The Live Audio Academy

Minimalistic Audio Mixing

AKA Traditional Sound Reinforcement

There are a few genres of music where musicians tend to shun the use of an audio system.  Take classical music for example.  Most orchestras play in finely-tuned acoustic environment of a concert hall.  Architects work hand-in-hand with acousticians to achieve a room that both looks and sounds impeccable.  The marriage of the omnidirectional sound from the orchestra and the hall itself provide a very “harmonious union”.  They work great as a team.

Now run multiple inputs of orchestra through the very directional PA system.  That marriage is now interrupted by slightly delayed direct sound from the speakers and very late and sometimes prominent reflections from the hall’s back wall.  Your conductor could break his or her baton dealing with the tonal and timing issues introduced with the audio system.  Not necessarily a good situation for anyone.

Another great example is bluegrass music.  In fact, some of the best bluegrass music I have listened to has come completely acoustic in a small venue.  When the venue gets larger, we need a bump in volume.  Many bluegrass artists employ a single, omni-directional microphone technique where all musicians form a semicircle around the mic.  They self-mix by moving closer to the mic to increase their volume (say for a solo) and back off when they want to decrease their volume.  One mic is as simple as is gets, folks!

If these groups utilize minimalistic audio mixing techniques, why can’t we adopt this same approach with our own bands?  If the show’s audio level requirements allow us, we can put only what we need in the sound system.  Here are some benefits:

  • Lower volume levels
  • More coherent audio. Less audio sources gives less destructive comb filtering.
  • Did I say lower volume levels?
  • Can make the group sound like they are completely playing acoustically, giving an intimate feel to the show.

Generally, here is how we do it:

  1. Have the band setup so that all amplifiers are aimed at the center of the audience seating area.
  2. Connect any vocal mics and non-amplified instruments to the audio system. Feel free to omit instruments like horns that are loud enough to hang with the ensemble.
  3. Have the band play so that they have a comfortable mix onstage. Listen for solos and have musicians adjust for the audience area.  Usually these are just solo boost tweaks.
  4. Gradually add in any non-amplified instruments into the mix. I would adjust the presence to fit the other, non-amplified instruments.  This usually means a slight cut in high frequencies.
  5. Add vocals in the same manner as we did the non-amplified instruments.
  6. Evaluate your rough mix by listening and adjusting all mix elements in the audio system to blend in with the stage sound. Perform A/B tests by pulling back the master volume occasionally to verify that the mix and timbre mesh coherently.

Once all of that work is completed, you should have a coherent and natural sounding mix.  The best part about this type of mix is that once you set it, often you can forget it.  As long as you spent the time getting the acoustical balance between instruments before adding in the audio system, your musicians should be great mixing themselves by what they hear coming from their own instruments and amplifiers.

So, can you mix this way with your band?  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will the band be loud enough in your venue using this approach?
  • Will they stay loud enough? Audiences get louder the more they grow in numbers and the longer they are in proximity to loud sounds (ie. Lots of people talking and loud music). When this happens, the audience can be loud enough to mask your band.
  • Are the musicians high enough off of the ground to get clarity over the front row’s heads? Otherwise, they will just sound muffled.  The human body is a wonderful absorber of high frequencies.
  • Is there too much going on for you to focus on a full-band mix? I used to mix and play at the same time in a band some time ago.  That is not the easiest thing to do!  Either I did one well while the other suffered or it was only average all around.

Can you think of any other applications or challenges in your application to using a minimalist audio mix?  Share your comments below.

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