Mixing Your Sound On Stage Without A Sound Engineer

Many small club bands or duos don’t have the luxury of having a sound engineer to mix their sound during performances. Most of the time, one of the band members mixes the sound while on stage, while performing.

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This can be difficult for several reasons:

  • The sound on the stage is very different from the sound throughout the rest of the club.
  • The person mixing generally has to stop playing momentarily to adjust the levels.
  • Different band members may prefer different mixes; for example the keyboard player may feel that the keyboards need to be higher in the mix.
  • The on-stage mixer may have little control over the level of individual instrument amplifiers or drummers.
  • In very small venues, or restaurants, the on-stage level may need to be too high (for the band’s comfort and hearing) for the audience, particularly when they are close to the stage.

While these, and other, difficulties may pop up from time to time, many of the problems can be overcome by cooperation between the band members, and by trying these techniques.

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When possible, recruit a friend or fan to listen to the house mix and let you know how it sounds. Have them check for you during the sound check, and again latter during the performance.

Let them know that once your mix and level are set to your satisfaction that you won’t need any more reports unless something is very wrong. Otherwise, they may continually interupt you just as you get into the music.

For this to work well, you should have a certain amount of confidence in their opinion. Generally, if the friend is a fellow musician, they will have a better idea of what to listen for and how to tell you what the problems are. For a non-musician fan or audience member, you may only be able to rely on them for a general volume level check.

If you have time before the gig, do a sound check and set your relative levels and tone settings. These will very likely change once there is a mass of bodies in the room, but you will now have a reference level that you can revert to if the mix starts getting out of hand. Make note of the various settings, particularly if you are going to play the same venue again.

If you are a guitarist with a long, long cord (or wireless), or have material where you don’t play much, go into the audience area during the sound check, listen, then go back to the mixer and make adjustments. Repeat this until you are confortable with the balance.

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Once you are in the actual performance, you will find that certain instruments or vocals may be too loud or don’t stand out enough. Make minimal adjustments and listen again.

Be careful that you don’t keep raising everybody’s level when they can’t be heard. Sometimes when the lead singer is motioning for more volume, you’ll find that perhaps the overall level needs to drop, with the vocal mike staying the same. This will take some experimentation and experience. Like everything else, it will get easier and more intuitive with practice.

Another common problem, particularly in small clubs, is gradually increasing the volume level until you are too loud for the room. Sometimes you will actually need to reduce the level to sound louder and clearer.

Once you have a good performing mix, make note of your control settings, as well as the “no crowd” settings you already have. As conditions change, you will likely need to make adjustment again. If you are repeatedly playing the same club, these settings will save you time in finding the perfect mix for the situation.

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