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Simon Says – What is it That You Actually Do?

At the risk of cliché, if I had a pound for every time I was asked ‘Do you know what all those knobs and buttons do?’ I would have many more pounds than I do have. It’s similar to someone asking ‘How many Watts is that mate?’ – partly out of curiosity and partly out of banter, and nearly always at the wrong moment. Often, if you give the enquirer an estimate (what do you want, amplifier power or speaker power handling?), they don’t believe you anyway, the concept of a single loudspeaker being able to handle 3000 Watts being enough to blow most minds.

A more interesting question would be ‘What is it that you actually do?’

On a simple level, I control a whole bunch of analogue and digital audio signals, mix them altogether, amplify them and squirt them out of a speaker system so’s everyone can hear whatever the noise is – music, speech etc. – better.

In a recent TEDx talk I stated that I was fascinated by what goes on in my head when I mix a show, and gave a brief, vague idea of what that process entails for the benefit of an uninitiated audience. I think that it’s worth a deeper look into the series of physical and mental processes that transcend normal thought and activity in ways that you may find surprising.

Keeping it simple, let’s take the example of a singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar. This artist is about to perform to an audience of several thousand people as the support act to an established band. The songs he or she has crafted represent the deepest, heartfelt thoughts and feelings formed around personal, possibly intimate experience and hung out for all to see in the shape of a song. It takes a special level of confidence and guts to sing songs like that to a baying audience. Way back I recall seeing Joan Armatrading supporting Supertramp and getting a bit of hard time from the whacked out prog fans desperate to hear the opening drones of ‘School’. They weren’t interested in her highly personal songs about love and loss, and she had to fight to get her message across, which she did by the end of her set, to her great credit.

Imagine you are that solo artist, and imagine how you might feel laying your heart on the line to a room full of strangers. You need the support of the headline act’s sound engineer to make sure you are heard in the best way possible. Accepting the fact that the engineer is not too precious to mix your show (many are not interested – I always like to mix support acts if I can as it helps me connect with the room and the audience), what is it that you ideally want from that engineer?

ARTIST thinks – ‘I really hope this lot are professional. I need to know that this person who is responsible for getting my music heard is going to do their very best to make this happen. I wonder if they actually know what all those knobs and buttons do?’

ENGINEER thinks – I need to make sure I do know what all those knobs and buttons do, even if this is only mixing a guitar and vocal.

ARTIST thinks – ‘This person is a complete stranger. I wonder if they’ve ever heard my music before? I want them to get it sounding great, but I’m completely in their hands.

ENGINEER thinks – ‘I need to convey confidence and approach this artist with respect and communicate a willingness to work together. They look a bit nervous. The way I talk to them from the desk is going to affect their perception of me – I need to help them feel at ease.’

So having established that you and this singer/songwriter are going to get along just fine, it’s showtime. The artist walks out on stage, picks up the guitar (which has already been plugged in and tuned) and steps up to the mic for the first song. What goes through your head at this point?

Here’s what I do. Feel, and focus. Open your super hearing, you’re in charge now. You know roughly where the faders will sit, get them there and focus. There are two things to get sorted – a voice and a guitar. This might sound simple, but both these sources can be highly complex in their sonic make up. Priority has to be the voice, and the single most important tool at your fingertips when dealing with vocals is the high-pass filter (HPF).

The human voice usually fits in to a frequency bandwidth between 100 Hz and 10kHz, and very often higher in the low spectrum. Katherine Jenkins, with whom I have worked for over 12 years, has a voice that demands that the HPF is set at around 250 – 300Hz. You just don’t need all that low frequency energy for a vocal. All you get down there is popping and blasting from plosive sounds which sound ridiculous and destroy intelligibility. If you want to add warmth, try a little boost around 200Hz but use it very carefully. You are quite possibly working on a system that has been tuned for maximum bass impact from drums and bass instruments, and the voice is not a member of that gang.

Pay attention to the area of the voice spectrum that can sound hard and brittle, between 1kHz and 3kHz roughly speaking. If it does sound harsh, think about the sound of the speaker system. Did that sound the same when it was being set up? Of course you listened to the system before sound check didn’t you…If the guitar sounds brittle and trashy it could well be the system. It could also be the pick-ups, or the way it’s being played or the eq settings (if it has them).

You think you’ve nailed the vocal, now what about the guitar? For many, the fact that there is noise coming out of the speakers is good enough (horror, but fact), but an acoustic guitar is a funny shaped box that vibrates in weird ways. The output can be over-bright (old Takamine guitars being a fine example of dragging nails down a blackboard), or the lower mid-range can be muddy and indistinct. If the guitar has no pick-up and is miked (increasingly rare these days), understanding the way the instrument body vibrates is critical to getting the mic placement correct. Different types of guitar are sonically different. Smaller ones tend to have less low end than large body ones. Acoustic guitars can also be prone to feedback, especially if they have combination pick-ups that use a mic mounted against the inside of the soundboard and a piezo pick-up in the bridge. They can sound fabulous, but beware of monitor wedges!

So we’ve had a good listen to the guitar and adjusted some eq. Has this affected the balance between voice and guitar? Possibly, you might find you can bring up the guitar to fill things out a bit.

We are two songs into the set and we haven’t even thought about reverb or dynamics? Do we even need reverb? This is a whole other discussion that’s not for now, and as for compression it can become an unhealthy obsession, and you may well be better off without it.

Next up, Simon Says will be discussing the supply chain issues in China, whether dog ownership is appropriate for sound engineers, and alternative breakfast cereals. See you then.

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