Now that we’re forced into our homes, making music alone has become even more felt. However, not many of us are quite versed when it comes to mixing, and with all the information on the Internet, it can get overwhelming to find the best resource to learn from. Joining the show to share some EQ and audio mixing techniques that will have us on par with the pros is concert sound engineer Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato. Here, Michelle breaks down the misconceptions towards EQ and audio mixing and then shares simple and cost-efficient ways to do them, such as her three-step process called The HIT Production Process. Furthermore, finding the lack of women working in sound, Michelle co-founded SoundGirls.org to provide space for women working in professional audio where they can come for support, advice, empowerment, and inspiration. She takes us deep into the amazing things she is doing there and more to help elevate women in the industry.
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Audio Mixing Techniques For That Professional Feel With Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato
I am excited to be here with Michelle Pettinato. We are going to talk about mixing an EQ. I love this subject because when I was learning how to record from home, I was super frustrated with learning how to mix correctly, learning how to EQ. I’m excited to what I can learn from Michelle. I know that you are going to learn a ton. Before we get into that, I would love to know, Michelle, some of your background, how you got started working in the sound area and how you started working specifically teaching people how to do EQ.
First, thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here. I’ve been a professional sound engineer for many years. A few of the artists I’ve worked for are Gwen Stefani, Adam Lambert, Goo Goo Dolls, Melissa Etheridge, Styx, Jewel, Indigo Girls, Kesha, Thievery Corporation and Elvis Costello right up until COVID. We were in the UK on tour in March 2020 when COVID hit and the industry shutdown. I started working in live sound in the late 1980s. At the time there were very few women in the field. My first tour was in 1992 with the band, Spin Doctors, if you can remember them.
It was before they broke. I got hired and the timing was perfect. A month after I started working for them, their album hit the Billboard Top 100 and it kept climbing. It was a great experience to be part of that. That was the start of my professional touring career as a concert sound engineer. I never looked back. It’s been the best job in the world. For the most of the past many years, I’ve I spent an average of 250 to 280 days a year on tour traveling the world, mixing great music. It doesn’t get any better than that.
That’s an insane schedule though. Did you feel like super road weary?
Yes. I have had times where after a tour, I’m like, “I know I’m burnt out. I need a couple of months off to recharge and give my ears a rest.” For the most part, it’s not 280 days straight. There’ll be breaks in between and that seems to work well. There’s been a couple of years though where there was a point where for five years I was working hard and solid for most of that time. By the end of that, I had to take a couple of months off. I was gone. In 2012, I co-founded an organization, SoundGirls.org, which was to empower and inspire the next generation of women in audio.When you add too much compression to a mix, you squash the life out of it and end up with a dull, boring, and flat sounding mix. Click To Tweet
I’m glad you’re going to talk about that. I love Sound Girls. When I first heard about it, I thought it was amazing. It aligns so much with a lot of things that I do. The whole idea of there aren’t a lot of women working in sound.
It’s always been a male-dominated industry. For me, that’s never been an issue. I love working with men and women. I’ve been on both sides where I’ve been the only female on the tour. I’ve been on tours where we had more women than men. I had a positive experience throughout my career, but I know women who’ve had very opposite experiences. It all came about purely by coincidence. I had been looking for a way to show young women that you don’t have to be a guy to do this. That you don’t have to be a guy to be an audio engineer or work in music production. Anyone can do it.
In 2012, myself and four other female sound engineers were on a panel at the Audio Engineering Society. All of us had more than twenty years’ experience at this point. We’re at the top of our field. Yet only two of us had known each other, myself and Karrie Keyes, who is the monitor engineer for Pearl Jam. She’s also the co-founder of Sound Girls. Karrie and I had started out at the same time in the late ‘80s. We’d both known of each other throughout our whole careers because it was like, “Do you know the other woman doing live sound?”
