“When mixing, I try to go for small touches, much like a painter,” says FOH engineer Lucas Pinzón (Maluma, Carlos Vives, Bomba Estéreo). We caught up with Lucas mid-tour with Latin pop star Maluma to get his in-depth live mixing tips.
By David Ampong, Waves Audio
From getting a killer vocal mix to developing the right relationships with venue staff, Lucas Pinzón has plenty of FOH wisdom to impart. We got down and dirty with Lucas during Maluma’s 2017 World Tour, to talk about mixing one of the world’s fastest-rising superstars and applying the concept of less is more, even when mixing for over 20,000 screaming fans.
Lucas, first things first – how do you treat the main performer and most important channel in the mix?
Maluma is a solo artist – he’s the man everyone came to see – so I need to make sure every single word he sings is clear, present, and on top of the entire band. I’ve made an elaborate vocal chain specifically for him, which I run off of MultiRack from my laptop.
Everything begins with the WNS noise suppressor, which I use to clean up certain frequencies.
Next up is the PSE (Primary Source Expander) plugin to reduce stage noise. Maluma likes to move all around the stage with the microphone: when you have a supercardioid mic in front of a huge PA, that could be a problem. So I use PSE to make sure his voice is the only thing going through the mic. I’ll set my threshold to -58 with the range at -4 to give a slight duck whenever he’s not singing or the mic is idle.
I then have the signal going into a C6 Multiband Compressor, where I’ll compress the mid frequencies in the vocal around 600–700 Hz.
Next in the chain I have H-EQ, where I’ll do surgical cuts on some frequencies just to clean things up.
I also use the F6, for little compression on certain bands in small proportions.
I have a nice gain level from my console channel, but if I need a little more, I tend to use the other compressor in my chain, the V-Comp, and dial up any additional output I need here. I love this plugin because it adds a vintage warmth to the sound, and I’m a huge fan of that classic 2254 sound.
Last in the main vocal chain is MaxxVolume, which is my final security measure for overall dynamic control.
Maluma’s vocal then goes to a group where I use parallel compression with two compressors: CLA-2A and CLA-76. Running parallel compression on the main vocal bus is a great way to control peak levels, volumes, and add color to what you’re doing. I’m using the compressors very slightly. I don’t want to compress all the life out of the vocal, or squash out all the transients and dynamics.
How do you mix in the backup singers to give them presence but not overshadow the main performer?
Currently we have two backup singers, male and female. I have the PSE on both of them, just like on my main performer, to further reduce any stage noise. This is especially useful for when the female vocalist is singing a bit softer: PSE lets me boost her gain and get it loud and clean without any feedback issues.
I send the backup singers to a separate vocal group, with nearly identical processing as the lead vocal: I’ve found that using the same processing chain in groups on the lead and backing vocals can glue the overall vocal sound together very nicely in a live situation, especially during choruses when they’re all singing together.
With the backup singers in their own groups, I spend most of my time blending them in and out during the show. To put more emphasis on the lead and duck the backup singing a little back in the mix, I typically reduce a little bit between 1–5 kHz on the backing vocal group.
One last thing I like to use these days on both the lead vocal and the vocal group is Greg Wells VoiceCentric. I’m a big fan of Greg’s sound. During the show, I’ll work with the Delay control to further enhance the lead vocal with some slap delay, to give it some depth and that hip-hop texture.
Do you send a lot of your inputs to groups?
Definitely. Just about all of my channels, with their dynamics and processing set, are assigned to DCA groups. That way, my main concern during the show becomes only the volume levels in my mix. At any moment, I can quickly adjust the volume of, say, the entire drum group – over 24 channels – with just four faders. If I need to fine-tune any sound in a group, I can always go back, open and tweak that specific channel knowing that the overall sound of that group is still under control.
