The Pocket, the Groove, and the Zone are all terms used to describe what happens when a mix engineer gets it right. Each of the musical elements is in balance with the others, and the triad of rhythm, melody, and harmony has formed the perfect relationship. All is right with the world. Whether from force of persona or sheer luck, the Zone occasionally smiles on us, albeit not often enough. But, is there a way to analyze and then codify these elements into a repeatable process? In other words, is there a way to make the art more of a science? Maybe.
The first step toward a better mix is to confirm the stage inputs are optimized. Is the guitar amp mic just off the grille pointed upward at a forty-five degree angle to capture good guitar tone while rejecting floor bounce from nearby instruments? Are the null points on the vocal mics pointed at the horns on the floor monitors to maximize gain-before-feedback? Are the drum mics positioned to minimize interference with each other? Is the direct box on the keys capable of handling the saturated pad signals generated? The best mixes always start at the front of the audio chain.
Gain is not volume; it is more akin to leveling the signals for the console.
Second, check the gain staging for each input. Gain is not volume; it is more akin to leveling the signals for the console. Just as a jet-way in an airport terminal raises and lowers to match different aircraft to the terminal floor height, so the gain control matches every input to the level the console wants to see. Gain should be set so that maximum input extends to just below the clipping point. Typical levels will then reside around the zero mark on the meter with the fader set to zero. This method allows the console the greatest range of usable signal above the noise floor and below clipping.
Third, use board EQ for tonal shaping and to fit the pieces of the mix puzzle together. When a “gaggle” of vocalists presents a wall of sound, break it up by limiting the range each section occupies. For instance, sopranos have their lowest note at A220, so get rid of everything below 220Hz in their channels. Use a judicious cut around 400Hz for male vocals and about 530Hz for females to clear up the “muddiness” that occurs when multiple voices sing together.
A better approach is to use as little compression as possible and only touch the signals that are out of bounds when they do go astray.
Next, look to dynamics control to serve as a third hand. Since digital consoles have compression, limiting, and gating on every channel, it is tempting to “lock down” the mix across the board; unfortunately, this action takes all the energy out of the mix. A better approach is to use as little compression as possible and only touch the signals that are out of bounds when they do go astray. For vocals or lead guitar, set the threshold high enough so only peaks are affected and set attack at 25ms and release around half a second with a ratio of 4:1. Avoid gates for any signals other than toms and noisy instrument amps.
Finally, mentally walk through the mix, listening for each component seen on stage translating to a demonstrable part of the mix. If the keys can be seen playing, but not heard doing so, don’t turn up the keys, turn something else down that is in the way of the keys being heard. Let the hi-hat reside in a narrow band above the acoustic guitar, not in the same region where there will be conflict. Scoop out a place for the bass guitar to shine between the thud (65Hz) and snap (3KHz) of the kick drum by reducing the response of channel one from 125Hz to 1KHz, reserving that area for bass guitar. Naturally, the bass will extend below and above that range, but it is highlighted there.
The perfect mix will always be beyond us; but like light-speed, we can get very close.