Sound Check Mixing for the Radio
posted by November 8 at 11:14 AMon
Let it Bleed.
Kevin Suggs is one of KEXP’s main audio engineers. He’s on Lineout today to talk about running sound for a band that’s playing live on the radio. Over the years, KEXP has amassed a mammoth and impressive archive of live in-studio performances. Suggs has engineered many of those sessions. He permeates a guru like calm that puts musicians at ease when the red light comes on.
When bands show up to play live on KEXP, they have one hour to set up and dial in their sound. Nerves get jumpy and heated. It’s live radio and the stakes are high. You’re live in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… You’re glad Kevin is on the other side of the glass.
Our room at KEXP is small enough that everything pretty much bleeds into everything else. There is no isolation for amps. This really affects the way I need to mix. The first thing I do when starting to get sounds is push up the vocal mics and leave them up. It makes little sense to work on the drum sounds without the vocal mics up because they will drastically change everything. I basically start with the vocals and build the mix around them. Also, any crazy vocal effects you use are going to be on just about everything else in the mix as well. Small reverbs and short delays work the best. It may seem like I have little control but I find this environment very pleasant to work in. For one, I don’t have to worry about feedback which can be a problem when wedges are used. Plus, bleed isn’t really a bad thing as long as it is pleasant bleed. I’m not fighting with the room sound like is the case at most larger venues. The fast pace also keeps people focused and the energy level high.
I always try to contact the bands ahead of time to get an idea of what the set up will look like. The band shows up an hour before airtime. I know this doesn’t seem like much time but I have found it to be plenty. We have one headphone mix available for the band. We can get up to two mixes but this is where the “keep it simple” idea really comes in handy. I find if I tell the group there is only one mix they are more apt to be happy with the mix much quicker. Most bands end up saying it’s the best they’ve ever heard themselves. I put vocals and any instrument that is going direct (i.e., keyboards, or bass without an amp) into the mix for them. Other things such as drums and guitar amps are going to bleed into the vocal mics enough that they rarely need to be in the cans.
Doing live mixes for radio broadcast combines the thrill of a live show with the control that a studio setting allows. My mantra for doing these sessions is always “keep it simple”. With an audience of several thousand for any given performance I do all I can to avoid technical difficulties.
Usually the most challenging part of the on air performance is the interview section, where the DJ has a chat with the band. You might have a lead singer who belts out his vocals so loud that you need to pot your mic pres way down to keep them from clipping. Then of course when he is asked a question he mumbles softly or even worse stands nowhere near the mic. At that point I’m pushing faders all the way up and cracking open mic pres to make them audible. Once the band goes into the next song I have to get all that stuff back to where it needs to be in a hurry.