Why Do Sound Engineers Insist On Actively Mixing Vocals?

They’re teaching it wrong. I mean, they have to be for every sound engineer I’ve met to get it wrong the first time. (By every I mean every one but you, of course)

Oh… hi. Let me catch you up on this rant that’s been going on in my head for about 4 years now. It seems any time I work with a new sound engineer, they insist on assuming they’ll know how to mix the vocals better than the band. Last week’s Cirque du Mac party was no exception (yeah, I know, I didn’t blog about where or what I was going to be doing at Macworld Expo and, yeah, I’ve been ignoring my blog in general for a while. I’ve been busy but I’m doing fine, thanks for asking. I’m here now!).

At Cirque, the Macworld All-Star Band had 5 vocal mics on stage: 3 across the front, one with Chris at the keys, and one at the drumkit for me. With that many live mics on stage potentially allowing other sounds to bleed in when someone isn’t singing into each, a sound engineer tends to get antsy that they won’t have full control over all the sound. The oft-perceived (and ill-conceived!) solution is to bring vocal mics up and down only when they’re needed. On the surface, this sounds very reasonable. The issue is the dangerous assumption by the sound engineer that they will somehow magically know when each mic needs to be on. Of course, it’s impossible for them to know this if it’s the first time they’re doing sound for the band. Hell, it’s hard for an engineer to know this even if it’s his/her 100th time doing sound for the band. If you have a band that liberally employs harmonies, you simply don’t know when one is going to crop up. And by the time you notice someone singing into a microphone, you’ve missed it. If you’re lucky, you’ll see it during the first verse/chorus and maybe get it right for the second one. But with 5 mics on stage, you’ve got to watch each and every one 100% of the time to even get it right the second time around, and I posit those chances to be slim, at best.

The solution is simple: leave the damned vocal levels alone and let the band mix on stage just like they’re used to doing in a rehearsal room. Most bands are better at this than most engineers give them credit for (bad English, good statement!). Of all the bands I play in, all the musicians I know are smart enough to back off the mic when blending a harmony and get up close when singing a lead. Mic technique is just one of those things you learn. Trust the musicians. Hell, it’s their gig and their reputation on the line if they sing harmonies too loud or out of tune. Let them fail and take the blame, if you wish, but in most cases they’ll sound better than you think.

So if you’re a soundman reading this, please — for the love of all that is good and pure, PLEASE — when mixing a band for the first time, set the vocal levels in the monitors (all the monitors!) the same as the mains and simply leave it alone unless one mic is much louder or softer than the others. Then adjust it in both places and get out of the band’s way!

36 Responses to “Why Do Sound Engineers Insist On Actively Mixing Vocals?”

  1. DavidGallant Says:

    With newer portable digital desks, it gives new abilities for bands to ‘set it and forget it’ with regards to their setup. With large onboard processing and PDA/Laptop wireless control, and band can patch their rig directly into the mixer, save a profile, and use it for every future show. Using a tablet/PDA to contol the all in one mixer allows 1 member to ‘walk the room’ and hear what the audience will hear after room response is factored in.

  2. DavidGallant Says:

    With newer portable digital desks, it gives new abilities for bands to ‘set it and forget it’ with regards to their setup. With large onboard processing and PDA/Laptop wireless control, and band can patch their rig directly into the mixer, save a profile, and use it for every future show. Using a tablet/PDA to contol the all in one mixer allows 1 member to ‘walk the room’ and hear what the audience will hear after room response is factored in.

  3. Dave Says:

    Unfortunately, most venues where “small” bands will play don’t have digital desks and are just using simple analog mixers. I just wish sound engineers would realize that their job is to take what’s happening on stage and reinforce it, not remix it!

  4. Dave Says:

    Unfortunately, most venues where “small” bands will play don’t have digital desks and are just using simple analog mixers. I just wish sound engineers would realize that their job is to take what’s happening on stage and reinforce it, not remix it!

