Critique Your Mix By Asking These 11 Questions

Be confident when you give your mix</br>the 'thumbs up.' </br>Photo provided by aidan_jones

Be confident when you give your mix
the ‘thumbs up.’
Photo provided by aidan_jones

Critiquing your mix is one of the best ways improving your mix.  You’ll improve the mix for the next week but you can also immediately improve your mix for the song you are critiquing. Today, I’m kicking out the questions you must ask, concerning your mix, as well as a new method I’ve been using.

The Top Eleven Questions to Ask of Your Mix

  1. Can I hear all the musicians and singers?  Close your eyes and try identifying each musical instrument and each vocal.  If you can’t hear something in the mix, ask yourself why.  Can you not hear the instrument because the volume is too low or because another instrument is so sonically similar that you can’t distinguish the instruments?  A good example would be drums and bass.  Also, electric guitar and keyboards can sometimes do that to each other.
  2. Can I hear the lead vocalist and understand what they are singing?  The congregation is listening for the lead vocals above everything else so those have to be clear and present.
  3. Is it clear which instrument is leading the song?  It can be said for most any song that one instrument is clearly the lead instrument.  It’s the instrument in which all other instruments are layered under.  This isn’t to say the lead instrument needs to be twice as loud.  Listen to professional recordings of each song and note the lead instrument and how the EQ and effects of the other instruments are set to make room for this instrument.
  4. Does the mix fit the genre of music?  You don’t want to make a pop band sound like a country band.  Worship bands tend to have their own particular sound but at the same time, you do have to permit them the ability to change up the song styles from time to time.  Don’t make the band sound like something it’s not.
  5. Does the mix fit the music the congregation likes?  This isn’t so much a mix critique as much as it is a reminder that your music mix has to sound like what the congregation expects to hear.  They can’t fully engage in worship if they expect a well-balanced contemporary style and you’ve got the drums so far out in the mix that you’ve got them running for the hills.
  6. Do the instruments have distinct sounds?  Each instrument and vocal should have a distinct sound.  It’s ok if frequencies overlap, but if you have seven instruments that sound like three, then you need to give some clarity to your instruments.  Tighten up the frequency characteristics of each instrument.  For example, if you have a drum kit, a bass, and two electric guitars, you’ve got a lot of low-end frequencies.  Cut quite a bit of the lows of the guitars until you gain the clarity you desire.
  7. Does the mix vary within the song?  This is a tough one because some worship song arrangements are great and therefore the song naturally has movement.  Songs, however, can grow stale between the first verse and the final chorus when there is no movement or arrangement / mix changes throughout the song.  Think of this as a song with all the instruments and all the singers playing together at the same tempo for the whole song.  When this is the case, look for mix changes you can make in the chorus of the song or the bridge.  What if you held the drums back a bit during the verses but then boosted their energy during the chorus?  While most arrangement should be done by the band, there are mix arrangements you can make so the song has movement.  This is especially helpful when you have a 3-song set and all songs are relatively the same tempo.
  8. Does the effect benefit the sound?  Effects should be added last to your mix.  If you’re not sure if an effect is helping the mix, turn it off and listen to the difference.  If it’s better without it, leave it out.  Don’t use effects just because you have them.
  9. Does the vocal sound squashed?  I had this very thing happen this weekend.  The problem was there was a bit too much compression on the vocal.  I cut back the compression and the vocal came to life.
  10. Does the mix fill the whole sonic space?  A lot of instruments and vocals have their primary frequencies in the mid-range area.  You have the whole frequency range to work, from the low end all the way to the high end.  Listen to how the mix is appearing in those extremes.  Sometimes the mix improvement doesn’t come from a huge boost in the high end.  You might need only a little more sizzle in the cymbals or the acoustic guitar.
  11. Do the backing vocals sit in the best place in the mix?  A lot can be done with the backing vocals so they benefit the lead vocalist.  They might sit under the lead and provide energy or they might come in at the same volume level during the chorus.  Check out this article on backing vocals.

I could easily list out several more questions but I think it’s better if you consider the above list and then consider this statement; a mix needs to have emotion, energy, and clarity.  Consider those three areas when critiquing your mix.

But wait, there’s more!

If you followed this site last year, you know I’m now attending a new church.  After a few months, I’ve begun the transition to their audio team.  It’s a slow transition as there is a lot to learn but I’m having the best times ever behind the mixer.  That being said…

This week, I was in the church sound booth on Wednesday, for practice, and then on Saturday and Sunday for the sound check and church services.  All this time, I was with the lead FOH guy, Steve.  While he did a lot of the work, there were times he’d kindly step aside and let me mix.  And the beauty of it all is that the two of us are comfortable sharing the mixer and asking each other “how does that sound?”

Sometimes, our mixing differences were because of personal preference.  I’d boost a little here but he’d boost a little there.  Sometimes, I’d boost a little too much of the high-end and was reminded of the difference between what it sounds like in the booth and what it sounds like to the congregation.  Honestly, you can take a step out of the sound booth and instantly here the difference.  And sometimes, we learned from each other.  It could be an EQ setting or a concept for consideration.

All that to say working side-by-side with another tech will open your eyes (and ears) to new ideas, new considerations, and constructive criticism.

The Take Away

Live audio production isn’t the same as studio engineering.  In the studio, there is a lot of time spent on the above questions as well as a host of others.  Additionally, the engineer has a lot more time to consider the questions.  Mixing live, you’ve got a lot less time and fortunately, a lot less questions.  But the concept is the same; create the best music possible.  The next time you are mixing, be it during the sound check, a practice, or during the church service, critique your own mix with the above eleven questions.  Pull in another tech to work alongside you so you can learn from each other.  And keep in mind those three words; emotion, energy, and clarity.

Question: How do you critique your mix?

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  1. Jack Bulkley says

    I will mention two things I like to do with the mix. First is in songs that build in intensity I will slightly move up the whole volume. I can’t even think of the real name of one song. I thing of it as Oh Church. Towards the middle there is a section where O Church starts the lines. I move the volume up a tiny bit on each one. After about 10 times the volume is definitely louder and matches the build the band and singers are doing. You have to rebalance things as you do this. The drums seem to come forward too much for me. Also I have to bring the volume back down for a quitter finish to the song.

    The second thing is during a responsive reading or something like the Lord’s Prayer. I will bring the leader’s volume down some, so they are still leading but only barely. I find the congregation gets louder (and I hope more involved) when I do this.

  2. Claire Talsma says

    Hi Chris
    I enjoy reading your articles. I have a lot of questions to ask but for now, the one I have been focused on is, “How do I get my vocals to sound more natural and still sit up it the mix?” The group I work with has three female vocals, they sound good together. You mentioned in one of your articles cutting certain frequencies and then for a final polish, maybe a slight boost here. I have a GL2200, with two mid sweeps I cannot cut and then boost when the frequencies are on the same knobs. I have extra channels, and I have a 21band graph eq for our portable system, is it possible or do you recommend it? I tried running the mic input cable from the mixer into the 21band eq and then a cable back into the mixer chanel but I got a fair bit of noise on the strip.

  3. says

    At our church, the other tech (Aaron) and myself try to bounce things off of each other all the time. The difference is, he is an 18 year old wonderboy and I’m a grizzled old poot from the old school. We are having a lot of fun working on the new system, at our new venue. We went from an analog board, outboard processors, etc. with a trap, to a digital board and line array with subs, and triple the size of the room, so things have been quite interesting.

    • says

      Nick, that sounds wonderful. Wonderboy can learn a lot from you! I find the older I get, it’s not what I know to do, it’s what I know NOT to do. :)