How to Mix Lots of Inputs Without Being Too Loud

If you're a church sound tech and your band has gotten really big, and there are a lot of elements on stage - how do you mix all of those together while keeping your levels reasonable?

How do you keep things from getting out of control?

In this article, we'll learn what makes a great musical arrangement, as well as techniques for controlling many inputs in your live mix at church. 

Mixing is an extension of the arrangement.

We're just trying to put the right things in the right place so everything plays its role in making music that sounds good. If things get out of control, it can turn into a soup sandwich - and nobody wants that.

Unless you like soup sandwiches. If you do, well... you might be the only person who does.

What makes a great arrangement?

There are typically five ingredients in every great arrangement, and not all of them happen simultaneously.

There's the foundation, the pad, the rhythm, the lead, and the fills.

No more than four of these elements should be happening at any time, and you can actually get a really big sound with just three of these elements. As you add more instruments to your arrangement, each one has to take up a smaller sonic space to fit into one of these categories.

The bass and drums provide the rhythmic and harmonic foundation for everything else in your mix.

The instrument that sustains for a long time and can kind of sit in the background but still fill things up is called the pad. This could be a guitar playing long whole notes, a Rhodes (piano), or an actual synth or string pad.

Rhythm elements, such as pianos and guitars, fill in between the downbeat and the backbeat, adding harmonic color.

The lead element in our worship services is typically the worship leader's vocal. Any other vocals singing along with them in a harmony part are still considered a lead as well.

However, it's important not to confuse the melody with the harmony. Make sure that the harmony is tucked back behind the lead so that everybody can sing along.

Finally, there are fills. Fills happen when the lead is not. We don't want to fill over the melody of the song. That's just going to get cluttered and draw too much attention elsewhere.

But when the lead vocal takes a break, and a short melodic thing happens in between, that's a good thing.

Find out what the Primary Instrument is.

As you learn to categorize and integrate each instrument on stage into the elements of your arrangement, you can start having a conversation with your worship leader about which instrument is the primary instrument in your mix.

When there's more than one rhythm instrument, you can pick one that dominates that space. Then you ask yourself, "If there were no other instruments, which one would accompany this song the best?"

When you have clarity on that, the other instruments can play a backseat role to that primary rhythm instrument.

Once you know the role the instruments play and which one gets priority, there's another tool that can really help lock your arrangement into place: Compression.


 Compression can help you control your different instruments; so that one doesn't jump out all of a sudden when somebody gets a little more excited or digs in a little bit harder on their instrument. It can also help tame the size of different instruments.

When you have a lot of different elements, each one has to take up a smaller amount of space. Compression can help kind of reduce the size (sonically) of that instrument. We can set up our compressor to make things sound bigger and fatter, or we can make them sound smaller and tighter

Tone and Timing

 Another element that helps you fit a lot of different instruments into a big mix without it getting too loud is differences in tone and timing. For instance, when you think of a country piano sound, it's usually bright and pretty tacky to fit in the dense mix of a bunch of different guitars.

You only need the brief transient of that piano note to jump out and say, "Oh, there are the piano notes."

It's playing its thing, and then it gets out of the way. This is in contrast to the sound of a big grand piano, which has a lot more sustain and harmonic richness that hangs on.

Though we'd love to get everything right at the source, sometimes we have to make those changes at the soundboard instead.

A lot of worship leaders are used to accompanying themselves with a softer, fuller, mellower piano sound. But in a big mix with a bunch of different instruments, you might have to tailor the piano to get a little bit brighter and tacky so it sticks out and gets those moments ready. This way, it's still part of the mix, still part of the arrangement, but it's not taking up all that sonic space.

Call-and-Response Rhythm 

One technique for creating space is to use a call-and-response rhythm - in which the acoustic guitar plays on the first two beats and the electric guitar plays on the last two beats.

Other times, some elements need to be there just enough to give a feel to the mix–where they're more conspicuous in their absence than in their presence.

In the loud sections of a big mix, the acoustic guitar usually fills this role for me, personally. I want it to be like a shaker with chords. I don't need it to be way out in front or on top of everything else.

But if it's totally gone, then we're missing some of that low-level movement that gives it a little bit more energy.

Ratcheting Up Your Mixes

 One problem that some people run into when they've got a lot of different elements on stage is what I call Ratcheting.

You push up an input until you can hear it.

Then you push up another input until you can hear it.

Let's say you got the piano, and you push up the guitar.

Then you push up your second guitar... and your third guitar.

And now your pads.

Suddenly, you can't hear the piano anymore, so you push up the piano. you can't hear the other guitar.