  5. Brandon Moser Says:

    Amen to this. I was trying to explain this to a n00b sound engineer. I kept saying, I want to know how loud it is for the fans/guests/attendees. How hard is this? As a fellow drummer, variance in volume is a necessity and if they keep adjusting the levels, it impossible to know if your effect is actually being effective. Keep preaching, one day it may be heard.

  6. Brandon Moser Says:

    Amen to this. I was trying to explain this to a n00b sound engineer. I kept saying, I want to know how loud it is for the fans/guests/attendees. How hard is this? As a fellow drummer, variance in volume is a necessity and if they keep adjusting the levels, it impossible to know if your effect is actually being effective. Keep preaching, one day it may be heard.

  7. Dave Says:

    Thanks, Brandon. Yeah, I just need to remember to preach it on the *first* gig with a new engineer. My wishful thinking keeps leading me to believe that there are engineers out there who get this, but I swear I haven’t found a single one that gets it until I (politely!) discuss it with them.

    And that’s the other thing — why are sound engineers often (though not always) so resistant to direction from the band??

  8. Dave Says:

    Thanks, Brandon. Yeah, I just need to remember to preach it on the *first* gig with a new engineer. My wishful thinking keeps leading me to believe that there are engineers out there who get this, but I swear I haven’t found a single one that gets it until I (politely!) discuss it with them.
    And that’s the other thing — why are sound engineers often (though not always) so resistant to direction from the band??

  9. matt Says:

    The answer is to route all the vocal mics through a compressor/limiter so that they will be triggered (and effectively turned “on”) when the threshold is reached by the singer(s) singing into the mic.

    What? No compressor/limiter? I agree with ya Dave, a good band (not mine haha) will know what to turn DOWN when onstage.

    Yes, leave the damn mics turned on…you tell ’em Dave!!!

  10. matt Says:

    The answer is to route all the vocal mics through a compressor/limiter so that they will be triggered (and effectively turned “on”) when the threshold is reached by the singer(s) singing into the mic.
    What? No compressor/limiter? I agree with ya Dave, a good band (not mine haha) will know what to turn DOWN when onstage.

    Yes, leave the damn mics turned on…you tell ’em Dave!!!

  11. Bryan Says:

    Hey Dave,

    Of all your bandmates, I may be least adept at mic technique, but have definitely learned much from you and the MWASB members.

    I think getting at the heart of this issue — that of why this issue is so prevalent — would make for a great read. Then again, I am a context-addict. 🙂

    Thanks for the post. Good to see DtN back in business.

    Bryan

  12. Bryan Says:

    Hey Dave,
    Of all your bandmates, I may be least adept at mic technique, but have definitely learned much from you and the MWASB members.

    I think getting at the heart of this issue — that of why this issue is so prevalent — would make for a great read. Then again, I am a context-addict. 🙂

    Thanks for the post. Good to see DtN back in business.

    Bryan

  13. dudeguy Says:

    It’s ok to have a comment.

  14. dudeguy Says:

    It’s ok to have a comment.

  15. Mark Lint Says:

    Hi, Dave!

    Wow, five singers (or is that three singers and two mostly sax players?). That’s ambitious! I thought having the four of us miced in the days of the Fake was probably overly ambitious for club gigs as it was!

    My current band has two alternating lead vocalists (with no 3rd vocal mic, much as I’d like one if the drummer could sing), and since I sing some things very low and quiet and some things much more forcefully, I like an active soundman trying to keep the two of us straight and adding delay at choice moments and all. Still, if it’s a big concern, maybe buying a multi-channel noise gate unit might satisfy them so they don’t feel they have to pull down the mics that aren’t actively being used.

  16. Mark Lint Says:

    Hi, Dave!
    Wow, five singers (or is that three singers and two mostly sax players?). That’s ambitious! I thought having the four of us miced in the days of the Fake was probably overly ambitious for club gigs as it was!

