Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Flattening the Mixing Pyramid

Today's Topic: Tools and Techniques

John Carlson posted an excellent comment on last week's Tools and Techniques post on mixing. Here are some excepts from his thoughts.
"In this modern day where everything is on video screens, including lyrics to songs, is it always so important for the lyrics to be 100% heard and intelligible for a mix/worship to be 'spiritual'? Just an interesting question to ponder. Given a choice, for myself anyway, if the lyrics are present on screen, I'll take a thumping powerful in your face band mix any day over a weak mix with no energy or power but heavy on vocals."

"I've seen [mixes] done very effectively where the WL is pulled out for necessary leadership, but then pushed back into the mix for the remainder of a song, allowing the other better vocalists carry the song."

"I prefer to think of the picture not so much of the mix as a volume pyramid as you describe, but a well-balanced 3D picture with a window in the center for the vocals to shine through."

"Of course, mixing is an ART and a science, and a 'good mix' can mean different things to everyone, especially our congregation. But I'm not sure judging it on shear volume alone or what should be out front of everything is the best way to go."
Thanks, John for sharing your comments!

I want to recognize first off, that the diagram I presented in my last post was indeed an oversimplification of the complex, subjective process called sound mixing. It doesn't indicate the sonic nuances that make up a good mix. And there is definitely no way any single picture could fully represent a preference-based audio phenomenon. The 3D image that John mentions is definitely a more complete picture, but it too has it's limitations.

The primary meaning I hoped to convey through the diagram was that the spiritual fullness of a song lies in the words while the musical fullness of the song lies in the instrumentation. In a worst-case scenario, which too many church tech volunteers face each week, the words should win.

However, in no way am I advocating reducing the band to third and fourth place in the mix. I wholeheartedly agree with John's comments on this. Stealing some of his words, I think that "a weak mix with no energy or power but heavy on vocals" will not as effectively lead people into the worship of our God, who gave us music and made us to enjoy it.

When I mix, I want to maximize both the musical effectiveness and the spiritual effectiveness. This often means the band is loud. The practical sound level difference between the bottom of the pyramid and the top of the pyramid may only be a decibel or two. In fact, in most cases the band is louder on the dB meter than the leader's voice by itelf or the vocals together.

Nevertheless, I want to make sure I can hear the vocals. If there is some auditory conflict between the music and the vocals, I think it is appropriate to relegate the conflicting instrument (not necessarily all of the band) to the lyrics.

I also want to acknowledge what we all know (some of us too well): the best worship leaders are not always the strongest vocalists. In that case, I would definitely agree with John's comments. It would be better to mix more actively, turning the leader up when he directs the congregation but then blending him more into the overall vocal mix when he's singing. In this case, though, the overall mix may require a bit more vocals than it would otherwise.

I think John's comment on lyrics on video screens is an insightful one. I'll admit, I typically have the band louder when the congregation knows the song, and I am more vocals-centric when the song is new to the majority of the people. But I would hesitate to agree that this means we can be mentally more band-centric in our mixes.

I hesitate because I want to make sure that I am always fulfilling the call of the mixer to support the truth of the lyrics first and foremost. This will mean I have to think hard and often about how the vocals fit into the band mix. I have to concentrate on listening in multiple ways. I need to pretend that I'm a new person who's hever heard the song. How loud do they need the vocals? Then I move on to someone who's heard the song once or twice. How loud do they need the vocals? What about a person who's heard the song many times? What else can I do to remove any mix distractions that may cause people to think about a musician, instrument, or voice more than they think about God?

Go ahead and make the band as loud as you want if you can still confidently, in a clear conscience, say that you are seeking to serve everyone's understanding of the truth over your musical preferences.

More comments, John or others? It is always great to hear from you all!

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Anonymous said...

Great thoughts/ideas/clarifications back in return - I think that really helps. And I agree with everything you say whole heartedly. I've enjoyed skimming over several of your past posts - I certainly want to dig into your blog more deeply when I have time now that I've been turned on to it.

Blessings to you and your ministry and all you're doing!

- John Carlson

Dave Wilcox said...


I found your last comment very helpful, so if you have other thoughts on things you read from the past, please let me know.


Anonymous said...


Some great thoughts. The one theme I took from this post is that Live Sound is just that, LIVE. Live sound is very dynamic in nature, and to assume you can just set it and forget it is not the case. We as mixers must be on our toes the entire service to keep the balance between musicality and sprituality.

Thanks for your thought provoking questions