Live Sound Mixing without a Live Sound Engineer: DIY tricks that make it possible
DIY Live Sound Mixing. Not the most fortunate combination of words, but if you, like me, have sworn the DIY oath and are prepared to walk that burning rope no matter what, then there are some tips that can prove to be a lifesaver. Beyond this point it is futile to remind you that "a qualified sound engineer is a requirement for any serious live show", because if you have read this far then you are either not preparing for a seriously big live show or consider yourself qualified enough to dabble in sound engineering. In my case both facts are true, so let's examine what I did to setup the live sound of the 4-piece band that usually serves as our case study band in this blog, MOBVIBE.
On this band I serve multiple roles, more than I can handle in fact, but in the live show case what is of interest is that I play the electric guitar, sing lead and back vocals alongside our other lead singer George, and launch prerecorded samples through Ableton. And of course I am trying to be the live sound engineer among everything. With our first live show only 9 days away, after countless rehearsals of small incremental improvements I believe I have reached a mix balance that serves the band's sound pretty well, a mix of 60s rock n'roll with modern synth-based disco punk, a very demanding sound with too little room for mix errors.
I have what it takes, now what do I need to buy?
Onto the necessary tools:
- A pair of PA speakers
- In-ear earphones
- A digital mixer
- A tablet
Aside from the regular band gear such as microphones, drumset, guitars, amps and whatnot, the only gear that makes DIY Sound Engineering possible is a Digital Mixer, and this is not an understatement. In my case I use Behringer's excellent X18 Digital Mixer with 18 Input and 8 Outputs, enough to cover the sound of a mid-sized band with great flexibility. What makes a digital mixer a requirement for DIY Sound Engineering is primarily the fact that you can mix using a tablet, without needing to move away from the band (read on about how that is a guarantee for failure if you don't apply my most important tip at the end of the article) and secondly, a digital mixer enables you, the DIY sound engineer, to "outsource" the task of monitor mixing to the band itself. In the case of Behringer X18, each member of the band manages their own mix through an app on their smartphones. Sounds great so far, doesn't it? Not so fast.
Forget about monitors
Poor you! As if mixing an entire band without any professional help is not enough of a burden, you have to endure the constant bugging of the vocalist that he can't hear his voice, the drummer not hearing anything because, well, he plays the drums and the bassist pumping up the volume of his amp because "the guitar sounds louder". Add to that the constant feedback, subsequent hearing damage and almost certain total loss of hearing because you keep raising the mic levels to make the vocals stand out, and this is as close as you can get to a sure-fire disaster! But you don't have to give up! Yet!
In-ear monitoring to the resque
My first revelation came when I plugged in my Apple Earpods directly to 1 of the 6 Auxiliary outputs of the X18. All 4 of us did, and we never looked back. For a very cost-effective setup (you only need a pair of average quality earphones with good sound isolation and you are essentially sparing the cost of 3 or 4 monitors) the result is suprisingly good. Mic feedback is non-existent since there are no monitors in front of you (the most common source of feedback), and everyone has their own unique and independent mix easily customizable through the digital mixer's smarthphone app. Want to listen to more of your own voice? Launch the app and raise your mic's channel volume on you own! Two birds one stone? Make it 5 birds one stone.
The live mix will still sound awful
Remember, you are not a professional, but there is an ace up your sleeve that a professional Sound Engineer usually doesn't have, and it's the only thing that can make this work. Time. Loads of it. If you don't, then I advice you not to even remotely try doing this yourself.
It is a rule of thumb that your first mixes will sound dreadfull. We invited some of our fans to our rehearsals as part of MusicNGear's "Open Rehearsals" experiment, and the most usual comments we received, apart from the "but you promised free beer" one, was about how horrible our sound was. Our rehearsing space is DIY (of course) and lacks proper sound absorption treatment, so our 2 15" PA speakers (Alto TX15) created an aural landscape full of low-end phase cancellations and high end ringing across the entire audible spectrum. No matter how I tried to balance the sound of the bass and the drumpad, when I moved as little as one foot to the left, what I was hearing was a totally different mix.
