Mixing Within Decibel Limits

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I have been trying to write this post on and off for almost two weeks now, and have been continuously disappointed with the direction I wind up going.  I keep finding myself caught up in the “should there be decibel limits” conversation, or “what is appropriate decibel limits”, or “how to set decibel limits.”  But I am not in a situation where any of those conversations are necessarily relevant.  They are all things that should be discussed, but in my case, the discussions have already been had and the decisions have already been made.  So, instead of writing about what “should” be or “could” be, I want to focus on how to create the best sounding mix within decibel limits.  I can cover the should’s and could’s in another post if anyone is interested.  Let me know in a comment or through the contact page.

Like many churches I have heard of, my church leadership has put decibel limits in place to create consistency, and try to create a positive worship environment for as much of our congregation as possible.  I personally wish the level was a little louder (actually personally, I wish it was a lot louder, but I know that is not what is best for our church).

But the limit is what it is, and my job is to create the best mix within that limit.  How do I do that?  I live by these simple rules:

  1. Know and respect the limits: Whether you agree with the limits that have been set or not, they were set intentionally.  Respectful and honest conversations about limits are great, but remember, at the end of the day, the final decision is not ours.  Our job is to respect and obey.  So know your limits, remember them constantly while you mix, and respect them.
  2. Get a good decibel meter:  Without a calibrated decibel meter, specific decibel limits are meaningless.  So make sure you have and use a good decibel meter.  Also, understand how your meter works.  Make sure you use the correct settings to get the measurements you want.  Know what weighting and range settings to use in your environment, and use them consistently.
  3. Understand hearing safety: You must know how the OSHA safety standards relate to your specific decibel limit.  Often noise complaints will include concerns over hearing safety.  Being able to address those concerns with your specific decibel limits and OSHA standards will assuage safety concerns (and reveal the preference concerns that underly the safety complaints).
  4. Know your room: Walk your room with your decibel meter.  I do this while playing pink noise through the system.  This will give you a steady reference, so you can find any hot or cold spots in the room.  For example, the main entrance of our worship auditorium is a hot spot, and is about 2 decibels louder than anywhere else in the room.  Knowing this, I can walk this area during sound check to make sure things don’t get too out of hand.  Discuss your findings with your church leadership.  Perhaps in the future they might be able to address problem areas, but that is more of a long term solution.  In the meantime, ask anyone complaining about volume levels where they sit.  If they are in a hot zone, a new seat may solve the problem.

(Wow…. 4 points about mixing within decibel limits, and we haven’t even mentioned mixing yet… I am doing well aren’t I?  But really…. how do I mix within decibel limits?)

