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14 Tips to Mix a Better Live Recording

Feb 22, 2018

Live recordings are almost always plagued with massive mic bleed and other problems, turning a performance's 'magic' into a headache for the mixer. Whether recorded at a concert or live in the studio, learn how to mix them best!

14 Tips to Mix a Better Live Recording

There’s something special about live recordings. They capture the magical moments that get lost in separate multitracking. Something about the intricacies of musicians reacting to each other and in-the-moment communication comes across in an inexplicable way.

While live recordings may allow musicians to focus on the moment, it certainly comes with a unique set of challenges, especially for the engineer planning to mix it. One small mistake might create a butterfly effect of editing nightmares. For example:

  • Say the snare has a cumbersome resonance around 900 Hz; you notch out the frequency in the snare mic but you still hear it. It’s possible to spend hours chasing your tail, cutting 900 Hz from every mic in the session until the ring is finally gone. But then you may be left with a hollow mix that has a hole at 900 Hz.
  • Maybe there’s a tambourine in the song that turned out to be way too loud: you pull the percussion fader down until the signal is muted, but you still hear it. It’s bleeding through the drum mics, the vocal mics, everything; you can’t get rid of the tambourine without losing something else!
Well, fear not, faithful mixer! We’ve got some tips to help you get the most out of your live recordings:

1. Lean into the bleed

Sometimes things can sound perfect in the mix. But then you solo a track and notice a little bleed. Some quick subtractive EQ should clean it up. But now the mix sounds weak and thin…

No matter how hard you try to prevent it, there’s going to be noise bleed. Instead of trying to get rid of it, lean into it. Use it to your advantage.

Don’t dismiss a good tone just because it’s in the wrong mic! If the guitar sounds better in the snare mic, then use the snare! If the snare sounds great in the vocal mic, roll with it! Each open mic in the room becomes a piece that makes up a loud instrument's overall sound. There are no rules in how you put the pieces together – only that it sounds good in the end.

2. Ride the vocals, and take it easy on the compression

It’s common practice to use a compressor to make an instrument more dynamically consistent. But, using a compressor on a live recording tends to make noise bleed more prominent. There’s no way to make the vocal more consistent without making the bleed louder too.

A good solution is automation: Comb through the vocal take and automate the volume so the levels are consistent and the bleed is minimal. For quickly setting good rides, and even for writing volume automation, Vocal Rider can be a true time saver!

3. Subtractive EQ is more useful than additive EQ

Additive EQ can be seductive. Adding highs can make a track sparkle, and boosting the lows gives a track a sense of power you can feel in your chest; additive EQ can make a studio production sing.

But in a live recording, boosting a frequency on one channel tends to affect multiple instruments because of the bleed. Adding some top end to a vocal might make the hi hat brittle. Adding some lows to the overheads might make the bass guitar sound muddy. It’s a delicate balance, but more often than not, you’ll have better results using subtractive EQ.

Remember the adage: You can’t boost what isn’t there. Focus on removing problem frequencies, and letting the instrument shine on its own. Parametric EQs like in the SSL E-Channel or the F6 Dynamic EQ work well for subtractive EQ. The F6 can be especially useful as a corrective tool, since the dynamic EQ functions allow the EQ to engage only when a specific problem-frequency crosses a defined threshold, and is complete with detailed attack and release settings.

4. Multiband compression can be helpful… when used sparingly

Rather than using too much EQ to attenuate a frequency as it enters the mix in excess, multiband compression can be an equally elegant solution. Using compression allows you to reduce the dynamic range of a set of frequencies, say, if you want to still hear the 'body' of a tambourine or other hand percussion instrument, but in a tamed way that doesn't lose all of the detail in the slap of the congas below.

Keep in mind that using compression will also accentuate bleed within the frequency ranges that you compress – for example, using slight compression with something like the C4 multiband compressor on a snare mic's high midrange frequencies may help to tighten up the hi hat's detail. This can be a huge help, or a huge hassle depending on the situation. Getting a good mix on a live recording can sometimes be like solving a complicated jigsaw puzzle.