In twenty-plus years, we had never crossed paths, which is crazy because it’s such a small industry. This panel was all of women in live sound. When we all met, we were all at the top of our field. We have Jeri Palumbo, who is a broadcasting engineer, does the Superbowl, NASCAR and NFL, Claudia Englehart who works with jazz great, Bill Frisell, has been with him for 30 years. We’re like, “How is it that none of us know each other? How could we not have met or even heard of each other before this?” We had such a great experience. We bonded through that.
Shortly afterwards, Karrie reached out and brought up the fact that how would our careers have been different if we had each other as a support group from when we started, through our entire careers. There are things that women have to deal with in life and in touring that men don’t. To have another woman who understands what you’re going through and what you’re dealing with, how much easier would it have been? That where her and I started talking and that’s where Sound Girls was born.
How many women are in that organization now?
It’s around 6,000. It’s worldwide. We started out because our experiences in live sound, but it’s blossomed to mastering, recording engineering, musicians, songwriters. It’s open to anyone. The membership is free. There are even men who are supportive of women in the industry who belong. It’s such a great organization because there are many fantastic resources available. There are always scholarships for people who are trying to get education and learn, whether it’s audio, songwriting, music, production. It’s grown beyond anything we had ever imagined. It’s fantastic.
Once you started that, are you still doing live sound?
Yes. I was on tour with Melissa Etheridge around that time. It was crazy. When we started, it was Karrie and I doing everything. We built a website. Getting people to blog for us. What we did originally was, and we still do, every month we wanted to feature a woman sound engineer. It’s bringing the face of women who do this to young women because it’s that thinking of you can’t be what you can’t see. When young women go to concerts or all they see are men doing this, they think, “I can’t do that. That’s not for me.” We wanted to highlight some of the careers of some incredibly successful women like Leslie and Jones from Skywalker sound for one.
People like that, who’ve been under the radar and not given the proper due and respect, as their male counterparts have. Every month we would feature an in-depth profile on another woman in audio or music production and focusing specifically on their story, how they got to where they are, what lessons they’ve learned and what advice they can give. Everyone has a different path into this industry. There’s so much to learn. There is no one way to make it. Whether you’re a musician or a tech, to get on tour, to get a hit record, to build a following, everybody’s got to find their way. In doing these profiles, we pull a lot of specific questions. What are the lessons that you’ve learned? What were the biggest hurdles that you faced and how did you meet them? These young women who are getting started can pull all of that knowledge and experience to make fewer mistakes and get a little bit of a break, make it a little easier for them.
I love that they’re getting to see others that are doing this. At one point when I was younger, I think I might go into sound field. At the same time, I was an artist. Everywhere I went, it was always males working in sound. I put it out of my mind, like, “Girls don’t do this.”
With that, we did the profiles. We also had women blogging from all different areas of the industry. Those two things alone is a huge resource plus there’s a private Facebook group where people can post anything from, “I’m moving to LA. I’m looking for a place to stay,” and for job postings or, “I’ve got this problem with this piece of gears, anybody know how to fix it?” It’s such an incredible resource and it’s free, which is the best thing.
As far as your career after that, you continue to do live sound. When did you get into teaching this stuff to other people?
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of mentoring and speaking to students at full sail and other universities and conferences. Through Sound Girls, from meeting so many aspiring sound engineers, musicians and producers, I started to hear a lot of the same questions, “There’s so much to learn. What do I need to know? Where do you start and how do you even get started?” I also saw a lot of the same problems. People were struggling to create great-sounding mixes because they lacked some of the basic principles. That led me to creating and launching MixingMusicLive.com in 2019. It’s a place for me to pass on the knowledge and experience that I’ve gained over the past many years of working in audio.
It’s so easy to be self-taught these days. When I started out, you either had to be lucky enough to find someone who would take you under their wing and teach you what they knew or go to a school. There were very few schools at the time. I went to Full Sail in the ‘80s. Before I went to Full Sail, I also went to a place called the Recording Workshop. Aside from those two, there was Berkeley, Musicians Institute, and maybe like one other place that was well known. Now almost any school has some audio or music production program. You have many resources available to learn on your right now.