The more control you have over the mix, the more flexibility you have to play along with the band during the show. I like to stay dynamic with my mixing as the band is playing, react to what’s happening on stage. I’m always moving, constantly bringing things up or ducking things back right in the moment. My console, hardware and plugins are my performance instruments, as if I were a member of the band. I like to feel like I’m playing and performing right along them, and mixing off the vibe the band is sending while playing the console for the crowd.
What are some other techniques you use to clean up the mix and make it pristine?
Since this is a very loud and low-frequency driven show, I need to do certain things to keep the lows in check. For example, I tend to reduce around 50-80Hz on the vocals: you don’t need those frequencies there. Removing them helps define the vocals, takes off the mud, and leaves room for my kick, bass or deep synths.
Lately I’ve been using the F6 Dynamic EQ to control any problem frequencies and make my sound tighter and even more defined. What’s amazing about using this plugin live is that when you use the sidechain feature on certain bands – for example, any time the drummer hits the kick – those lower bass notes aren’t fighting for those frequencies between 50–100 Hz. This lets me create a space for my kick even when there’s a really heavy sub bass or deep synth played on the keyboard.
To get even more specific – I have 63 Hz selected on the F6 inserted on the bass group. This frequency happens to be the sweet spot of the kick drum. Whenever the drummer hits the kick, 63 Hz is automatically tamed on the entire mix of the bass group. When the kick isn’t in action, that 63 Hz on the bass frequencies instantly comes back in the mix – I don’t have to worry about overloading my low end.
One more piece of advice I can give is to make very specific cuts in the low ranges of your individual channels. But try not to remove the same frequency across all channels. Make your cuts in different areas, to keep the sound palette complete and the spectrum full.
How do you treat the drums in the live mix?
The drum channels consist of a full acoustic kit, a MIDI performance pad, some percussion, plus beat sounds coming from the DJ.
For my kick I have three different signals going at the same time: one mic on the inside of the drum, one on the outside, and as this is reggaetón, you gotta have that Dembow! [laughs] You can’t lose that low electronic boom! So I have a drum trigger placed on the inside of the skin of the kick drum to bring that out too.
Because the show is so diverse – pop, reggaetón, tropical, moombahton, hip hop, with some slowed acoustic ballads mixed in – I go in and out with the three different kick signals. On some songs I may want to bring out a more acoustic sound, whereas on other songs I want more of that electronic boom.
First thing I do is make sure everything is in phase – I use the Live component of the InPhase plugin for that. It’s the easiest way to align the signal of different drums.
After that, I’m super-happy with what the Smack Attack transient shaper does to my drums. It gets them sounding amazing. For the mic outside the kick, I use Smack Attack to boost both the attack and the sustain just a little bit. Then I have another Smack Attack on the drum group, again for a little attack but especially more sustain. Having Smack Attack on all three signals helps keep them sounding as one.
I also just love to manipulate harmonics, especially on the drums, so I use the Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter on the drum group; its adds a little touch of sparkle and saturation on all the right places. I then enhance these harmonics even more using Smack Attack. That way I get a nice warm drum sound that doesn’t hurt your ears and you can feel pulsing in your chest.
All of that has to blend with the electronic elements coming from our DJ. Our touring DJ is not your typical two-turntables-and-a-mic hype-man. He also plays synth and bass parts with MIDI, hitting sound cues, playing live beats, triggering samples, scratching, playing acoustic guitar and and even singing background vocals. Whenever there’s an instrumental breakdown or improv jam, he’s playing live right along with the band. So, our DJ is working actually more like a live producer on stage, sending all the electronic percussion elements, samples, drum machines sounds, ambient effects and sound cues via 14 outputs from his DAW and soundcard.
What are some of your tips for treating and tuning a PA system at an unfamiliar venue?
Rule #1: Get to the venue as early as possible, even the day before if you can. I also try to be in steady communication with the venue’s system tech days before the actual show. I try to assess the venue’s mixing position and the PA with the system tech. I also arrive on the day of, hours earlier than the band, to make sure all the backline and the system are in place and ready to go for the soundcheck.
