Last month I wrote about my transition from the world of concert sound to the very different world of theatre sound, specifically getting my first gig as A2 on the Vegas production of Mamma Mia! I've learned a lot in the last year and would like to spend my time this month sharing some of my observations about the differences between the two worlds.
Learning the mix for a concert touring artist is not much more than being given a copy of his or her CD and trying to emulate that sound in a live situation. It is up to you to interpret sound effects and build the mix.
Mixing musical theatre involves a truly different approach. This is a continuous hands on, brain on job. You cannot let yourself get distracted during the performance, because you are constantly involved in the mix. While chasing dialogue and continually moving the band to a different dynamic level and maintaining the integrity of their mix, you are always doing something that is necessary for a quality performance that meets the standards set forth by the designer. Take this ride, mix these vocals, push the band, take a cue, mix these vocals, pull the band, take a cue, chase this dialogue, take a cue, push the band and mix these vocals, and that is just the first scene. This continues throughout the entire performance. Thank God we get a break at intermission.
WORDS GET IN THE WAY
Immediately it became apparent that in musical theatre it is not all about the music; there is a storyline to follow, or the book, which requires the actors to tell it. This introduced me to another type of mixing: chasing and mixing dialogue. Doing this properly has proven to be my toughest adjustment.
In a concert situation, you are dealing with close miking on performers who are generally speaking up and sometimes even yelling so they feel the entire audience can hear their every word over the constant screaming and cheering from the crowd. As an engineer you simply keep the dialogue clear and strong. For the most part, it is not that tough considering the close miking combined with the quality and power of large format sound systems today. You are also only dealing with a few choice words to introduce the next song. Turning up a handful of mikes simultaneously for interaction between the band members is common and generally not problematic.
In musical theatre, mixing dialogue is a prominent and technique-savvy part of the theatrical performance. In most cases, you are dealing with mikes that are well hidden (in the hairline) so you do not reap the benefits of close miking. You must also consider they are omni-directional mikes and pick up everything, including other actors' voices, reflections off the scenery, room ambience, audience noise, and the list goes on. And then you have the audible phasing problem when two of these omni mikes get close, which happens constantly as the actors interact. These are generally not considerations while mixing in the concert world, but they must be properly addressed in theatre.
Compensating for mike interaction and combating the always-present potential for feedback, you have to use a different technique to mix dialogue. At any one time there can be one, two, or a dozen actors on stage engaged in a conversation. During these segments you follow the script word for word (by the way, you need to memorize this ASAP) and do everything in your power to only have one mike on at a time. Now think about it, actors having a conversation that contains lines ranging from one word to entire paragraphs and you want to catch every word but only have one mike on at a time. When two or more actors are in close proximity, you must nail the cross fade between the actors' mikes or you will get nasty phasing. Mixing musical theatre keeps you on your toes. You must be attentive and a part of what is happening on stage, not just someone pushing faders.
Dialogue is also required to sound natural and not amplified. This was a tough adjustment for me. When you mix dialogue properly, the audience will have a hard time discerning that there are mikes on stage hence, the natural sound. Landing the faders at the proper position for each line to keep the dialogue smooth and even can be very tricky. You not only need to know the script forward and back, but you need to know the method of delivery offered by the actors. When an actor emphasizes a portion of the line, you must be prepared to duck the extra gain at the proper moment. On the other hand, you must be prepared to boost the softer portions.
Concert engineers will be asking, why not let the compressor take care of it? Generally, you do not use compressors on the vocals in theatre. With the extra gain required for hidden, miniature microphones in the hairline, use of a compressor is not reasonable because it will cause more problems than it corrects. As a concert engineer, I relied on the assistance of compressors to hold things together and keep the mix in line, but gain before feedback was not a major concern. With only a few exceptions, musical theatre vocal compression is done manually. From the handful of engineers I've had the honor to meet since my introduction into this world, one statement seems to be common, “I have 10 compressors I use right here,” they say while holding up both hands and wiggling their fingers.
Working as a concert engineer the overall level of your show may vary 10db more or less between the rocking songs and the ballads. Most times it is less, maybe closer to a 5db differential. And in metal/rock, there may be none at all. Just throw the faders up and let the system compressor squeeze it into submission. I may be exaggerating a little but the point is the overall dynamic level does not stretch very wide, especially when you compare it to musical theatre where you are working with a 30-40db range. With all that headroom, it is up to the engineer to completely and concisely control the dynamics of the show.
