Monday, March 27, 2017


Some more thoughts about the subject of my last post.

First -- of course, the situation was my fault. I could have made a site visit. I could have made sure I had contact numbers in case I had trouble getting in. I could have arrived earlier -- then there was at least a small chance I would have bumped into the people who went in and didn't leave an obvious way to follow.

But this is near the end of a tough run, I'm running on fumes and I wasn't mentally or physically up for thinking outside of the routine we've followed for every other performance. Or in a position financially or time-wise to make that site visit. I was barely able to drag myself out of bed and get there at all, in fact.

So to it. When you hit a situation like this; due to whatever circumstance you have to get a show up without the resources you really need (usually time, but also often enough gear), here's what you need to do:

Don't Panic. It's fine to go to flanking speed. It's fine to get tense and terse. But don't hurry to the point where you start plugging in the wrong cables or where you are giving orders so fast the crew can't understand you. And most importantly; don't let that spill on to the performers. It is fine to let them know things are a little tough and you are a little harried. But they don't need to know that the sound might not be there at all (unless you get lucky or have a sudden inspiration on how to make it work after all).

Prioritize: No, that's not even the right word. Triage. Make a (mental) list of everything you could survive without if the worst happens, and do all of those last. This isn't a simple matter of ranking a list; everything is a balance between how long it is expected to take, what kind of risk you are willing to take, and how much you really need that thing.

For this show, there were a few absolutes. I had to have the backing tracks. The musical doesn't happen without that. But outside of a complete failure of the venue's sound system, that is a matter of plugging in two cables and getting a rough level. So it doesn't need to be the first thing we do. Low down on my list was floor mics, because there's only three solo lines that use that mic, and it doesn't have the reach to save me if the body mics aren't working.

The other thing I had working for me on this one was Experience. I knew the show very well. I knew the voices. In a sense this was like mixing a trio; if you only have piano, bass and drums on stage it's pretty trivial to figure out channel is which when you have to adjust on the fly. I knew when I popped up the first four mics for the opening number I would be able to hear if C. wasn't in the mix, or if T. was the one who was overpowering everyone else.

I also knew the board family and had spent literally a decade watching wireless mics on the meter bridge. So I could actually do a rough trim by eye (it is really nice when you have warm-ups, because then the mics are all hearing a singing voice at typical volume. Well, more-or-less typical; far too many actors mark their way through warm-ups. But with a good pair of 'phones I can hear exactly how hard they are trying and adjust the trim to compensate.)

There are also standards for a well set-up sound system. These were Meyer speakers, a mid-range Yamaha board, and a clean new-looking theater. So I had good reason to believe that the overall system gain would put me at an appropriate volume level if I ran a healthy-looking signal (plenty of green, space left before it hit red). The house tech advised me on his typical starting point for wireless mics (they tend to be set for a +4 line level. relatively consistent across brands -- again, assuming healthy gain staging through their own signal chain).

And I had one starting point already; we'd fired up the backing tracks to set a rough level on the floor monitors.

So when I started the show, I used the Overture to quickly dial in the level on the backing tracks. Then rolled up the first four mics. I can mix at least four fingers at the same time, so I knew I could compensate with the faders if my rough trim was completely off. As it turns out, it was close enough that I could quickly pop through the head amps and match them. And since I'd rough-trimmed all the mics to the same average level, all I had to do as the other characters entered is bring their faders up to the same position and fine-tune the trim.

It is a little trickier than that, because I have several "yelpers" in the cast who require constant riding of their mic (or as a tech at the Paramount called it, "the five compressors I have on each hand.")

But there's another dirty trick here. No two mixes are identical. One person emphasizes bass, another emphasizes the Bass. Each new song or set or band you listen to, you as a listener spend the first minute or two adjusting your ears to it.

And that means if you have to mix a band cold, without a proper sound check (sometimes, without even a line check), you have a couple of minutes while the audience is adjusting to try to get a mix out of the mess you've got coming off the console.

I've done this, as I said, and again there's a lot of experience that goes into it. I know where to place mics that generically will get a certain sound. It might not be the perfect sound for that band but it will work. And perhaps more importantly, I know what sound that is.

Because I can go back to the console and without the instrument even being there I can set a rough trim and do some basic EQ. I know a snare is a lot hotter than a drum overhead. I know my lone Karma mic is much hotter than the little Oktava's. So I can eyeball a really rough level on them, and be prepared to deal with some known EQ issues (cheap condensers have that 6K-8K boost, for instance. Kick sounds terrible if you let too much mid and mid-low through. In fact, you can go right ahead and dial up a starter frequency for the "crack" and "whoomph" but don't put a lot of gain on it at first.)

And then you work your way from foundation, just as if you had an afternoon and a finished multitrack to mix down. Get the rhythm section in. Add the front men. Then work your way through the rest of the band.

It is hair-raising, flying-fingers work, and really requires you know your way around the board blindfolded. But I've done it enough that I don't shut down in terror if I have to face it again.

Oh, yeah, and the last thing in your tool kit; Hubris. You've got to have the willingness to subject hundreds to thousands of people, people who may have paid upwards of fifty bucks for a seat, to your gambles. You've got to be willing to let your instincts of that moment, that direct connection between your ears saying "more sax!" and your left ring finger on the fader to override the probably better judgement of the promotor, the music director, the punter yelling at you from an aisle seat, and the musician himself. You've got to gamble with all of the efforts of everyone who rehearsed so long and worked so hard (and spent so much money) and do what seems to be right at the moment -- or at least what appears to be working.

I call it hubris because I can never and will never let myself forget of what it means when I step up to that board. I will make mistakes. My judgement will always be suspect. But someone has to call it. Someone has to get a semblance of order into what otherwise would be sonic chaos, and there's no time for a second opinion.

You have to COMMIT. The lead sax is too brassy? You have a split-second to make the call; fix it fast enough that it makes just one little bubble, one small forgivable flub in the overall song. Or let it ride and find a way to defend it as musically valid. The only thing that is worse than a mix that is wrong is one that can't make up it's mind. The ears can adjust to the former. Not the latter.

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