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Live Mixing Know-how from Buford Jones, Part 1

Show 110-1

In this edition of the SVC Podcast, SVC Contributing Editor Bennett Liles talks with Buford Jones, tour liaison manager with Meyer Sound, about mixing live sound at the front-of-house console. Jones’ live sound mixing career spans decades and he has mixed with the world’s top musical performers. They discuss setting up an initial house mix, working with poor room acoustics and how techniques have changed for mixing on today’s linear, low-distortion PA systems. He also comments on mistakes he sees most frequently made by inexperienced FOH sound people.

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Jul 7, 2014 11:23 AM,
With Bennett Liles

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Editor’s note: For your convenience, this transcription of the podcast includes timestamps. If you are listening to the podcast and reading its accompanying transcription, you can use the timestamps to jump to any part of the audio podcast by simply dragging the slider on the podcast to the time indicated in the transcription.

Mixing for live sound. It’s one of the most exciting jobs around and Meyer Sound’s Buford Jones has mixed shows with some of the biggest names in the music business. He’s going to tell us how things work and what makes them not work at the front-of-house console. That’s coming up next on the SVC Podcast.

Buford, it’s fantastic having you on the SVC Podcast to talk about live mixing. We haven’t done one on that for a good while now and since you’ve mixed with just about every big name act, you’re the one to have for this. Are you in Nashville right now? You get around so much I never know where you’ve lit lately.

I live in Dickson, Tenn. It’s about 40 miles west of Nashville going straight toward Memphis.

As the touring liaison with Meyer Sound you get into some exciting places and have worked over mixing boards with a lot of big names that we would recognize and I’ve wanted to ask you what, in your experience, is the most challenging part of live mixing?

I think the most challenging aspect certainly is consistency. I think that’s what we pride ourselves in as live sound mixers is shows that sound good night after night. You know, we can have the magic flow one particular venue, then all of a sudden it’s a struggle in the next. We try to minimize those struggles, and we do it with technology and equipment. We do it with experience. We do it with just general knowledge that we’ve built up over time, and it’s very difficult. It’s not an easy task to make it sound as good as we’d like to have it sound each night. So having that ambition, that passion, that drive to do that I think really stands out in a live sound engineer. And you know, the venues change so much and the tuning that we go through, the sound systems and the day-to-day process, it can have so many variables for sound. You have so many elements that can go wrong and things that just differ on a day-to-day basis, so it’s quite a challenge. [Timestamp: 2:23]

Yeah, people who do live mixing I think sit there and imagine all those signals going through all of those boxes and connectors while everybody else is just saying, ‘Oh yeah, it’s working fine.’ You’ve taught courses at Infocomm and I know you run into sound operators at all experience levels so what’s the most common thing that you see them do wrong?

I use the term we mix with our eyes instead of our ears; if we get buried a little bit too much in the computers and the technology. Technology is essential to the touring industry, but at the same time we can’t let music take a backseat to any of that. I like to think that during the day, that I get my equipment aligned properly and set up properly, but when it comes show time, it’s full-play music. I was a musician. I still am a musician and I treat the console just as that, as an instrument that I play during the show. So I jam along with the band. I think that musical connection is just extremely vital and it’s something I think that listening to the music, reproducing the music the way the artist has intended it, and this communication with the artist which brings that point as well, I think there’s not enough communication with the artist and a lot of us can improve with that. And it’s spending more time on the stage, spending more time discussing musical concept with the artist to find out really in delivering the recipe. I gotta say in a short story, two years ago I was picked up by a cab driver in New York City and he asked me on the way to the hotel what I was doing in town and I said I was a sound mixer and I was working at a live concert there. And he says, “Who are you mixing?” I said, “Linda Ronstadt.” He goes, “Oh, so she bakes the cake and you serve it.” I thought wow, well put. Well put. If I ever get around to writing a book that will be the name of it: They Bake the Cake and I Serve It. And I think that sums it up. It really does. The music is created on the stage. It is our job as sound mixers to deliver that to our audience and I think there’s very little alteration. We should do that. We should keep the signature of the artist. You’re given a free reign, that’s good. That expresses your artistic freedom. But at the same time I think you have to stay within the musical boundaries of the artist that you’re working for. [Timestamp: 4:42]

You work venues where you have everything you need and I’m sure you’ve been in situations where you really have to swim upstream. Have you ever been in a situation where you have to mix monitoring from aux outs on the front-of-house board?

