There are two ways to start soundcheck for a band. To determine which to use, look at the theatre’s marquee. If it’s an individual’s name on the marquee, take the fader for that individual – vocalist, banjo player, whatever – and push it to +5. Now turn up the gain until the mic feeds back. Pull the fader back to 0 (unity), and soundcheck is 90% done. Fit everything else in underneath.

If a rock band’s name is on the marquee, take the fader for the kick drum and push it to zero. Now turn up the gain until the kick is the right volume for the room. Check the output meters for the board. If they aren’t totally pinned, you’re in a good spot because you’ve got enough headroom to do the show properly. Pile the rest of a rock band mix on top of that and you’ll have a great-sounding show.

The reason I started working this way is because, at the end of soundcheck, every single fader should be at unity. That way, during the show, you’ll have the ideal throw of your controls. It’s tempting to turn the gain knobs up until the pre-fader meter on each channel reads 0 dB. But that’s a mistake because then you’ll have to run half the faders at the bottom of their range, and down there a 2 mm move is a 10 dB of volume change. You’ll have no ability to make subtle mix moves. Not good.

Only after years of soundchecking this way, pushing up faders and then adjusting gains, did it really occur to me, “How do I know when the kick is loud enough?” It didn’t really seem to be a specific dB level… every room just had a certain volume where the kick sounded right. It felt very natural to mix by just turning everything up until it sounded right. Unable to think of a technical answer for why this worked, I eventually mentally cataloged this concept as part of the “art” aspect of engineering.

The idea of turning the fader to unity and then sorting out the gain backward from there was the total opposite of how I approached gain in the studio, at the time. In the studio, it all started with outboard mic preamps, which needed to be set to deliver proper level to the recorder. When working with analog tape, the concern always was to not let the level to tape get too low (too much noise-to-signal on playback) or too high (overload of record electronics, undesired tape saturation). With 16-bit audio this problem was made even worse; the struggle was to maximize bits used, while running the analog to digital convertor at its optimal level, while also avoiding dreaded digital overs. Then, during mixdown, fader creep would set in as different tracks got turned up to be “loud.” Eventually the mix bus would be pinned. Partway through a mix, every channel would need to have the gain pulled back 4 dB because I’d run out of headroom.

But one time I mixed a record “backwards” by turning up until it sounded right. It was a duo record [Envisioning], with William Hooker on drums and Lee Ranaldo on guitar. William Hooker sat behind me while I was at the board. He’d enthusiastically call out how to do the mix. We started with the faders all the way down. “Turn up the drums!” I turned them up. “More! Louder, man!” I was at a good spot on the mix bus, so I just started turning up the monitor volume. “Okay, stop! Now turn up the guitar!” I turned up the guitar. “Okay, stop! That’s the mix! Print it!” It seemed totally insane to me to mix a record like it was a concert, but that was his process. Years later, I finally figured out there was some science to the art that William Hooker and I were intuiting.

Trying to educate myself more about the “technical” side of recording, I read Bob Katz’s [Tape Op #116] Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science. This is where I was first introduced to the...

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