To begin I must send props to the engineers around the world that are now or in the past have been involved with mixing Broadway/musical theatre. You are truly a different breed. If you are a mix engineer of the concert genre, as I have been for many years — mixing recording artists on tour in arenas, sheds, and stadiums or working the bars and nightclubs with up-and-coming artists — you would be surprised to find how different things are on the other side of audio, that is engineering musical theatre. Coming from the concert side of the tracks myself, I never considered the differences in our worlds. It never even crossed my mind. But there are many more differences than most of us might imagine, and now that I've been introduced full bore to the theatrical techniques of mixing, I have to say, these guys are good.
GETTING TO THE DOOR
For more than two decades I have been working in the professional live music industry as an audio engineer, production manager, and tour manager. At times I had to perform some of these duties simultaneously — I even drove the bus. Involved with mixing music ranging from jazz, R&B, pop, rock, classical, and — my longest endeavor — country, I have a fairly diverse background. Working both ends of the audio snake, I have been both FOH engineer and a monitor engineer mixing in many different types of venues. I have engineered nightclubs for 600 people, festivals for 60,000 or more, and on various occasions in the near field for live broadcast and studio. My personal favorite is mixing FOH for a large, roaring crowd of fans but all preferences aside I love to mix, period. If it involves a fader, I'll gladly push it.
For the past 15 years, I focused mainly on touring in country music. I mixed for artists like Lorrie Morgan, Aaron Tippin, Ricochet, and Tracy Lawrence and toured with artists such as Clint Black, Hank Williams Jr., Brooks and Dunn, Reba McEntire, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, and Martina McBride. Until recently, the closest thing I had done to working a theatrical show was in…Bran…uh, uhhm…I can't say it…it was in…uh…okay, okay…it was in Branson. Yes, Branson, MO. There, I said it! It's easy to poke fun at Branson, but I have to say that it was my first step toward theatre. And if it was not on my resumé, I may not have the job I have now. I moved there to get off the road and try my hand at sleeping in the same bed every night. The same bed theory was great but the gig was a bit strange to say the least. And I don't mean because it was theatre, but because it was that theatre.
In March of 2004, I moved from Nashville to Las Vegas, where I presently work as the A2 for the Broadway hit Mamma Mia! in the Mandalay Theatre at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Finding an audio gig in Las Vegas is very similar to Nashville, or anywhere else I suppose; everyone has their local clique. You generally do not get a gig without having a foot in the door to the inner circle. Word of mouth is your best resumé. If you do not already know someone in the circle to speak on your behalf, you most likely will not get in. And being such a tight circle, getting someone to speak up for you can be tough. It can affect their ranking if they recommend someone who does not work out. Taking many different turns over roughly a five-year period, I traveled down several long roads to Vegas that eventually ended at the door of the inner circle.
OPENING THE DOOR
Well, okay, it was more like the back door. Before actually moving to Vegas one of my resumés ended up with Mark Dennis, head of audio for the new Cirque Du Soleil production KÀ that opens this month at the the MGM Grand. Apparently, I was near the top of the short list for hire, but a couple of audio guys applied from other shows in town and they got the gigs. Mark was extremely supportive and always helpful during our phone conversations and emails. He seemed willing to help me make the move to Las Vegas (I didn't want to leave Nashville until I actually got a gig), so he gave me the email address and phone number of someone he said I should contact. Mark had handed me the key, now I needed to find the door.
The contact info was for David Patridge [ED On Sound; October, November 2004] a sound designer out of Toronto and the associate sound designer for Mamma Mia! Mark undoubtedly knew David had an opening because the two local guys who got the gig at the MGM Cirque Du Soleil show were presently working for Mamma Mia! I emailed my resumé the next day and soon after gave him a call to follow up.