I have been so fortunate in my career that there’s only two times that I can remember professionally mixing monitors from the front-of-house. I think with a certain caliber touring artist that position is just granted, it’s to be expected. I mean independent monitor mixers or monitor mixers that are independent of the front-of-house console do mix the monitors and they’re very talented people that are able to do that. I have tremendous respect for monitor mixers. I think that job almost requires two or three monitor mixers on stage. I remember Led Zeppelin in the early years that had two monitor mixers. I’ve seen this only on a couple of other tours. I know it’s very uncommon but it almost makes sense, so many people that really need musical cues to perform to and it’s difficult for one person to give the attention to 10, 12 people in the band. Those that are able to do it are extremely talented. That’s just my viewpoint on it. I think it requires a lot of attention. There are cases where we have to do that and I guess any advice that I would give is to try to lock the monitor situation as tight as it can be. If you can get a sound check, to lock that in as closely as possible and let the artist know that you really hope to be able to concentrate on the show out front when it takes place. Now any changes that they might need, of course, that’s going to be delivered to you, but other than that if you can just stay to your mix would be my suggestion, but that’s easier said than done. It’s just when an artist/musician needs something it’s somewhat sporadic and they want it fixed right away, so you have to deal with that. That too is quite a challenge, but fortunately I haven’t had to do that too many times. [Timestamp: 6:44]

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Jul 7, 2014 11:23 AM,
With Bennett Liles

Well, a whole lot of things have changed since the days of Led Zeppelin and you’ve seen all that happen so how have the techniques really changed for mixing on today’s linear, low distortion PA systems?

The linear systems today provide us not only scalability from the small venue to the large venue, but also the fact that what we do at the console we can really trust that’s what we’re hearing out of our sound systems. If it’s tuned or the sound system itself is not a linear sound system and then we have a radical tuning, meaning it has low-end emphasis, high-end emphasis because we just think the system sounds better with that, you’re sort of tuning to a unknown reference and that’s fine if you’re mixing only to the left and right speakers. If you’re generating mixes, which we all do, multiple mixes coming out of the console which might be going also to side fills, front fills. It might also be going to a recording area. It might be going to the audio for the video area. It might be going to hearing impaired. It might be going to dressing room speakers. It might be going – who knows – many different areas. Well we want to know the frequency response in each one of those locations is accurate to what, or relative to what I was doing at the console. Well that’s basically what linearity is, and not only whatever level of the sound system we listen to it on, the frequency response doesn’t tend to alter. It stays within that area and we can trust our work. We have more confidence in our work and consistency in our work, and therefore we can, I think, tend more musical when we have that sort of format in front of us. The low-distortion PA systems, I mean yes this is truly an advantage and where these are systems available now to us that are low distortion, you can really define between instruments. They say in the horn section, for instance, to really define between the trombone and trumpet and to be able to hear those tones and recognize them quickly is something I think the low-distortion PA’s offer us. All the instruments throughout the musical range, they’re just easier to separate as we listen to them, so very good there. The high-distortion systems that a lot of us are used to, I think it’s a very hard sound in general. It’s very fatiguing, I think, in time as well. A low-distortion PA system, when we mix on it, we can easily tolerate it much longer in the high SPL levels that we’re used to in concerts. So it’s, I think, extremely important. If we want a powerful show with lots of energy, the low-distortion PA is going to offer several benefits to this which we just described. [Timestamp: 9:30]

And sometimes you have to work with poor room acoustics and that’s usually something that you can’t prevent. What can you do at front-of-house to minimize the effect of poor acoustics or is there anything that you can do?

Yeah, I feel that there’s very little that we can do. I mean I’d certainly like to. One thing for sure is we just have not conquered physics yet and the rooms and the acoustical properties of a room, on a touring basis we don’t have the opportunity to alter them. When we go into a venue on tour and tomorrow we go into a room and I tend to want to say wow, I wish I could acoustically treat this room, but it’s impossible. How would I do that to an arena? So it’s out of the question. We just gotta deal with it. And I certainly will not alter the mix as far as the frequency response or the sound system. That might be an area where I might trim it a little bit if I’m having serious reflections and low frequencies and it seems to be really a problem, but not alter the mix. I think the relationship of the bass guitar to the kick drum to the rhythm section is extremely important. We can’t lower one or the other because this room says that it can’t handle it. I think that once again as a musical formula that has to be reproduced the way it was designed. Now I might have to change the system, but if the system is properly hung – I mean hung, I use the word – set up properly and the display angles are correct, the trim height is correct, there’s been some work that we do to make sure that that’s properly done to the recommendations of the manufacturer, then it will minimize a lot of these problems that we experience like that. We can’t eliminate them at front-of-house, it’s just – we’ve just got to go with it. You know, sometimes you’ve got to cope with it. There’s been so many situations in my past where I was just almost to the point where I was frustrated and I said hey, I can’t fix these problems, so let’s just concentrate on the mix. Let’s just concentrate on hearing everything on stage that I see. When I do that, my mix always improves and it seems like the response from the audience is always good. [Timestamp: 11:55]

When you’re on a job and you’re setting up the mix, what things do you do first? What’s the order of the things you set up in the mix?

