Say you’re doing an orchestral tracking session. As with just about every large tracking session, you’re limited as to how many separate headphone cues you can provide. Maybe you are using a headphone mixer system like the “Private Cue” into which you can pump about eight separate feeds. Or maybe you just have a few stereo sends running to cue boxes. Either way, you’re gonna have to prioritize. Who gets separate feeds, and who gets sub-mixed with other instruments? Who gets their own cue? Here’s a few things I consider when setting these priorities:
1. I ask myself the subjective question: “Who plays the most important part in the recording?” As much as we always want to be politically correct and claim that each piece is as important as the other, this is just not the case. Let’s be real. On any given recording, the most important part is the lead singer and the band leader or conductor. The musicians are following the band leader, and the lead vocal is the focal point of the recording. People buy records to hear the singer, not the celeste. So based on this criteria, those are the people who get special treatment on a large orchestral recording.
2. I also ask myself the objective question: “Who is usually the most difficult to please?” I like to ask this question because there’s very little gray area here. If I was to keep track of time spent on adjusting the headphone mixes of each section of an orchestra and the singers, there would be a clear “winner” during most recording sessions: The brass section! No hard feelings guys, I really feel for you. The brass and the drummer are the players that need their headphones very loud, because their instruments are loud. This can cause some problems if the headphone amps aren’t set up well, or if you’re running too many cans off a single amp, or if the headphones are crappy. Lots of room for error here. But unlike the drummer, the brass not only have to hear the rest of the band over their own playing, but they also have to very clearly hear themselves, because playing in tune is essential. Tweaking just the right balance really becomes an issue here, and because of this, I usually end up spending a bit more time adjusting the headphone mixes of the brass section than any other section. Because of this, if I can give the brass section their own feed, I always do. It saves time in the end.
3. I also ask myself: “Which section’s headphone mix is bound to change most throughout the session?” It would obviously be wise to prioritize the headphone setup for the people whose headphone mix will need to change from time to time. For example, on cast album recording sessions, that’s usually the vocal mics. This is because there is usually many vocalists coming and going throughout the session. On such a recording, any given vocal mic might be used by several different lead vocalists, and also be used as a group vocal mic. You want to be able to quickly adjust the headphone mixes of the vocalists on sessions like these.
All that doesn’t mean you treat everyone else like they’re not important. I usually take more time to make each player happy with their headphone mix than I do moving microphones around and getting a good sound going to tape. I’d rather be mixing a well performed song recorded using basic tracking techniques than some hi-fi tracking masterpiece with everybody playing out of tune and not together.
So, to recap, this is what I try to keep in mind when setting up headphone mixes:
* Give the star of the show their own mix or a “more me fader” and make sure the band leader is hearing exactly what he/she wants.
* Give the most priority to the group of players who present the most technical challenges (usually the brass).
* Give priority to the least static part of the session setup.