The Same Old Question
It was dinner on the seventh 8am-midnight work day in a row. I walked into the bar that had become home during tech and I saw the stage manager sitting with the assistant stage manager having dinner. I walked up and joined them. Our tech had gone very smooth, and the sound department had done pretty well, so I bellied up and ordered the only edible thing I had found in the town… a pizza. It was our invited dress and we were all starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Soon we would get some sleep.
I started talking to the stage manager about how things were going for her. I had been quite impressed with how she ran tech. She said things were going well, but, understandably, she was still getting used to calling the show. I hadn’t noticed. I have a remarkable ability to watch a show and not retain or process anything visual, but I remember everything aurally about the show. I am always amazed at myself when someone will say something like, “Did you see when he fell in the pit?” and I have no clue what they are talking about. Even though she felt like she wasn’t calling the best show, I couldn’t tell. But let’s face it, not a lot of people are going to notice if a light cue is called a few beats late or if a set piece lands a few seconds off. But everyone notices if you don’t have the mic on for an actor’s line. Everyone notices when you miss a pickup.
She asked me how things were going for me and I told her it was going really well. I told her I was really happy with my mixer and I told her I thought he was doing a great job. And my A2 rocked. I couldn’t be happier. Then she said, “Can I ask you a question?” Oh boy. Here it comes. This ain’t my first barbeque and I instantly know where this is going. I have heard it before and I have no doubt I will hear it many more times before I finally throw in the towel and follow my dream to become an ice cream man. “Sure,” I said, “What is it?”
She put down her fork, “I don’t really know a lot about mixing musicals and I was just wondering if you think this is a harder musical to mix than others.” And there it was. The gauntlet had been thrown. The muskets were loaded. So what was she really asking? Well I knew and I have an answer that works pretty well to this question, “If a musical is mixed correctly then they are all hard,” I said. Zing.
She looked at me, “So how does it work when you mix?” Where was she going with this? Basically she wanted to know why the mixer was missing pickups, but she didn’t want to come right out and ask. To be fair, the mixer was missing about half a dozen pickups per run at this point, but we were only on our third run. I was thoroughly impressed with how the mixer was doing and I could tell by the way he was mixing that he only needed another show or two and he was going to be solid. Nothing irks me more than getting a note during tech like, “The mic wasn’t on for that one line.” Considering the mics were on for every other line in the show one should assume that the outlier was the missed pickup and it was human error and not a conscious decision not to amplify one random line in the show, but people can’t help but to point it out.
So I took a moment and explained how we mix a musical. I explained that when a person talks we fade their mic up and when they stop talking we fade their mic out. I explained that even though the mixer missed six pickups on the second run-through of the show, he actually made 3,125 other pickups. I explained that when we mix we make a scene that aligns the faders to go in order with who is speaking and we spend the show moving faders up and down. I explained how we have to throw faders almost without thinking and we have to memorize not just the show but the sequence to mix the scene. I told her we run through a scene and it goes like this – fader 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 3, 4, 5, 2, 4 & 5, 2, 6, 1, 2, 4. So we move the faders up and down in that sequence. Then I told her that we also have to know how high to move the fader. If our baseline is -10 then we open each fader to -10, but we also have to recall that the actor is quiet on one line and loud on the next so the sequence is more like this – 1 @-10, 2 @-10, 1 @-5, 2 @-10, 1@-10, 3 @-15, 4@-15, 5@-10, 2@-10, 4 @-10& 5@-10, 2@-5, 6@-10, 1@-10, 2@-5, 4@-15. Then I explained that in that sequence the mixer has to fire sound cues and deal with issues as they arise. So in the middle of that sequence if the mixer opens a mic and it sounds like the mic is under the actor’s hat, then he has to figure out when he has a second to call backstage to let the A2 know there is a problem and he has to adjust the EQ to make it sound better. She seemed stunned and she said she had no idea. After dinner we walked back to the theater for our invited dress and my mixer’s third attempt at pulling off what everyone expects… perfection.
Shannon Slaton designed the tours for Aeros, Kiss Me Kate, The Full Monty, Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, and The Wizard of Oz. His Broadway mixing experience includes A Christmas Carol, Jersey Boys, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Drowsy and Legally Blonde. He is also the Production Sound for The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and the US National tour.