A Vocal Group Can Be Very Helpful

Microsurgery is great, but sometimes you need a sledgehammer.

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The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Folks tend to get set in their ways, and I’m no exception. For ages, I have resisted doing a lot of “grouping” or “busing” in a live context, leaving such things for the times when I’ve been putting together a studio mix. I think this stems from wanting maximum flexibility, disliking the idea of hacking at an EQ that affects lots of inputs, and just generally being in a small-venue context.

Stems. Ha! Funny, because that’s a term that’s used for submixes that feed a larger mix. Submixes that are derived from grouping/ busing tracks together. SEE WHAT I DID THERE?

I’m in an odd mood today.


See, in a small-venue context, you don’t often get to mix in the same way as you would for a recording. It’s often not much help to, say, bus the guitars and bass together into a “tonal backline” group. It’s not usually useful because getting a proper mix solution so commonly comes down to pushing individual channels – or just bits of those channels – into cohesion with the acoustic contribution that’s already in the room with you. That is, I rarely need to create a bed for the vocals to sit in that I can carefully and subtly re-blend on a moment’s notice. No…what I usually need to do is work on the filling in of individual pieces of a mix in an individual way. One guitar might have its fader down just far enough that the contribution from the PA is inaudible (but not so far down that I can’t quickly push a solo over the top), while the other guitar is very much a part of the FOH mix at all times.

The bass might be another issue entirely.

Anyway, I don’t need to bus things together for that. There’s no point. What I need to do for each channel is so individualized that a subgroup is redundant. Just push ’em all through the main mix, one at a time, and there you go. I don’t have to babysit the overall guitar/ bass backline level – I probably have plenty already, and my main problem is getting the vocals over the whole thing anyway.

The same overall reasoning works if you’ve only got one vocal mic. There’s no reason to chew up a submix bus with one vocal channel – I mean, there’s nothing there to “group.” It’s one channel. However, there are some very good reasons to bus multiple vocal inputs into one signal line, especially if you’re working in a small venue. It’s a little embarrassing that it’s taken me so long to embrace this thinking, but hey…here we are NOW, so let’s go!

The Efficient Killing Of Feedback Monsters

I’m convinced that a big part of the small venue life is the running of vocal mics at relatively high “loop gain.” That is, by virtue of being physically nearby to the FOH PA (not to mention being in an enclosed and often reflective space) your vocal mics “hear” a lot more of themselves than they might otherwise. As such, you very quickly can find yourself in a situation where the vocal sound is getting “ringy,” “weird,” “squirrely,” or even into full-on sustained feedback.

A great way to fight back is a vocal group with a flexible EQ across the group signal.

As I said, I’ve resisted this for years. Part of the resistance came from not having a console that could readily insert an EQ across a group. (I can’t figure out why the manufacturer didn’t allow for it. It seems like an incredibly bizarre limitation to put on a digital mixer.) Another bit of my resistance came from not wanting to do the whole “hack up the house graph” routine. I’ve prided myself on having a workflow where the channel with the problem gets a surgical fix, and everything else is left untouched. I think it’s actually a pretty good mentality overall, but there’s a point where a guy finally recognizes that he’s sacrificing results on the altar of ideology.

Anwyay, the point is that a vocals-only subgroup with an EQ is a pretty good (if not really good) compromise. When you’ve got a bunch of open vocal mics on deck, the ringing in the resonant acoustical circuit that I like to call “real music in a real room” is often a composite problem. If all the mics are relatively close in overall gain, then hunting around for the one vocal channel that’s the biggest problem is just busywork. All of them together are the problem, so you may as well work on a fix that’s all of them together. Ultra-granular control over individual sources is a great thing, and I applaud it, but pulling 4 kHz (or whatever) down a couple of dB on five individual channels is a waste of time.

You might as well just put all those potential problem-children into one signal pipe, pull your offending frequency out of the whole shebang, and be done with the problem in a snap. (Yup, I’m preaching to myself with this one.)

The Efficient Addition Of FX Seasoning

Now, you don’t always want every single vocal channel to have the same amount of reverb, or delay, or whatever else you might end up using. I definitely get that.

But sometimes you do.

So, instead of setting multiple aux sends to the same level, why not just bus all the vocals together, set a pleasing wet/ dry mix level on the FX processor, and be done? Yes, there are a number of situations where you should NOT do this: If you need FX in FOH and monitor world, then you definitely need a separate, 100% “wet” FX channel. (Even better is having separate FX for monitor world, but that’s a whole other topic.) Also, if you can’t easily bypass the FX chain between songs, you’ll want to go the traditional route of “aux to FX to mutable return channel.”

Even so, if the fast and easy way will work appropriately, you might as well go the fast and easy way.

Compress To Impress

Yet another reason to bus a bunch of vocals together is to deal with the whole issue of “when one guy sings, it’s in the right place, but when they all do a chorus it’s overwhelming.” You can handle the issue manually, of course, but you can also use compression on the vocal group to free your attention for other things. Just set the compressor to hold the big, loud choruses down to a comfortable level, and you’ll be most of the way (if not all the way) there.

In my own case, I have a super-variable brickwall limiter on my full-range output, a limiter that I use as an overall “keep the PA at a sane level” control. A strategy that’s worked very well for me over the last while is to set that limiter’s threshold as low as I can possibly get away with…and then HAMMER the limiter with my vocal channels. The overall level of the PA stays in the smallest box possible, while vocal intelligibility remains pretty decent.

Even if you don’t have the processing flexibility that my mix rig does, you can still achieve essentially the same thing by using compression on your vocal group. Just be aware that setting the threshold too low can cause you to push into feedback territory as you “fight” the compressor. You have to find the happy medium between letting too little and too much level through.

Busing your vocals into a subgroup can be a very handy thing for live-audio humans to do. It’s surprising that it’s taken me so long to truly embrace it as a technique, but hey – we’re all learning as we go, right?