5. Set phase coherence to the drum tracks

Avoiding phase cancellation prevents sounds captured through multiple mics from sounding unnecessarily weak and thin, or from building odd tonal centers due to comb filtering. In a live recording where many of the sound sources are being delivered through many open microphones, this is especially important.

It's common practice when recording drums with a combination of close mics, overheads and/or room mics to align the overheads and more distant mics to the transients of the snare's close-captured hits. When the snare or guitar is heard prominently through vocal mics that may have been placed anywhere from 5 feet to 15 feet or more away from the bled sources, getting everything in sync will help to solidify your mix and avoid weak sounds.

6. Create a believable stereo image

Stereo imaging is important in any mix. But it's crucial when mixing a live recording, especially when there’s a video component. It’s very distracting to see the guitarist on the left and hear them playing on the right.

Even if you’re mixing a live studio recording, panning against the natural layout can cause problems. For instance, say you’re recording a drummer, a keyboardist, and a guitarist. The drums are in the center, the guitarist is next to the hi hat, and the keyboardist is next to the floor tom.

Panning the guitar to the same side as the floor tom can cause phase and balance problems. The fact that the guitar bleed is louder in the hi hat mic than it is in the floor tom mic is part of what makes it feel real.

If you can, it will be helpful to doodle a quick stage plot or take a photo of the recording session for reference when mixing.

7. It’s OK to reshape drum sounds

You can polish what you have, even if it's extreme: determine what your drums are missing, and reshape as necessary. Is your kick big and boomy, but doesn't punch like you want it to? The snare doesn't snap much either? Well, you can't completely rerecord it, but you can help.

Try reshaping the transient attacks and sustains using a transient shaper plugin like Smack Attack, and blend to taste. Keep in mind that the drum mix may be coming from every single open mic in the room; you can't reshape attack and sustain for all of these, but effecting the close mics on the drums will help. Be sure to set the parameters in the context of the whole mix so that you can balance an end result that is believable and sounds natural in the mix.

In this in-depth tutorial, learn how to use the Smack Attack transient shaper to redesign the feel of your close-mic'd drums. Take a listen to the audio example in the beginning, and if you want to learn more, keep watching:

Bringing out extra low or high end to a kick can also help if it's needed; harmonic generators like those included in the 'Sub' and 'Air' sections of Scheps Parallel Particles work great for this purpose. With this plugin, be sure to only engage the modules you need to achieve the sound you're after; it can work wonders to salvage or beef up a lame sound.

8. Don’t be afraid of overdubs

Sure, the point of a live recording is that it’s, well, live. But what if an otherwise perfect take has a particularly noticeable blemish?

If your configuration allows it, don’t be afraid to punch in and touch up that guitar solo or tighten up a drum fill. Some engineers choose to record scratch vocals with the band and overdub the final vocal parts later.

But be aware that depending on your setup, not every track or instrument can be overdubbed: only the ones without or with negligible mic bleed. For example, a bass or keyboard being recorded through a DI? Punching in is no problem. A trumpet part which otherwise has lots of cymbals in the channel? Be sure to consider this if thinking about overdubs, since punching in a small part may induce a change in the overall tone of the cymbals in the mix, which could be noticeable and distracting.

If you do plan to use overdubs, try to record them during the same session. Remember, you can never identically recreate a sound: there’s no way you’ll be able to match the tone of the original take after moving the mics or instruments. Make sure you get the overdubs done before you leave for the day!

9. Set mics to minimize bleed, and consider relative instrument volumes

In the case of concert recordings, you may not have much say in the mic placement. But if you’re in the studio with the band, you’ll have a little more control over the sound of the recording.

Some engineers like to track with the drums, amps, and vocalists all in separate rooms or in isolation booths while recording live, though part of the vibe comes from the visual cues the performers get from being able to see one another and from playing together in time.

