Nailing your live mix is an intricate art that houses many different schools of thought. It can make or break a performer; if your live sound is off, perfect playing can’t save it. And if your live mix is perfect, the crowd will always remember it.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with Jim Cioffi, an expert live sound engineer and the owner of Boulevard Pro Inc., to talk about live miking.
A-T: Do you ever use different microphones for different vocal registers?
JC: If we have the choice, we will use a hot mic on a female vocalist that’s a little nicer on the high end. It’s got a nice little sizzle to it. Some people like those a little hotter, and we like that sometimes in the live mix.
A-T: When you say “hotter,” what exactly do you mean?
JC: A little bumped up. All of the Audio-Technica mics particularly are very, very detailed. You know, occasionally we’ll get a mic that’s a little bumped up and we’ll take it out on the console.
Some clients want the high-end A-T handheld mics, which are really, really good. This is usually requested beforehand, something special, you know?
A-T: Do you mic backup vocals the same way and if not, how do you usually position those microphones?
JC: Backup vocals, they usually get a microphone each. Large choirs use large diaphragm condenser mics because if you have an 80-person choir, you don’t want to use 80 mics, right? We’ll put up six or eight microphones for that. It all just depends on what we’re going to do. We have a very deep toolbox in the mic section. We have enough mic cables and stands to get done what we need to get done.
A-T: Who was your favorite artist to work with?
JC: We work with many, many artists. This week we did the Neville Brothers. We did The Temptations. Southside Johnny, Asbury Jukes; we did a job with Max Weinberg recently. We did Arlo Guthrie. Our favorite artists are the artists that we have no problems with, basically [laughs]. We’re pretty together. It’s pretty seamless all the time. We did Sinead O’Connor this week. Levon Helm Midnight Ramble. We did a lot of shows this week!
A-T: What challenges do you run into recording acoustic pianos? What mics work best for you and how do you place them?
JC: Normally, we’ll use two condenser microphones on a piano bridge mic stand. Normally, those are our go-tos for that. We have a proprietary mic mounting system that we use for pianos, which we came up with. We can span the ribs of the piano, so we can position the microphone at any point along the horizontal axis of the piano, depending on what the piano sounds like and what we want to do.
A-T: When you’re mixing for a large band in one room, can you accommodate different sizes? How do you navigate the issue of microphone feedback?
JC: We have all digital consoles; we can provide really high-quality HD audio in any size venue, from the small ones to the big ones. We’re very flexible.
Feedback! The only thing everyone remembers is feedback [laughs]. We ring everything out beforehand, though, so we don’t have too much trouble with that.
A-T: What setup/configuration do you like to use when you’re miking a horn? What about an entire horn section? What kinds of microphones work best?
JC: Horn sections – we use one microphone on each horn section for the full effect, usually. And we prefer to use small mics on horn clips, make them wireless because guys are jumping around. Or, you know, large diaphragm dynamic mics are always a good choice because they can take a lot of input and they don’t fold.
A-T: What is your go-to setup for miking a live drum kit? How many mics do you use? What are you miking and how close or far away are these mics from each piece they’re miking?
JC: We use overhead mics as much as possible. That’s normally our goal for the drums. We like the overheads to be 18 inches or two feet above the cymbals. We find the sweet spot, and we grab it. We get most of the drums from the overheads. I’m not interested in the kick drum being the loudest thing in the mix. We like to structure the mix around the vocals.
You want an accurate representation of the drum set. What we want to do is an accurate representation of the artist. We want it to seem like you don’t know where it’s coming from. The ultimate goal of the sound system is to be almost invisible.
We’d like to thank Jim Cioffi again for providing some excellent pro insight into the intricate process of live sound miking. A perfect live mix is the difference between a good set and a great set, and Mr. Cioffi and Boulevard Pro Inc. are great at what they do.