The Sound Mixer Versus The Band: Exploring One of the Oldest Rivalries in Music
Who is to blame when the gig sounds like total shit?
Image: Knik Horsikov
The tumultuously codependent dynamic between live acts and sound engineers has existed since the dawn of rock n’ roll. Good bands have always needed good mixers to sound really great. A harmonious working relationship between a band and a mixer can result in a creative synergy that propels the careers both of parties into the sweetly scented stratosphere. On the flipside, unprofessional behavior from either end of the band room can result in things quickly sinking into a fetid mire of brain-splitting feedback, catty comments, vain attempts at turd polishing and passive aggressive beer spillage. We caught up with mixers and musicians from both sides of the mixing desk to find out their pet peeves and favourite anecdotes from the special relationships conducted over the heads of the audience.
Amanda Roff (Harmony, Time For Dreams, The Ukeladies)
Worst mixer story: Um jeez, well there's quite a few to choose from... dire shit like having gear nicked to the more mundane and tiresome routine of being sleazed onto, patronized, ignored, yelled at for no reason, being told how to play!! Being given a really average mix on principle because you are a support act... incompetence is pretty frustrating, but I really hate it when the mixer is actually hostile. Mixers have to deal with a lot of stress, but taking it out on someone who is there to play a show is poor form.
Best mixer story: Once Harmony played in this grim underground bunker in Sydney, and the mixer was a kind of puffy baby with wet-look gel in his spiked fringe. His similar looking girlfriend was with him. He seemed mildly interested in us during sound check but as soon as the gig began the little dweeb proceeded to make-out real slow and awkward with his puffy mate. Any attempts by us to get his attention failed, we had crap sound, no foldback, and because the mixing desk was the only lit place in the club, we were all forced to watch this young couple dry-humping and slobbering on each other while the gig went to shit. It sucked but it was pretty funny.
Knik Horsikov (Mixer)
Worst band story: Walking into a music festival and having no show file, 48 lines coming from the stage and everything being flat / blank, and having to rough it in, where the set IS the soundcheck, that really sucks! I also work as a house engineer at a venue and recently we had an act that bought their own mixing desk and a sound engineer who wasn’t easy to deal with, and ended up blowing up half of the PA. That wasn’t fun. Small bands with a bit of buzz are usually the ones with the biggest egos. You feel like saying, “I deal with musos very night, I’m a muso myself, let’s just do this together, we’re all on the same team. You wanna sound good and I wanna do my job well.” I try to approach things from the position of not being a cunt.
Best band story: Last night was a really good example - I mixed Ash Grunwald at the Tote with The Living End as his backing band. They bought their own engineer who was awesome, the band were totally professional, completely understanding, and everyone got along really well. As a result night went really smoothly.
Geoff O’Connor (Geoff O’Connor, Crayon Fields)
Worst mixer story: The first that comes to mind is when a fold-back mixer vanished mid-set. I remember turning to ask them for something and seeing an empty liquor bottle next to a vacant mixing desk.
Best mixer story: We had a total sweetheart of a mixer in Sydney a couple of years ago who was so nice we couldn't say no to letting him drop his beloved stadium rock playlist before our set. I’m pretty sure our walk-on music that night was The Deftones, who in 2015 hadn’t yet been rebranded as the ‘hip’ nu-metal band to have liked in the 90s.
Lara Sulo (Mixer)
Worst band story: There’s not many to mention although early on, I was asked to mix a band fronted by a fellow engineer. It was a small show and a Madonna mic was the last thing I expected to see. The annoying part was said engineer tweaking the mix over my shoulder. Something no-one should endure when learning their craft.
Best band story: Some of my best experiences have been mixing Cash Savage and the Last Drinks. One show there was no backline provided at a festival we arrived at. With only 30 minutes spare, we managed to rustle up a small amp and half a tiny kit from the marching band. Needless to say, the bass and one of the guitars, I think, were DI’d and luckily I had a huge system to work with. Just quietly, small kick drums are such a pleasure to put through a huge PA!
Ben Andrews (MY DISCO)
Worst Mixer Story: MY DISCO is fortunate enough to employ two great front of house engineers. They have been our friends and crew members for some ten plus years, and as a result, they understand and deliver exactly what we require in terms of sound. Not all small bands (such as ourselves) are so lucky. We just completed a full European tour in which we did not have our crew with us, and as a result, there were some interesting experiences had regarding the engineers we met along the way.
Most sound engineers who have never heard the band they are about to mix are either lazy, bored of their job, into terrible music or just plain dumb. We have encountered many of these people, some of them displaying all the above traits. One told us to “sing more.” MY DISCO do not sing. We talk softly into a microphone whilst playing at extremely loud on stage decibel levels. Deal with it. It is your job to make it work and make sure the band is happy. So do it and stop complaining. Let us do our thing because we have done it much more than you will ever know. This is not our first rodeo and nor will it be our last. So when you tell us to “turn down” or “sing more,” believe us when we tell you that none of those things are going to happen.
Best Mixer Story: Once I was playing in a small town in Slovakia in a large scout hall / gymnasium type place. Obviously it sounded awful in there. The engineer in question was old, drunk and pretty fucking crazy from the looks of things. I line-checked my guitar and he simply yelled “Catastrophic!” and muted all the channels. I play loud. The gig turned out awesome though, especially the Balkan style disco after party that the engineer started up afterwards.
Nao Anzai (Mixer)
Worst band story: Not much that I remember. But it is always annoying when guitarist / singer turns up his amp very loud then sings in very quiet voice and asks me to push that voice louder than the amp. I'm a mixer, not a magician. But, after dealing with so many bands with this problem for more than a decade, I have ended up becoming an expert in performing this magic. So probably, any annoying problem can be good (but very hard) training for you as a mixer.
