Studio engineers can gain a lot of valuable insight by mixing live sound

Mixing music at a venue can greatly improve your skills as a studio engineer, producer, and arranger.

This guest post was written by Gary Gray, an award-winning composer, producer, and engineer. 

People come to me all the time looking for insightful tips that will help them improve their mixing. They’re looking for DAW secrets, or little-known plugins. But I’ve discovered – through years of trial and terror – that your gear actually plays a very small role in the quality of your mixes.

This is something I cover extensively in my online course, The Lucrative Home Studio. Success in mixing really comes down to your skills as an engineer, your ears, and your network. And there’s one place you can boost all three of those things – live!

Living one hour south of Hollywood, I am very fortunate that within a 50-mile radius of my home is a concentration of some of the best sound mixers working in some of the greatest recording studios in the world.

And, as a self-proclaimed “networking monster,” I’ve had the opportunity to be mentored by some of the best sound engineers and music producers that Hollywood has to offer. (My motto is: “I’m Either Networking Or Notworking!”)

Here is what I discovered: The best studio sound mixers I know have one thing in common: They are all competent LIVE sound mixers.

Now, you can probably see what’s coming next… My advice to you is to go out and mix LIVE sound. And if you already do, do it more and do it better.

Ear Protection as a Priority

A word of caution: If you mix LIVE sound in an environment which is louder than 85dB (and almost ALL live sound mixing environments are louder than 85dB), then use protection for your ears.

Believe it or not, professional grade earplugs used in extremely loud environments, will HELP you mix. Without pro-grade earplugs, mixing is a hit-and-miss sloppy attempt to balance the chaos of damaging noise and out of control frequencies.

Plus, not protecting your ears can lead to irreversible damage in your inner ear. And as a producer or engineer, you don’t want that.

Why does LIVE sound mixing produce elite studio sound mixers?

There are several reasons why many of the top mixers hone their chops live:

  1. Mixing LIVE sound gives you a hands-on reality about what you are trying to reproduce in the studio.
  2. You experience live communication and interaction. You get to see how musicians, DJ’s, rappers, singers and orchestras work together live to create the fabric of the music itself.

You will also see the vital communication link between the performers and the audience, and you will instantaneously be able to see what creates a positive emotional impact and what doesn’t in terms of the music, the arrangements, and the performances. When one doesn’t understand this communication and interaction, it can be noticeably missing from studio recordings.

  1. You will experience the “composite perception” (The overall interaction of a total mix) of a performance and how your adjustment of that performance affects the quality of the presentation.

In fact, you will hear how your adjustments both positively and negatively affect the performance – from both the audience and the performers – whether you like it or not.

  1. You will learn how to mix under pressure. Mixing under pressure does one thing (as long as you don’t buckle under the pressure and give up): it quickly and thoroughly creates a level of confidence in what you are doing that cannot be achieved in the quiet comfort of a recording studio.

You will be catapulted to a level of competence through sometimes heart stopping pressure that graduates you from one “trial by fire” to another, over and over, until you have an attitude about mixing where you say to yourself, “OK, bring it on, I can handle whatever problem you throw at me.” And you say it with a smile.

And remember, problems in LIVE sound mixing have to be solved immediately if not sooner because everything is L – I – V – E – LIVE!!!! In a studio, there can be a tendency to get a bit complacent about solving problems quickly, since there is no commanding performer having to answer to a demanding audience, breathing down your neck, expecting you to do everything just right and to do it now, now, now.

I think you’re beginning to get the picture. However, I’m not quite done yet.

  1. There is one additional reason for mixing LIVE sound that will help catapult you to the elite corps of sound mixers faster than any other single action that you can take…

It’s all about NETWORKING. I ended up stepping up my networking efforts to the point where I am now working directly with Quincy Jones, and landed my first vendor position with both the Disney Music Group and 20th Century Fox.

NETWORKING through LIVE sound mixing happens organically, without you really having to do much. In this environment you will automatically be networking with other sound mixers, musicians, managers, agents, music supervisors, producers, DJ’s, rappers, film directors, investors, fans, etc.

And what BETTER way to network, than to have your calling card be the work you are doing right then and there? You are actually SHOWING what you can do, rather than talking about it or describing it on your resume, business card, or website.

One word of advice: DO have business cards at all times and DO pass them out. And even MORE importantly – COLLECT BUSINESS CARDS and always ask for mailing addresses.

How to apply LIVE sound mixing — realistically — to your life

You may be saying to yourself, “I don’t live near Hollywood, there’s nobody here for me to network with, there are no decent venues and gigs for me to run live sound for, and I don’t even know where to start to run live sound, because I’ve never done it before.”

My response? I came from a small town and felt the same way. What did I do? I grabbed the guitar player in my band who liked to play small coffee houses in between our bigger gigs and I asked him if I could go with him to help him set up and break down and run sound for him . He said, “sure!” (Of course he said yes when I offered to help set up and break down!)

Running live sound in this case consisted of me helping him adjust the level and EQ of his acoustic guitar and the EQ and volume of his vocals. That’s it. But guess what? It immediately started making me a better studio mixer. And in a big way.

AND – believe it or not, I was able to network and meet several people, which led me to my first trip to guess where? Hollywood. The rest is history.

And so your history awaits as well. Heed these words of advice, which will help launch you into the upper echelon of sound mixers and will help connect you to a larger elite group of professionals in the music licensing world!

AUTHOR BIO: Gary Gray is the teacher behind the Lucrative Home Studio online course. He’s an award winning composer, producer, and engineer, and has produced multiple projects for 20th Century Fox, Disney, Hollywood Records, A&E, EMI, CBS and many others in his home studio.