Guitar one goes up, and you keep going up and up until now; things are too loud.

It's all cluttered and it's a big mess.

This is what I call Ratcheting.

One way to avoid Ratcheting is to identify your primary instrument and then turn up the other things in your mix until you can hear them. Once you can clearly hear them, pull those instruments back down just a little bit. This way, your ear can identify them, and you can see how they're playing a supporting role in the mix with your other instruments. 

Pro tip: don't listen in solo mode.

Another tip is to not listen to inputs in solo mode.

I understand that it's helpful to hear something first through the headphones before pushing the fader up. This way, you can identify the sound and avoid accidentally pushing up the click track or guide track without realizing it. Doing so can be a bit embarrassing.

But when you listen to things in solo mode or in headphones, you can make that sound really nice and big - but not in context to everything else.

Remember, the more inputs we have, the smaller they have to sound.

Not using solo mode helps you to listen to what something sounds like in the context of everything else. 

After all, we are mixing the whole band - not just one instrument or group of instruments.


DCAs, or digitally controlled amplifiers, are another useful tool on the console. They are remote controls for your faders or a group of faders, so you can bring everything down just a little bit or everything up to help it fit in its place in the arrangement.

After basic mixing, I leave level changes for DCAs. This helps me feel where they fit in the mix.

You can assign instruments to individual groups, the entire band, or all the instruments.

Maybe you have drums, bass, and all the rest of the instruments grouped together with guitars and keyboards.

You can dual assign different channels to different DCAs, and your channel's fader level will be a combination of all the different DCA settings that you have assigned to that channel.

One thing I find myself doing is putting a lot of input channel compression, which actually removes more dynamic range than I need for the overall mix.

Sometimes I will actually pull down the DCAs for the instruments when the drums and the bass drop out so that it actually comes down, and we get a more gentle moment in that live environment. Then when things ramp back up and the drums and bass come in, I can push up those DCA faders for my guitars and keyboards.

Don't pull down the master fader!

One thing I don't recommend doing when things get too loud is pulling back the level of the master fader.

This is why I love DCAs. When you pull down the master fader, you're getting a lower level of everything at the same level. So your drums and bass are coming down at the same level as the guitars and keyboards.

Well, it seems like that might be a good solution. It's only a great solution on paper because our ears perceive different frequencies at different levels. As we pull the overall level back, our ears will perceive fewer low frequencies than middle and high frequencies.

Even though all the level relationships are the same, our perception of the low frequencies get changed. That's why I like to have my drums and my bass on a separate DCA, and I can pull down just the instruments by themselves. If things are too loud, I might also need to pull down the level of the drums and the bass, but I'm going to do that carefully so I don't lose all the energy.

Using Compression on Groups

If your sound volunteers at church can handle a little bit more complexity, you could consider using groups and compression on those groups. This helps to tame the levels that might get out of balance and keep things from getting too big, too fast.

When you group different types of inputs together and put a compressor on that group, pushing up one individual channel will lower the compression on just that group and not everything else.

This can be a safety net of sorts. This way, nothing suddenly gets way too loud. It can also be a different way to have some more creative control over the tonality of your overall mix.

You can use a combination of DCAs and the group output faders to change the level of compression or the amount of compression you're getting on all of these groups while keeping the overall levels the same.

To do this, you can assign a DCA to all of your input channels and another DCA to all of your output channels or all of your groups. By pushing up the input channels and pulling down the output channels, you're essentially lowering the threshold, achieving more compression, and achieving more in-your-face sound.

As you lower the input channels and raise the output level, you're essentially raising the threshold on your compressors. So now you're getting less compression, things can move a little bit more, and it's less tight but a little bit more dynamic internally. All of this can happen without changing the overall level.

Confused About Compression?

If you're new to compression and don't understand what all of it does, and you want to dive deeper and take your mixing skills to the next level, I'd highly encourage you to check out Attaway Audio Academy and the Mixing Foundations course. The lessons there will walk you through all the different steps for building a mix from the ground up from gain structure and balance EQ and compression and adding effects to your mix to make things feel awesome.

When you hear your mixes improve because you understand the tools better and you know how to put them into practice, you'll really thank yourself for making that investment. You can find more information about Attaway Audio Academy by clicking here.

I pray this article blessed you. I made a video demonstrating the different topics discussed in this article on my YouTube channel. The link to the video is at the bottom of this blog.

As always, remember; it's all about the low end, avoid the sound tech solo, and nobody leaves church humming the kick drum.

Stay sharp out there, Sound Ninjas.


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