Create an Atmosphere with Your Mix

by | Audio, Production

In a previous article, I explored how to encourage participation with a great vocal mix. This article will cover the rest of the mix. 

The goal of any mix is to communicate. We aren’t just trying to make the band on stage sound good, though that is a part. When leading people in worship, and make no mistake, the mix is a critical part of this, our mixes should encourage people to enter in. Our mixes should:

Breathe. Make space for the worshipper to enter.

Be dynamic. Elements should effortlessly move in and out of the mix. 

Blend. Adding up to a single whole rather than a collection of individual parts. 

Invite. Encourage worshippers to participate rather than spectate.

People can get pulled out of a moment super easily. A particular element that is too prominent in a mix, or a sub pumping away at Ibiza Rave levels can be distracting. When a performer is out of tune or off pitch, that moment can slip away. When we use too many effects and squish the life out of an instrument or add a noticeable dotted 8th delay, we risk changing the mood.

GETTING STARTED WITH YOUR MIX

One of the first things to identify is if your mix is in stereo or mono. Most churches are in mono where both sides of the auditorium hear the exact same thing. This is important because if we have a stereo mix, we can add space by panning left and right. If we have a mono mix, we must add space with EQ (cutting frequencies so everything has a place).

Before we get to some practical thoughts on making a dynamic mix that invites worshippers, I want to make two statements:

  1. Mix actively. Mixes are not “set it and forget it”. When a guitar player gets more “in the moment” they may play harder, requiring their channel be brought down a bit. When a repetitive keyboard riff adds tension in a bridge, it might need to move up in the mix. The one thing that a mix should NEVER be is static. Hands on the faders, ears on the room.
  2. Mix with your ears not your eyes. It’s too easy to look at an EQ and to think it needs to LOOK different. Listen to the room and the instrument in it. Cut some frequencies from the guitar instead of boosting the piano when they compete. Find places to CUT, especially when mixing mono. A good rule of thumb is, you can cut as deep as you want, but if you find you are boosting a sound over 6 dB, then something else is wrong (mic placement, mic choice, etc.). 

STARTING WITH THE FOUNDATION

As with all mixing, these starter tips are just that, places to start. Every situation is different, every room is different. I once mixed for a church that had 10 people on stage with a congregation of 150. There were 6 floor wedges on the stage which was built against a concrete and glass wall. Ouch. Every room will have its own issues to learn. Use these tips as a starting place and know that they won’t work everywhere. But 90% of the time, they will work in 90% of the rooms. 

The drums and bass are the foundation of your mix. Actually, the kick, snare, maybe hats and bass are the foundation of your mix. The other parts of the drum kit add feel and flavor. Focus on the kick, snare, and bass first then move to the other parts.

KICK

The Kick will benefit from some compression, around 4:1 ratio with a medium attack that lets the initial hit through with a quick release. The beater will have an attack in the 3 kHz to 5 kHz range. The bottom end lives at about 50-100 Hz and fullness is round 200 Hz. If it sounds too “woody”, take out 400 Hz or thereabouts.

It’s best to have no effects on the kick. The room should do a good enough job adding reverb. Whether you are mixing in stereo or mono, the kick should be right up the center.

A little kick in the sub goes a long way. The kick is not going to change pitch over the service so it will stay where you put it in the sub. Be aware of your audience. If it’s a youth event, all bets are off, they want to feel it. But almost every other audience, add just enough that you notice when it’s gone. 

SNARE

The modern pop snare is highly compressed and un-natural. If that is your vibe, you can hit the snare harder, but I would recommend starting at 4:1 with a medium attack and release. The attack on snare lives at about 2.5-5 kHz and the snap is about 10 kHz. Back off around 900 Hz to 1K to control the ring. I like a High Pass Filter (HPF) around 80 Hz to roll off lows that will compete with kick and bass.

If your room is not super live, some reverb on the snare will help it sit in the mix. Like the kick, keep the snare right up the middle.

HIGH HATS

High hats are often the tempo keeper for the band and congregation. Cymbals can get wonky when too much compression is used, so use a light hand here. For EQing, run a Low Pass Filter, or cut the upper end around 17-18 kHz. Then gently shape if needed.

High hats will generally be placed right up the center. I like to avoid effects on hats as it can really muddy up your mix.

BASS

Adding an 8:1 compression on the bass with a relatively fast attack and release can tighten up the bass quite a bit. Move the attack so the initial transient cuts through before the compression starts and then let it release before the next note starts. 

For EQ, you want a bit of the sound of the attack that will be around 700 Hz to 1 kHz. Use a LPF to cut back on the upper end, maybe as low as 12 kHz. Be careful about boosting the bass too much. 

