How To Mix Like a Ninja

What’s a Ninja Warrior? Well, they are highly trained combatants skilled in operating invisibly behind enemy lines. If you happen to see a Ninja Warrior without them wanting you to, then they’ve done something terribly wrong. The same goes for being a Sound Ninja. You should never be noticed during the show. If you are, with feedback or an ill-timed muted microphone or a horrible mix, then you have failed in your clandestine mission. But becoming a Ninja of any kind takes years of practice. “When you can take the pebble from my hand….”

Time to get started. We all kid about being sound Ninjas, so here’s your opportunity to see where your skills fit in the mix. We’ll start with #1 being beginners entry level, and #6 being Grammy Award level mixing. Time to get started. So 3…, 2…, 1…, MIX.

Level #1 – KNOW HOW EVERYTHING IS PATCHED:

This is the basis for all successful mixes. Before you can even hope to get to the next level, you need to know what’s hooked to what. That is, be able to identify every signal path in your sound system. For example, you must know which mic lands on what fader channel, which aux send goes to what floor monitor, and any special recording or broadcasting sends.You also need to know how to match signal levels between different gear, (+4 to -10 and visa-versa), set input gain properly for each and every vocal or instrument input (-18 dBFS vs 0dBVU), and know how to patch in any snakes or sub-snakes. If you’ve got a digital board, then having a solid understanding of its digital patching is also mandatory. In any case you should be able to solo or mute any instrument on the board at will, and know exactly what every knob, button, or fader is supposed to do. Yes, I know what all the buttons do…

Level #2 – MAKE PROPER MICROPHONE SELECTIONS:

I’ve been hired for a lot of gigs simply because I understand on what instrument or voice it’s appropriate to use an SM57 or AKG535 or Shure B52 or Sennheiser M421. If you don’t instantly recognize the above mics and what they do, then it’s time to study. All of the major mic manufacturers have charts which suggest proper mic selections for piano or sax or vocal or acoustic guitar, etc… Plus you also need to try and listen to all sorts of mic positions on a variety of instruments, since moving a mic even a few inches can radically change the sound. And many microphones have specialty switches such as pads and low-frequency roll-offs. Without that knowledge base you’ll be in big trouble. I can easily name and describe over 100 different microphones and what they’re good for. Yup, I learned that a Sennheiser E604 works great on the bass side of an accordion, and that a Shure Beta 87A is a great female vocal mic, mostly through trial and error. But guys like me also write about mics like those all the time. If you read about and study all the possibilities, then when you’re given an opportunity to experiment with an odd-ball mic or instrument you won’t be clueless. So every time you use a different mic or encounter an instrument you don’t know, that’s a new learning opportunity. Don’t waste it… seize the moment and learn a new trick for your mental bag-o-tools.

Level #3 – DO SINGLE INSTRUMENT EQUALIZATION:

OK, so what does a kick drum sound like and what era mix are you trying to do? For example, kick drums from the 70’s sound totally different from kick drums in 2015 mixes. So learn what’s appropriate for each decade and style of music. If you’re not hearing what you want when you solo up that channel, then you need to add or subtract the correct frequencies until you get it right. It’s sort of like the sculptor who carves a block of stone to look like an elephant by removing anything that doesn’t look like an elephant. Instrument mixing is much the same process. I always start with something I call “EQ Bracketing”. Listen to that kick drum and remove anything that doesn’t sound like a kick. In that case you’ll need to get rid of the super high frequencies above 8 kHz or so that a kick can’t do. Same goes for the snare but in the opposite direction. If you hear any deep bass in the snare mic, it’s probably not the snare. You’re likely hearing the kick or the floor tom, or even the bass player leaking into the mic. So hi-pass that channel to just below what makes you happy with the sound.
Freq_Chart_FullSo with instruments that play actual notes you can refer to a note/frequency chart to get started. For instance, look at the lowest frequency that a piccolo can make. It can’t go any lower than 500 Hz, so if you hear any bass in that mic, it sure ain’t piccolo. I generally set the hi-pass filter to about 1/3 to 1/2 octave below what it can produce. So maybe 300 to 400 Hz High-Pass setting is appropriate for a piccolo, depending on the slope of your high-pass filter function. For most human voices I start with an 80 Hz High-Pass frequency, then work up or down from there depending on how many subwoofers I have in the sound system plus the type and position of the mics.