The thing is, you have to be careful who you’re learning from. Anybody can put a video on YouTube and say, “I’m going to teach you how to do this,” but what’s their background? What exactly do they know and have they done? There’s a lot of misinformation out there. That’s where Mixing Music Live came from. A friend of mine had been prodding me for years. He‘s like, “You should teach audio. You should teach live sound.” Especially to the local people here, because nobody knows what they’re doing. I’m like, “I can’t do that when I’m not home.” I started to see a lot of the same mistakes being made because people we’re learning on Googling, “How do I do this? How do I learn this?”
They weren’t getting the right information. I started to look at it. There’s a lot of information out there for free. Some of it is very good and some of it is very wrong. Some of it is very incomplete. That led me to create my first course, which was Mixing Music Live, which is an intro to live sound and mixing. I launched that in 2019 in the summer. It’s been a great experience, not necessarily virtually meeting, virtually meeting the people, the students who have taken the course and seeing them progress from different people who had been in audio for maybe ten years, but didn’t know the basics to people who are starting out and didn’t know where to start.
Watching them go through it and hearing their stories afterwards, like, “I got my first gig,” and getting emails from them about how great it went because they know more now. They know what they need to know when before they were fumbling around. That led me to creating a new course. When COVID shut the industry down in March 2020, I decided to release a second course, which teaches musicians how to create great-sounding mixes with nothing more than simple EQ techniques. That came about from listening to my musician friends struggling with trying to create professional mixes of their songs. A lot of them think that they need to spend a ton of money on expensive gear and boatloads of plugins to enhance their mix when all they need is a little EQ. A lot of musicians think EQ is this mysterious and complicated thing and that only sound engineers and producers know how to use it. A lot of them are also tired of paying someone else to mix their songs and fix their mixes. Some musicians don’t even have the budget for that. They’re putting out a lower quality product because they are lacking a few simple techniques and skills.There's so much competition for people's listening attention. Click To Tweet
Not only that, but some of them are going to a studio or somebody that is saying, “Yes, I know how to record. I know how to mix.” What they’re coming out with is not anything better than what they do at home because I’ve had people submitting music to me for Women of Substance. I write back to them and I say like, “This isn’t quite up to our production standards.” They’re like, “I went to a studio. I had an engineer mixed this.” I’m like, “You were charged for something that was not good enough quality.”
The musicians who don’t have the budget to hire a real professional engineer, they’ll find somebody, “I’ll mix your song for $50.” It’s likely that the person mixing it for $50 isn’t going to do any better of a job than you could have done it on your own. It’s a bummer because musicians when you’re starting out and you’re an indie musician and you’re struggling to build a following, every dollar count unless you’re lucky enough to have an unlimited budget, but a lot of people don’t. I see so many people wasting money on expensive gear and things that they don’t need because they lack the techniques and the skills. Even in live sound like I’ve seen young sound engineers buying every plugin available and not using anything on the actual consoles.
I mixed with nothing more than what’s on the console. I don’t use plugins. I use my sound console and that’s it. The right microphone and proper gain structure in EQ and that’s all you need. Through all that, I remember when I first started out doing audio that even with a good education, putting theory into practice is a whole different thing. When I first started mixing, I knew what EQ was, but I didn’t know how to use it. I didn’t know how I was supposed to EQ instruments and what things were supposed to sound like. I was lucky enough that I had a few good teachers, but it still took a lot of trial and error.
What I realized is that EQ is easy. For the most part, it’s a simple booster cut. It’s not that complicated, but the hard part is knowing what things are supposed to sound like and knowing the frequencies. That’s where most people struggle. I came up with a three-step process that breaks it down into three simple steps. It’s called the HIT production process, which stands for Hear, Identify and Tweak. With that process, you first learn how to hear the way a producer or engineer hears. You learn how to identify frequencies. Finally, you learn how to tweak those frequencies with EQ to get the results you want. This pulls it all together to make EQ makes sense for people. They realize it’s not this big technical thing. It’s listening.
