You may have had a lot of experience mixing a live band, but mixing in the studio (or at home) is a distinctively different experience. The thought process is different, the mindset is different, the approach is different, and the chain of command is different.
In an effort to contrast these two different experiences, let’s move from the simplest differences to those that are, shall we say, a bit more subtle.
Most live performances rarely change repertoire much from gig to gig. You can hone the mix for each song the more times your gig. In the studio, each song is unique and fresh, and when it’s finished it’s on to the next one.
On a live gig, your mix is gone as soon as the song is over (unless you record it). In the studio, what you do is under a microscope and will likely be analyzed, dissected, and reorganized, all in the name of making the mix stronger.
The gear you use on a live gig won’t always translate to the studio. You choose the gear for a studio upon versatility, durability, and general ruggedness. The only thing that counts in the studio is the sound.
While one size might fit all on a gig in terms of gear such as compressors, delays, and reverbs, the presets that are frequently used usually make for a boring studio mix. The studio requires a wide range of sonic possibilities, so you’ll need to have a number of gear or plug-in choices to get there.
On a live gig you have a bandleader that makes the setlist, counts off the songs, may direct the solos, and ends the songs, but how you mix is pretty much up to you. In the studio, you’re answering to a hierarchy consisting of the producer (in many cases) and the artist. The producer or the sound engineer is the final decision-maker with ultimate authority over everything you do, although the artist has much to say in the final product as well.
The little things count in the studio. Everything you do can be critical to a mix, so nuances are just as important as the basic balance of the instruments. During a live gig, the nuances are usually gone in the wind, overcome by the stage volume, the acoustics, and the attention span of the players and audience. In the studio, everything you do is scrutinized because it’s all captured. What that means is you’ve got to be great every song.
You might get away with being a jerk on a live gig since the band or others on the crew usually will put up with you (to a point) as long as you do your job well. Not so in the studio. If you make someone feel even slightly uncomfortable for any reason, chances are you probably won’t be asked to do another project with them.
7. It’s hard work.
That’s not to say that mixing a four- or five-hour gig isn’t difficult, but there’s the variation of mixing a whole setlist of different songs plus the glory of the audience feedback.
In the studio, the only feedback you get is from the producer and artist, and 99 percent of the time they’re analyzing how you can make the mix better rather than singing your praises. And the level of concentration is definitely up a few notches. You can sometimes breeze through a gig, almost losing yourself in your mixing. In the studio, every moment of every track counts and requires your utmost attention.
Live gigs sometimes may not even require a rehearsal to learn the songs. The studio mixer requires both system and personal preparation before even a single fader is raised.
Live mixers strive to get the same sound every gig, while a studio mixer strives to achieve a different sound on every song. Studio mixing requires experimentation and skill in working with constantly changing sounds and sonic characters, which is quite the opposite of a live mixer.
On a gig there’s a constant pace: show up, set up, soundcheck (maybe), gig, and tear down. In the studio, the pace is usually set by a budget and/or a deadline. You may only have so much time to finish the mix, make any tweaks and deliver it, regardless of whether the mix feels finished.
11. The required skill set.
For live mixing, the skill set requires that you know how to mix in an ever-changing acoustic environment and have a basic instrument/vocal balance technique.
The studio requires your hearing to be more nuanced with a different reference point as to what sounds good or bad and how it will translate to other speakers outside the studio, plus you need a greater knowledge of what the gear and plug-ins are capable of.
12. The live wolf pack and the studio lone wolf.
Most live performances require a group and a sizable supporting cast (unless you’re working with a DJ or a solo singer/songwriter) that stays the same every gig. Studio mixers are independent and usually work with different people on every project, or mix completely by themselves with little interaction with the client whatsoever.
At the end of the day regardless of the differences, there are transferable skills from live mixing that can be used in the studio and vice versa. So whether you’re a first-time in-the-box at home studio engineer or a first time pub band night mixing engineer take the leap and learn on the go!