Mix headroom when playing live

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th0mas
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Mix headroom when playing live

Post by th0mas » Fri Mar 06, 2020 11:27 am

I just played my first show in a lot of years and had an interesting experience that makes me wildly rethink my approach to my live mix.

Before the show, I was focused both on a clear mix, but also on getting the loudest mix possible out of my gear. In my mind I needed to be able to match the volume from the DJ before me. After the show I no longer think I should have focused so much on compressing my mix.

I was playing a x0xb0x, machinedrum, and octatrack. I spent a lot of time on processing my master bus, though. I'll spare ya'll the progression I went through and just describe my final setup:

For the show, I sent everything EXCEPT kick, snare, and subwoofer into an alesis 3630, which was sidechained by the kick, snare, sub buss. This was set up to gently "duck" the mix buss by ~5db at a 2:1 ratio, and increase the output gain on the mix buss by a similar margin (5-10db). Then I mixed the kick/snare/sub buss and the octatrack mix buss together, then I ran it through a bugbrand stereo compressor. Again, this was set up pretty mildly, 2:1 ratio, and providing ~5db compression to push the mix a bit more without clipping.

In terms of meeting my goals, it worked. I sounded pretty clear, I could control the mix between my kick buss and the mix buss (something I was worried about going into the space), and people generally liked my set. On the flip side, half the gear and wires I brought up there was just for mix bus compression. Did I really benefit from all that added complexity?

The set was in a small restaurant. The PA wasn't anything special - two rented mackie self-powered speakers and a self-powered mackie sub. I was reaching a decent level with everything set to 2/10... especially since I was pushing my mix so much before it hit the front of house mixer or any part of the PA.

The guy after me played an OG 808, 909, and 303 (yes.. an OG 2020) with a few pedals and other little bits into a mixer and then straight into the PA. His mix output was clean, and he just.. turned the PA up a bunch. His kick was shaking every glass on the wall. His snare snapped. It sounded great. I realize he's playing a bunch of the best analog gear ever made, but on a PA my machinedrum can emulate those well enough to kick just as hard. I know it.

I'm wondering whether it's important to strive for a compressed mix in a live situation if I'm playing a tiny place? I guess the quality of the PA matters, but it seems like even tiny rental gear can demolish a small venue, so can I just turn it up and keep the dynamics? It would be nice to not bring and have to wire up all that extra stuff, and in general the simpler the setup the better.

The other thing I'm going to do before my next show is go rent a rehearsal space and play my set at full volume. It sounds so different compared to in my house, it took a few minutes for me to get comfortable with the live sound and stop worrying.

Anyone have experience or thoughts here? Thanks.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by Technologear? » Sun Mar 08, 2020 4:34 am

I love how much thought and consideration you've put into this.

A clear mix and a loud set are separate goals, neither needing compression to achieve. I'd reach for instrument balancing, volume and gain staging, reduced modulation fx, and reduced distortion fx before compression. Especially as you were playing through pretty average pa gear into a non ideal room.

But if I owned that Bugbrand I'd use it on everything!

Having control of your sub mix and main mix was most of the battle won I reckon. The compression setup you described was either luxury or potentially a distraction. But I'm super impressed you did that setup!

Unless mid set you were running around the audience area and listening to the system and your setup, you can't compare yourself to the other guy. The pa and room play such a big part in the sound, as does your listening position in it. Especially in non ideal rooms through average pa gear.

I would prioritise having an eq on your master bus that allows you to tune the pa system during soundcheck for gigs like that. I play tones during soundcheck and note the most peaky frequencies from the audience area, that I notch down on a 31 band stereo eq, which then goes on my mixbus. If I get to play a well known track through the system after, doing pre post switching of my eq settings, I'm a happy camper. I can do that in about 10mins.

If I'm lucky I get to run through the audience area mid set to check my settings now the room has bodies in it. Easy when dj-ing, not when doing a live set.

With your rehearsal room experiment: you could patch the exact setup, and switch it in out to hear the difference. Make sure you move around the whole space to get an overall feel for the sound. Whenever I've done that, with my compression setup level matched (no perceivable volume difference with or without it), I always tend to prefer no compression.
You could also practice eq-ing the pa to the room as experiment 2.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by th0mas » Tue Mar 10, 2020 12:20 pm

Technologear? thank you for your response!

The complex compression setup was definitely a bit of a distraction, although I kept both of them pretty tame overall. Having them was definitely a risk that in the moment I over-react and crank the 3630 but I did not do that, so that's good.

Interesting to me that you mention EQ as the primary adjustment you make to a room. I would have suspected the EQ response of the empty room VS full room would be quite different, although I guess it might help you with like nasty resonances in the speaker response for example. What sort of tones are you playing? A sine sweep, or something more complex?

