The quality of sound you hear in church is dependent on the quality of the person mixing the music. The question I have received a lot lately is “how do you teach someone the art of mixing sound?” Enter Michelangelo.
Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in four years. I’ve painted the exterior of a two-story home in two weeks. As far as square feet of paint-able surface, the two are about the same. BUT LOOK AT THE DIFFERENCE!
These are all brilliant works of art!
If I treated a young Michelangelo like a church sound tech, he probably wouldn’t be in the history books. The reason is that church sound techs can pick up a variety of books on technical training but rare is the book that teaches the art. So much time and energy is spent on teaching the technical that the true art of mixing is lost. The assumption is if a person can understand the technical, then they can mix.
The person taught the purely technical can paint my house. The person taught the art can paint the ceiling of my church.
The Ears Have It
The early days of my mixing experience looked like this: set up the stage, turn on the mixer, and set levels so instruments and vocals could be differentiated. Compare that to what I do now and it’s a whole different story. The process now takes a lot more time as now I use EQ, effects and all that comes with mixing the right way but then there is also one other task that I perform. I close my eyes and listen.
Mikey Caterina told me this process is called “constructive listening.” He said “while listening to just about any music (stereo of course & preferably without headphones) close your eyes and listen closely. You should be able to point perspectively to where each performer is standing/playing. Of course the better the mix, the easier it is. MP3s pretty much suck for this but you can still listen for effects etc. Over time you’ll start hearing things that you didn’t initially, (Older recordings are a good example – some older Stones stuff you can hear toasters & wind up clocks used for effects).”
Get yourself a great stereo copy of “Can’t you hear me knocking” by the Rolling Stones, hit play, and close your eyes. As I listen to the song, the first thing I notice is the electric guitar is panned hard to the right. The drums are centered. A second guitar comes in and it’s panned left. The vocals are centered as well. As the song builds in volume, the separation via panning helps keep each instrument from bleeding into each other. Panning is just as much about visual separation as it is about mental separation.
At 2:51 the drums change to a bongo sound, a saxophone, a bass, and a guitar. The saxophone is the lead instrument at this point and it’s in the center. All the other instruments, with exception of the drums, stay panned left or right. I can point to each musician. At the 4:15 mark there is a weird bass run almost with a synth sound that comes in. The volume of that instrument seems to go up as it takes prominence over the saxophone. At 5:00 it’s a guitar solo that is panned left. No saxophone. It’s the only instrument panned to the left. As well as panning, the two guitars have distinctly different sounds. Nearing the end of the song, I can tell that each instrument is well seated in its sonic space.
Nothing of what I told you was technical. In short, I said each instrument sounds distinct and comes from a different place on the stage and they all blend together to form a cohesive song.
By closing my eyes, all of my focus is on the music. I could listen to the same song 6 times and each time focus only on one instrument and in doing so I can pick out the nuanced features that have been mixed for it. If I listened to the song one time for each instrument then by the time I listen to the song as a whole, I hear it much differently that before. I understand the song like never before.
If I listened to a song once and tried to mix a band to sound the same, I couldn’t do it. Same as if I listened to the song several times as a whole. As soon as I start dissecting it, then I hear what the sound engineer has done.
The Ears Don’t Have It
What happens when a song is mixed without letting the ears do what they do best? Time to whip out an example. Robin Parker told me “I once saw a band with two very talented guitarists, both running identical rigs and guitars. Their tone was also so identical that much of the guitar mix was just plain mud.” I’ll bet what happened in this instance was each instrument was tweaked in the mixer to sound great. Two great sounds equal one great sound, right? Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.
This is where the technical knowledge can cause problems with the artistic side of mixing. The technical training might teach you about optimal mid-range frequencies for a guitar and where best to cut / boost the lows and the highs. That’s a good place to start. The EQ settings for that instrument bring it into its proper range but your only half way there. How does that guitar sound against the piano? They have similar mid-range focused frequencies. Maybe the song uses the piano as a lead instrument and the guitar for rhythm support. Cut some of those mid-range guitar frequencies. Heck, there are a lot of ways to mix the two instruments so they work together. That’s where your ear takes over.
