The band has just finished rockin’ it with “Whom Shall I Fear [God of Angel Armies]” and they bring it down a notch…way way down. I’m talking dropping out the drums, bass, and electric guitar and going with piano, acoustic guitar, and a vocal. You need to make some mix changes and fast. What can you do?
Look to ‘Yesterday’
Paul Boothroyd, a live sound engineer, has worked in the pro industry for a long time. He’s even worked with Beatles front-man, Sir Paul McCartney. Regarding working with Sir Paul, he’s had to tackle the very issue of going from a rocking song into a much more intimate song, namely, ‘Yesterday.’
How does one jump from one song extreme to another? Very carefully.
The live version of ‘Yesterday’ features Paul on vocals (duh!) and acoustic guitar. Add in a keyboard-controlled string quartet arrangement and you’ve got a horse of a different color (I’ve always wanted to say that).
In the words of Boothroyd, “For a quieter song to follow [a rocker], you have to increase the presence…I give the master faders a bit of a nudge, and push Paul’s vocal channel up a little.” Of course, it’s more than just volume changes that are required. “The vocal has to be clean, clear and sit forward in the mix. Paul’s guitar is more of a comfort blanket that keeps the tempo and it doesn’t need to feature, whereas [the] keys are key to what people remember of the song. I ride the fader up and down so that the high, thin-sounding violin doesn’t cut too harshly and the low end of the cello doesn’t get lost. You have to balance the sounds quite delicately.”
Much to think about but before moving on, just one more quote…
“I’ll sometimes pop out a few high-pass filters on the vocal and guitar inputs to help the channels breathe more dynamically when Paul’s playing softly. There’s certainly no compression going on at that point though, which gives the sound a little more sparkle, with more vocal information passing through the PA.”
Moving from ‘Yesterday’ to ‘Tomorrow’
“Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow; you’re only a day aaaawwaay.” Ok, maybe not that ‘Tomorrow.’ And if you don’t recognize that song, you can consider me “the old guy.” Where was I? Oh, yes…
Jumping from a rocker into a simpler, lighter, more intimate song, look at what makes up a live intimate song;
- Greater dynamic range in the lead vocal. You’ll hear a greater range of volume dynamics which coincide with the emotion of the song.
- Greater dynamic range in the instruments. The fewer instruments, the more they need to be distinct in the mix, even permitted to have room to change their volume dynamics.
- Only a few sounds front-and-center. Namely, you’ll get a lead vocalist and one primary lead instrument. These sound sources need to be punched up. Notice how Boothroyd said he’d turn off the HPF’s on ‘Yesterday’ so the channels could breathe.
The Six Steps for (Song) Intimacy
- Tell me you love me.
- Turn off your channel compressors.
- Kick off your channel high pass filters.
- Considering the total instrument change-up, make necessary EQ changes such as boosting presence in the acoustic guitar or tweaking the highs. Can you warm up the vocal lead?
- Consider bringing up the ambiance mic channel / congregational mic channel. The effect of this can vary a lot depending on your room, mic placement, and the resulting sound.
- Review your vocal and instrument effects. Depending on the song, the arrangement, and the size of the room, you could you a little reverb or none at all. No rules. If it sounds right, it is right.
The Take Away
An intimately mixed live song is one that feels unrestricted. It’s free to be. As a live audio mixer, you are performing a lot of manipulations and restrictions. When you get to these types of songs, ask yourself the question; “what’s the least I can restrict?” Let the song life on its own with only a gentle nudging here and there to hold the mix together.