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‘We are all aspiring to create our perfect mix’: Ben Hammond talks finding the right creative balance

This month, FOH mixer and PSNEurope columnist Ben Hammond looks at how engineers can strike the right balance between staying true to the artist’s vision and bringing their own creative flourishes to the fore

Ben Hammond

The last piece I wrote for PSNEurope was about the varying differences between mixing in small and large venues, and I found myself going back to one word repeatedly, and that word was consistency. This got me thinking…

We are all aspiring to create ‘our’ perfect mix. This comes from our own perception of how the show should sound. For weeks before a tour, I study the band’s recorded music, live multi-tracks, YouTube videos, and even interviews to get an idea of the band’s personality before I get to rehearsals. By this point, I have a strong idea of how the show is going to sound and have built a show file to reflect this. While we shouldn’t go into day one with a strict concrete plan, I think this pre-work research is such an important part of what we as audio engineers do.

We are given a bunch of jigsaw pieces, but unlike a conventional jigsaw, these pieces fit together in multiple different ways, which can create many different pictures. Music, the same as art, is subjective, and when we make a picture from those pieces, even though it’s made of the same building blocks, it may be completely different from what the band had in mind. Listening to each section of each song and taking note of how the band has put things together in the studio, concentrating on how certain parts compliment and play off each other, and recreating that live, is in my opinion, the key to success. After all, they did spend months, possibly even years, in a studio doing this. It would be arrogant to deviate from it.

How then can you still add your own individual stamp to make it unique to you? After all, we all trade on word of mouth, and our mix style is our reputation. I have been told by a few acts that have hired me that they did so for my drum sound. I work predominantly in rock and have always mixed quite drum-heavy. I’m a big believer in the audience being involved in the show by making
it an immersive experience, and bottom end helps to achieve this.

Low end, sub you can physically feel, makes you feel attached to the music, and therefore involved or surrounded by what you’re listening to. A kick drum produces that bottom end but in a rhythmic manner,
so not only are you involving the audience, you’re also (hopefully) invoking movement and almost forcing them to dance. On top of this, bottom end is your friend in the all too common low limit festival sites, as it gives the illusion of loudness.

I have always thought of this immersive aspect as ‘my thing’ that I bring to a gig, adding an element that the band themselves can’t, so I really feel like I’m earning my money. Aside from that, I’m really into the use of big effects. I start with the drums, and my usual couple of drum reverbs (which when soloed would remind you of the most over the top Phil Collins moments) but in the mix, work to sit the drums and in turn create a space to put everything in. I mainly use the snare reverb to essentially build my live room and create such space, and this puts me back into a familiar place no matter where I am.

Going back to my earlier point of being loyal to the record, I’m 100 per cent about that, but using spot effects and big moves to embellish moments and highlight key things that might be the connection to the audience at that particular point in a song is imperative. Be it a vocal making the hair on the back of your neck stand up, a drum beat that makes your whole body move, or a bass line that makes you pull your best funk face, every moment in every song has the one thing that triggers the audience reaction, and tailoring your mix to bring these to the surface at the right times will hold the audience on the edge of their seat for the whole show.

I believe all of this can be achieved while still musically staying loyal to the original feel and picture that the band painted in the studio. I remember many years ago supporting Muse and Marc Carolan – who
I very much regard as one of the best there is – and he told me that he loved my effects and delays, etc. However, he also said that he was the only person who would have actually heard them, and to not be afraid to really go over the top with them to get the point across.

He couldn’t be more correct. The audience isn’t listening for tiny detail, it needs to be in your face. I took that onboard with me ever since, and it’s not done me wrong so far, so thanks Marc!

To finish up, I don’t think there is a single person in the audience who can pick out an Avalon preamp, a 480 reverb, or a distressor, but all these tiny elements that we as engineers CAN hear, help us as artists to paint our picture and get our artistic message across. We have a huge responsibility to create the right picture, but in our own way. Find the balance, and have fun with it.