I think my next focus is going to be on "making music that sounds good really loud". This is something I typically haven't focused on, usually I've focused on a "clean studio mix" as if this music is going to youtube. I often mix very very quiet to balance levels and things like that, I think it's time to also try very very loud and look for basics like sub/kick clarity and clear but not resonant highs.

And time to get a subwoofer :hyper:

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by c0rpse » Tue Mar 10, 2020 4:27 pm

Playing my setup on a PA that's turned up has really helped me. I have QSC K8's with no sub. Setting my levels on the PA makes a huge difference in my translation for playing out.

I still have a bit of trouble nailing the sub freq's the way I want to. Getting a subwoofer for the house seems like the obvious solution, but I'm still not convinced that It's not a production problem.
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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by Zerius » Wed Mar 11, 2020 4:38 am

Playing on a PA is my next step into my journey. I have designed a case that suits my improvisation with variety of sounds. I use the MSCL as a final stereo out to the mixer. I'm considering the analog rytm with its on compressor settings for my drums. That way I have my drums on a side that have its own settings and my modular going on a separate stereo out in the mixer with its internal mixers and effects. That way it makes things much easier and at home I never felt the need to add an EQ in the chain but maybe i'm wrong ? Is the outboard eq mixer wouldn't be enough ? Or is it bad to eq after compression ?

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by wuff_miggler » Wed Mar 11, 2020 6:08 am

there's no right or wrong with EQ before or after compression.
Just have to remember the purpose of the cmpression where you have put it on your chain.

if you're hard limiting...in order to avoid clipping the master buss - eqing after compression is probably not the best idea for example.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by BugBrand » Wed Mar 11, 2020 6:38 am

Ha, came in here just for curiousity - nice to hear you're using the SComp!
Wish I could finally bring out a complimentary eq to go alongside it!
(trying to bring back my old PEQ stuff, but those are mono)

Personally I like a balance of planning in advance but then being ready to tweak in a live situation (though frankly well out of habit playing out).
Perhaps head vs gut - brain vs ears? If it sounds and feels good...
Sounds like continued practice through playing out will bring lots of potential for you to dial in your approaches!

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by wuff_miggler » Wed Mar 11, 2020 6:54 am

really important mix tip ...specifically related to headroom:

drop all mixer channels...(if using mixer) to -6dB ...should look roughly like half way.
then make adjustments afterwards

You should do this before touching the mix.

Your final sound should be more open, and a lot bigger sounding - esp when applying a master limiting afterwards. or pushing into a clipper.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by Soy Sos » Wed Mar 11, 2020 7:14 am

I'm surprised this hasn't been mentioned,
but loose the Alesis compressor. It's a really
terrible bit of old (not in a good way) audio gear.
Listen to your set cranked up in live space with and
without the 3630 in the signal chain. I'd imagine
it's kind of crappify-ing up everything a bit.
I'm not at all saying you should buy anything else.
You've got the Bug Brand comp, which I've always heard
is of really excellent quality, so that should be all you need.
You should easily be able to knock a room thru
any PA with what you have.
Also, I don't think you mentioned what mixer you're using.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by Soy Sos » Wed Mar 11, 2020 8:06 am

Soy Sos wrote:
Wed Mar 11, 2020 7:14 am
I'm surprised this hasn't been mentioned,
but loose the Alesis compressor. It's a really
terrible bit of old (not in a good way) audio gear.
Listen to your set cranked up in a live space with and
without the 3630 in the signal chain. I'd imagine
it's kind of crappify-ing up everything a bit.
I'm not at all saying you should buy anything else.
You've got the Bug Brand comp, which I've always heard
is of really excellent quality, so that should be all you need.
You should easily be able to knock a room thru
any PA with what you have.
Also, I don't think you mentioned what mixer you're using.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by Technologear? » Wed Mar 11, 2020 8:15 am

th0mas wrote:
Tue Mar 10, 2020 12:20 pm
Interesting to me that you mention EQ as the primary adjustment you make to a room. I would have suspected the EQ response of the empty room VS full room would be quite different, although I guess it might help you with like nasty resonances in the speaker response for example. What sort of tones are you playing? A sine sweep, or something more complex?

I think my next focus is going to be on "making music that sounds good really loud". This is something I typically haven't focused on, usually I've focused on a "clean studio mix" as if this music is going to youtube. I often mix very very quiet to balance levels and things like that, I think it's time to also try very very loud and look for basics like sub/kick clarity and clear but not resonant highs.
Room full vs empty: yep a difference but in the dodgy rooms we play in, tuning the crappy pa is still the more important variable. I find bodies just makes the room sound better and bass far less wooly.
Note to readers: we're not talking about club gigs, we're talking about playing in non purpose built spaces with lots of hard reflective surfaces.