It was then that it dawned on me: I would never be able to do it by myself. It was time to give up and seek the expertise of an expert. Luckily Mobvibe is a fairly popular and beloved band in my city so we managed to drag some of our professional sound engineer friends to our studio. Apart from the "you shouldn't be doing this yourselves" spank, we quickly realized that if you are just starting up as a band, convincing a professional sound engineer to join you as the band's dedicated sound engineer is even harder than doing it all by yourself! And it makes perfect sense too because you cannot in all seriousness expect of a professional to dedicate the extraordinary amount of time required to setup your band's sound, only for a couple of local gigs! The guys do this for a living and expect to be compensated for their time with an upfront promise of a certain number of shows. We could not make such a promise as this was our first show ever.
It was back to the drawing board, again. You can only imagine the frustration of the countless rehearsals where I was trying to learn the guitar riffs, the lyrics, the dance moves and simultaneously make a decent mix for my own earphones while trying to create the best mix for the sound coming off the PAs. I was tired of being criticized by the band for how I suck at mixing and why the mix has changed yet again since the last rehearsal. My only weapon of self-defence was recording the rehearsals through Ableton Live and X18's Main Output and sending them to my bandmates with an equal amount of criticism: "wow you totally cannot sing man", "that is not how a grownup plays the bass dude" and the classic "I drum better than you". Little did I know that my practice of recording every rehearsal out of sheer retribution would spark the idea that would eventually allow me to create the perfect live mix.
The aha! moment
My goal was to create a mix for the PA speakers that would resemble the mix of the original song recordings. I was ideally going after the studio-quality mix sound, with the reasoning that if the PA mix is as good as a CD mix, and provided a CD sounds good in any venue, then our mix would sound good everywhere. The logic was sound but in practice this CD-quality mix was impossible to achieve, firstly because as I said earlier the room was not acoustically treated and it made no sense to create a mix for this specific room and then move to a venue with totally different room acoustics / PA speakers and have a totally diffent mix, and secondly and most importantly I was applying the usual practice of mixing while the band was playing, because that's what pros do. I was listening to the drums', the bass', the vocals' and the guitar's natural sound on top of what I was hearing through the PAs or my earphones. It was impossible to understand if the drum mikes were high or low because I could not hear them exclusively through my earphones as the drummer was drumming his soul out 2 feet away. I got home and listened to the recordings of the rehearsals and made notes for the next rehearsal: "drum overhead mike 2db lower, acoustic guitar minus 20db". Not very efficient but I wasn't in a haste. Yet.
The phone rang and our drummer asked if we were interested in playing our first ever show in a local venue, in 20 days. I called the other guys (technically I Messenger'ed them but it doesn't sound so good). I was on fire.
The ultimate DIY live mixing trick
All great achievements are made when humanity is under stress. And stressed I was. With only 20 days to go, I had to figure out how to create the perfect PA mix as I was listening to another horrendous recording of our last rehearsal. And then it hit me. What if I applied the process of "recording a rehearsal and then listening to it while taking notes to correct the mix" while doing the actual rehearsal? I rushed to the studio with my "eureka" moment and despite my bandmate's indifferent "oh not another idea" look, I recorded the song we played and then played it back for all to hear through their earphones. I spent 1 minuted tweaking the faders and then we rehearsed and listened to the song again: "Doesn't it sound better now?" - "Dude, we could even upload this to Spotify!" exclaimed George and I didn't sense even a tiniest hint of irony in his voice. I applied the same practice to a couple of songs and when I got home to listen to the entire rehearsal recording, I was amazed. Finally, a mix that does our songs justice.
My advice is this: the music landscape as you can tell is constantly evolving, with new business models and technologies springing up from nowhere. It is our duty as independent musicians to "think different". Learn from the practices of the past but always be re-evaluating them. Can this be done differently? We have the entirely new concept of digital mixers now at our disposal and with them comes the opportunity to do things more efficiently and closer to our artistic vision. In this evoling landscape of music engineering all you have to do is experiment and learn from others who face the same hurdles you do.
I hope this post can help other DIY indie bands as much as it would have helped me if someone else had written it. But the true joy of DIY is in the discovery and the process of learning from previous mistakes. I had great fun discovering the best way to do a live mix yourself and the result so far has justified my effort. Hope your mixes work as well as I mine and I'd love to hear your own DIY live mixing tips in the comments!