I’ve used different approaches, but mainly I’ll stay to what maybe many of us do, is starting with the rhythm section. I just believe that it’s complex. I think the drum sound is very complex and I think it’s a highly important part of the mix and the rhythm foundation. I believe a drummer – every stick or every instrument that he hits with a stick needs to be heard equally, not necessarily equally balanced, but it is balanced in a way, but they’re beats, they’re in time, just in different pitch. So the drums are quite complex, is my point. I want to sort all of them first. I want a good coupling of the bass guitar with the kick drum and work the bass guitar player and the drummer together. And then I’ll start bringing in instruments, laying in instruments, and then generally have the background vocals come out and sing and then layer the lead vocal into that. Now that can be a problem in some cases if I got too excited and haven’t left room for my vocalists to sing – no headroom left in the PA – but I mix with VCA’s. This is what I do, is when I construct a balance, no matter what level I really kind of monitor at for the sound check, I can always bring the relative balance down at the VCA’s and tuck my vocal in wherever it needs to be to make sure it’s clearly heard. So that’s my preferred way, but I’ve seen many others and I certainly understand we’re not arguing whatsoever. Some say they want to hear the vocal first. This means, and I think as you asked, once the PA has been tuned and now you’re sitting at the console, our procedure then, there are those and many that want to hear the vocal first, especially if it’s the name on the ticket of that concert that night. That voice should be heard loud and clear and really to the highest possible quality. So some, if they’re going to do any final tweaking at all to the PA, would like to do it to the vocal – the lead vocal. In some cases it’s difficult for the lead singer to come out of an afternoon, especially be the first one out, but this does happen in some cases and I certainly see the point. And then they layer everything in behind that because that because that lead vocal is the most important. We call that the money channel. I worked one of my seminars in Germany and a young man said that he preferred to have the bass guitar come out first once he was doing a sound check. I thought that was interesting and I asked him why. He said because low-end clarity is one of the most difficult things for him to achieve on a day-to-day basis and he said if he heard the bass guitar first he’d know how to shape the low end to where everything else fit in and he had good low-end clarity. Maybe he worked for a bass player. Maybe he worked for Sting, I don’t know. I don’t think he worked for Sting, I’m joking – or Paul McCartney – but working for a bass player who was a leader of the band. But nonetheless I thought that was very interesting. So we all have different approaches, but I think the rhythm section is quite common to have them play first because of the complexity of those instruments, [Timestamp: 15:17]

What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve run into on a mixing job lately? Anything especially fun or unusual come up?

Well, recently – I could certainly go back a ways and think about some enormous challenges that I was up against and of course dealing with lots of inputs, but you know, it’s kind of interesting to me now that here in my church that I have been mixing. I sort of inherited the sound position there. This is a whole different element for me, but I mean the same thing. I’m trying to get the message and the performance and what have you out to the audience as good as I can possibly get it, and so things that we’ve talked about so far are still the same importance and we still do that, but the challenging part of it is, I think, is having a team around you of really highly-trained professionals and then at the same time just having the time. Most of the time it all happens so quickly, I mean, that we’re trying to do a sound check before a service, for instance, and it’s trying to get a lot of things done in, again, a very short amount of time. So that can be quite challenging. You need to really, I think, prioritize what needs to be done of a day to get the best delivery and you need to kind of look things over and say okay, we just won’t deal with this. I’ll work on that another time, but this is very important so I must deal with that. So it’s more psychological than it is, I think, technical and coping with a whole different environment than I’ve been used to. I’ve found several challenges in that. We’ve come together, I think, with a nice system but it’s taken me a month or two to just kind of lock this down – this system down – and to really feel efficient that I can turn it around the way that I view it and I hear it and I can deliver that to the audience. [Timestamp: 17:09]

Churches can be very challenging, much more so than people might think and they use a lot of volunteers and have to train people on the job. Does it sometimes seem to you that some of the young people they’re breaking in tend to think that EQ knobs only turn to the right?

Well that’s a good question. I know exactly what you mean. That’s just like faders that we think well, they can only go up, that they can’t come down either. It took me quite a few years to realize that. One of my first bands to mix was ZZ Top and I felt that oh yeah, everything had to be pushed up – continually pushing up, pushing up, pushing up. It took me awhile to realize that yes, these faders will come back down and we can bring them down. Well EQ knobs, in a similar way of course, we can turn them to the left or attenuate as well. I think it’s a very useful point to think of equalization on consoles. Of course it is volume. It is volume that is frequency-dependent, so if we want to keep our gain structure proper throughout the console from the input stage to the output stage, you’ve got to pay particular attention to that. Cut a little bit every once in a while, don’t always be boosting. You know, if we take a three-range system and say just bass ends and highs and somebody says, ‘I need more high end,’ well you’ve got several ways you can achieve that. You can lower the mids and the lows and get the same effect or you just turn up the highs. The high is a little quicker fix, so that’s why we’re used to turning that up. But that’s just other ways to achieve the same result and then improve your gain structure throughout the console. It just takes a second to think about it a minute. Can I cut some frequencies out here and get this to sound what I’m looking for without boosting others? You just need to do an equal amount if you can throughout your mixes. [Timestamp: 19:00]

One of the great things about sound is that it’s a lot more subjective than video and most times there’s more than one right way to do it but there’s a whole lot involved and there’s no substitute for real on-the-job experience. Thanks for being here with us Buford. Buford Jones with Meyer Sound it has been great talking with you and in part two we’ll get into analog and digital and monitor levels and we’ll see you again for that one.

Thank you, Bennett. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here.

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