I realized how powerful EQ is because I got a pair of AirPods and they have that transparency mode. I was listening to the difference between that and the regular mode. I‘m like, “All they’re doing is cutting some frequencies so that you can hear people talking while you’re listening.” It’s like, “That’s pretty much what they’re doing.” I’m like, “It’s amazing what you can do by cutting frequencies and raising frequencies.”
That’s a huge thing for a lot of musicians and even sound engineers. One thing they struggle with is how do I get clarity between all of the different instruments? My mix is mud and you can’t hear the definition. It’s simply with EQ. You carve out notches and specific instruments for space to open up for other instruments to shine through. That’s simple EQ techniques.
If you do EQ right, the next step of mixing, is there anything to do? What do you do after EQ?
It starts with the right mic choice and mic placement and then getting proper signal level. After signal, once you’ve got good signal level, you want to EQ. It’s balancing of your actual input levels. All of the different instruments and vocals, it’s creating the balance, but EQ is part of that. When you find that, “My guitar, my keyboard and my vocal are all competing for the same frequency space. I’ll use a little EQ to notch out a frequency on the keyboard to let the guitar come through. I’ll notch out a frequency on that guitar to let the vocal come through.” That’s all part of the balancing of those sounds. Technically, that’s all you need. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to use tons and tons of compression when mixing.
I had somebody asked me, “I need to know how to set up the compressor for each channel.” I’m like, “You should never be compressing each channel.” Compression is the icing on the cake. It comes afterwards. Originally, compression can be used creatively and constructively. Mainly what we use compression for is to control the dynamics of the signal. If you’ve got a singer who sings quietly and then goes into wailing and there’s a huge dynamic range difference, you want to compress that a little bit so it doesn’t end up clipping or distorting. Some instruments, you might have a keyboard player in between patches, they’re wildly different levels. A compressor is used to control that, but when you add too much compression to a mix, you end up squashing the life out of it. You end up with a dull, boring, flat sounding mix. At the end, a little compression overall over the entire mix can help, but it’s not necessary.
Let me ask this question. Compression also happens during mastering. Do you need to do any compression during mixing if you’re going to master?
Other than some individual inputs, to get more of a balanced signal. If I would leave it at your overall mix, I would leave for the mastering. Once you do it on the overall mix and you send it to a master, they can’t remove it.
Making these distinctions is helpful for people. At least I know in my audience, who have a lot of questions, they don’t even quite understand what mastering is and how it’s different from mixing. I have a question. This is why EQ seemed lofty to me. When I would perform with this group back in the day, some of the people in our group would do the sound. They would set everything up and they’d be like, “We need to EQ the room,” and they would do this like thing. It would EQ the room. It was almost like they did this magic thing. All of a sudden, now it’s going to sound better because we EQ-ed the room. How is it different EQ-ing live versus EQ-ing when you’re recording?
The EQ works the same both in the studio and in live, but there are some minor differences. I do explain all this in the course. One of the lessons of the proper way to EQ is that you want to EQ your individual inputs first and then EQ your entire mix. You might not need to even add any EQ to the entire mix, but you want to make sure you in EQ all the individual instruments and vocals until they sound the best. They sound the way you want them to sound before you apply any overall EQ. In live sound, you still follow that, except the first thing you want to do before you EQ anything is EQ the room, which is EQ-ing the PA to work with the acoustics of the room.
That is done by inserting a special EQ over the sound systems. We call it ringing out the PA. Any frequencies that are inherent in the PA, maybe it’s a bit honky sounding. You want to smooth that out, or maybe there’s frequencies rolling around in the room, like low mid or something. You hear those frequencies building up, you get rid of that with the EQ that you use on the PA. You will start with EQ–ing your individual inputs, and then finally your overall mix if you need to do anything. The thing with EQ-ing the PA is if you were painting a picture and you start it with a tattered, dirty canvas, you might paint a beautiful picture, but it’s still going to be tattered and dirty. Whereas if you start with a beautiful, clean canvas, you’re going to have a much prettier picture. That’s what EQ-ing the PA is doing. It’s giving you that beautiful, clean canvas to start with.
