Creating a pleasing mix for a plurality of listeners is the essential duty of the FOH engineer. What that mix entails, though, is far more complex than it may appear and harder to achieve than generally accepted. Each listener hears from a unique perspective through a unique ear/brain filter set and with a fixed set of expectations. For the FOH engineer to reach a point where the levels, content, timbre, and intelligibility merge into a seamless whole, she must be comfortable with self-critique in harmony with self-confidence. Here are some ways to make it happen:
Does what you see match what you hear?
If you look across the stage, can you hear each instrument and voice you see in action? Is the keyboardist pounding away without being heard? Is your ear drawn to the hi-hat over the lead vocal? If the electric guitarist steps forward, it is logical to increase the level during that time. Learning how your band ebbs and flows is critical to getting the mix right. With Paul Baloche, when he stepped back from the mic, it meant he wanted to let the congregation own the song, so reduced vocal reinforcement followed immediately.
Mentally walk through the entire mix, starting with the lead vocal
Look at the vocals and instrument in succession from WL to BGV to keys to guitar to bass to drums. Focus your ears to that input. Does it sit well in the mix? Can you discern it among similar signals? Is there something about it causing stress? What needs to change about it to make it more part of the whole?
Think in terms of reduction
One way techs get in trouble is by doing too much. Most of the time, with a good band, it is best to start by doing no harm. Once levels are set, just listen. Let the music organically progress. Don’t try to create a scene bigger than the song. Some songs are meant to be simple and pure, without excessive reverb and compression. It’s OK to streamline the mix of certain songs. Remember; just because we can doesn’t mean we should.
Dynamics are your friend
With compressors on every input and output, digital consoles present a false economy of level adjustment. Initially, the idea was to strap down every signal so it can’t get away, but this method generally creates lifeless mixes. Let the songs breathe. Even highly compressed signals, like kick drum, benefit from slowing down the initial attack on the compressor to let the raw component shine through. Mixing is an active process. It is hands-on and continually moving. Faders are there for a reason. Bring levels down coming into the bridge and let them loose coming back out.
Find ways, other than low-end, to create energy and power
Anyone can crank the subs and beat people into submission. A better approach is to use that power wisely and only when necessary. It is easy to mix loud, much harder to mix well. Base level is important: what people initially hear. Sometimes, it makes sense to start a song softer than normal just to grab people’s attention and force them to focus. Then, after the second verse, bring the sub levels up going into the chorus, back down for the bridge, and then let it all hang out for the final chorus and tag. Then, immediately pull everything back (mains and subs), even if the next song is a four-on-the-floor driver, just to re-establish a lower baseline.
Mixing is as much art as science. It can be termed science in the service of art, since the science must be in place and functional for the art to occur. Every FOH engineer should strive to make this mix better than the last, for there are always areas needing improvement. However, do not allow others to crush your spirit. Seek the greater good of the song and service, and stay focused on the task at hand.