Best band story: In the late 90s, I was recording a young band in Japan in my old analogue studio. There were already studios at the time with Pro Tools, but I was old school (and poor). After recording the first take, I played it back to the band. They said: "Wow this sounds great! I thought digital was better but it’s not. This analogue reel-to-reel sounds awesome." Then the guitarist asked me, "I made a small mistake. Can you "UNDO" this take?"
Worst mixer story: Thankfully I haven't had too many bad experiences. The worst is when a mixer expects you to prove yourself to them before they will treat you with respect. The absolute worst experience I've had involved one who showed up, ran all the lines and then told us, "you'll figure it out, I'm going to a party now". He left and never came back. When we complained he had us banned from playing the venue.
Best mixer story: I tend to get along with mixers, which makes my 'best' experience hard to pinpoint. I had an awesome gig last night at The Northcote Social Club. Andy did sound. He's an easy-going guy who does an excellent job. I'm feeling pretty good about that.
Katie Harrigan – (Mixer, drummer for Deep Heat and Diecut)
Worst band story: Working in a male dominated industry can have its moments. Some of the problematic things I've heard being spoken into the mic by performers has definitely been a learning curve for me. Once when micing up a guitarist's amp he proceeded to explain how one "should" mic an amp. I didn't say anything immediately but must have expressed surprise/annoyance because he proceeded to kneel down and say "here, I'll show you" in a tone I haven't heard since Grade 1.
Best band story: While doing monitors for an international rap artist I spent the entire set thinking I was doing my job by providing him with the fold back he needed, one vocal mic. Little did I know that when I hit the button at the start of the set I didn't unmute his vocals but rather turned the channel off. Luckily for both of us he could hear clearly from the front of house.
Andrea Blake (Vacuum, ASPS, Chrome Dome)
Worst mixer story: I had joined a band of three dudes and was the sole female member. I had set up and was on stage waiting to have my channel turned up so we could check the levels and the mixer was just sitting there looking at me press a key over and over. Eventually he gets out from behind the desk, walks to the stage, stands in front of me looking annoyed and says “Girlfriends of the band aren’t allowed on stage, can you please let the band soundcheck”? I guess I was more amused than anything because which guy presumes a girlfriend is dedicated enough to not only spend their Friday night watching their boyfriend’s messy local band let alone set up their gear.
Best mixer story: I was doing a live-to-air set at a radio station. I was playing live to a backing track and because the sound was so clear and well-balanced with the other live instruments I could hear all the parts that I’d put into the backing track a year ago that I’d forgotten about. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is how it was meant to sound initially – it’s great’!
Morgan McWaters (Mixer, synth wrangler in WORNG, The Emergency)
Worst band story: Not so much dealing with a band, but I once was mixing a show on the rooftop of the Evelyn on a day that rain was forecast. I was checking the rain radar on my phone every five minutes and eventually had to stop the show to pack down just before the rain hit. Telling a band they had to stop in the middle of a show was the worst, but it would have been a disaster if it started raining and somebody got electrocuted or something.
Best band story: I'm really lucky to work with some great bands that I also happen to be good friends with, so a typical night at work for me is often a really fun time. Pulling a great sound in a tricky room or nailing the stage sound for a band that lets them just play without having to think about what they're hearing is really satisfying.
Worst mixer story: In the 90s, the band I played in NORD got a gig at the Gold Coast nightclub BEACH ROAD with friends of ours called LOAD. It was a pretty heavy late teen gyno-fuzz-wah scene. We hired a PA and everything and then we took way too much acid and just cleared the place out with our quite loud and not super focused coastal psychedelic scrunge. The mixer who came with the PA was a midget with a stutter and all the guys in the bands left to smoke hash and tobacco bongs after the show and left me to help him load out an enormous PA. I weighed about 60 kilos and had never lifted anything before. I just remember him sweating and stuttering under the weight of the bloody great bass bins and I tried my best and felt a really heavy wave of acid empathy for the guy and almost cried a couple of times… I don’t know if it was funny or sad or the worst or the best but I can’t ever forget.
Best mixer story: I’ve had the same mixer, Anton, for 10 years and the reason is that as soon as I got him people stopped telling me I sounded shit and they couldn’t hear the vocals. I don’t actually know what it sounds like but nobody whinges anymore, except my old uncles and aunts who don’t like loud music. He is also a friendly surfer goth which provides a never ending source of stage commentary gold for me. I really love it when the monitors sound great and we get at least a few songs to sound check. Then I love him even more.
Anton Dykstra – (Dan Kelly’s Mixer)
Worst band story: Hard one to answer, so many to choose from! Haha. One comes to mind many years ago that always bugged me was with Skunkhour, the old favourite of the singer not liking the sound of his foldback. He ended up pulling me up on stage next to him mid set to listen while they were playing to a packed crowd. It felt weird and humiliating but it sounded fine to me, so I went off stage pretended to adjust it,then he was like 'yeh that's perfect!'. The next time they toured they asked for me, I politely declined. Probably have had worst experiences but that one I just always remember.
Best band story: Well, one of the best moments was mixing Ariel Pink, the amount of creativity involved and having the chance recreate his music live was just so much fun, and it worked! Funniest moment though was probably meeting Dan Kelly and the Alpha Males for the first time and riding in a van to Sydney for 12-hours in tears the whole way, or was that torture?
Miles Brown is a Melbourne writer and musician who gets along famoulsy with all mixers. Follow him @MilessBrown