Why Pre-Mixing Your Electronic Instruments is a Good Idea.

You are a modern band.  In addition to your drums, guitar, bass, you’ve brought along your keyboard, your other keyboard, your drum machine, your laptop, your Thingamagoop, and your circuit bent Speak & Spell.

And all this stuff, as wonderful as it is, is causing a crisis of conscience:  Someone, somewhere told you that you should never mix anything from the stage.  ‘You can’t hear things properly from that perspective’ they said.  ‘Let the pro do their job,’ they said.

But as you look at your plethora of outputs you can’t help but feel as though you’re asking a lot, maybe too much, of the man or woman behind the mixing desk.  So, should you stay true to the ideal of using and objective audio engineer and let them mix everything from their perspective off the stage OR do you solve what you’re fairly sure will be a logistical problem of too many inputs by bringing your own mixer, thereby committing the sin of mixing from the stage.

Short Answer: If you’ve got two or more electronic instruments,  definitely bring something to mix thems onstage and feed the soundguy a single ‘keys’ stereo signal to mix along with the vox/bass/drums/guitar. Don’t try to run your whole band through that mixer, just the electronics the soundguy probably doesn’t have room for.

Long Answer: Ideally, the audio engineer working for the venue has both the knowledge and the equipment to take whatever you give them and mix it from an ideal listening position. So why attempt to mix it for them from the stage (where it is difficult to get an idea of how things really sound)?

1. They do not have the knowledge.

I’ve met a lot of amazing audio engineers who were nothing but connsumate professionals.  But the person mixing your band may not be one of these shining beacons of professionalism and experience.  The person mixing your band is the promoter’s friend who agreed to do it.  They are the bar’s assistant manager who is the only one remotely familiar with the equipment.  The venue may or may not be paying this individual at all.

Why would they pass off something so important to someone so inexperienced?  Sadly, the venue does not really know or care about how good things sound. As long as there are people paying admission and buying drinks, they’d never dream of forking over any extra money to a soundperson that might make things sound amazing, or fire one that fails to do a stellar job.

2. They do not have the equipment.

Unless your venue is the Hammerstein Ballroom, or Webster Hall,* you are playing in a small club with a small sound system. Probably built by the manager’s friend, or that staff member who happens to be in a band and is only marginally familiar with what’s needed. Even if you’ve got a real pro behind the mixer, they only have a 12 or 24 channels and many of those channels are already occupied by previous setups: the mic’ed drumkit, the radio they pipe in, an iPod they keep connected during the daytime, the TV they connect during the daytime, etc, etc. While your venue is probably prepared for a basic setup of vox-guitar-bass-drums, they might not have any extra room.

Of course, they could, in theory, just disconnect these things and plug you in, but consider that they won’t be comfortable doing so. To those of us with experience in running a mixer, plugging and unplugging superfluous equipment is no big deal, but for most human beings, a mixer is something you set up once (hopefully you get your friend to do it) and then NEVER TOUCH AGAIN, lest you anger the fader gods and, lo, bring much clipping and feedback upon the ears of he who would commit such sacrilege.

Even if the person behind the mixing desk has extra channels and the will to hook them up, he may not have enough cables to do so . . . if he has the cables, he may not have the DI’s necessary to carry the signal from the stage to his desk without ruining it.

And EVEN IF your venue has all the equipment . . . .

3. They do not have the time.

Whatever he disconnects, he will need to reconnect.  Whatever he connects, he will need to disconnect.  That takes time, and you’ve probably only got a few minutes.  The venue will not undo any of their static connections (the iPod, the TV, etc) if it means they’ll be there 45 minutes after the show reconnecting them.

4. YOU do not have the time.

Also, you will probably not get much of a soundcheck. You will load in your gear an hour early, set up your gear as the band before you tears theirs down, and you’ll get 3 min or so of a soundcheck before you actually perform. The venue may be willing to humor any request, but they also want the next band to go on at 10pm sharp.  Any time you waste will take time away from your set.

Thus . . . it’s probably a good idea to bring a small but workable mixer for your electronics (and a couple DI’s) and hand the soundguy a stereo mix. It’s true that you won’t be able to monitor exactly how things sound on the floor, but audio isn’t magic. You can walk out once, check the sound, walk back, and do your best to keep things consistent with what you know about your equipment. It may not be perfect, but it will be in the ballpark, and since in the ballpark is all that’s really available to you, well, you’ll have to learn how to deal with it. And BTW, the venue will certainly not be upset that you’ve decided to make their job easier by summing your multiple electronic inputs with a mixer.  They’ll simply recognize that you’re proactively solving what you know might be a problem.  They’ll do their best.

Submixing isn’t ideal, it’s the only practical solution for 95% of bands in 95% of venues.

*If you find that you are, in fact, playing Webster Hall, or a stadium, or whatever, and you have access to adequate equipment and a competent professional and the time to take advantage of both . . . by all means . . . hand the pro every input and he’ll mix it like a champ. But for those of us who are playing small venues, venues where we must make a few compromises, don’t freak out about using a mixer to sum up your drum-machine, laptop, and keys 1 and 2.

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