Level #4 – MAKE THEM PLAY NICE TOGETHER:

Well, there’s not a lot of music mixes with only one instrument playing, so we need to know how they interact in the mix. If you don’t do this right you’ll end up with a muddy mix where all the instruments get in each other’s way. As the prime example, let’s consider the kick drum and bass guitar. If you play either of these instruments, you know just how important the other one is to your sound. In fact I believe that the kick drum and bass guitar behave like a single instrument played by two different people. So each one contributes half of spectrum the Kick/Bass mix. One of them needs to provide the BOOM, while the other provides the SNAP. This is most obvious if you listen to mixes from the bands back in the 70’s such as Black Sabbath. In that era, bass players typically used a few really huge speakers (up to 30” of diameter) in their speaker cabinets, and played their 4-string bass guitars with their fingers. No slapping and popping, and no real high frequencies from their huge speakers. But they certainly had more bottom end than the PA systems of the day. Since the bass guitar was providing the “BOOM” then the kick drum needed to provide the opposite “SNAP” to fill in the top half of the spectrum. We sometimes did this with a wood beater on the kick pedal, or taped a quarter or credit card on the head of the kick drum where the beater hit it. So to review, in the 70’s the bass guitar provided the BOOM, while the kick drum provided the SNAP. Now fast-forward 20 years and you’ll find all kinds of bass players with 5 or 6 string guitars using cabinets with banks of 10” speakers plus tweeters, plus playing with a pick or slapping and popping the strings. In that case the bass guitar is providing the SNAP with a lot of spectrum around 5 kHz but not a lot of low frequencies, so we need the kick drum to make the BOOM. We do that by re-equalizing the kick channel to add a lot more 30 to 60 Hz BOOM, and carve out the 5 KHz SNAP from that kick channel in the mix. You’ll find lots of other examples of this frequency carving, where you carve out a hole in the spectrum of one instrument and boost the same frequencies in a different instrument. I could write an entire book on how to do this, but there are tons of great examples of mixes that exploit this technique with Grammy Award winning results.

Level #5 – CONTROL THE DYNAMICS:

This is where it all comes together in the mix. By inserting gates and compressors in the proper paths, plus making sure your musicians don’t step on each others’ spectrum, you’ll soon be making great mixes. I always add gates on the Kick, Snare, Rack Toms, and Floor Toms. I don’t use gates on overhead mics or the High Hat. I find it too distracting when all of the drum tone goes away. I used to never use compressors on a drum kit since most of the professional drummers I’ve worked with have very controlled dynamics. But since I’ve been teaching a lot of praise team mixing in churches with young drummers, I’ve now started adding a compressor to the snare to help keep it under control. Again, listen to what your ears are telling you. I tend to put dynamic compressors on the bass guitar channel to smooth out their dynamics, and on lead vocals even if it’s just below the peak level to control any screams or mic drops. I’ll post a chart later with appropriate attack times and compression ratios for compressor, but that’s an entire chapter all unto itself.

Level #6 –  MAKE ARRANGEMENTS:

Finally, be sure to listen to the arrangement of the instruments in the performance. If everyone is playing instruments with a similar sonic signature at the same time, then you’ll never be able to separate them in the mix. So in that case I’ll suggest that each of the guitar players do different things. Maybe one player plays power chords,  the other does arpeggios, and the third guitarist plays in a different scale further up on the neck and on the up-beat instead of the down-beat. By creating physical space in the arrangement, the musicians are leaving places for the other players to put in their own beats, without stepping on any sonic toes. This makes the act of mixing much easier, no matter what the music genre.

FIX IT IN THE MIX

There you go, my six levels of live sound so you can become a Ninja mixer. Start at #1 and work your way up to #6.  It can take years of practice to master all these mixing levels, but when you do, it becomes a thing of sonic beauty that few other jobs can compare to.

Copyright Mike Sokol 2016 – All Rights Reserved
Excerpt from my new book to be released the spring of 2017

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