I’m telling you “let your ear do the work” but if you haven’t trained your ear, you’re up a creek without a trolling-motor.
Drop and Give Me 50!
Training your ears is easy, but perhaps repetitive as I’ve mentioned how many times you should listen to one song to hear what the engineer has done. But it’s not just about repetition.
The first part of the training is music appreciation.
Listen to music!
Listen to the style you commonly mix!
Listen to all styles!
John Gulyas told me “There really is a lot that goes into making that mix sound great. You really need to know where a particular instrument “fits” into the audio spectrum. Rock shows are probably the easiest to mix for me (1 or 2 guitars, bass, drums and vocals). The group I mix for has all that plus a trumpet and a couple of saxes. The ‘fun’ for me starts in a jazz show. You’ve got 14+ instruments to mix as well as the general rhythm cats. You need to know which freq’s are “trouble” on each axe as well as where that instrument fits in the spectrum. For instance, how a sax with a metal mouthpiece sounds compared to one with a hard rubber one; where to cut the lead trumpet so he’ll come through without being painful and where to put the scat vocal in with the sax solo section. Once you figure all that out you then have to mix it for the style of the tune. Again, it all comes down to listening to as many groups as you can, as often as you can. I listen to all kinds of stuff like Boston, Rush, KMFDM and Uriah Heep to that really weird, off the wall 20th century “classical” music to the 40s big band stuff (which I personally can’t stand).”
Worship music sounds like a lot of genres. The most common genres I would say are rock, pop, and country. By listening to music in all of these genres, you’ll get a better sense of how a song is mixed within a genre.
If you want to give your ears some exercise and then put them to a test, find out what songs the worship team are playing soon. Take a song that they are doing in which they are trying to emulate the original. Then get a copy of the original and listen to it over and over. Take notes. Follow this article for more details.
The second part of the training is listening AND READING.
There are two books which I have seen referenced by several sound techs (church and other). These books include sample tracks for listening to examples.
“Critical Listening Skills for Audio Professionals” – F. Alton Everest.
This book runs $30 and focuses on critical listening as the title describes.
“Mixing Audio.” – Roey Izhaki
This book also runs around $30 and focuses on both technical and listening skills.
The third part of the training is learning from others.
Let’s look at a full band and pick out the hardest instrument to mix on its own. The winner is… the drums. A drum kit has many different sources of sound and each one has its own distinct properties. From the high-hat to the kick-drum, we’re all over the frequency range! When I mix drums, I first focus on making the drums sound good on their own. Once I have captured that, then I can later tweak them so the kit fits in with the song mix.
For a long time, the drums were my biggest hurdle/fear/weakness. Then I asked for help. One of the congregation members has been playing drums (very well) for over 20 years and has recorded a few albums. I asked him for help. He taught me the sounds to listen for in each instrument such as capturing the slap of the snare drum. While someone else was drumming, he’d stood with me in the booth and adjusted the EQ and explained the sound he was looking for out of each instrument.
If you have another sound tech or a musician who really understands mixing, or even mixing just one particular instrument, ask for their help. Watch and listen to how they are EQ’ing an instrument like the drums. Then have them reset the EQ. Start mixing yourself and USE YOUR EARS. Sometimes I even close my ears while my hand is on an EQ knob because it helps me focus. After you’re done, let them critique you.
The same goes for mixing songs with a mentor. Work with them during worship practice time and listen to what they are doing to instruments individually and to instruments / vocals for the song as a whole. Ask questions. Then mix yourself and have them listen and critique.
Some people are blessed with Golden Ears. They know exactly how to mix a song and their results are beauuuuuutifuuuul. Mozart was a musical prodigy. Michelangelo was a skilled and trained artist. By devoting the time to ear training, you can improve your mixes dramatically. Know that it takes time and even Michelangelo colored outside the lines a few times.
If you are a church leader who is worried about the quality of your sound, add the above books to your resource library and make sure that your audio training requirements focus on both the technical aspect of mixing as well as the art of mixing.
Missed Part Two? Catch it here.