    My current band has two alternating lead vocalists (with no 3rd vocal mic, much as I’d like one if the drummer could sing), and since I sing some things very low and quiet and some things much more forcefully, I like an active soundman trying to keep the two of us straight and adding delay at choice moments and all. Still, if it’s a big concern, maybe buying a multi-channel noise gate unit might satisfy them so they don’t feel they have to pull down the mics that aren’t actively being used.

  17. Mark Lint Says:

    Oh, and good to see that you’re out and playing… and singing lead no less! Fantastic! Of course, your life would have maximum meaning were you to move to Madison, of course… My new album is arriving in days: http://www.newpeopleband.com . Best, -Mark

  18. Mark Lint Says:

    Oh, and good to see that you’re out and playing… and singing lead no less! Fantastic! Of course, your life would have maximum meaning were you to move to Madison, of course… My new album is arriving in days: http://www.newpeopleband.com . Best, -Mark

  19. Dave Says:

    Hi Mark — great to hear from you, and love the new band and video! Priceless!

    As for singers, the Macworld All-Star band has 5 vocal mics live on stage, but other than those “gang vocal” type tunes where everyone’s singing unisons together, there are rarely more than 3 people singing harmonies at any point in time. The problem, of course, is that this makes it impossible for the sound engineer to *know* who’s going to be singing (often until it’s too late), hence my rant above.

  20. Dave Says:

    Hi Mark — great to hear from you, and love the new band and video! Priceless!
    As for singers, the Macworld All-Star band has 5 vocal mics live on stage, but other than those “gang vocal” type tunes where everyone’s singing unisons together, there are rarely more than 3 people singing harmonies at any point in time. The problem, of course, is that this makes it impossible for the sound engineer to *know* who’s going to be singing (often until it’s too late), hence my rant above.

  21. Mark Lint Says:

    Gotcha. Hey, send your current mailing address to me at mark@marklint.com, and I’ll send you something. -Mark

  22. Mark Lint Says:

    Gotcha. Hey, send your current mailing address to me at mark@marklint.com, and I’ll send you something. -Mark

  23. Dave Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Kevin. Your thoughts do, indeed, illustrate the problem pretty clearly. That is, engineers walking into a gig assuming and/or generalizing things about the band they’re there to mix. As has been clearly indicated in the comments before yours, the key to all of this is the band and the engineer dispensing with assumptions and having a clear, open, honest, and candid conversation with each other before the gig starts. Then and only then will this problem be solved.

  24. kevin Says:

    Ok….. So I was surfing a ended up on this blog. Very strange/funny to hear what everyone has to say about Engineers, I am an Engineer. I own a recording studio in Branson Missouri, A mastering Studio in Phoenix, Arizonia, went to Full Sail and Sae institute. I NEVER post to blogs but felt the need. I can only try and explain why Engineers do what they do in such a short time and space. You made the comment “why do engineers insist they know how to mix the vocals better than the band”. You also said that Your band is talented enough to know mic dynamics and that the engineer should just leave the mic levels alone and get out of the bands dam way. This is the primary problem ALL engineers run into – Musicians who think they know sound science. Its the other way around you see. Engineers dam well know how cocky and arrogant musicians can get. Knowing this we ride the faders for fear that one of you will feel like you need attention and start singing louder than you should be. It happens non stop with musicians on ALL levels. You tell them its time for level check – theres no-one to show off to so they sing quit so you think you have your levels. THEN the audience shows up and everyones head starts to swell and then the musicians could give a shit about the engineers problems and do whatever they want and just think screw it he will fix it and then they bitch when things go wrong and blame it on the soundman. And your comment that vocalists just learn mic dynamics on the way is completely untrue. I record around four bands a week and deal with “PROS” all the time and let me tell you as an engineer you NEVER trust the musicians when it comes to ANYTHING that pertains to engineering unless it has to do with the direct way their instrument sounds. I should also tell you that whatever it is you are doing on stage that seems so hard (dancing,singing,playing) the engineers about the only person in the room using intelligence on a deep level at all. They are responsible for the way the room colors their sound, the front of house monitoring, the stage monitoring, the routing, the mic placement, the levels, the eqs, compressors, noise suppressors, gates, power conditioners, fader riding, panning or speaker assignment, effects units, and worst of all unappreciative musicians.

