There are many things that make it difficult to attend a concert when you are a live sound engineer. Maybe it's the lights are to bright, maybe the PA doesn't seem to cover the area where you are seated, or perhaps the mix is just terrible. Whatever the reasons we have all been there and wish we could leave the venue or perhaps offer a helping hand.
For me, the biggest issue that I have is the use or overuse of reverb by mixing engineers. Sometimes they use a giant hall reverb in a tiny room that makes the mix feel inauthentic to the environment that you are listening in. Sometimes the decay is so long on a vocal that it washes out the notes of every instrument that surrounds it in the music bed. Maybe there is a long hall on the vocal and a plate on the snare, and the engineer also mixed in a room reverb on the keys and the guitars, creating a disjointed feeling for the listener. Adding too many artificial environments to a mix can be overly distracting to the audience.
A mixing engineer I admire once said that reverb should be an effect used sparingly. An effect that the audience is virtually unaware that they are perceiving. I was told that you should approach reverb as brush in your pallet and splatter the canvas with tasteful, transparent strokes. "That's the best reverb I have ever heard" said no audience member ever. It's important to keep transparency and mystique in the reinforcement that is your mix.
"Every room I have mixed a show in has had its own ambience, it's own signature tone."
Mix Into the Room
With this in mind, I challenge budding mix engineers to find a use for reverb that may be out of the ordinary. Don't just wash your mixes in ambience. Actively think about what you want to accomplish and how you would like your mix to be perceived by the audience. Make choices that improve the perception and support the music.
In my 20+ years of live mixing there is one constant that has always remained the same: every room I have mixed a show in has had its own ambience, it's own signature tone. And as a mixer, I can choose to fight the ambience of the room, I can choose to add my own inauthentic tone to the room by using long Hall reverbs or short chambers, or I can embrace the character of the room and mix into it.
One way to "mix into it" is by trying to craft all of my reverb choices and parameter settings to match the character of the room. What this affords me as a mixing engineer is the ability to move the perception of instruments and vocalists throughout the listening environment. I don't want to just make things "wet", I'd like for everything to have a place in the mix both visually and aurally.
If a rhythm guitar is cutting through the mix because of excess midrange in its response, which consequently pushes its image forward in the mix, use reverb to push it back. That B3 organ and real vintage Leslie cabinet your keyboard player had to have should have a character of its own, and sometimes because of the frequency response of the microphones on the cabinet it loses that character and slides forward in the mix. The use of a finely crafted reverb with a wide spatial image can sit that Leslie cabinet perfectly in your mix and allow for the audiences perception to place the keyboard onstage where they visually see him or her performing.
Well-placed overheads in Omni can sound incredible, especially when you gauge the phase response of all your close mic'd drums to the overheads rather than to each other.
"What is a finely crafted reverb," you ask? Good question. This may not work for everyone, but it has been my go to reverb for almost two decades.
HOW TO CRAFT A Good Reverb
I always listen to the room that I am mixing in and to the PA's response in that room. I sit in a number of seats in the house and try to determine the critical distance point between the PA and the rooms natural ambience. I find an SPL level that adjusts and pushes that critical distance point further away from the stage and I mix into that SPL reading. Maybe it's 92db, maybe it's 97db — whatever it may be that evening, I find it and mix into it.
After I have found the optimum level to mix to, I begin to craft the reverb that I will use in my mix. And I begin by running my overhead microphones in Omni. I do this because I want to capture as much of the ambience from the stage environment as possible, and I have found this not only to be effective on how I craft my reverb, but also as the foundation of my drum sounds. Well-placed overheads in Omni can sound incredible, especially when you gauge the phase response of all your close mic'd drums to the overheads rather than to each other.
While my band is sound checking, I listen very carefully to the overheads and what it is that they are picking up from the stage, and I begin to use the ambient sounds from the overheads to make my reverb type, parameter, and eq choices. If my band is using wedges, I listen to how the lead vocal sounds in the overheads from the wedges and I recreate that as closely as I can using my reverb. Having the vocal wedge at a distance from the overheads gives you a great idea as to what the room sounds like.
"The best reverb choices are the ones that the audience isn't sure they hear."
If my band is on IEM's, I listen to what the main rhythmic instrument sounds like in the overheads and I craft my reverb to sound exactly like that instrument sounds in the overheads.
Once I have dialed in my reverb to this point of reference, I begin to add reverb to all of my close mic'd sources. Using more or less depending on where I want to place the sources in my mix. Sometimes I want to push the source back in the aural perception, sometimes I'd like to move it forward. Using this reverb with specific eq choices for the sources themselves allows me the ability to make these choices and execute them.
After I have all of the instruments placed, I add the vocal to my mix and I add the very same reverb that I created from my overheads. The result is an airy, spatial vocal that feels and sounds like it is part of a performance in a room that the band and audience are occupying together.
As I stated earlier, this is a trick that I use and some may like the effect and some may not. However, if you approach all of you mixing decisions with an open mind and completely fearless, you too will find choices in your use of reverb that support your mix and don't distract from it.
Remember the best reverb choices are the ones that the audience isn't sure they hear. Be broad in your strokes and paint a picture that brings the music to life.