it next to a guitar amp and it was rattling every time the guitar played. You’ll be amazed at the things that sneak in to mics if you listen soloed!
4. Reducing Effects Levels (At Least Temporarily)
Remember in the 1980’s when it was super cool to have all the drums just drenched in reverb? Remember how it kind of sounds terrible by today’s standards? Sometimes we can end up with a little too much verb and delay on the signal and it smears the sound and makes it muddy, and even worse….makes it sound like an 80’s ballad. We don’t want an 80’s ballad. Try backing the effects down and then gradually bringing them back up. Most of the time you’ll discover that you don’t really need as much effected signal as you thought.
5. Checking Microphone Placement
I have to say this one…because I just have to. It’s my personal crusade to end bad mic placement. This one is so easy. Just take off all your effects and eq and compression and simply listen. If the raw signal sounds really bad (and/or really different from the actual sound of the drum/amp/singer/whatever) please please PLEASE check out the mic placement. If you can get your mics sounding pretty good from the start, your mix (and your life) will be so much easier. Check every mic, every time.
Rock these five tips and I guarantee your mixes will get better instantly! Thanks for reading!