  1. Always use your decibel meter: This may seem obvious, but make sure you pay close attention to your decibel meter during rehearsal and sound check.  Nothing is worse than dialing in a great mix, then looking down at your dB meter, and realizing you are too loud.  I have my meter on from the first moment of sound check.  And I am constantly monitoring my levels even while setting up everything else.
  2. Beware vocal spikes: In my situation, in my room, it seems like the biggest problem I have are with vocal peaks.  Typically they happen when singers jump octaves, or during loud portions of the song.  One thing that really helps this is properly setting vocal compressors.  Even then, I often have moments where the vocal will peak 5 dBs.  The saving grace is that with good singers the peaks are normally in the same places. If you pay attention, you can anticipate when these peaks are coming, and adjust accordingly.  I note these peaks on my cheat sheet to ensure I don’t miss them.  (Look for a post in the near future about how I setup my cheat sheets).
  3. Limit stage volume: One of the biggest factors in a muddy mix is too much stage volume.  When I first stepped into my current role, I muted the house speakers, and I was measuring about 75-80 db at the sound board, with just stage volume.  If you are trying to create a great mix within difficult decibel limits, reducing stage noise can make the battle much easier, and the results much better.  I can write an entire post just on this topic (and I hope to in the near future), but for now, I will mention a couple of things: Work with musicians to turn down amp volumes, work with drummers on dynamics, and consider drum shields or cages.
  4. Watch the balance: Turning down the volume is not as simple as lowering the master fader.  Changing the overall volume level will change the low to high balance.  So, instead of limiting volume with the master fader, I always use my VCAs (or groups, if that is what you use).
  5. Grouping is your friend: On my board, I use VCAs, but find a way to group similar channels together.  I run all my drum mics through one VCA, so I can adjust the overall drum mix, without messing up the balance of the individual pieces.  I do the same with background vocals.  How many VCAs or groups you have really dictates what you can do with them.  I can share my setup if it is helpful, but I have 8 VCAs, so I don’t know how helpful that might be.  Let me know.
  6. Less is more: When working within volume limits, it is especially important to mix by subtraction rather than addition.  If you want to highlight a particular instrument, often you can get the same effect by lowering another sound or two.  That way, you can still mix with style, taste, and interest, but stay below your decibel limit.
  7. Don’t loose the energy: When limiting volume, the hardest thing to maintain is energy.  Softer sounds naturally sound like they have less energy.  When I need more energy, I always look for a driving sound.  Sometimes that is the kick drum, sometimes bass, sometimes rhythm guitar.  You just need to find a sound that is pushing the song forward, and give it a little more prominence.
  8. Know what is peaking your meter: Most decibel meters will tell you the volume of the loudest frequency at the mic.  So, it is imperative to know what is peaking your meter.  If you are passing your volume limit, you need to know what to turn down, so listening is just as important as watching.  If your lead vocal is peaking the meter, dropping the volume of the rest of the band might get you below the magic number, but it won’t sound good.  Know what is peaking your meter, and how to make it work.
  9. Carve your EQ: Rather than boosting volume on vocals and other items you need to hear clearly, make room for them using EQ.  For example, I typically create a boost around 1khz in the lead vocal, I will then carve out that space by making a 1 khz cut for other instruments.  I do the same thing for my piano at about 2 khz.  Generally speaking, each instrument should have it’s own sonic space.  This will allow you to hear everything more clearly without having to crank the volume.

I hope you have found these basic tips helpful.  Sorry this post got so long… Just kept thinking of more things.  If you have any thoughts, comments, or questions, please feel free to share them.

Happy mixing,

Aaron

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Us Vs. Them?

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If you have much experience in live music, I am pretty sure you have felt it; the animosity between the stage and the sound board.  We have all heard the jokes.  Here are a few of my favorites (being a sound guy, I will pick on the sound guys):

What is the difference between a sound guy and a puppy?
– Eventually the puppy stops whining. 
 
How many sound guys does it take to change a light bulb?
– None (“I don’t understand, it should be working”)
 
What’s the difference between a sound guy and a chimpanzee?
– It has been scientifically proven that a chimpanzee can communicate with humans.
 

And there are some good ones on the musician side as well.  A lot of these jokes I find very funny.  But I wonder if they are funny partly because they contain some element of truth?  What do these jokes tell us about the relationship between the stage and the console?  There appears to be a bit of underlying animosity.  It seems like every musician has a story of a sound guy who is terrible to work with, and every sound guy has a story of a similar musician.  Apparently those individuals never heard the old cliche, teamwork works best.  But I think we can all be guilty of the us vs. them mentality from time to time.  It is not just the worst of us that fall into this, but all of us can.

I think the underlying problem occurs because we tend to approaching things from two different directions.  Typically (maybe stereotypically) musicians tend to be creatively minded, and sound guys tend to be more analytically/technically minded.  Not that there is anything wrong with either basic mindset, we just look at the world differently.  But the question is what can we do to overcome these challenges?  Let me share a bit of the story of how I came to be where I am, and maybe we can all learn a couple of lessons along the way.

If you read my “About” page, you know that I work as the audio engineer for a large church in Northern Colorado.  It was a strange and winding path that brought me here, and I am pretty sure I do not have the time to write, nor do you have the patience to read, all the details.  But I will hit some of the highlights along the way.

I knew in high school that I was called to work full time in a church.  At the time, I thought that meant youth ministry.  Over the years, I went off to bible college, dropped out, wandered aimlessly for a while, finally found some direction in the Air Force, and wound up going back to college and getting a Theology degree.  Throughout this round about journey, I stayed involved in church technical ministry as a volunteer, spending most of my time at church behind a sound console. Then I branched out and started playing bass, and then lead guitar.  Eventually, I became a worship leader for a youth group.  After graduation, I began searching for a full time ministry job, focusing my efforts on worship and youth ministry positions.  But, as often happens, God had other plans.

