There are many masters in the art of FOH mixing but all too often I’m disappointed by the quality of mixes at gigs. What makes a good mix has been discussed many times before so I won’t go into detail here, but, at the very least, a mix has to respect the music that we, as sound engineers, channel in our work. The instruments all pass through our hands and the least we can do is make sure that each one is heard and understood.
It’s true that FOH engineers often find themselves up against fairly challenging conditions, playing venues with varying acoustic qualities, often ill-adapted to sound systems. However, open-air festivals where there are no acoustic constraints offer a place where you can really analyse a mix – and that’s where a lack of finesse becomes more apparent.
Having spent time mixing as much in studios as for live gigs, I’ve realised how these two worlds can complement each other. Mixing FOH you usually have no time to experiment, whereas in the studio you often have the chance to try out a few options.
One way to enhance your FOH mixing skills could be to sit in a recording studio with the multitrack recorded from your live session and take the time to understand what mix you want and how to achieve it. It doesn’t have to be a big studio, it’s a matter of taking the time. Things to look for might include the right reverb and delay for your lead vocal or the best compression and EQ for your snare sound, or maybe finding a nice space for your horns. In the studio you will also be able to go deeper into certain parameters like attack and release for compressors, using your compression pre or post EQ, or what you can get from parallel compression.
Creating your own toolbox for mixing and designing your mix in the studio means you are then much better prepared to start the gig. You know where you are going so you can focus on all the live sound specifics. At soundcheck you can set up the whole PA to achieve your mix: EQ and phase of the PA, adapting the position of the desk if necessary, eq the monitors to lessen the impact of the stage sound. Mixing the show will then mainly be a question of adapting your mix to the venue to achieve the same effect, for example modifying the eq or the density or length of your reverb so that when you add the venue acoustics to this digital effect you get the same reverb designed in the studio.
Recently, progress in this area has been facilitated greatly by the Dante format, which makes recording a multitrack from a show very easy. I invite all the young engineers to have a go and put their multitrack into any Pro Tools or Logic or Cubase. I’ll be listening out for the improvements!
Laurent Dupuy is a double Grammy Award-winning engineer based in London.