As you get to the musical numbers, dynamics vary drastically. There are times when the mix is so low you can almost hear the audience breathing. Any out of place noises can be very distracting when your show level is in the basement. And hold on to your hat if an inconsiderate patron's cell phone rings. Now from this basement level you slowly build the band from an underscore to accompaniment, and you continue to build throughout the scene providing energy assuring the proper impact to the audience. As the scene unfolds, you continue to build to the climax and at times you are required to take it to the + side of 0db.
To better describe this let us consider in a perfect world the dialogue is always constant and the vocal mix progresses with the band mix. Therefore, I will use the bandmaster voltage controlled amplifiers (VCAs) to deliver my point on dynamic range. At the softest point, I'll call it extreme underscore, the band master VCAs are down around -25 and at the loudest point, maybe the last note in the finale the band master VCAs may be slammed to the top at +10. Now that is a 35db range at the console and considering the band is also playing with dynamics this number can raise to 40db+.
POLITICS AND ACCOUNTABILITY
There are some significant differences I have noticed in the way things are accomplished in musical theatre. As a concert engineer, I had been designing my own sound systems, interpreting and creating my own mix, and making the final decisions on the sound. The chain of command was fairly simple to follow.
The top of the food chain is shared between the artist and the artist's management. Obviously, they make all the career decisions. Next come the tour manager and production manager who have the responsibility of getting the show down the road. Then we have the production engineers, technicians, carpenters, and stage manager. Each person is held accountable for his or her part of the production. If there are any modifications needed or concerns about how the show sounds or looks, the powers that be come directly to the engineers or technicians. They discuss the situation and make the necessary changes.
In musical theatre, there is a chain of command that must be adhered to and is very different from my past. Of course at the top you have the producers, writers, management, etc. I am not going into their specific duties because I would be doing a lot of speculating. I can say that this group has total control over the entire production, and you want to keep them happy. I will, however, go into the creative/production teams' responsibilities because they deal directly with the show. The production teams include the sound designer, lighting designer, set designer, costume designer, hair designer, music supervisor, choreographer, casting director, and the production supervisor. You also have to work into the equation all the associates that work side-by-side with the designers and directors. These production teams design, arrange and create what you see and hear on the stage. After the show is up and running, they move on to other projects and only return periodically to update and freshen up their piece of the puzzle.
Now let's discuss the staff that works the show on a daily basis. First, you have the production stage manager who oversees all aspects of the show and keeps them within the parameters set forth by the designers. When issues that affect the production come up it is the PSM's responsibility to make the immediate and final decision in lieu of the designers and directors to keep the show going. Next, you have the audio, lighting, stage, wardrobe, and hair departments. These departments work hard to keep their part of the show as close as possible to the designer's original concept.
Within our department we have the A1, head of audio, A2, and A3. The A1 supervises the department and is the political liaison to the PSM and other departments. In the A1's absence this duty falls on the shoulders of the A2. It is the responsibility of our department to maintain the integrity of the show in relation to sound as it was originally designed. We do not have the authority to make modifications to the show design. However, we do have the power to mix, and we do what we must to keep it dialed in but only to return it to the designer's specifications.
Designers have put years into honing their skills and climbing the political ladder. They absolutely deserve our respect. For future reference you need to heed this rule, Rule 1: The designer is always right. When you think the designer is wrong refer back to Rule 1. This can save you a lot of headaches and even prolong your career.
Every designer has his or her own thought process while creating a show. If you implicitly support your designer and their design, you will receive respect and support from them when issues that directly affect you arise, such as internal politics. Having a designer you share a mutual respect with provides you a political backer. You gain the ability to say, “I cannot modify that because it was not in the design, but if you like I will bring it up to the designer.” With that statement the conversation usually stops right there and the subject is dropped, because it really was not that important in the first place. This is just one example of the tools outside of the obvious creative and technical skills of the designer you have the benefit of using. These are not available in the concert world. As a concert engineer you deal with everyone's opinion on how the mix should sound. Having designers to defer to gives you the freedom to step back and let them fight it out at a higher level.
Taking into consideration this is a magazine and not a novel, I have merely brushed on these subjects. However with any luck you can see the techniques for mixing musical theatre are a bit different than concerts in arenas. It is performed with precision by highly skilled theatrical mix engineers' every day in theatres around the world and I am proud to now be a part of this relatively small and elite organization. If you are considering making the move like I did, I wish you the best. Concert engineers must make adjustments, some to the extreme, but with an open mind you can do it, and I am proof.
Keith Shuford can be found on the Web at www.AdvanceEntertainment.com.