After playing phone tag for a few days, David and I finally had a chance to speak. Of course we discussed the standard questions about audio, intercom, video, etc., just to see if I had any clue, and then we briefly discussed my resumé. The majority of my work history over the past 10 years was in country music. David, not being a country music fan, was not familiar with the artists I had worked with. However, he did realize from the positions I had held I was not new to the entertainment industry. Further-more, I had a little theatre experience. Some theatre was better than none I suppose, because it kept him interested. So I had made it to the door…
With a spark of interest David followed up buy checking my references. His next call was to the head of audio for Mamma Mia! in Las Vegas, Jason Pritchard. Jason obviously didn't know me from Adam, but he was a country music fan. After seeing my resumé, he told David that I had his attention and he would like to work with me.
Jason and I spoke on the phone a few days later and had a great conversation. Immediately it was evident he was well versed in his field and I could learn a lot from him about musical theatre. During our conversation we spent 10% of the time talking about Mamma Mia!, 40% of the time talking about golf, and the rest of the time talking about people I had worked with in Nashville. After the job opening had gone through all the proper channels and the local staffing potential had dwindled, I got the gig.
The door to Vegas had finally opened. Now came the hard part.
LEARNING THE SHOW
For audio guys like me that have been working the concert end of the spectrum, you need to know things are a little different in musical theatre. You have different miking techniques, a storyline to follow, and a show that has 30+ db of dynamic range. As concert engineers, we have to make adjustments on our approach to the mix.
One of the first thresholds I crossed was vocal miking technique. The standard handheld (plug in your favorite mike here) was a thing of the past. I had worked with miniature mikes before (Sennheiser MKEs), but we used headsets to get them in close for proximity. Now I was introduced for the first time to miniature mikes at the hairline. Obviously, you do not receive the presence as you do in close miking. Jason did bring to my attention the positive side that the mike is always the same distance from the source. You do not have the frustration of working with an artist or actor that has poor mike handling technique while using a handheld.
My first day at Mamma Mia! I entered a very friendly and professional atmosphere. The cast and crew were all very supportive and made me feel right at home. After the introductions, Jason took me on a quick tour, and we brushed on the highlights of the audio, video, and clear-com just to give me basic knowledge of the rig. We did not discuss anything in-depth, as the most important thing for me to focus on at the moment was to learn the mix.
Thirty minutes after we met, Jason handed me my copy of the script. He told me I would begin taking notes from FOH immediately to learn the mix. Not having a strong background in theatre and never being exposed to a Broadway show I thought it would be no big deal. The bottom line is when it came to mixing a Broadway show I was absolutely clue free.
Jason knew my background was not in musical theatre, but I don't think he realized I did not do it this way while mixing concerts. My first day of training was confusing, because I did not understand the parameters of what I was trying to learn. I first had to teach myself how and what was important before I could actually get a grip and begin to study. After riding shotgun for the first show, I don't think I had more than five notes written on my script and they were extremely vague. I was very confused as to what exactly I needed to write down.
Right away I was thrown in the fire to mix my first segment. Not truly understanding the concept of mixing a musical with all the dialogue and constant band pushes/pulls, admittedly, I was a little shaky. And even though he said nothing but positive things at the time, I found out later Jason was also a bit concerned.
However, it does seem that dumping me in the pool to see if I would sink or swim paid off to my benefit. Actually getting my feet wet for the first time mixing true musical theatre opened my eyes and gave me a feel as to what was really going on. Since I am one of those people that learn better by doing, I soon figured out why and where I needed to focus my attention. After that, the rest came easy.
For the following couple of weeks, I would come in early and sit down at the console with a CD and study. Every evening I would actually mix the segment I studied that day live and Jason would evaluate me. He will tell you that the second time I mixed was like night and day compared to my first. He no longer had any worries that I could make the transition from being a concert engineer.
To keep the story short, after I figured out how to learn, I picked it up very quickly. It was not long before I was mixing the entire show solo. A short time later, I weaned myself off of the script and my notes and the rest is history. Oh, and I'm still here. That's a good sign.
Next month: Differences between concerts and musical theatre: dialogue, dynamics, and détente.
All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:
Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. If you can write and want to share your views with ED readers, please send your ideas to David Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.