Do You Hear What I Hear?

Do you hear what I hear?

by Mike Sokol – All Rights Reserved

I just re-read the article by Peter Janis on “How Loud Does It Need To Be” which is a great companion piece to my Semi-Silent Stage series. See

SPL-116_TallAnd just as Peter wrote, I too find that many live mixes are not only too loud, but sonically unbalanced. Yes, I’m saying it right here… There are a lot of live mixes out there that are just plain bad. That is, too much bass, too many highs, and dynamics out of control. Add this to an SPL of over 110 or 115 dB in the room and it’s not only painful, it’s often a poor version of the intended mix of the song.

So why does this happen? Isn’t there some meter or app that will tell you when the mix is correct? And don’t those digital mixers mix the band for you automatically. No and No… The final music mix is solely decided by one person, the FOH mixing engineer (and possibly the producer standing beside him). And that mix is filtered by their ears and listening experience. Yes, as Peter alluded to, these unbalanced mixes are caused not only by hearing damage from years of 110 dB mixing, but also by our brain’s auto-balance control of the spectrum of the mix.

However, I would like to offer one more possible reason for this problem, plus a possible solution. Just like you are what you eat, you mix like you listen. And if you listen badly, then you mix badly…

Would You Like Fries With That?

Kustom_100When I was a young musician back in the 1960’s I didn’t have a decent hi-fi system to know what songs really sounded like in the studio. I had a cheap record player with a 3”x5″ mono speaker. That’s where I was schooled in what Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Santana all sounded like. Since this was all mid-range with no bass or highs (think whizzer cone on the speaker) my own bands pretty much sounded like that. My first Kustom 200 PA had four 12” speakers per cabinet, and only carried vocals. But it sounded fine to me at the time since I had never heard a real full range hi-fi system. So what I was listening to had set my opinion on what sounded acceptable. I call it the Big Mac effect. If you only eat fast food, then fast food becomes acceptable. But eat a really great steak at a chophouse, and all of a sudden that fast food burger doesn’t taste so great the next time.

You Mix Like You Listen

far-side-turn-up-the-suck-knob-sounAnd just like there’s no “Suck Dial” on the console, there’s also no “Great Mix knob”. That control is located inside of your head, not on the physical mixing console. And just like we train our taste buds as to what TASTES great, we also train our ears as to what SOUNDS great. So if you listen to a lot of unbalanced sound systems with badly mixed music, that’s what you’ll end up mixing yourself. But listen to great mixes on a well-balanced speaker system, and you’ll really learn how the Grammy Award winning guys mix. This is not as complicated as it sounds at first. It begins by listening to and analyzing great mixes on great sound systems all the time. Yes, listening to great music on a great sound system is your homework assignment. You many thank me now….

A Bad Apple

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 7.49.30 PMA few years ago I was teaching a live-sound mixing seminar at a big church in Texas. One of my students came up to tell me how crappy my mixes sounded. Now rather than get defensive, I asked him what he thought was wrong with what I was mixing for the class. So he went on to tell me not only how bad my mixes sounded, he said that nearly ALL mixes done by ALL artists on ALL albums were terrible. He then went on to describe the sound system he used in his own church, which included a lot of great pro-level speakers and amplifiers, and a ton of subwoofers. Probably twice as many subs as I would use for even heavy bass oriented music. He also told me that even when he played Grammy Award winning mixes they sounded “wrong” on this church sound system. He had contacted tech support at the speaker manufacturer who told him he was nuts. Visiting engineers to his church told him he was nuts. His own congregation and band told him he was nuts. And I was getting ready to tell him he was nuts until I thought to ask one simple question. What was his home stereo system like? That is, what was the reference system he listened to all the time? He said he didn’t have a home stereo system at all, but had a really nice sound system in his car. When I asked about his car system he told me there was a pair of 18” subs in band-pass sub cabinets in the trunk, and a few thousand watts of amplification. OMG…. That was his mix reference. He taught his own mind and ears that all music mixes were supposed to sound like one-note thumps that hurt. And that’s what he was doing in his own church, tuning his praise team mixes so they sounded like an over-amped car stereo system with band-passed woofers.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Big_EarsA few years later my own kids came to a realization that I thought was profound. I have a nice M&K surround system in my living room, a great NHT Pro monitoring system in my home studio, a custom playback system in my Sprinter with a 100-watt sub and Alpine 2-way speakers in the dash, plus Tannoy Reveal speakers with a Polk sub in my kid’s gaming room. One day my twin boys came to me and said “Dad, Dad, we just realized that that all your sound systems sound the same. You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” And they were right. I had carefully balanced the subwoofer crossover points and relative levels on all my listening systems so they sounded very similar. And I don’t add bass or highs on the various tone controls on a song-by-song basis. That is, no smiley face EQ, no thumpy bass at 30 Hz. Nope, I run pink noise through everything I own and get it as flat as reasonable, then stick with it. My reason is simple, I don’t want to un-calibrate my hearing by listening to bass heavy or high heavy or whatever heavy mixes. So when I’m mixing live I now have an internal reference of what things are supposed to sound like. That also means I can balance a live sound system on the fly without having to impose pink noise on a cocktail crowd or congregation. I just KNOW what it’s supposed to sound like.

Louder Is Not Necessarily Better

So circling back to the Peter Janis article, louder is not necessarily better. Once I get the stage volume under control, I can then mix the room at a reasonable 90 to 95 dB SPL (A-Slow) and you can hear every detail in the mix. I don’t have to rip peoples heads off with the vocals, because the back line is under control. And I don’t have to kill them with bass because the mids and highs are in balance. But yes, I do take a lot of speakers and amplifiers with me because I want the one thing that’s missing in so many of the mixes I hear from other engineers… HEADROOM. Yes, I want that impact of the kick. When I hear that crash of cymbal that’s not hitting the limiters it makes me happy. And the warm and fuzzy bass makes me feel, well, warm and fuzzy.

So try it. Get thee to a decent hi-fi system and buy the box sets of your favorite bands from your youth. Make sure there’s no EQ on the system, then listen to the genius of Hendrix or the musicality of Miles, or the vocal control of Maria Carey or Adel or whoever you like. And I’m not judging you if you like Nine Inch Nails, because I happen to LIKE Nine Inch Nails and think that Trent Reznor is a pretty savvy producer. Pick what moves you and just listen to the balance of the mix.

So Listen First, Then Go Forth And Mix….

After you get used to it, mixing at 95 dB SPL in a room is a lot more musical and pleasant than 110 to 115 dB SPL. Done correctly, the band will love it, the audience will love it, and you’ll love it. Plus you won’t go deaf.

Mike Sokol
All Rights Reserved

One thought on “Do You Hear What I Hear?

  1. Hi Mike, Thanks for your article. I learned so much about it.
    Still with your good words.
    I still reading about your experience.
    Maybe can you help me to mix and work as a good FOH man with your articles.
    My business run heavy metal bands and fi you have some experience on it, I will appreciate your articles!
    Thanks, again.

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