As far as placement, bass is usually right up the middle in a stereo mix. The thing to think about with bass is the sub. An open E-String is 41 Hz and the open A-string is 55 Hz. So that means that there will be a general range of 41 Hz to 110 Hz for the fundamentals. Listen to make sure they bass isn’t going in and out of the sub from song to song. You might need to adjust the filter on the sub from song to song. 

OTHER DRUMS

For other cymbals, follow the same rules as the high hat. For toms, you can compress them harder, like 8:1, to keep them tight and focused. Add a HPF at about 80 Hz. 

When mixing stereo, the toms can be placed further to the left and right in a mix. In mono, EQ is your friend. If you find you’re needing to boost more than 6 dB, go check the mics and adjust them closer the head. Floor toms especially can get squirrely so use HPF and LPF to clean them up and give the kick space to be the kick.

LAYERING THE HARMONY INSTUMENTS ON TOP

Once you have a foundation set, the next section to work on is the harmony instruments. These instruments, in general, will not stand out. Yes, you can pick out the individual sounds, but much like the way spices in a curry might blend to make a taste that is the sum of its parts, the harmony instruments should blend to make one inviting sound. 

KEYS

With digital synths and pads, you don’t need to compress too much. If you use any, make it light at maybe 2:1. Since they are acoustically rich instruments, you will need to cut more to make keys fit in the mix. Look at where the guitar lives and cut that a bit (maybe 250-500 Hz and again a light cut at around 2 kHz to 5 kHz). This will reduce competition between the instruments and let them glue together.

If mixing in stereo, you can pan the keys off to a side, and then move guitars off to the other side just a bit to open up space in the mix. For pads, they really are the mix “glue”. I tend to have them fairly low in a mix but might bring them up a bit if they are used for song transitions. 

ACOUSTIC & RHYTHM GUITAR

Guitar is another wide-ranged instrument that can take up a lot of space in the mix. Tighten up the guitar with some light 2:1 compression. I tend to compress until I can hear it, then back it off a bit here. For EQ, you can run a HPF at 80 Hz to clean lows. if you want to hear the brightness that will be in the 2 kHz – 5 kHz range. Fullness is around 80 Hz to 500 Hz so you might want to cut this a bit if the mix is too full. The fundaments range from 82 Hz to 1.2 kHz so that’s a good area for a little boost.

In a stereo mix, you can move the rhythm guitars opposite the keys for a wider mix. In a mono mix, make sure you are adjusting the EQs of the keys and guitars to play off each other.

PROVIDE MOTION AND ENERGY WITH MELODIC INSTRUMENTS

The melodic instruments will help provide motion and a living feel. They will move in and out of the mix as needed. A lead guitar line might provide a reminder of the melody in the intro, but then give way to the vocals only to help build to a crescendo in the bridge. 

LEAD GUITAR

Compress at around 4:1 here with a slower attack and quicker release. Emphasize the upper end with EQ so it rises above the rhythm instruments a bit. A HPF at 100 Hz will clean up rumble and if it feels muddy, a cut around 200 Hz to 350 Hz will generally clean it up. 

For volume levels, this is a great place to be dynamic. During a non-singing solo or riff, it can be brought up in the mix and moved to center (if doing a stereo mix). Then bring it back down to blend and add feeling to the harmony section when the singing starts. 

VOCALS

My previous article looked at the vocal mix, so we won’t explore that here. But the vocal is what people need to hear to sing along so this should be the most clear and prominent part of your mix.

OVERALL MIX & FINAL THOUGHTS

Lastly, apply a light bus compressor across your main output at 2:1 just to hold everything together. Use fewer effects than you think you should. If you do use delay, assign a TAP TEMPO to a hot key or be able to access it quickly. As the song temp changes, your delay will need to change too!

Less is more. Sometimes all you need to make something sound better is to remove all the plugins! 

Know your room. If you have alcoves or a balcony, make sure you listen to what the low end is doing up there. The low end likes to skulk around in corners and alcoves. That might mean less sub-bass in the mix to ensure everyone can hear well. 

If your room is very dead, add some congregation mics to the mix. People don’t like to sing if they feel they stand out. In a highly treated auditorium this can happen. Add some ambience through audience mics. Place two condenser mics on the edge of the stage pointing out and add that to the mix. 

If your room is super live and square (like a gymnasium) you will need to tame tame tame. If you must use a sub here, don’t get crazy with it. Don’t apply reverb anywhere, the room will add its own. Soften the upper end with an EQ on the master, reduce some of those reflections a bit.

Hopefully this will help you get started. The key thing to remember is that the music should be invitational. Use your mix to invite people to worship. Let it breathe, move and be spacious. If it is, people will enter in more easily.

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