Mixing George Duke Live : How Loud is Loud Enough?

This is a series of articles from studio/live engineer Erik Zobler in his own words:

I am touring with the George Duke Band (seven pieces) for six weeks in dukebataclan.jpgEurope.  We are playing small clubs, medium venues and concert halls. This installment deals with mixing to the point of studio quality.  (Or — How loud is loud enough?)
When I mix live sound I like to make the sonic footprint of the show as close to what I hear in the studio as possible.  This is, of course, from the FOH mixing position. If the band is loud and monitors are loud, then I have to turn up the P.A. to get above them so I can actually mix.  In a big venue, this is not necessarily a problem.  The speakers tend to be placed farther from the audience, allowing wider dispersion of sound before the nuke factor kicks in.  The Nuke Factor kicks in when the PA is so loud, you see people’s faces being pushed back like they were in a centrifugal trainer for astronauts. Fingers in ears or scrunched up faces are also other indicators.

How loud to mix at the mix position must be based on how far the position is in relation to the speakers.  If the band (and by that I mean band plus monitors) is loud and if the position is at the back of the venue, then the people in front of the speakers will no doubt be getting nuked if you make the PA much louder than the stage volume.  The problem is that if you spare the minions in front, you can’t hear squat in the mix position.

Last night I experienced a solution, which by the end of a show that I was expecting to be a nightmare, put a smile on my face and garnered compliments from the audience.  I mixed a show at club Moods in Monaco. moodsdoor.jpg They have great equipment, Digico D1 and Yamaha M7 boards and L-Acoustics speakers.  However, the mix position is not only at the back of the club, it is up some stairs in the corner where the ceiling meets the back wall.  Anyone familiar with the acoustics of bass propagation knows that this is where low frequencies accumulate.  Mixing in this bubble of bass, while not impossible, could not have been more difficult.  In the mix position, I was straining for clarity, so I cut lows and mids and boosted some highs, only to go down stairs to find out that I had razors coming out of the speakers.  I had to run up and down the stairs multiple times and try to translate what I heard down stairs to what I was zobbiemoods1.jpghearing at the FOH position.

The Solution was a pair of small monitors placed on each side of the console.  In the beginning of the show, I only turned them up to check a sound or a blend, and then turned them back off.  This is similar to using a pair of headphones to check sound quality coming out of the desk, but mixing live sound with headphones is not a good idea because you are totally cut off from the sound in the venue (except for the visceral 60 Hz intestinal rattling effect you are getting from the bass drum.)  The speakers allowed me to hear the room while at the same time giving me the clarity I needed to be able to actually mix.  It was a facsimile of what people were hearing down stairs, but it was much closer that just trying to translate from the direct speaker sound downstairs to the bubble upstairs.
Eventually I left them on all the time, turning them up a little when I need a bit more clarity to check, say, a four part vocal blend.

I am not advocating the use of speakers at the FOH position, but in certain situations, it can be a life (or show) saver.

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