I'm Gonna Fix It Until the End
Every year I have the opportunity to be the FOH Engineer at the 10,000 capacity BMO Harris Pavilion amphitheater at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. I am sure many of you have experienced Summerfest at some point in your career. 800 bands a year, over 11 stages, for 11 days. That is a lot of bands and a lot of chances for engineers to mix on some pretty nice rigs.
The festival always has top-notch gear. Generally L’Acoustics K1 is the mainstay of the festival but manufacturers have showcased rigs there for the past few years on various stages. Martin MLA graced the Miller stage, GTO Outline the ULine Warehouse rock stage, Renkus-Hienz at the rock stage, and I’m sure a few others I have forgotten. Consoles are mostly AVID and DiGiCo. Top-notch gear all the way around.
This year I had the distinct pleasure of EAW Anya on my stage along with a great support team in Bernie Broderick, Jonas Domkus and Jeff Rocha. I mix in a big reverberant amphitheater and this year was stellar, by far surpassing any of the previous years for sound quality and containment. We have to be cognizant during the day of other stages and fewer bodies in the amphitheater, and this year marked the first time I really felt I had won the battle of Sound Guy vs Venue.
Which brings me to the next thing I noticed. It goes without saying headlining visiting engineers have their way with the system and I did not hear one headlining show that did not sound spectacular. Well maybe one but, but that is immaterial to the point of the story.
During the day when the locals, regional’s, and some nationals play I let the bands engineers mix if they bring one. Sometimes the band has me mix and their guy advise. Sometimes I set up their mix, do their sound check and they become fader pushers if they prefer.
I then become teacher, and consultant because many of them do not have the opportunities to mix on such great gear as I do. A Digico SD5—right off the bat—to some is a little overwhelming. I do what I can to assuage their fears, let them know they can easily do it with just a little help. I lay the console out in a way they can access everything and am always available to answer any questions as they mix their band. I am available to help them understand the plug-ins and routing, I am there to help them access things that because of their ignorance or sometimes ineptitude they don’t understand or they bury themselves somehow. I do not mind at all.
This year I took a close listen to many of them mix. Now I am not saying I am the God of Mixing, but having mixed the room for multiple years and have days worth of time mixing on the rig plus 30 years behind me. I’m no slouch. I have a pretty dialed-in mix base for any of them to start off that does not suck.
If asked, I would help them dial up stuff during the first song because there are only line checks. I would take the vocals and instruments they take the drums or some version of that approach. Usually within one song everything is present and discernible.
Then I noticed how many guys spent the next hour and a half “fixing” the mix right up until the end. Now maybe I am old. Maybe I do not understand the desire to “mix” even when the mix is fine. If it ain’t broken, why fix it?. I generally find when I dial in a mix if the band is good and dynamic they can pretty much drive a mix by themselves if you have dialed them in well. Your job becomes more the panning, EFX and all the sweetness of a great mix.
I started to wonder why guys felt like they had to change things constantly on the console during the show. Was it just because there is so much to play with? Is it because they want to discover the layer upon layer of features which, they never really ever scratch the surface of? I watched as engineer after engineer radically dialed up different eq’s, engaged gates and comps where there was no need, had rack 2 and 3 louder than snot, get buried in multi-band compression that took all the life and dynamics out of a vocal, saw violins with HPF disengaged and sent to subs, all kinds of crazy stuff that didn’t make sense. I would hear mix after mix get confused, the subs get overused, the vocals and instruments swimming in ‘verb that the room itself was providing enough of. And often it became too loud. I actually watched one guy literally dial from start to finish and never stop to look up, listen, dig the vibe and enjoy the music.
So I had to ask myself why fix it if it ain’t broke? Is knowing when your mix is in the pocket an instinct? When the venue cooperates, the PA is phenomenal and the console is humming nicely why the need to “fix” it? I watched guys fix it right to the very end. When I do a festival and come in blind on a rig, if the FOH guy has a reasonably solid base, I don’t find myself tweaking incessantly. I generally look to see what he has going and see if I can learn something if it is something different than what I would have done.
Now, I have had, and I am sure you have had, disaster gigs in the past. We all have. That one off where nothing seems to go right, your gear is not even close to spec, none of what you’re accustomed to is flowing, and maybe even the file you started with was just not even close because you built it in a shop with no band and misinformation from the TM and nothing is what you expect and you’re dialing from start to finish. Those things happen.
But when you are handed the keys to the kingdom and all the best tools to get you where you want to be, and everything is present and fairly good right out of the gate, why fix it incessantly?