To help establish some best practices, I thought I’d share these few steps to getting at least half way to a good sounding mix.
1. Start with your inputs. Make sure everything is plugged in correctly. Identify devices that need phantom power. Check good, close microphone placement for instruments and vocals. Remember that good input = good output. You can not fix a bad sounding input, or poorly placed microphone from behind the FOH desk. Make sure to check your monitors and ears are plugged in correctly too.
2. Check your patching and assignments. Before everything else, confirm that your inputs are patched to the correct channels, outputs are patched to the correct aux’s, and any VCA or group assignments are correct. Getting this step out of the way first ensures that you can spend time crafting your mix, not stumbling over why levels aren’t balanced, or musicians can’t hear properly.
3. Gain structure, gain structure, gain structure! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard problems with a mix that could be easily fixed with proper gain structure. Before setting your monitor or main mixes, make sure to get the gain structure correct. This means checking and double checking your preamp levels, matching instrument/vocal gains, and being consistent across the board. Aim for -3dBu levels on everything to start. Set all the input faders at 0dB and bring up the master to 0dB. Match the levels of your subgroups or VCA’s. You should have a good balance of everything. If you don’t, adjust the preamps of each input until they balance. Be sure to check gain before and during rehearsal. Sometimes things change after a song or 2. Make corrections as necessary.
4. Set your monitor mixes. Spend time talking with the musicians to make sure they have a good mix so they know what they need to play. Great sound comes from great performances. Do whatever you can to help the musicians play their best. Remember, a great monitor mix doesn’t need to include everything. The less instruments you put in a mix, the more level you can give of those few instruments. Make sure to leave the house on while setting monitor levels. Musicians will hear some of the house mix, which decreases the need of monitor level.
5. Set your house mix. Balance levels between instruments. Know who leads what songs, and make that the loudest vocal / instrument. Don’t be afraid to make changes. Use EQ, gating, and compression to help improve the sound of each input, and how those inputs interact with each other. Be sure to start from the bottom up. Set your drums, bass, and rhythm instruments first. Add lead instruments like guitars and keyboards. Finish with vocals so they stay on top of everything else.
Following these 5 steps will get you up and running with a decent mix. Additional time spent on EQ, compression, and effects can round everything out nicely. Don’t forget however to establish these 5 things first.