What Does It Mean to be a Theatrical Mixer?
By Shannon Slaton
It is late in the second act. The story has been well established and the characters are now very familiar to the audience. The cast has stormed the Bastille and the guy in the half mask has already driven his fake boat through the sewers. And it has all been very magical.
But there is a problem.
At the back of the house, in the mix position, the sound board operator for the show sits in absolute silence with his hands on the faders. He is mentally beating himself up over the last song. Sure, the crowd reaction was huge, but he knows it was off. He knows that on a night when it is perfect, he can hear people quietly start to cry after the first crescendo. He knows that the applause normally goes on long enough for him to stretch for a second and drink some water before the next scene. But tonight, even though the audience went nuts at the end, he knows he didn’t hear anyone get choked up and the audience didn’t stand at the end and he didn’t get a sip of water. And he is not happy about it.
As he mixes the next scene, he goes back over it in his head. The audience has no idea that anything was wrong, but the mixer has mixed the show over 200 times. He wants to know what he did or did not do that changed the response. Did he push the big spectacle scene too loud? If he did, that could’ve left patrons with fatigued ears and not ready for the song. Did he start her too quietly? If he did, the audience might have had trouble hearing her at the top and that may have thrown them out of the moment. Was she too loud at the top? If so, it wouldn’t have been enough of a change to set the audience up for the rest of the song.
After going over it again and again, he realizes what went wrong. After the first big crescendo he didn’t pull everything down enough, so that left him with nowhere to go for the big finale of the song. The audience has no clue, but he knows their reaction could have been bigger.
That is what it is like to be a live theatrical mixer. It has almost nothing to do with knowing the model numbers of every speaker and microphone. It has almost nothing to do with speaker placement and system equalization (EQ). It is about the symbiotic relationship between the amplified sound of the show and the audience reaction. It is about understanding the arc of a show and the arc of a song. It is about manipulation. There are mixers who cannot program a Lexicon 480L reverb unit, but can mix with such emotion and ease that you forget the mics and speakers even exist. There are also amazing sound people who can program that Lexicon and field strip it and rebuild it, and yet have no interest in mixing.
Mixing is an art like no other technical aspect of technical theatre. It cannot be simplified to a push of the button. Mixing is dependent on several shifting factors. An actor is not feeling well, so she sings differently. A substitute, or sub, musician is in the pit and he plays louder. The audience is smaller than normal. The weather has changed and the room sounds different. It has been said that mixing is like playing a piano in which the notes are not linearly arranged and you have no clue where middle C is and you have to walk up to it and play it perfectly. Francis Elers, who has mixed on Broadway for the last 15 years and has mixed shows including Rent, says “mixing is like freestyle rock climbing with no safety in place. One wrong move and you are going to fall hard.” Jordan Pankin, another long-time Broadway mixer who is currently mixing Wicked, explained mixing as a boxing match. He said “you walk up to the desk, stand toe to toe with it for three hours, and see who wins.” The best mixers out there are the ones who embrace the idea that the job of the mixer is to become part of the story and to manipulate the audience as much as possible.
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.