  25. kevin Says:

    Ok….. So I was surfing a ended up on this blog. Very strange/funny to hear what everyone has to say about Engineers, I am an Engineer. I own a recording studio in Branson Missouri, A mastering Studio in Phoenix, Arizonia, went to Full Sail and Sae institute. I NEVER post to blogs but felt the need. I can only try and explain why Engineers do what they do in such a short time and space. You made the comment “why do engineers insist they know how to mix the vocals better than the band”. You also said that Your band is talented enough to know mic dynamics and that the engineer should just leave the mic levels alone and get out of the bands dam way. This is the primary problem ALL engineers run into – Musicians who think they know sound science. Its the other way around you see. Engineers dam well know how cocky and arrogant musicians can get. Knowing this we ride the faders for fear that one of you will feel like you need attention and start singing louder than you should be. It happens non stop with musicians on ALL levels. You tell them its time for level check – theres no-one to show off to so they sing quit so you think you have your levels. THEN the audience shows up and everyones head starts to swell and then the musicians could give a shit about the engineers problems and do whatever they want and just think screw it he will fix it and then they bitch when things go wrong and blame it on the soundman. And your comment that vocalists just learn mic dynamics on the way is completely untrue. I record around four bands a week and deal with “PROS” all the time and let me tell you as an engineer you NEVER trust the musicians when it comes to ANYTHING that pertains to engineering unless it has to do with the direct way their instrument sounds. I should also tell you that whatever it is you are doing on stage that seems so hard (dancing,singing,playing) the engineers about the only person in the room using intelligence on a deep level at all. They are responsible for the way the room colors their sound, the front of house monitoring, the stage monitoring, the routing, the mic placement, the levels, the eqs, compressors, noise suppressors, gates, power conditioners, fader riding, panning or speaker assignment, effects units, and worst of all unappreciative musicians.

  26. Dave Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Kevin. Your thoughts do, indeed, illustrate the problem pretty clearly. That is, engineers walking into a gig assuming and/or generalizing things about the band they’re there to mix. As has been clearly indicated in the comments before yours, the key to all of this is the band and the engineer dispensing with assumptions and having a clear, open, honest, and candid conversation with each other before the gig starts. Then and only then will this problem be solved.

  27. Chris Church Says:

    As a live sound engineer who has worked with lots of bands from Aretha Franklin to April Wine. I think in a perfect world the band would know how to perfectly blend the vocals. But that simply is not the case in most situations only because the monitoring system in most gigs SUCKS…. and getting good levels and clarity is almost impossible on stage. Therefor a good sound engineer will make subtle adjustments to the levels to keep the harmony’s correct. That’s our job as engineers I am also a musician for over 30 years. So I do understand whats going on better then someone who is not. I understand what your saying but with all due respect sound engineers are like bands. Some are good and some are bad. When I mix a blues band I rarely have to touch a fader but when I am mixing a musical or a pop band things are so dynamic that you must be “on top of it” that does not mean making “spastic” changes to levels 🙂 Its all about being subtle. I think you have run into a bunch of shit sound man. That’s the real issue.

