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How to Become an Audio-Mixing Ninja

This article is designed to help you avoid some of the many pitfalls that you can fall into when doing audio mixing for live production.

This article is designed to help you avoid some of the many pitfalls that you can fall into when doing audio mixing for live production.

There are all kinds of issues that arise when you’re mixing and producing audio for live events. One is bad microphone placement. Another is that your speaker is using a podium mic, and they just keep walking away from it. Or they’re working with a handheld mic and they use it to point.

Often, the source audio overwhelms the microphone. Usually, this will happen with music, like when your performer is using a vocal microphone for drums or a harmonica and the audio distorts at the microphone.

Another common issue arises when the mic gain overwhelms the whatever comes next. If you've got a wireless mic, you're distorting in the mic transmitter before you even get it anywhere else. Then you can’t adjust anything on your mixer to fix it because it's already bad.

You may also find yourself dealing with over-modulation on the input to the mixer, or bad equalization in the mixer. Your potentiometer or fader is too high or too low, and then you're trying to compensate for it later, at another stage in the mixer. The master is too high or too low, because you may have it up too high, or it may be distorting so you’re just trying to tamp it down.

Finally, there’s the dreaded feedback. All of these (or most of these, at least) are problems you can learn to address by mastering the controls and features of a good audio mixer, or--better yet--instructing presenters, talent, or other members of your crew on how to make proper use of the technology in their hands so they send you a clean and usable signal.

Microphone Placement

Let’s begin by tackling microphone placement. First of all, we all know that the closer you can get a microphone to a person's mouth, the better your productions are likely to be. Headset mics are helpful in this regard; or, if you're doing theater, and working with a lot of actors on stage, you’ll get the best results if they're wearing microphones on their body somewhere (preferably, concealed as part of their costume).

Placing the microphone as close as possible to the speaker’s mouth lets you decrease the gain down so you can minimize the amount of noise from the room that your microphone picks up.

A lav mic on the chest is convenient and effective. Many times you’ll encounter a speaker who says, "I don't want to wear a mic. I'll just stand right here," and then proceeds to move around the podium as he continues the talk. You can’t compensate for that when you’re dealing with podium mics, which aren't necessarily the best microphones anyway.

With handheld mics, the as-near-the-mouth-as-possible rule applies. If you ever do weddings or other events, watch the DJ. The DJ knows how to work a microphone. He can stand in front of the speaker, but he’s holding it right here on his mouth. He's practically eating it. He’s talking very loudly. He's got his system set so that unless he puts his picrophone into the speaker, it’s not going to create feedback.

When it comes to instrument mic, naturally, the best approach is to put the mic on the instrument. On some productions you may encounter, say, an acoustic guitarist who wants to play to a mic on a stand. That’s a lot further from the instrument than a guitar mic on the guitar, which will pick up the strings and the resonance of the chamber, and give you much better leeway in the rest of the chain to avoid feedback and other issues.

These are all areas in which effective mic placement--and aggressive mic guidance from you, as the producer--can make a big difference in the quality of the audio you can capture and deliver.

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This article compares a range of sub-$100, sub-compact mixers that can help you capture top-quality audio at events where you don't need bulkier, more expensive mixers with more inputs than you may need.