Mixing live band recordings is hard. Really hard. The genre and instruments involved don’t really make it harder or easier when you’re talking live recording. It takes a lot of time and effort to create a perfectly balanced mix that sounds effortless.
I’ve compiled these 7 steps to help you get started. These are tips that I’ve found work well specifically when mixing music that has been recorded in front of a live audience.
1) Accept the audio as it is
The thing about mixing live band recordings is that what you have is what you have. You need to come to terms with the limitations of the track and make peace with it. This ensures that you don’t get stuck trying to fix things that aren’t fixable; it allows you to move forward with the mix.
Next, check each track individually and find the channel that best represents the overall performance. Use this track to lead the rest of your mixing. Make sure every other track follows it’s lead and enhances it.
2) Focus on Level and Panning (versus EQ and Compression)
When you’re mixing a live recording, keep in mind that to a certain extent, a live band mixes itself while performing. Signal problems like hums, pops, and clicks can be corrected with a number of different tools (iZotope RX 6 for example).
Beyond this, assuming you have a decent band, the best tools to use for mixing a live recording are level and panning. I know what you’re thinking: what about EQ and compression? They are the go-to processes in studio mixing, however they can do more harm than good when working with a live record because of the bleed inherent in a live recording. Both upwards and downwards expansion are more suitable in a live context, which is where level and panning come into play.
One way to think about mixing a band’s live recording, is to think of it like mastering. Remember that you’re goal, in the end, is to preserve the cohesiveness of the track. Now that doesn’t mean skip eq and compression, what I mean is just change your approach.
3) Automate, Automate and Automate some more
An inevitable consequence of using compression is that unwanted blemishes in the sonic picture will be emphasized. You’ll need to use other methods to ensure that every note and word is heard. Automation, while it can be painstaking, is a surefire way to get this done.
Panning automation might be necessary as well, considering that during a live recording on stage, all the microphones are picking up sound from multiple different instruments. Panning automation between phrases makes sense if you need to move an instrument front and centre, for a solo for example, and then put it back where it was afterwards.
Take your time automating in a live mix; it’s worth it!
4) Clip Gain and Gating
Some clip gain and gating can help to cut down on automation and speed up the mixing process. Clip-gaining the ambient parts down might be quicker than checking every move. I suggest clip-gaining over gating because when an instrument comes into a mix, so does some spill. Sometimes this spill is unpleasant. Clip-gaining a signal, rather than gating or muting it, preserves some ambience. In this way, when you raise the level gradually, it won’t be such a shock.
Gates can be used with a higher close-threshold, but I prefer clip-gaining with automation for bringing levels up and down. Another spot I’d use gates is when working with percussive instruments like a kick drum.
5) Remember the Applause
To mix a live recording well, you’ll need good quality applause to intersperse between tracks as needed. This is easier said than done. The applause straight off a recorded track is often ruined by noise from the band or the audience. With this in mind, you’ll either need to create your own applause to feed into the mix, or enhance the applause that has already been recorded.
To manufacture applause, consider editing and combining clapping from different songs to create a larger audience or using a sound library. You’ll need to analyze the applause, check how it flows and tapers, to ensure that it sounds genuine and fits in the overall mix of the record.
6) Be Careful with Ambience
The trickiest part of mixing a live track is improving the ambience, without drawing out unnatural reverbs, delays and modulation. The best advice I have for dealing with this problem is to take your time. When you work on ambience, try to take some time away from the mix and come back with fresh ears. This will allow you to determine if your adjustments were effective, or if they were even necessary in the first place.
7) Mix some really, really bad live recordings
If you want to really get better at mixing live recordings, I suggest practicing on the worst live recordings you can find (assuming anyone will hand them over). This is the best way to develop your own tricks for dealing with really bad situations, and I guarantee you some of these tricks will find their way into your workflow. Bottom line is that there’s no substitute for experience, so use these kinds of opportunities to make your own.
When you’re mixing live band recordings, the most important thing to remember is that a live record is meant to showcase a band in their best possible light. I also suggest checking out my Ultimate Guide To Mixing Vocals to balance the vocals properly into your mix. Keep that in mind and you’ll be on your way to achieving great results.