  28. Chris Church Says:

    As a live sound engineer who has worked with lots of bands from Aretha Franklin to April Wine. I think in a perfect world the band would know how to perfectly blend the vocals. But that simply is not the case in most situations only because the monitoring system in most gigs SUCKS…. and getting good levels and clarity is almost impossible on stage. Therefor a good sound engineer will make subtle adjustments to the levels to keep the harmony’s correct. That’s our job as engineers I am also a musician for over 30 years. So I do understand whats going on better then someone who is not. I understand what your saying but with all due respect sound engineers are like bands. Some are good and some are bad. When I mix a blues band I rarely have to touch a fader but when I am mixing a musical or a pop band things are so dynamic that you must be “on top of it” that does not mean making “spastic” changes to levels 🙂 Its all about being subtle. I think you have run into a bunch of shit sound man. That’s the real issue.

  29. Dave Says:

    Good points, Chris — And I agree that subtle changes throughout the night are the job of the soundman. My beef comes with a majority of soundmen I’ve encountered who seem to want to actively (spastically?) mix vocals, pulling the faders for everything but the lead way down, pushing the lead up, then missing harmonies, etc. That’s the big concern.

    Oh, and for the love of all that’s good and pure, please put a little slapback delay in the vocal monitors. Every singer I’ve ever worked with *loves* it, and it allows you to keep the monitor volume LOWER resulting in less opportunity for feedback. Just sayin’ 😉

  30. Dave Says:

    Good points, Chris — And I agree that subtle changes throughout the night are the job of the soundman. My beef comes with a majority of soundmen I’ve encountered who seem to want to actively (spastically?) mix vocals, pulling the faders for everything but the lead way down, pushing the lead up, then missing harmonies, etc. That’s the big concern.
    Oh, and for the love of all that’s good and pure, please put a little slapback delay in the vocal monitors. Every singer I’ve ever worked with *loves* it, and it allows you to keep the monitor volume LOWER resulting in less opportunity for feedback. Just sayin’ 😉

  31. Stan Says:

    I am another who doesn’t get into blogs but found this interesting and wanted to pipe in. I think there is a lot of agreement in these blogs even though it appears that there is some disagreement. The easy answer was the last who said Band and Sound guy should talk and agree prior to the gig”. I am a musician and Sound guy enjoying 20+ years of working musically in 20 European countries, 3 African countries and 28 U.S. states. Sound guys work on such diverse levels with bands who are Novas all the way up to Pro which makes all the difference in the world. Real World is that most bands that sound guys work with are Novas and know very little about sound and do not know how to back off when they are singing backgrounds. Most Novas vocalists never check there mic professionally like they are going to scream during the real gig. Leaving mics on become a real challenge especially in a situation where a drummer has no real voice and the gain on his mic destroys the overall sound when left on. I do agree with trying to leave the mics set and forget them when working with a professional band. Professional bands are few and far between. The most recent laugh I want to share is a funny situation where the band leader claims that he runs sound on a regular basis and knows everything about sound and doesn’t realize that he is a horrible drummer to boot. The guy had some decent gear like Dual 18 Yorkville subwoofers Large series three QSC amps and wants to make sure that the sound guy mixes his kick drum correctly only to find that he has 22 gauge car stereo speaker wire operating the QSC amps supplying power to the subs and has a kick drum with a ripped head??????? So much for dampening factor. Sound guys that have proper training do understand more than band members. Theres a lot more than knobs and cables. Sound guys who were musicians first then received pro sound training found their selves realizing how much more there really is that they and band guys are clueless about. I would say that if the Macworld All-Star Band is a pro band and you guys have the training and the sound guy wont listen, FIRE him. I wouldn’t assume that every band has your skill level. The percentage of Novas bands trying to get attention and trying to prove how cool they are has to be 80% while the percentage of Pro bands out there gigging is probably 20%. Most bands know nothing about real sound! The two last things that I would say that I hope would shed some light is this, if a sound guy walked into a gig trying to tell the guitar pro how he or she should voice his cords or what amps to buy or what strings to play on, would you assume that he has more knowledge than your guitar player? Also, you said in your original blog that the band should take the heat if they don’t balance correctly. I wish that were the case because I agree with you however, the real case is that 5 people from the audience would be correcting the sound guy calling him every name in the book professing to know how to mix better than the sound guy. Unfortunately, the sound is a reflection of the sound guys abilities and there is no way to correctly point the finger at the band. Most sound guys really do want to mix well and make your band sound like a perfect CD recording.

