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Interpreting the Music

The Art of Mood Mixing

One of the challenges to any mixing assignment is making sure your approach is in tune with the style of music you’ve been assigned to mix. This seems to be especially true for live sound where mixers can get very comfortable with a given approach and then lean on it in all situations.

Now, I know it might sound like “crazy talk” my friends, but I’m confident in saying there’s not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to making music, let alone mixing it. And while I’ve been lucky enough in my career to mix many different styles of music, what has served me very well over the years is recognizing that there are different and distinctive approaches needed not only for the style of music, but also for the setting in which it is being presented.

When I’m mapping out an approach, the style of music can dictate everything ranging from mic choice and position, equalization, dynamics and processing treatment to where a given instrument should sit in relation to it’s counterparts in the ensemble. And odd as it may sound, for me, it dictates the order in which I assemble a mix.

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean. Given that this article is in the context of mixing for live sound reinforcement, I want to state for the record, that my feeling is and has always been, that there should always be significant weight given to your vocal presentation. Generally speaking, you can have a great music presentation, but if the vocals, (especially the lead vocal) is unintelligible or poorly mixed, your efforts will likely be poorly accepted. That said, I don’t build the instrumentation mix around those vocals in the same way for every style of music.

For instance if the music has a metal or rock feel to it, it’s nearly a given that the guitars are going to need focus and prominence in the mix. They should carry the “weight” of the mix. Because they’re going to be the main energy of the mid range and possibly even the low mids, you’re going to have to pick the other instruments you put in that frequency range carefully.

Consider the snare drum; it will likely need to carry a big portion of the low mids instead of being thinner and aggressive in the mids like you might hear in pop music. And that smooth sounding bass guitar? You might want it to be distorted in order to get it to “read” or compete and create its “glue” with distorted guitars.

In contrast, the vocal is going to have to be pretty narrow in terms of frequency response in order for it to fit, and it will probably require considerable compression to get it to “sit in” with the guitars. Hence, when building this mix, I would probably work on the guitar levels first and then build other instrumentation back to it. All instruments are likely going to be close mic’ed, and you’re going to lean on individual as well as mix compression to get it all to have the right “feel” in the room.

Now, for extreme contrast, let’s go to the other end of the spectrum (no pun intended). If I’m building a jazz ensemble, even with vocals – where do you think I would start? The answer: stand-up bass. The bass is generally the heart and soul of the jazz ensemble, so make it your focus and your starting point. You’ll be surprised how other instrumentation, when treated correctly, simply falls into place once you have used the bass as the foundation for the mix.

For instance, your drum presentation would be considerably different in regard to mic choice, placement and blend. I would choose very natural sounding mics and the placements would not be close as compared to the rock ensemble. Also, there’ll be little need for noise gates and very light compression if any. You want the kit to sound natural and lean heavily on the dynamics and playing of the drummer. So as you can readily see, one approach should not be applied to all styles of music.

These two examples are very wide and contrasting but they should drive home the point and believe me, you should give all styles of music their due respect. Pop vs. Hip Hop or Rap can have similar approaches but certainly different end results. Blues vs. Heavy Metal, while both can be guitar centric, require very different approaches and end result, and on and on it goes. Emo vs. Country and Western … okay I think you get the picture.

You owe it not only to yourself but most importantly you owe it to the artist and the audience to intently study the style of music you’ll be mixing and build an appropriate approach to ensure a successful presentation.

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