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Get Smart: Setting Up Your Live Mixer

6:00 am Live Sound

We all remember hapless 60s TV detective Maxwell Smart, also known as Agent 86. (He was the one with a phone in his shoe.) Poor Max bumbled through caper after caper, making it out alive only through the dumbest of dumb luck, and a little help from Agent 99.

When you set up the mixer for your next live gig, don’t be like Agent 86! Some of the choices you make regarding the channel assignments, connection points, etc., that you use can have a big effect on the ease with which you can get a good sound and then keep it that way through the show. Why count on dumb luck when you can “get smart” instead?

Here are five specific tips that will make life easier for the sound man, who just might be you!

1. Assign inputs to match the stage positions.

You have four players (let’s say) onstage in front of you, standing in a line from left to right. You have a set of faders in front of you arrayed from left to right. Here’s a thought: assign the mixer inputs so that the faders (or groups of faders) used for the players are in the same left-to-right order as the players themselves are, up on the stage. If the bass player is standing way over to the left, he’s in Channel 1. And so on.

I hope that you are saying to yourself, “Well, duh! Why do it any other way?” The only reason I am including this tip is that one place where Rusty Strings (the band I run sound for) plays does not follow this advice in their mixer setup, and it makes it as confusing as heck for me as I try to balance out the band’s sound. The four mikes lined up left to right on stage are assigned to the first four faders, but in reverse left-to-right order (I can’t imagine why). Phone call for Maxwell Smart!

2. Keep instruments and vocals separate.

With Rusty Strings, there are three instruments and four vocals. My procedure is to assign the instruments to Channels 1-3, in stage order, and to assign the vocals to Channels 4-7, again in stage order from left to right. Most of my in-show tweaking is to the instrumental and vocal blends, so it makes sense to have the faders for each clustered in a group.

3. Use a “scribble strip” and/or color coding.

It’s easy to put a piece of masking tape across the bottom of the mixer panel, under the faders, with an initial or two written on each for identification. You don’t want to have to remember that Channel 3 is the lead guitar (this time) or the like.

A nice touch is to put colored tags on the vocal microphones (or colored windscreens!) that can be seen from the sound position, then to put matching colored stickers next to the faders for each. You can glance at the stage and think “the green one needs to be a bit louder,” then quickly spot the “green one” from among 16 or more faders in front of you. (The place I mentioned with the backwards channel assignments does have color coded mikes, so I do have to give them credit for that!)

4. Use a pre-fader Aux Send for the onstage monitors.

A typical general-purpose mixer does not have controls marked “monitor level” or anything like that, the way an all-in-one PA unit will. The PA unit is specifically intended for live-show use, so it “knows” that you will be hooking up stage monitors. The mixer, in contrast, may be used in a studio or other setting as well as at a live show, so its controls are marked more generically. This puts the burden on you to understand what connections to make and what controls to use for the monitor function.

I recommend routing one of the Aux Send mixer outputs to the power amp you are using for the monitors and using the level controls in each channel strip for that Send output as “monitor level” controls. The mixer Rusty Strings uses has four Aux Sends, of which I use two for the effects (reverb and delay) and one for the monitors.

If you have this kind of setup, be sure that the Aux Send you are using for the monitors is pre-fader (as opposed to post-fader). This means that the Send signal is tapped off before the fader and will not be affected by the fader setting. (You don’t want the stage monitor levels to be affected by changes in the fader settings that you make based on what you are hearing in the house.)

5. Maintain proper gain structure.

This basically means pre-setting the various controls that affect the volume of one or all parts in the house mix so that none of them are way up or way down, either of which can lead to problems. The controls in question are usually the trim controls and faders on each channel strip, the Master Output Level control on the mixer, and the Level control on the power amp (if any). Once they are pre-set to sensible starting positions, you can tweak them as needed to accommodate the specific situation.

My approach is to set the faders to zero (a “zero-gain” reference point that is, oddly, near the top) and the trims up as high as possible without lighting the “clip” lights. Then I set the mixer’s Master Ouput Level fader to zero and adjust the power amp’s Level control for appropriate volume in the room. During the show, I tweak the levels and blends with the channel faders and tweak the room volume with the Master Output Level fader, leaving the trims and power amp control alone. What you want to avoid is having any fader on the mixer ending up at the very top or bottom of its range.

Well, there’s your tips. I could probably come up with a few more, but I must run now. My shoe is ringing!

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3 Responses
  1. Joe Wilson :

    Date: June 1, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    Good stuff, my only suggestion would be, never attenuate the power amp…. Once the power amp is turned on always crank the knobs full up. Do not use the power amp as a level control!! They make trim pots and faders for that.. Adjusting levels should always be done at the mixer, that is what they are for.

  2. John :

    Date: July 30, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    I agree with Joe. The PA/and or Monitor amps should be full up and use the mixer’s controls to adjust the sound.

  3. Ken :

    Date: June 23, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    58year old rocker getting his band together for a reunion. Long time since we last played so need some gear. Please suggest PA type, Amp type for Mic vocals set up and how this is all connected up, or is there a better way using mac/laptop? Appreciate your professional help.

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