The first thing I do at FOH is use an analyzer software such as SMAART to properly measure the PA’s response for alignment, delays, and to check for any problems or inconsistencies.
For the Maluma tour, I travel with the Waves MaxxBCL hardware processor. This baby makes such a huge difference in making my mix sound fuller, and it adds that extra bit of sauce to the mix in the PA while protecting the system with the built-in L2 Ultramaximizer. It puts the mix right up in front and in your face. We’re playing loud reggaetón with hip-hop and rock influences, so it’s a very bass-heavy show. Having the MaxxBass enhances the low end tremendously.
On my master out, or PA chain, I’ll use a C6, and then just an H-EQ for any corrections, where I like that I can use the built-in real-time analyzer.
When tuning the PA, I typically roll off with a high-pass filter on my subs at about 30 Hz. Now, you would think this is pretty weird, considering you would want all that boom, and doing so is causing you to lose a lot of body to the sound. But here’s the thing – it’s not about boosting low frequencies to get the crowd jumping and feeling the music. Instead, it’s all about increasing the audience’s perception of the sonic energy without overloading the system. In reality, I don’t need those super-low tones, or anything below 30 Hz. This roll-off helps clean up my mix and avoid any kind of nasty rumble these frequencies are known to create. You’ll find that that if you take out those frequencies, you can create even more space in the subs, because the subs no longer have to spend a lot of energy trying to reproduce these really, really low frequencies.
Another important thing this does is it protects the house system. As a touring FOH engineer, I have another job besides mixing: it’s up to me to make sure I maintain the venue’s equipment. Just because the PA system isn’t yours personally doesn’t mean you can damage or blow the speakers. That’s just the ethics of touring. The house engineers, the system techs, the venue staff, they’re all going to remember how you treated them and the equipment. And the relationship you have with them is an important factor to having a good-sounding show. You want to make sure that you have a good rapport with them next time you come around. It’s the circle of life; the circle of FOH!
How do you keep your work exciting when you’re mixing the same songs night after night?
We try to do a little something different for the show every night. One thing I like to do is involve the video and lighting techs in the sound as much as possible. We don’t use timecode or any type of show automation. . Instead, I send our lighting and video teams separate mixes and even a click track via IEM , (In-Ear-Monitors) from the FOH desk, so that they can perform all the lighting and video cues along with the music during the show. This is one of the tricks to keeping the show dynamic and the human interaction between production at FOH, the performers on stage, and the crowd.
We’ve been very fortunate to have such amazing attendances at our shows worldwide. We have anywhere between 8,000–40,000 people dancing and feeling the music out there. We’re able to create such a memorable show for the audience because all of us on the production side of things are interacting with the crowd just as the band and Maluma are reacting to each other. Being able to respond to the vibe and the people during the show just makes for a better show.
Do you still get the butterflies five minutes before show time? What’s going through your head?
I can’t deny it; those minutes just before start are like a precious moment you have between yourself and the console. At 3 minutes away, we have what we call ‘The countdown,’ and going through my head is, “Woah! I actually have to do this now!” [laughs] The nervousness, the sweaty hands, the butterflies in your stomach— these are just the feelings that come with the job. It’s funny, but I get even more nervous before the smaller shows, especially when we go back home to Medellin [in Colombia]. It’s the hometown crowd, you know!
But once the show begins, I just focus on the mix and what I am doing. Those first few minutes of the first song are the most intense because you want to have a nice, clean start to the show. But it’s also the time when typical issues when doing a live show can occur. Then normally, it’s all about having fun!
Any final advice for anyone that wants to be in your shoes?
When mixing, try to go for only small touches – small cuts, small boosts – much like a painter. When you paint a picture, you’re just adding only slight touches with the brush. But when you see the whole picture from the outside, the conjunction of all those small touches can make a big impact!
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