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Mix Blog Live: How Big Does a Kick Drum Really Need to Be?

In the past year or so, I’ve witnessed several major internationally acclaimed artists get murdered by their sound person. I won’t mention names because there’s no need to embarrass anyone, but I find it somewhat disturbing that an engineer can take a gig but not be responsible enough to do some homework, such as listening to the act’s recordings. It’s a sign of respect for the band and their fans that an engineer is aware of an act’s musical legacy, and to honor that legacy.

Case #1

This was a large band with drums, bass, keys, guitar, horns and multiple vocalists. You’ve heard this band on the radio a thousand times, and an important part of their sound is the horn section. Some of my band and crew were really excited to be on the same bill, so we watched them from the side of the stage for a bit and then decided to walk out front to the mix position. What we heard was horrifying.

The mix engineer had no clue about how this band should sound. Could it have been because his parents weren’t born when the band’s first record was released? Maybe. He was mixing them like they were a dance act: a big badass kick drum way in front of the mix, and absolutely no respect for the arrangements. I keep my mouth shut in situations like this because I’m not going to be that guy who stands there boasting, “Well, if I were mixing these guys they’d sound so much better because I know how to use the flux capacitance plug-in to adjust the number of parsecs in the guitar channel blah blah blah…”

In my mind, I was thinking, “Wow, this guy really doesn’t get this act at all.” After listening for three or four minutes from nearby the house mix position, one of my musicians turned to me and said, “This is unlistenable.” I felt relieved that my reality was in check.

Read more Mix Blog Live: Find Someplace Else to Live.

Case #2

Another band you’ve heard thousands of times, though in a different genre than Case #1. This time the instrumentation was bass, drums, keys, guitar and lead vocal. Their sound revolves around the keys and guitar, but apparently their engineer was absent on that day of school. His take on it was: “kick drum and <insert name of band here>.” Literally. The kick was so loud that I would have laughed if I hadn’t been crying from the pain in my ears. What is this guy thinking? There’s plenty of power to be had from the bass and keyboard players. If you ever listened to any of their recordings, you’d know that this particular drummer swings from the top (not the bottom). I wondered if the engineer ever listened to those recordings.

Case #3

Case # 3 was very different from the first two. This band was a three-piece power trio with bass, drums and guitar/vocal. Polar opposite from Cases 1 and 2. Their front of house guy had the guitar and voice sounding like the guitar player was standing a hundred feet in front of the rhythm section. Absolutely no power, just screech. Yikes! But come to think of it, that’s exactly how the recordings sound—so kudos to engineer #3 for duplicating the sound of the original recordings whether he realized it or not, and no matter how poor the sound may have been.

I’m not saying that the goal of a live engineer must be to precisely emulate a band’s recordings. That could actually be a detriment for some older artists because their recordings may have been made in an era when recording technology was fidelity-challenged, and the recording techniques were most likely different from the methods we use today (such as multi-miked drum kits). But for heaven’s sake, could we please have the lead vocal louder than the kick drum?

All three acts were mixed by engineers who had been hired for the tour. If these shows were mixed by a “house” engineer (who might not be familiar with the act), then I could understand the lack of familiarity. But when you’re hired to mix a tour, I think you owe it to the act to be familiar with their sound and try to deliver it to the audience.