And although too much can be a bad thing, part of the live feel comes from the noise bleeding into the mics, too.

If you’re in a space where you can’t isolate the amps from the kit, try to separate them as much as possible. Put them as far apart as the room will allow. Point the amps away from the drum kit. Use baffles, blankets, and anything else you can get your hands on to help dull the bleed.

Another key to setting up is volume. In most cases, the drums will be the loudest instrument in the room. Set your amps to be a bit quieter than the drums. Capture the amps with close mics, and focus on keeping the drum bleed to a minimum.

10. Use close mics in cardioid and monitor with care

It takes a lot of work to get a well-balanced live recording. In most cases, close-mic techniques are used when recording live performances; and cardioid pickup patterns are great at rejecting unwanted noise bleed.

Ideally, all of the musicians should use headphones or in-ear monitors while recording. But in some cases, you’ll have to fight the noise from stage monitors as well. If that’s the case, try to keep the stage volume to a minimum. That means amps too!

11. Use DIs with re-amping when possible

Guitars and keyboards can be captured via direct injection (DI) boxes when recording live to reduce bleed. Although the tone may be significantly different than that of an amp, using DI boxes when tracking live allows musicians to be in the same room together without any bleed.

The direct signals can be re-amped later to capture the sound of an isolated amp. Or, you can re-amp in the box with amp simulator plugins like GTR3 to achieve classic amp tones.

This allows you to maintain the groove without sacrificing control by adding bleed.

In this video, you can hear the re-amp feature in another re-amp option, mixer Chris Lord-Alge's CLA Guitars plugin, as presented by Chris himself (Green Day, Muse):

12. Use reverb and delay with caution

Typically, live recordings have moderately high amounts of reverb and delay that reinforce the notion that it was recorded live. But adding reverb can be risky to the mix when working with tracks that already have a lot of room tone.

They key is to find a reverb that matches the environment of the recording. If the session was tracked in your living room, adding a hall reverb will create a “space within a space” and will be disorienting for listeners.

Remember, you can always add more reverb later, but you can never take it away. Most engineers try to record everything as dry as possible and add reverb later.

13. Crowd mics

If a live recording was made during a concert, the engineer will often include crowd mics. These are exactly what they sound like — mics used to capture the sound of the audience, and the ambiance of the venue.

These can be great for adding natural reverb to a recording, and reinforcing the sound of a live crowd. If not cared for though, these mics can cause problems in the mix. Because of their placement, they’re rarely in phase with the rest of the tracks; it will be important to align the transient waveforms with the band on stage.

Crowd mics are commonly used at the beginnings and endings of songs, and their volume is typically automated down for the rest of the time. Leaving a very low level of the sound of the PA and room, especially if the ambience mics were placed at the FOH mixing position, may provide much of the reverb the track needs while reinforcing its live believability, energy and vibe.

14. Don’t use quantization or pitch correction

Aside from the occasional overdub, it’s best to leave any mistakes in the performance. Trying to make time or pitch corrections can be a nightmare. It’s not enough to correct these issues in a single mic — they’re present in every mic in the session because of the noise bleed.

Say the drummer falls a little behind in the chorus. You can’t just tighten up the timing of the kick and snare mics. The drums will still be out of time in every other mic in the session; you can’t correct the snare in the vocal mic without affecting the vocal itself.

The same goes for pitch correction: If a singer hits a flat note at a concert, and it’s pumping through a PA system at 110 dB SPL, it’s going to bleed into all of the other mics on stage. Trying to correct only the close mic is just going to make the problem more noticeable. All you can do is hope it was played with passion.

Remember, one of the best reasons to make a live recording is to capture the vibe of the performance. You want to accentuate the little moments that make a performance magical. Lean into the bleed and let the little things go. Feel the music.

To create your mix's space in a detailed and controlled way, see our 6 Tips for Adding Depth to a Mix.

Do you have any live recording mix tips that we missed? Let us know in the comments below.