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‘Adapt your approach to suit the environment’: Ben Hammond discusses mixing FOH in small venues

PSNEurope columnist and acclaimed live audio engineer Ben Hammond takes a look at some of the biggest challenges facing FOH mixers in small venues

Ben Hammond

The team at PSNEurope asked me my thoughts on mixing in small venues. Apt really, as I have spent the last three years with an act who sells out arenas in the UK, but are still growing everywhere else, so we could go from a sold out Wembley Arena to a 200 capacity show in Australia. Vastly different venues in every respect, but the aim, as always, is consistency.

Being able to take your show from 10,000 to 100 and back again, while keeping the same energy and focus, and getting the same message across to the audience is much harder than most people think. It requires hugely different approaches to achieve the same sonic result and level of consistency in these smaller rooms. Away from such things as touring PA, systems techs, touring consoles/FX/dynamics etc., being able to faithfully recreate last night, and then being able to recreate tonight and tomorrow is suddenly much more difficult.

For me, the main thing is adapting your approach to suit the environment. With a rock band in an arena, if you turn the PA off, it goes quiet. In a 200 cap room, however, if you turn the PA off, some of the weight drops out, but in most cases its not going to get that much quieter. You are governed by the loudest noise coming off the stage, be it a snare drum, wedges, or a guitar amp; you have
to bring everything else up to meet that, to take that loudest sound but make it sit where it should in the mix. To be entirely in control, ideally, we need to be louder than the stage, but without pinning the audience to the back wall. The job then becomes not so much about creating the sound, but about taking what is already coming off stage and using the PA to enhance it to achieve the same end product.

Example: as you’re trying to overpower the snare coming off the stage the transients might be shutting the PA down, so instead, maybe dial in a heavily compressed snare with a big lump at 200hz and with the high-end rolled off. This will bolster the ‘crack’ you already have in the room, and will then help to make the snare sound forward and connected to the mix. The aim here is to give the illusion that you’re hearing it all from the PA with everything else, but not using all your power to fight a transient that already exists.

To go even deeper, you could think about sending the snare pre EQ to your snare reverb, so the reverb return still contains the HF information, and again helps to take the acoustic snare sound that is coming off the stage out of the roof, and into the face of the audience.

The small room certainly makes you think harder, which in the worlds of old tired club PAs, that isn’t such a bad thing.

The use of filters and surgical EQ to remove absolutely everything you don’t need is going to make the system work more efficiently and hopefully get you those all important extra dBs that you’re craving. I often will tune a system in a smaller room to suit the band, instead of trying to create the flat response system as normal. Things like pulling 80-100hz in your subs is going to take the stress off those tired old drivers, and let them extend and move more freely to produce the 50-60hz stuff that’s going to move and engage the audience.

Techniques aside, managing your own expectations is a huge part too. Although there is every chance that you’re stood at FOH, squashed behind the bar, or in some horrible cupboard somewhere hating life, and for you the gig is at best a solid 2/10, the important thing is to remember to put yourself in the mindset of the punter. These people come to this same venue week in, week out, and in reality what you may be hating is probably blowing their minds. As long as these guys leave the show thinking ‘I have never heard that venue sound like that before’ then you are worth your money, despite the fact that you too may very well be thinking ‘I have never heard my show sound quite like that before!’

It’s easy to get down when you’re walking into some bar and grill somewhere in the US, and seeing three Mackie SRM350s hung on their side, then having to listen to the house guy telling you about their new “line array” system (this actually happened to me). But by just taking a minute to adjust to your surroundings, set your goals and expectations realistically, you can then dive in and achieve 10/10 on the night.