Tones: I use alan parsons and stephen court soundcheck cd. Mainly the per hz tones, and the drum track. I only use it because it's what I was trained to use by old-school pa dudes, there is probably way more easier apps etc that provide tones. Sweeps are good for checking for resonances but I'm not good enough yet to go 'oh that's 250hz" by ear. I'm getting close though

Loud: a clean studio mix DOES sound good live and loud! I think focusing on the bass region is the right idea. It's the hardest bit to get right in our non-ideal home studio spaces. Every track I've made and then finally played through a pa I've said to myself 'damn dude you mixed the bass way too loud' because my home studio peaks in that region.
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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by th0mas » Wed Mar 11, 2020 10:31 am

Soy Sos wrote:
Wed Mar 11, 2020 7:14 am
I'm surprised this hasn't been mentioned,
but loose the Alesis compressor. It's a really
terrible bit of old (not in a good way) audio gear.
Listen to your set cranked up in live space with and
without the 3630 in the signal chain. I'd imagine
it's kind of crappify-ing up everything a bit.
I'm not at all saying you should buy anything else.
You've got the Bug Brand comp, which I've always heard
is of really excellent quality, so that should be all you need.
You should easily be able to knock a room thru
any PA with what you have.
Also, I don't think you mentioned what mixer you're using.
Hah, I was waiting for someone to drop this line!

I have a 3630 rev D and I was using a relatively low amount of compression in a role it excels at, side chain pumping. It performs fine in this regard.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by Soy Sos » Thu Mar 12, 2020 7:17 am

Yes, the 3630 "performs fine" but remove it from the signal chain and compare the difference in sound quality
regarding noise floor, high end clarity and overall distortion. I'd wager you're better off without it.
I get it, the 3630 was my 1st ever compressor when they were originally released. I have a pair of them that were donated to our recording program. Maybe I'll run a test for old time's sake sometime, but I wouldn't run a mix thru one unless I was trying to crapify it up.
I'm not a gear snob, I'm certainly down with lots of inexpensive older gear used thoughtfully for their unique sound and performance qualities. I've been getting great tones out of a 70's era Electro Voice mixer that I picked up for $100 lately.
I'm not saying the only way is to pick up a pair of Distressors and a mini Neve console, but the 3630 ain't really it.
The OP still hasn't said what mixer they're using BTW.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by th0mas » Thu Mar 12, 2020 8:34 am

Soy Sos I hear what you're saying and I'm not trying to be dismissive. Are you familiar with the rev D? It's still not perfect but it's a significant upgrade to the 3630. Anyways, for my next show I'm not going to be bring the 3630 either way as I think it was overall a distraction to have that complex of a signal chain going on live.

Mixer is a boring behringer xeynx 6 channel being used to just sum the kick/snare/sub and main mix. I do not clip on it and don't use the channel EQ. I am not against replacing this at some point but right now I think I have a lot of things I can fix myself like basic gain staging and mix levels.

Unexpectedly I just got booked a second show next week, so suddenly I have to decide my setup and what preparation to do for this show. This show is at a proper bar with a sound guy so if I present a coherent and stable mix balance it should sound pretty good.

My plan is to keep mixing the two busses together and have the bugbrand stereo compressor (hi Tom!) at the end of the chain. However instead of trying to hit as close to 0db without clipping, I'm going to leave a bit more space throughout the chain. That point someone said above about setting my levels to -6db and mixing from there is a good one, I was trying to have both as close to 0.

Other preparation I've done for the second show:
- measured the RMS of my kick/snare/sub buss and matched levels between all my songs. Last show there was a ~6db difference in the kick between my loudest and quietest track. I think I missed this while preparing for my first show because I was in the habit of mixing into the bugbrand and it was hiding the level difference. Oops. Fixing this has given me more confidence to set my kick louder as I know that it won't suddenly pop way too loud two songs later.
- Analyze my sub-100hz content by recording my set and then filtering it down in ableton. Look for incoherent signals and fix the pattern or EQ the source. Should I try to match the RMS going to the sub over the course of the set?
- Now that my kick is at a stable level I need to go through and rebalance the mix on a couple songs to match. This is probably my biggest remaining issue. The loudness of the mix bus is kind of all over the place when I analyze the waveform. Again, I think I was masking this issue with mix bus compression while preparing for the first show.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by Soy Sos » Thu Mar 12, 2020 9:23 am