That analogy makes so much sense to me. Thank you for that. This is a question I’ve had for many years. It’s good you answered this question for me. The fact that you have knowledge of live sound and doing it recording–wise. I know that with COVID and everything, people have been doing so much recording at home. Let’s talk about why is it important that they have a good mix. Even if they’re going to release it to their fans or they’re going to send it as a demo or something like that, or try to get a sync placement, why is a good mix that includes correct EQ-ing important?
That’s important. I don’t think a lot of people realize there is so much competition out there. Even if you’re a singer–songwriter recording demos that you’re trying to pitch, the people that are getting your demos, they’re not getting yours, they’re getting demos from thousands of people. The people who are getting your songs for sync placement, they’re getting thousands a day. The reality is when they start to listen to it, if it doesn’t sound great in the first couple seconds, it’s going in the trash. They don’t have time to listen to all that. You got to get them right from the start. If the mix is muddy or clouded, or not good, they want almost a finished product when they’re getting it.
Even if you’re releasing music online to your fans or to Spotify or SoundCloud, there’s so much competition for people’s attention. People are being bombarded constantly with, “Watch this,” “Listen to this.” If you’re scrolling through Spotify and you start to listen to a song, if it doesn’t sound good, it could still be the greatest song in the world. If it sounds bad, you’re going to either maybe listen to it once and move on and forget about it, or you’re not even going to finish listening to it. The whole thing is it’s the whole package. It’s the great song and a great professional sounding mix that makes people have a much more pleasurable listening experience. They come back and they want more. They tell people about it, like, “You got to listen to this track.” It’s all part of the picture.
I know for me as a reviewer, first of all, it’s the first impression thing and it makes me already judge the song. I hate to say this because I’m a musician. I hate to tell you that this happens. After so many years, it automatically happens that you make a judgment within the first twenty seconds. It distracts me from being able to listen to the good parts. It distracts me from listening to the lyrics or the singer. All I can think of is, “I’m hearing pops in their microphone. I’m hearing weird like muddy bass or the drums are like too tinny.” It’s distracting me from hearing the rest of the song.Take feedback constructively and think about how you can invest in improving; otherwise, you're going to keep getting the same result. Click To Tweet
The people who you’re giving this music to, their ears are so trained and all of that stuff jumps out. It’s hard to get past it even the general audience. I’ve known a few artists that are well-known. They’ve been around for a few years. They’ve been releasing music on their own from their home studio. There’s one artist in particular. I love her. I love her music, but I cannot listen to her records because there is so much distortion on them.
First record, I thought, “Maybe they were doing it as an effect to enhance how powerful of a singer she is.” The second record came out, whoever is recording this, doesn’t understand that they’re overloading the mic preamp. It’s distortion. It’s not real loud, but it’s there. It drives me crazy. It bums me out because I love this artist, but I can’t listen to her music. Even if the general audience can’t tell that it’s distortion there, they know there’s something in it that’s bugging them and that doesn’t make it a pleasurable experience for them. It’s the whole package. It’s that first impression. First impression is if it doesn’t sound great, then the audience is going to think, “This isn’t a good band. This is some maybe local level band or whatever. They’re not professional.”
For me, as a musician, we were talking earlier about how I was squishing my mixes and making it so compressed and not having very much dynamic ability within each instrument. I remember I submitted something to a radio station. They wrote back and they’re like, “I like this song, but it’s not up to our quality.” They gave me some other examples of people I could listen to like, “This is the type of thing we accept.” I was super bummed. I know musicians get these kinds of things all the time. It can be upsetting and you can like automatically be like, “They don’t understand. Why are they so picky?”
I went and I listened back to the other musicians that they did accept. I’m like, “I do hear the difference.” I do realize that I have to invest more in myself if I do want these songs to be placed and heard. I encourage all of you guys, when you get that kinds of feedback, don’t be super reactive to it. Try to take it constructively and think about how you can invest to improve. Otherwise, you’re going to keep getting the same result if you keep creating the same mix.