  32. Stan Says:

    I am another who doesn’t get into blogs but found this interesting and wanted to pipe in. I think there is a lot of agreement in these blogs even though it appears that there is some disagreement. The easy answer was the last who said “Band and Sound guy should talk and agree prior to the gig”. I am a musician and Sound guy enjoying 20+ years of working musically in 20 European countries, 3 African countries and 28 U.S. states. Sound guys work on such diverse levels with bands who are Novas all the way up to Pro which makes all the difference in the world. Real World is that most bands that sound guys work with are Novas and know very little about sound and do not know how to back off when they are singing backgrounds. Most Novas vocalists never check there mic professionally like they are going to scream during the real gig. Leaving mics on become a real challenge especially in a situation where a drummer has no real voice and the gain on his mic destroys the overall sound when left on. I do agree with trying to leave the mics set and forget them when working with a professional band. Professional bands are few and far between. The most recent laugh I want to share is a funny situation where the band leader claims that he runs sound on a regular basis and knows everything about sound and doesn’t realize that he is a horrible drummer to boot. The guy had some decent gear like Dual 18 Yorkville subwoofers Large series three QSC amps and wants to make sure that the sound guy mixes his kick drum correctly only to find that he has 22 gauge car stereo speaker wire operating the QSC amps supplying power to the subs and has a kick drum with a ripped head??????? So much for dampening factor. Sound guys that have proper training do understand more than band members. There’s a lot more than knobs and cables. Sound guys who were musicians first then received pro sound training found their selves realizing how much more there really is that they and band guys are clueless about. I would say that if the Macworld All-Star Band is a pro band and you guys have the training and the sound guy won’t listen, FIRE him. I wouldn’t assume that every band has your skill level. The percentage of Novas bands trying to get attention and trying to prove how cool they are has to be 80% while the percentage of Pro bands out there gigging is probably 20%. Most bands know nothing about real sound! The two last things that I would say that I hope would shed some light is this, if a sound guy walked into a gig trying to tell the guitar pro how he or she should voice his cords or what amps to buy or what strings to play on, would you assume that he has more knowledge than your guitar player? Also, you said in your original blog that the band should take the heat if they don’t balance correctly. I wish that were the case because I agree with you however, the real case is that 5 people from the audience would be correcting the sound guy calling him every name in the book professing to know how to mix better than the sound guy. Unfortunately, the sound is a reflection of the sound guy’s abilities and there is no way to correctly point the finger at the band. Most sound guys really do want to mix well and make your band sound like a perfect CD recording.

  33. John Lords Says:

    I am a sound engineer on a small club and bar level and have watched other pro engineers run sound. I always wondered why they were cranking faders up and down during and in between songs. Seems kinda silly but i guess if your riding the gains to maximize presence and volume you can get some feedback throught the monitors. Generaly i have this problem with the drummers because their kits are miced but there still bleeding through the vocal mic. I just give them an on/off switch so they can use their own discretion.

  34. John Lords Says:

    I am a sound engineer on a small club and bar level and have watched other pro engineers run sound. I always wondered why they were cranking faders up and down during and in between songs. Seems kinda silly but i guess if your riding the gains to maximize presence and volume you can get some feedback throught the monitors. Generaly i have this problem with the drummers because their kits are miced but there still bleeding through the vocal mic. I just give them an on/off switch so they can use their own discretion.

  35. REELTone Engineer Says:

    Or, you could simply apply a gate to the vocal mics, this would solve the problem of spill, and would not require the engineer to “actively mix”

  36. REELTone Engineer Says:

    Or, you could simply apply a gate to the vocal mics, this would solve the problem of spill, and would not require the engineer to “actively mix”

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