Mixing Music is a Performance

Something I have learned in recent years is that mixing music is a performance. Through interviews with engineers in TapeOp, on Pensado’s Place, and watching people run live sound, I’ve come to understand that mixing is much more than just setting the initial levels and letting it go. Balancing the different sounds throughout a performance is an art and just as much of a performance as playing in the band.

One particular event that really inspired me to view mixing as a performance happened when I was working for Premier Guitar. I was on an assignment to film a Rig Rundown interview with Steve Stevens, the guitar player for Billy Idol. After the interview, we stuck around to hear the first few songs of the concert before making the trek back home.

It was an outdoor show and I remember being really impressed with how great the sound was. Everything was very clear, had a lot of meat and punch to the sound without being muddy or harsh. After a couple songs I decided to go and stand by the front of house sound engineer. Watching him mix, and hearing the great sound he was making really inspired me.

The main thing I noticed was he seemed to be constantly moving faders. They weren’t drastic moves but they were effective. Not watching the sound board you’d just hear the music and know that it felt right, not realizing how much work he was doing. Between vocal passages he’d turn the guitar up just a bit, and then back down when the vocal came back in. To give a bit of a lift to the song, he’d bump up the bass guitar for more power and energy. Verses, drop everything down just a touch and back up for the chorus.

The broad strokes were made by the band and the initial dialing in of each sound. Then the FOH mixer took a tiny brush and painted on the small details, highlights, and shadows. Those small changes, made a huge difference. His performance contributed a lot, and made the emotional impact of that songs much more effective.

Live at the millHaving just recently recorded and mixed a concert that was broadcast live, it really got me thinking about this. I found that constantly making small changes throughout the night made a big difference. When a horn player would take a solo, I’d of course turn up their mic a bit, but also maybe turn down the keyboard or guitar. The mix would have sounded okay had I not made as many adjustments, you’d still hear everything just fine. However, thinking of my mixing as a performance made a huge difference. I got a number of compliments on the quality of the broadcast sound from people who’s opinions in this case really mattered. That’s always a good sign that you’re doing it right.

Laptop rigPlus, it’s more fun to move and flow with the music. It was a little difficult, due to being on a laptop and not having actual physical faders to move. I can see why so many people enjoy mixing on large consoles or using a control surface. You’d easily be able to put in a full performance when you can quickly make small changes to multiple channels at the same time.

I enjoyed the job more than usual just because of my approach to mixing, and on top of that, it seems to have improved my mix quality as well. It has actually inspired me to try seeking out more live mixing and recording opportunities. So hopefully you’ll be hearing more from me soon!