It’s important to be objective about feedback. Sometimes people are rude. A lot of times people are trying to help you. Sometimes there’s no way to do that without hurting your feelings. When it’s something that you’ve created, your ego is involved. It’s very hard to separate that and be objective. When someone’s saying, “This is what you could do to improve it.” Don’t take that as an insult. Take it as a great advice and listen.
Is there anything we didn’t cover that you think is important for musicians to know about mixing an EQ?
Even if a musician doesn’t want to do their mixing, knowing frequencies in EQ is important and useful for good communication. If you’re in a session with a producer and an engineer, you want to be able to speak the same language. If the producer saying, “Your guitar sounds a little heavy in 630,” you want to know what that means rather than be like, “What does that mean?” If you’re playing live gigs, I’m sure a lot of your readers, if they’re gigging musicians, many of them may have gotten into a situation to do a solo acoustic gig. They walk into a bar and the bartender said, “Here’s the mixer. We don’t have anybody to run this. It’s on you.” You’re like, “Great. I have to play and mix my own sound.” You could be sitting there, dealing with feedback all night. Knowing frequencies and knowing how to EQ is how you get rid of that and how you have a great sounding show.
It’s a good point about feedback. That’s one of the super huge frustrations that I remember having is having to run our own sound and not knowing how to get rid of that. It’s embarrassing when it happens. People leave the room.
If you’re the sound engineer, all eyes are on you. You might be invisible for the whole show, but the minute something feedback, everybody knows where you are. If you’re a band mixing sound from the stage, it interrupts your performance. You can’t stop to fix it. You can stop if you know exactly where to find it and what to do, but if you don’t, you’re scrambling. This is another funny story about how this course came about. I went to see a friend’s band. They were playing at a local pub. They were doing sound for themselves from the stage and having problems all through the first set. The vocals were muddy. You couldn’t understand them. They were feeding back.
After their first set, they took a break. I said, “Dave, why don’t you do this, this and this?” He looked at me like, “I have no idea what any of that means.” I was like, “Take out some 2.5k and add a little this and do this.” I’m like, “What are you doing?” He’s like, “I’m turning knobs until I find something that works.” That’s when I was like, “There’s maybe a need for this.” It’s not as hard as people think it is. Once they learn these simple techniques, it makes their lives so much better. It makes their show sound better. It makes their mixes sound better, their songs.
Especially if you’re an indie musician recording your stuff in your home studio, how great is it to feel when you can keep everything in house, when you don’t have to hire someone to mix your songs? I know how to get exactly what I want from this track and how much money does that save you when you realize that you don’t have to go out and spend thousands of dollars on plugins and gear. You need to learn how to EQ. It saves you tons of time and money.
I know all the times that I was trying to understand EQ and messing with it, like, “What happens when I change this frequency?” It‘s like, “I still never got it.” The amount of time that could be saved is valuable because time is money for all of us. I’ve loved geeking out with you about all of this sound stuff and I’ve learned a bunch. I know our audience has. Where can our audience find out more about you, things that you teach in Sound Girls and all that stuff?
They can find out more about me at MixingMusicLive.com. I have a free guide to the five biggest mistakes you’re making with the EQ that they can download and get a little quick overview of what they could be doing to improve their mixes. Also, SoundGirls.org.
Thank you so much, Michelle. I appreciate you spending time and giving us all of this knowledge.
Thanks for having me, Bree.
About Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato
Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato has had an incredibly successful career as a concert sound engineer for some of the biggest names in music including Gwen Stefani, Elvis Costello, Janet Jackson, Adam Lambert, Melissa Etheridge, Goo Goo Dolls, Kesha, Jewel, Styx, Mr Big, Indigo Girls, and many more.
She is a Full Sail University Hall of Famer and Co-Founder of soundgirls.org. Michelle is also the Creator of the online program LISTEN! Master the EQ Techniques of the Pros to Create Brilliant Mixes.