After over a year of searching, and after being the second best candidate for several positions, I came across the job posting for my current position as an audio engineer.  This is something I had done on a volunteer basis for 13 years, and something that I had led and trained others to do, but I had never thought of it as a vocation.  I sent in my resume practically on a whim, not really expecting a response.

Well I got a response, and then an interview, and then a second interview, and was eventually offered and accepted the position.  Through the process my soon-to-be boss was very open and honest about the search, and what they were looking for.  There were several candidates who were more qualified or had more technical experience than me.  But in the end, it was my attitude that made the difference.  I was focused on being a team player, and their team needed a team player.  I could have come in with an us vs. them mentality, like is all too common behind the console.  But that is not what the church needed, and that was not what I needed.

In the end, we are all just small pieces of a larger puzzle.  We have a vital role to play in the message of the Church, but we are no more important than any other piece.  As sound guys, it is far too easy to fall into the mentality that says: “without me nothing works, no one hears the worship, no one hears the sermon, there is no church.”  But there has been Church long before there were sound guys, or consoles, or speakers.  And there will continue to be Church long after all of us are gone.  We must approach every service with this mentality; that we are just a piece of a larger team.  We are not hot shots, or lone wolves.  In the grand scheme of things we are not even truly necessary.

My first draft of this post included a list of key ideas to overcome the us vs. them mentality.  But I think every one of them falls into this concept of team.  If the keys would be helpful to you, let me know and I can post them.  But I think just trying to be a team player leads us to naturally approach our duties differently.

So next time you stand behind the console (whether it is at rehearsal, service, or whenever) remember that we are just a small piece of the large and complex puzzle.  An important piece, but at the end of the day, an unnecessary piece.  When I mix with that mindset, it’s not about me, or my mix.  It is not us vs. them.  It is about the team, the message, and ultimately about God.

Happy mixing,

Aaron

Quotes That Inspire Me – #1

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“…the best live sound engineers are the ones who make the band happy, and the audience never realize they exist.  A while back, BASF used to have a motto: ‘we don’t make product X, we simply make it better.’ This, in a nutshell is what [we] do.”

– Shawn the Tech Geek

No One Really Understands what I do.

Fading Into The Background

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For me, one of the most rewarding and frustrating parts of being the sound guy is a life of anonymity.  If you are good at what you do, you simply fade into the background and no one even notices you exist.  This can be hard for some people, and very rewarding for others.  For me, it is both.

When I was first thrown behind a sound console (practically kicking and screaming), I was a quiet high school kid who wanted to avoid the limelight at all costs.  Maybe thats one of the reasons they asked me to run sound.  Maybe they were just desperate enough.  Whatever the reason, it started a long and winding journey that led me to where I am today.

For years I happily faded into the background.  I ran sound for everything from youth groups, to church services, to local bands.  During that time I complained about the lack of recognition, and the focus on mistakes, but honestly, I enjoyed the background.

Then something strange happened.  I had been playing guitar for several years, normally alone in my bedroom and rarely in front of other people.  But I wound up in a church that had a great sound guy, but no bass player.  So I gave up my life of anonymity for a life of slightly less anonymity as a church bass player.  Over time, and as I moved from place to place in the military, I wound up as a lead guitar player.  Looking back, I can’t quite tell what happened.  One day, I am safely hiding behind a sound console, a then I look up and I am playing lead guitar in front of hundreds of people.  Every step of the way was filling a more pressing need, and every step brought me further from the shadows and onto center stage.

Then there was a more pressing need.  The youth group in my church needed a worship leader, and I felt compelled to step into that role.  I still dabbled with the sound board, and I led and trained the tech team, but my primary role was in front of everyone.

And in that role I realized something that really changed how I look at life.  Even when I am squarely in the limelight, I am not supposed to be the center of attention.  As a Christian, no matter what our job or position may be, our purpose in life is to point to God.  No matter what our role is, we are designed to fade into the background.

Once I learned that truth, my role mattered a whole lot less than what I did with it.  After three years of leading worship, I stepped into my current role as audio engineer for a large church.  Many people questioned my decision at the time.  They questioned whether I could go from center stage to anonymity.  What they did not realize is that I have been in the background the whole time.  And I have found that whatever role I find myself in, it is always more fulfilling when I remember my purpose: to fade into the background and let God take the spotlight.