I've gotten some great results with the lower budget Allen & Heath mixers. You've got some great sound sources.
No reason to muck up the signal path.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by PhineasFreak » Sun Mar 15, 2020 7:24 am

i'm curious about the xenyx - i have a small xenyx i bought because it seemed like a good portable 6 channel solution at the time - the thing was such a disaster i totally rethought my signal chain, deciding it was unusable...
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http://www.soundcloud.com/best-of-ylem/
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http://thomaswulfe.muffwiggler.com/
http://ljunggrenaudio.com/
http://waxcide.bandcamp.com/
Just remember what Phineas would say... "eurorack can get you through times of no money better than money can get you through times of no eurorack". - bkbirge/

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by th0mas » Sun Mar 15, 2020 10:19 pm

PhineasFreak wrote:
Sun Mar 15, 2020 7:24 am
i'm curious about the xenyx - i have a small xenyx i bought because it seemed like a good portable 6 channel solution at the time - the thing was such a disaster i totally rethought my signal chain, deciding it was unusable...
Can you be specific S to what was a disaster? Mine is quiet, sums without issue or noticeable coloration. Build quality is flaky but nothing unexpected.

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mixer

Post by Technologear? » Mon Mar 16, 2020 9:03 am

I can't help but pull a GS move:
Upgrade to the SSL Six?

:hihi:

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by PhineasFreak » Mon Mar 16, 2020 4:45 pm

th0mas wrote:
Sun Mar 15, 2020 10:19 pm
PhineasFreak wrote:
Sun Mar 15, 2020 7:24 am
i'm curious about the xenyx - i have a small xenyx i bought because it seemed like a good portable 6 channel solution at the time - the thing was such a disaster i totally rethought my signal chain, deciding it was unusable...
Can you be specific S to what was a disaster? Mine is quiet, sums without issue or noticeable coloration. Build quality is flaky but nothing unexpected.
the noise was terrible - quiet unfortunately just couldnt be a descrptor that would apply :<
https://thomaswulfe.bandcamp.com/
http://www.soundcloud.com/ylem-records/
http://www.soundcloud.com/best-of-ylem/
http://www.soundcloud.com/waxcide/
http://thomaswulfe.muffwiggler.com/
http://ljunggrenaudio.com/
http://waxcide.bandcamp.com/
Just remember what Phineas would say... "eurorack can get you through times of no money better than money can get you through times of no eurorack". - bkbirge/

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th0mas
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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by th0mas » Mon Mar 16, 2020 9:49 pm

I believe in general behringer mixers, the power supplies go first because they lack sufficient heat sink / use cheap parts. So there's probably a wide variance on how well they sound in general based on that.

Mine sounds ok. Maybe in a few days I'll record an A/B test and see if you guys can figure out which track is recorded straight out of the octatrack VS through the behringer.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by Soy Sos » Tue Mar 17, 2020 8:44 am

For a mobile extra utility/performance mixer I've used an Allen & Heath ZED-10 FX for maybe 5/6 years.
It's built like a tank, is quite, clean, tons of headroom, good EQ, FX are decent, lots of in/outs, USB and has NEVER given me any issues. It's excelled at every situation I've thrown at it.
There are a ton of them around on the used market too.

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Post by Technologear? » Tue Mar 17, 2020 9:04 am

th0mas wrote:
Mon Mar 16, 2020 9:49 pm
Maybe in a few days I'll record an A/B test and see if you guys can figure out which track is recorded straight out of the octatrack VS through the behringer.
Great idea! I'm keen. I've got my dt770s and a great sounding dac that connects to my phone for listening to the samples. Wav, flac or other lossless format please.

The A/B experiment will no doubt provide insight. But really the only thing that matters is what you hear and conclude, it's your setup.

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Re: Mix headroom when playing live

Post by PhineasFreak » Tue Mar 17, 2020 10:22 am

i probably endedd up with the most unique system here - entirely eurorack [partly because i needed it to be cv'able so it can be part of my generative rig] but as a result i have a mixer, eqs, compressors/limiters/gates all designed with eurorack in mind - it works absolutely perfectly and is open to wild abuse with no noise or other issues - main drawbacks to most ofc would be cost and the fact it takes an extra 6u case
https://thomaswulfe.bandcamp.com/
http://www.soundcloud.com/ylem-records/
http://www.soundcloud.com/best-of-ylem/
http://www.soundcloud.com/waxcide/
http://thomaswulfe.muffwiggler.com/
http://ljunggrenaudio.com/
http://waxcide.bandcamp.com/
Just remember what Phineas would say... "eurorack can get you through times of no money better than money can get you through times of no eurorack". - bkbirge/

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